Have you ever seen an agent or editor say something about how they liked a book and it was “good” but not great? Or that it was good, but they weren’t going to make an offer? I know back before I started working in the publishing industry I didn’t quite understand why they didn’t want to make an offer on books that were considered good or even what saying a book was only good meant. I’m going to try to explain that mystery by talking about the curse of “good” books.
A good book is just that–it’s good but not extraordinary. You enjoy reading it, but it doesn’t stand out compared to your favorites. Readers will read the book and enjoy it, but it wouldn’t sell very well up against other similar books in the genre. Basically what it comes down to is a book is good, but it isn’t a standout. Have you ever read a book you enjoyed during the read, but once you finished the book you didn’t think about it again and maybe even forgot it? Then you likely had an encounter with a good book. Compare that to books you read and loved. Books you kept thinking about when you tried to sleep or your mind wandered. That’s the difference between a good book and a great book. Add in personal tastes to complicate things even more. Books that stand out to one reader might not stand out to another one.
Good books can be tough for everyone, not just the author. An agent or editor might enjoy the book and want to really like it, but they can’t figure out how to push it in the market or know it won’t sell well. And believe me, it can be tough to find a book you really want to like, but know it just isn’t unique enough or not right for the current publishing market. If you’ve ever heard rave reviews about a book and got excited to read it only to be disappointed that it wasn’t quite what you expected, then you’ve had a brush with this feeling. Admittedly “An Ember in the Ashes” was one of those books for me. When it comes down to it editors and agents want books they know they can sell. Not books that they know will be hard to find buyers for or will get buried beneath other books in its genre.
So what sets good books apart from great books? It can be any number of things. Maybe the writing style or voice reads as generic, or even the plot. For me personally it’s often a plot that feels formulaic to the point that I can predict the book the whole way through, even the twists. It could be a story line that’s already been done to death in its genre and doesn’t have a unique twist to set itself apart. For example think prophecies and chosen ones. It could be something that was really popular while it was in trend, but now agents and readers are getting sick of it and all the books similar to the trend don’t feel fresh enough. Right now vampires are still that way for a lot of agents and editors after the Twilight craze. I’m seeing more and more getting tired of zombies, demons, and angels as well. I see some agents starting to move away from dystopian novels despite their recent popularity.
Right now the market is very competitive. Houses are selective with what they publish, which means agents have to be selective in what they represent if they want to be able to sell the books they take on. Agents get dozens of queries every week. At any given point there are hundreds if not thousands of authors querying or self-publishing. For readers that means more variety and options. For authors it means more competition and a harder time getting an agent or house or standing out on the self-published market. Books that may have gotten published a decade or so ago, may not be considered good enough for the current market.
Want to avoid the curse of having a “good” book? Know your genre. Read far and wide in it so you know what’s trending and what themes, settings, and plots show up again and again. Put a unique twist on your story. Pick a setting or theme that hasn’t recently been done to death. And no matter what, know that if you are writing purely to get published, you’re going to have a bad time once the rejections start coming. You need to write stories you are passionate about because rejections will tempt you into quitting. You need to write for yourself first and foremost because sometimes there’s no knowing what the next trend is and whether or not a book will sell.