by Naomi Dunford

Today, we tackle a contentious issue among authors.

How good does a book have to be?

Many new authors – especially ones that don’t have a lot of other writing experience – are understandably concerned about this. We all put a lot of heart and soul and time (and sometimes money) into writing a book. We don’t want to go through that and find out at the end that it wasn’t good enough.

Today, we will fix this. Let’s begin.

First, we must define “good”.

When we think of our own work, we tend to think that “good” exists on one linear continuum, like this:

Amazing -> Good -> Pretty Good -> Fine, I guess -> Bad -> Terrible

In this model, amazing is on one end, terrible is on the other, and we hope to be closer to the amazing side.

This is the WRONG way to look at things.

A better way to look at “good” is how we look at other books. In general, we don’t use just one word to describe them. This is why the Amazon review system cleverly allows more than one word in reviews.

In reality, our relationship to books is much more nuanced. To wit:

  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck was hilarious, and also excessively profane. It was absurd. Even *I* got sick of it, and I swear in wedding speeches.
  • It Wasn’t Your Fault was transformative, and also a trigger warning waiting to happen.
  • Mating in Captivity blew my head off my shoulders, and also did not contain one single piece of information I found useful in any way.
  • How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are was actually, literally, not about anything… and I loved it. (It also had four authors.)
  • The 10x Rule was life-changing and also completely insufferable. I want to thank the author and at the same time, smack him with something. Possibly his book.

I have recommended every single one of these books to various people in various situations. They have their strengths. They have their weaknesses. They don’t actually have a spot on the amazing -> terrible continuum.

They weren’t “good”. They were worth reading.

So the question becomes, what affects whether a book is worth reading?

Here are a few factors that go into the decision:

  • How much they paid – Ah, the pricing paradox. If the book costs very little, readers tend to be more tolerant. Having said that, if the book costs more than expected, we sometimes think it’s good because it was expensive. (The solution to this is to charge a little less than average, or a lot more than average.)
  • How useful / hard to find the information is – Once upon a time I bought a book called Desperate Buyers Only. It was $77, very short, and badly written. Also, my cat sleeping on a broken laptop makes fewer typos. (My favorite? “Assess” became “asses”. Oops.) Guess what! I didn’t care, because it was the dark ages of internet marketing, and this was the only way to get that information. If your content is particularly useful or difficult to come by, people are VERY forgiving.
  • How many other similar books have they read / how savvy they are – Heavily crowded markets tend to have higher reader expectations than those that aren’t so packed. The 493rd person to write a book on minimalism this week is going to have to ensure she’s got an original angle, because “OMG IT’S JUST SO LIBERATING” is starting to get old.
  • How heavily the book was hyped by the author / publisher – People are contrary creatures. Readers are people. Therefore, readers are contrary creatures. If an author (or the sleazy intern who wrote the back cover copy) claims a book is the best thing since sliced bread? Readers are going to nitpick on principle.
  • How heavily the book was pitched by other people – Unfortunately, some books get hyped whether the author asked for it or not. This is why half the world hates The Power of Positive Thinking so much. It’s because the other half says it’s the best book ever written. Bazinga!
  • Genre expectations – Certain genres have tolerances that others do not. A self-published Kindle Unlimited book on the tactical aspects of the Law of Attraction can repeat itself ad infinitum and nobody’s going to mind all that much. A thought-leader-style psychology book that doesn’t cite its sources? Dead in the water.

Important note: Notice how none of these things are based in the quality of the writing.

However, you still want to avoid writing a “bad” book.

Outside of the basic reader tolerances above, people tend to make their final judgement on whether a book was “good” or not based on how many annoyances or frustrations they have to deal with when they’re reading it.

Too many of these annoyances, and they hate the book. So if you simply avoid making the mistakes below, chances are VERY low that anyone will say you wrote a bad book. (Include good content, and people will probably say you wrote a good book!)

Here’s what you want to avoid:

  • Repetitiveness – You know when you’re reading a book? And it just says the same thing over and over again, in every goddamn chapter? You know how you really, really, REALLY hate that? And you want to throw the book at something, even though you’re reading it on your iPad and the book was free anyway? Yeah. So does everybody else. Repetitiveness is usually caused by an insufficient outline, plus an author on a deadline. (It’s particularly common in authors we might refer to as “bros”.) But it’s very preventable – if you know what you plan to write before you sit down to write it, you can easily avoid accidentally saying it 54 times.
  • Bloat – For a long time, it was generally assumed that books had to be, well, book-length. A few hundred pages, minimum. Authors made books way longer than they needed to be, so that they would qualify as books. How did they do that? They stuffed their books full of bloat. Now that so much of our content is consumed digitally, we have more freedom to make the book the length it needs to be and no more. (More on how long your book should be tomorrow.)
  • Lack of references and citations – This is a new thing. Recently, readers have started demanding… transparency! Authors used to get away with saying things like, “A wise man once said…” or “it’s been said that…” or “They did a study once…”. Yeah, we’re not allowed to do that anymore. If the study was by Roy Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University, say so. Readers will dig you.
  • One big sales pitch – Note: This doesn’t mean don’t send anybody to your website. It means don’t repeatedly send people to sales pages for paid products. When someone leaves a review for a book saying “This was just a big brochure for the author’s seminar”, it’s generally because the book was one big brochure for the author’s seminar.
  • Doesn’t keep its promises – Aaaaand, this is the big one. Your title, subtitle and back cover copy make promises about your the book will be about. If your subtitle said “how” and your book provided “why” and “what” instead, readers are going to be understandably upset. The same holds for promises that the content will be usable by everyone, and it turns out that it’s really just for wealthy white people.

The thing about all of these items is that each one is easily avoidable. Just look over that list of reader annoyances, and don’t do any of them. Then the odds of people hating your book go through the floor.

The Very, Very, VERY good news

While there are many writers out there who are true virtuosos, your average reader doesn’t set the bar that high for non-fiction. People don’t read All Things EFT Tapping Manual with the same eye for literary criticism that they’d apply to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

At the end of the day, readers want books that keep their promises, provide the right information / story, and don’t do too many of those annoying things listed above.

You don’t have to be an amazing writer to have a well-received book. Average will do the job.

I’m always pleased when I see this mentioned explicitly, which happens a lot on Goodreads, the book reviewing site. It’s fascinating how many reviewers giving good reviews will explicitly state that the writing was bad. One 4-star review I read yesterday said that the author’s book was definitely worth reading, but “A writer he is not.”

In general, readers don’t care as much as we think they will. They’re reading for the content, not the prose.

So if you’re filling your book up with good content, and not doing anything too dealbreakingly annoying… you’ll be all right. No need to sweat or toil over making sure your writing is “really, really good.”

Well, that’s sorted. See? You’re fine.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss how long your book should be.



P.S. As a reminder, registration for Write A Book With Me 2021 is now open – get in before the doors close!