What Do Writers Think it Takes to Make a Great Book

This is about what goes after the cover of an e-book or between the covers of a print book — at least from the author perspective.

The only objective criterion for “is it a good book?” that has any type of measurement so far is “does it sell well or not?” And, no one seems to agree on what “sell well” is. Would this be like forever selling well as in Don Quixote? Or, selling well during its first 6 weeks of release. Or … ? For the purposes of what we’re doing, we’re just talking about “beating the average” per-title copies sold. In 2011, this was about 12,500 for the average frontlist title (from “traditional” publishers). By now in 2015, it’s difficult to get accurate figures, but analyzing reports from major publishers for 2014, it’s anywhere from 10,000 to 11,500 per-title average for books published during the current 12-month period (including “backlist” will bring it down exponentially, just as including all self-published titles will bring per-title sales averages to a very low level).

Even so, Amazon, which is the business involved in publishing with the most data about its customers, is endeavoring to identify some criteria that are more universal or valid to use in presenting books to customers than “You bought Author X’s book before; here is their new one” or “You’ve been looking at books about baseball, here are some more books about baseball.”

These similar reader response categories are also sometimes, not always, found on non-fiction books on Amazon. I got a “How would you describe the plot of this book?” for a non-fiction book by Stephen Jay Gould, for example, but these categories aren’t showing up for other non-fiction titles I have purchased.

Chameleon has developed a set of criteria that we think work well for trade fiction and non-fiction alike. They were based on criteria used successfully in the food industry called “mouthfeel” criteria. Food manufacturers have over 20 such criteria that are used to assess and evaluate products. Ours are more simple and we call them the “bookfeel” elements in honor of our food industry colleagues.

They are: Plot, pacing, characterization, intellectual content or subject matter, voice or writing style, scope, and theme.

Some popular books and authors excel in one or more categories. Every single lasting bestseller (i.e. generation-crossing bestseller) we looked at excelled or delivered value in all of the categories. Books like Gone With the Wind, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, Huckleberry Finn, In Cold Blood, Catch-22, Sounder, and Pride and Prejudice. In other words, there’s no such thing as a genuine, long-term, lasting and enduring bestseller that isn’t delivering on every single one of the “bookfeel” criteria. One might say “A nonfiction book doesn’t have a plot.” Yes, it does. In fact, the “plot” of genuine non-fiction bestsellers is so compelling that it can even transcend readers knowing “what happens next.” Not every book is going to make this standard. But having a standard will help to strengthen products.

So, our first market survey asked questions of writers about basics: how many books had they written, how many published, how much money had they earned in a 12 month period, and how much money would they like to make — or thought they should be able to make.

Then we asked some questions about the “bookfeel” criteria. Not using this name. Just listing the categories.

So, when asked to self-assess writers said their strongest points were “characterization” (68%) “voice or writing style” (64%) and “plot” (54%). Trailing the group was “scope” (26%).

Then, we asked, “What do you see as your weak points as a writer?” First, evident from the beginning of the survey, a significant number of respondents skipped this question. Some even wrote, “I don’t have weak points.” The more independently-published authors we recruited for the survey, the more we got answers in this area. It isn’t able to be identified in the survey results but over time, we observed that the more independently-published or self-published authors who responded, the more varied answers became in a number of categories, including their written responses and feedback. It’s “empirical” and based on a small number, but there did seem to be a trend for independently-published authors to be more open to admitting “weaknesses” and to working in different ways (beta readers, etc) to improve their work.

So, here’s a chart illustrating human nature. This chart is missing 18 writers who did identify one or more “strong points” (a few ultra-confident writers did select “all” as their strong points). Of those who did go ahead and do both, it’s pretty obvious there are fewer “weak points” that the respondents felt they had. Just about everybody believes that their “intellectual content,” aka subject matter or ideas, is good — at least good enough to not be a “weakness” they’d identify. Pacing (45%) was the single area identified as a weakness.

We’re going to talk about compensation and earnings in the next post, but this is a good time to address the work process. We asked a few questions pertaining to work process and experience in the survey, but the most direct one was this:

For the first 50 responses of the survey, no writer selected “agents” as helpful in “producing timely work with good quality.”

The “timely” part of the question could be the reason for this. But this question really points to the whole system of how books are written and developed.

Consistently, the top categories selected were beta readers (56%) and working with an editor (54%). Academic writing programs were also, similar to “agents,” very low-response until we started reaching out to more independently-published writers. An editor can help writers shape their work using, one would hope, some objective criteria for the type of book and goals for the work. Beta readers give feedback on what is working for them, or what is not-working. This is probably the single greatest change in the writing process in recent years. In the past, some professional writers were fortunate in that they had family members, friends or writing colleagues who helped by reading their work and giving feedback. Now, it’s possible to have hundreds of beta readers, all helping to strengthen and improve the work.

Writers may be viewing beta readers as somehow “different from” regular readers, because some 60 respondents selected beta readers as a big benefit to producing timely work of good quality, yet when we asked the question about readers in general, only 22 responded that they’d like to know who their readers were as they were writing and would work in response to this knowledge.

Almost 30 percent said they would “write what I want how I want.” There were also some pretty testy responses to this question, as well as to an earlier, exploratory question about potential benefits of (non-existent, imaginary) software that could provide support for the writer’s performance in the “bookfeel” criteria area (plot, pacing, characterization, intellectual content or subject matter, voice or writing style, scope, and theme).

Even so, most of the writers who responded were positive and confident about their work.

The overwhelming majority said they had already written a book they thought many people would enjoy buying and reading.

Then, we asked — did this become a reality? We defined “many people” taking all types of books and authors into consideration, as more than 50,000 copies sold.

So, no dollars and cents attached, these are responses about work process, experience, results and aspirations, from a pretty good range of writers with different backgrounds and experience levels. Our next article will be about the money — what earnings did people report, what type of work they had done, how many books they’d written and published, and had they done work for hire, rejection experience, etc.

Originally published at www.amysterlingcasil.com on June 14, 2015.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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