When Good Authors Publish Bad Books

In the school market, the content of the books we sell is paramount- especially in Young Adult Fiction, where the topics don’t always fall in line with the values of the particular community. For this reason, many of our school boards have a review process in place to evaluate the suitability of materials being considered for purchase in a school.

Recently, a reviewer lodged a complaint about one of the submitted books because the story is loosely based on a political scandal that took place in our city, and the resemblance of the main character to the political person involved offended the reader to the point that it’s been deemed unsuitable for purchase by any school in that board. The author has previously published middle-grade novels, and is a journalist/editor as well, but isn’t what we’d call a recognizable name, or someone who will likely be reviewed by professional journals. What especially bothered me about this (other than feeling like the positive messages in the book were overlooked) is that I suspect that had the author been one of those big names, I don’t think that it would have been as offensive to the reader.

Whether you are a bookseller/educator/librarian or reader, there are certain authors whose books we purchase sight unseen. A new book by Mr/Ms Superstar is a no brainer, and we seldom stop to ask what it’s about. One such superstar author has frequently taken on headline-making subjects, and the books are generally well-executed. The author is frequently applauded for having a finger on the pulse, and appears on multiple awards lists on an almost annual basis. Whether or not this superstar author would ever write about this particular subject is besides the point, but this got me thinking about whether or not these authors are a bit like the Emperor from the popular Andersen fairy tale.

In the fairy tale, two weavers promise the Emperor a suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is unfit for their position, stupid or incompetent. When the Emperor parades around naked in front of his subjects, everybody is afraid to tell him that there is new suit, and instead praise the non-existent suit of clothes. All except for the one child who has the courage to call him out.

Publishing is a business, and just like any business, it has to make money. If a publisher is fortunate enough to have a John Green or a James Patterson in their stable, of course they want to ensure that the author is well-treated and happy, (again, just like any business does with their clients) but perhaps it’s gone too far to the point of publishers, reviewers & readers alike being held hostage by these emperor status authors, making them unwilling or unable to criticize something for fear of seeming stupid or incompetent or of being criticized by the author’s fans on Social Media- especially when the same book by a lesser known or less popular author would be torn to shreds.

I’m not suggesting that all of these authors are like the emperor and not deserving of their superstar status, but my question is whether or not we allow them more slack because of that reputation, and if in doing so, we’re doing the author, the book, and the readers a great injustice.


5 Responses to When Good Authors Publish Bad Books

  1. Susan Oct 30 2015 at 7:54 am #

    This is an EXCELLENT post, and I think you’ve hit on something that definitely happens — and I’m sure happens in all industries. If you’re bringing in the money, you get more power. Period. And if you have enough adoring fans, then the pack mentality/obsession tends to keep your sales (and ratings) strong no matter what the quality actually is.

    I feel bad for the author you mention, and for better or worse, I’ve certainly heard many stories like that.

  2. Martina Boone Oct 30 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Great post! It’s hard to know how to interpret the first scenario without knowing particulars except to read it as censorship. Especially if the book was fiction. But the truth is we all experience and perpetuate that kind of censorship every day. Our readings of books is subjective, and when we start reading a book knowing something about it, what we know colors and informs our interpretation. As a result, if we go in loving an author or looking for things to admire in the work, we are more primed to love or find things to admire. We’re embarrassed not to find those things and question our own judgment, sophistication, or whatever. That’s what the fairytale is about, and that’s as true for the status of the author as it is for the subject matter of a book.

    A big part of this is that we are not teaching critical thinking as much as we believe we are. There’s a whiff of herd mentality to social media, and thus to the review of books. It’s a difficult situation, and I’m not sure it ultimately bodes well for book discoverability.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. Elizabeth Torphy Oct 30 2015 at 10:09 am #

    BRAVO! I have been reading a book by a very well known author that I think is very poorly executed. I think the the dialogue is bouncy, the characters are undefined, as well as flat, and the storyline is too predictable. I am into the book 150 pages and I am not sure what the point of the story is or if I want to finish it. Wow, that is a lot. Maybe my standards are too high for this author because they are well known? But this author is “getting away with” stuff that I as a new author couldn’t make it out of the query box! That isn’t fair to all of aspiring writers who are working very hard to put out quality writing and are overlooked, or passed on. But life isn’t fair, and that is okay. I hope that I as a writer don’t “get lazy” and succumb to putting out work that isn’t quality. So, call it a lesson learned. Thanks again for the post.

  4. Terry Oct 30 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    I have favourite authors like everyone else, but even there I know there are books I consider their ‘duds’ – love the writer, but still hate that book? Nobody’s brilliant all the time, after all.

    I’ve seen the herd mentality up close in writer ‘critique sessions too, even though the purpose of the exercise there is to critique in order to improve. Once one participant gives a glowing – or scathing – feedback out loud it’s sometimes ‘surprising’ how many of the crit circle present seem to fall into line, to a greater or lesser degree. One can almost see it happening, to the extent that if someone does go the other way it shocks people? One of the dangers is who shouts loudest, or words their opinion most forcefully. In terms of books already published I’m guessing publishers shout pretty loud.
    After all, how much of the hype should we actually believe, when even which books get into window displays is known to be a matter of who pays for them. I live in hopes that at least those handwritten reviews added to the shop’s shelving might be unbiased – but I’m no longer holding my breath.

  5. Linda Nov 2 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    I know about this situation (second hand) and know the reviewer struggled with the decision. I would wonder about whether or not we, as reviewers, have the right to censor material and, yet, as someone previously posted, we do this frequently, partially because we do not want to offend anyone. It’s unrealistic to think we can please everyone because many books would offend at least one person or even whole groups. If material seems potentially slanderous it seems a good idea not to have it in a school suggesting we support things like this. Then there is the Three Cups of Tea situation with Three Cups of Deceit written by Jon Krakauer in response. As a “famous” writer did he get away with this or was he telling the truth so nothing could be done? Would we have that in our library because it is not veiled by “loosely basing” the story on anyone; Krakauer stated names and events directly! I think these situations are complex and not attributable to one thing and, as such, make great points for thinking and discussion.

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