Is quality important?

A post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Should you write dreck?

The gist of [a recent post by Joe Konrath] is that it may be pointless for today’s writer of indie fiction to spend too much time trying to improve the quality of his writing … He goes on to say that readers of an author will stick with that author even if subsequent books in a series are not as good as the first few.

Bell then adds,

To be clear, Konrath’s post does not actually advocate its title. He does not think you can write pure dreck and get away with it. He says he couldn’t live with producing a work that’s “less than a grade C … But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won’t lose readers for a B?”

This is interesting. My personal knee-jerk reaction is revulsion as an author and strong disagreement as a reader.

There is a short but definite list of authors whose work I used to read quite avidly, but stopped because imo the quality of their writing fell off over time, sometimes dramatically. Laurell K Hamilton comes immediately to mind, but I could add four or five more names.

There is a longer list of authors whose first book or series was great, but a second book or series was worse than mediocre. I’m quite hesitant to follow those authors to a third book or series and frankly I’m having trouble imagining that many readers don’t care if the quality falls off. I say this even though I personally do know someone who apparently can’t tell, or doesn’t care, whether the book she’s reading is good or terrible.

Here is Konrath’s post. A reasonable snippet:

I am 100% convinced that I could have self-pubbed my original novels with minor changes and made the same amount of money as I’ve currently made on those books. The reviews would be justifiably bad, but it would have benefited my career because I’d have new six books out instead of three, and the three new JD books I would have written would have sold more copies, and the three old Phin books I didn’t rewrite would still make a few bucks and my fans would forgive me.

What does this mean for writers?

Do we write books that are good enough and then move along, or do we hold onto those books until we can make them better? If all signs point to readers being forgiving and sticking with authors, shouldn’t we be listening?

I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to test my hypothesis.

SHOT GIRL took three months. Lots of research, lots of planning, a good deal of polishing.

CHASER is my next Jack Daniels book.

I’m going to start writing it on July 1 and see how quickly I can finish, and I’m not going to follow my normal routine of taking a month to make it better. I’ll get it proofed and get that sucker out there and see how it compares in sales and reviews to my other books.

I’ve got no objection to hypotheses and experimentation, but here’s the experiment that I think is relevant:

Write one great book. Follow it with a less great book in the same series. Then with four more, still in the same series, that you just zip off at top speed without any particular effort. THEN look at the numbers.

I do think readers will forgive an author for a dud in the middle of a series — Tekla did not stop me from reading the Taltos series — but I cannot believe many readers will still be with you by the fourth book of the above series. Or for your next book that’s in a different series, either.

But I guess I could be wrong.

I don’t think you commenters here are a random sample, but weigh in. How many so-so books would it take before you gave up on an author and stopped looking at their books?

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11 thoughts on “Is quality important?”

  1. I’ve been asking myself your last question about a fantasy series I won’t name – I can’t remember seeing the author mentioned by you, for what that’s worth.

    Fascinating introductory premise explored to interesting effect, but the writing has never been above serviceable, and the distinguishing feature has been used less and less often. I just saw mention of the next in series and wondered if I was going to bother with this one.

    As an obsessive reader and book hoarder, I think Konrath’s theory might be flawed by buying habits too. I bet I’m not the only person who stopped reading a series a few books before I stopped buying that series, then asked myself, “I’m never going back to catch up, am I?” And maybe that’s a good enough outcome for Konrath’s purposes – he got that reader like me to buy a few more books than the effort deserved.

  2. You can write all sorts of dreck as long as you can recognize it, or bow to the superior knowledge of those who can, and don’t get it published. 0:)

  3. I have several favorite authors who’ve written books that I just didn’t gel with, for whatever reason—but they’re not bad books, they’re just not the right book for me. I’ll still try the next book, because that might be another one that sings for me.

    On the other hand, if I could tell that an author deliberately released a bad book just to vacuum up their readers’ money instead of their respect, I’d give up on them immediately. There are too many good works to waste time on a bad one (and I can always reread their good ones!)

  4. I have to admit I read a fair amount of poorly written stuff, because the story or the characters hold me. But I won’t pay a lot of money for it, and I don’t hesitate to abandon ship when the quality really starts to fall apart. I think that’s why I keep my Kindle Unlimited membership. Occasionally I find a gem. But for an author that I really like and autobuy no matter the price, I will allow one or two books that don’t resonate or are poorly written before I start to approach with caution. I really enjoy Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, but I remember one of theirs that was appallingly edited and had really poor characterization – it was such an obvious “phone it in.” It was years ago, but I have not forgotten!

  5. One thing I *think* I’ve seen — but one can never be certain — is an author working to a deadline for a book they really dislike. There are these occasions where a whole series ranges from good to great and then one at the end is just a dud. It’s hard not to think the author just faked their way through that one. But encountering this makes me approach other books of theirs with caution.

    A second phenomenon, and here I’ll name names, is where a series you generally love includes a book or two with which you just don’t click. That’s what Mary Beth is talking about, I think. You can’t even necessarily tell whether the book is actually bad or just not right for you, and since you can’t tell, then it’s probably the latter. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is like that for me. I love most of the books, but a few did not appeal to me. This phenomenon doesn’t bother me nearly as much because it’s so sporadic. Books in the series both before and after those work just fine for me.

    That’s different again from a series like the Taltos series, where Tekla is almost uniformly considered pretty bad, but then most readers (I think?) consider the rest of the series fine, even though Brust experiments so much with style and point of view in that series.

  6. Like Mary Beth, I don’t always connect with everything an author writes, but I’ll stay with one until I notice I have simply not enjoyed/connected with more than two or more in succession. Then I’ll start sampling, or just drop them, depending.

    I have read and enjoyed some badly written – on the grammatical level – because there’s something in it that holds me. Usually self-pubbed, I wouldn’t pay money for it, and if it is professionally published I express my opinions in the review. (still remember the recent book pubbed by a branch of Abrams wherein reign & rein were mixed up and we got lines like “her slippers trounced lightly upon brightly woven rugs” which is simply painful. No, the slippers weren’t animate
    The story and characters were good, though.)

    I have given up on Miller/Lee, due to not seeing plot progression and adding in more characters I just don’t care about. I’ll check in on the last installment to find out what happened, though.

    I don’t think I could tell if a writer really did phone it in, or if it was a work of the heart. Which doesn’t mean I won’t express that opinion if asked, but I won’t stop reading them for just that one.

  7. Allan Shampine

    Very interesting topic. I think the original poster’s point was that the effect of quality on sales is non-linear. An author may be better off writing two solid (B-grade) novels rather than one outstanding A-grade novel because the additional sales from the polishing don’t make up for the reduced productivity in terms of number of books on the market. This is tricky, of course, because the non-linearity can bite the author on the other end.
    If the quality falls below a certain point, you’ll get a sudden and sharp drop-off in sales that you may never recover from, as it will also put people off you in the future.

    Having said that, if you can maintain a steady churn of solid B-grade and occasional B+ or A- books, that might well be more efficient than trying to always get an A+, and I think some authors have consciously taken that route. David Weber leaps to mind here. Weber has for many years been a writing machine. I think his recent work is good, but not as good as his earliest work where he wasn’t churning things out as quickly. And I’m fine with that as a reader. I’m happier getting two good, solid Weber books in a year than getting one somewhat better quality Weber book. Ilona Andrews might fall into this category as well.

  8. Definitely don’t write dreck, that turns a lot of customers off quite quickly and makes them less inclined to give your next work a try.
    But the point Alan makes and I agree with, which I think is also what the original blogger was after, is that a steady stream of B+ books with an occasional better (or slightly worse) one is acceptable to a lot of readers and may be a more economically effective way to spend your time. Thinking here of series like the Nero Wolfe detectives by Rex Stout, and other such solidly productive (B-list?) writers. They do a workmanlike job of delivering an enjoyable if somewhat predictable read to a dependable schedule. They may never get to write that one extraordinary, insightful, poetic, blockbuster or break-out book that creates a whole new genre and garners critical acclaim and undying fame; but they do get a livable income from doing a decent job that gives people pleasure to read.

    Spending ten years writing that extra-special book and polishing it to an everlasting gloss may be worth it, if what you’re after is the undying fame from a critical but small audience.
    If you’re writing for an income to live on, you probably would do better to write a solid but not exceptional book each year (or six months, whatever your writing rythm supports), and build your audience up, and then have a backlist for the newcomers in your audience to buy.
    Especially since the author cannot always guess rightly what the public and the future will consider their best work, worthy of spending a decade of polishing on – like Georgette Heyer and others, who’se bread-and-butter books are much better beloved than what they themselves considered their big ‘masterpiece’.

  9. I grant that you’re probably right about writing B-level books fast versus A+ level books slowly. Still, Rex Stout’s B level efforts are way better than most mystery authors’ A efforts, and that basic ability to toss off quality work fast is probably not really all that common.

  10. I generally borrow books from the library first and then, for books I liked enough, buy them later. If I really loved something, I’m much more likely to buy it immediately, rather than wait to see if I can find it on sale or second-hand somewhere.

    And if I thought something was so-so, I’m less likely to ask the library to get the next book (if it isn’t published yet).

    I don’t know many so-so books it takes for me to stop reading altogether — that depends on how much I’m enjoying them and how invested I am in the story. Sometimes so-so books can be very entertaining.

  11. I think for me it’s one really lousy book or 2 bad ones. After that, I’ll periodically drop into reviews to see if things have gotten better, but that’s generally it. I did eventually go back and finish the Sookie Stackhouse books, but after that postscript “book” she did, I was totally done with her.

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