Thursday, February 16, 2017

How Good is Good Enough?

Bear with me while I work out some doubts.

Last month I published GRANDMA?, a YA comedy horror novel I wrote with my nineteen year old son, Talon.

A lot of the writing was rewriting his prose. He's young, he's still learning, and his stuff wasn't up to the standards I've had since I was first published in 2003.

As I was rewriting his scenes, I got to thinking. I wrote bunch of novels before WHISKEY SOUR was published. I self-pubbed most of those early books in 2009, with zero changes, because they were good enough for prime time. I knew they were good enough, because my agent represented them.

A few of them, three in particular, I'd never deemed good enough. So they've been sitting in my attic in a plastic bin, having been written before I owned a computer.

While cleaning out the attic, I took a look and decided these three were, in fact, pretty good. Not great, but I'd grade them each a solid B.

They all feature the character of Phineas Troutt, who is the current husband of Jack Daniels, and has appeared in eight JD novels, a handful of short stories, and my TIMECASTER series. Phin was the protag of my very first novel, DEAD ON MY FEET, written when I was 23 years old. Literally half my life ago, as I'll turn 47 next month.

I reread it, and decided I could do a quick polish and self-pub it and its two sequels without spending a lot of time and energy on them.

But, as I'm polishing, I find I'm doing a lot of rewriting.

Which brings us to the title of this blog post: How Good is Good Enough?

DEAD ON MY FEET is going to sell a certain number to my diehard fans, who buy everything I put out.

It will also sell a number of copies to my casual fans, who buy some of my stuff (for example the thrillers, but not the horror, or the erotica, but not the sci fi).

It will also sell a number of copies to those who have never heard of me, and it will serve as an introduction to my work. Some of those readers may become fans, and some of those fans may become diehards who read/buy everything.

Every book is a billboard for your entire backlist. If that book is enjoyed, it will lead a certain number of readers to your other books.

Does everyone see where I'm going with this?

DEAD ON MY FEET will sell to diehards, and some casual fans, and some new readers. It's good enough that the diehards won't be disappointed. Maybe some of the casual fans will, since it isn't quite up to par with my latest JD novels, and maybe they won't read the sequels. And it might not quite be good enough to prompt new readers to read more of my backlist, but there are books of mine that I consider grade A that also don't prompt new readers to read more of my backlist.

Finding readers is a crapshoot. Keeping readers is a crapshoot.

When I look at my wife's reading habits, I'm even more perplexed. My wife reads 3 to 5 novels a week. When she finds a new author, she'll read every book by that author.

Even the disappointing books.

In fact, Maria will stick with an author for three mediocre novels before she finally gives up on them.

Talk about rewarding mediocrity. But she isn't the only one who does this. There is a lot of stuff that I find so-so that is insanely popular.

I like to consider my novels above average (I'm sure all writers feel the same about their work, so there is a disconnect somewhere). But let's say my books are, indeed, average.

Why should I try to do better?

If a Grade B book will only result in slightly fewer readers over the next ten years, why should I put in weeks and weeks of effort to make it a Grade A book? Why not just put it out there, and spend those weeks writing a new book that I'm sure will please more people?

I consider DISTURB to be my weakest novel. Not only is it short, but it lacks the humor found in my other books. It's a straight medical thriller, and I wrote it by numbers rather than put my personality into it. But it still sells reasonably well, and has an Amazon average rating of four stars.

Many times, in the past, I've thought about doing a rewrite of DISTURB to beef it up, make it better. But why should I? Would it sell enough extra copies to be worth the effort?

I've been planning on spending the rest of the month to whip DEAD ON MY FEET in Grade A shape. But I could release it tomorrow as a Grade B novel, not lose very many readers in the long run, and use those two weeks to work on my next Grade A novel.

On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. Release those three old books with minimal work, and use that time I've saved to write new stuff. I'll make more money in the long run, and the only downside is that some readers won't be as pumped about the Phin books as my other books. I'll do okay with DEAD ON MY FEET, but fans are waiting for the next Jack Daniels book, and getting that out two or three weeks earlier would mean two or three weeks of quicker income.

Ebooks will theoretically earn money forever. But I won't live forever. I have an expiration date. Why not get paid a few weeks sooner, as well as save three weeks of work (and by extension, three weeks of my life.)

And yet, I just can't do it.

I suppose the same reason that got me into writing--the desire to tell a fun story--prevents me from releasing a book that isn't as good as it could be.

On the other hand, my favorite books of mine are the TIMECASTER series. I love writing those. But they're the weakest sellers in my backlist, so the long-awaited third book in that trilogy keeps getting pushed back. If I was writing mainly to please myself, shouldn't I be working on that now?

So what's the answer? Please readers? Please myself? Please the tax man?

Hemingway said that stories are never finished, they're simply due. But somewhere between endless rewriting and going live there is a sweet spot where the story is good enough to go out into the world and stand on its own.

I don't want to release something I don't think is ready. I feel I have one chance to hook readers, so I should show them my best.

But, at the same time, I'm probably wrong about that. My success is based on luck. Not on how good I think my own books are.

There is so much mediocrity in the world, and mediocre things can, and are, popular. Why try harder?

Every author secretly thinks their books are uniquely special, but the vast majority of books don't sell. I haven't been blogging regularly for eight months, and I still get urgent emails from authors, wondering why their sales are slumping. They ask if it's their covers, or if the market is crashing, or if they aren't doing the right kind of marketing.

But none of them ever ask if they self-pubbed too soon, before the book was Grade A. Writers are a pretty insecure bunch, but I've never met one who blames their sales on their bad writing.

I gotta say, it's seductive to think I could self-pub these three books instantly, make some money, not worry about the anticipated three star average (I encourage writers to not look at their reviews, and I usually don't), and immediately move on to something I know will sell better.

But I won't do that. I'll put in the time and make these books better. Money is nice. Having more time is nice. However, the nicest thing of all is having pride in my work.

I'm pretty sure I'm just as deluded as everyone is. I don't deserve to sell as well as I do. So I've decided to always give it my best shot, because if my sales ever slow I don't want mediocrity to be a possible culprit.

However, I'm willing to admit that might be a stupid attitude, for many reasons.

What do you think?


Shawn Lealos said...

I follow the blog of Dean Wesley Smith and something that he always talks about that I have never really agreed with is that rewriting (outside of fixing grammar and spelling) is a waste of time. However, while I don't agree with it for MY writing, for him it works well and he is incredibly successful.

I mean, it makes sense - why spend to much extra time rewriting and polishing a book when you could be writing the next one? For me, it is important to put out something that I feel good about because - as you said - you might have only one chance to win over a new reader.

You do have an advantage over many of us because you are already successful and have a built in fan base (as does DWS). Maybe that is where a person really has the option to choose whether to revise to satisfaction or not. I hope to one day reach that point myself.

Adrianne Middleton said...

I have a tbr list of 500 books and counting. If the first book I pick up by an author is not up to snuff, that author never gets a second chance. IMHO, I wouldn't publish a book that wasn't at the top of my form.

Joe Konrath said...

Adrianne, find a book you've put down, and check out the reviews and ranking. Do others like it? Is the title/author selling well?

The problem I'm having is twofold. First, taste is subjective. After a base level of competency is met, opinion becomes the main factor on whether something is mediocre, good, or great. And I've found that many people are unable to even articulate why something is just okay vs amazing. They like it, or don't, and blame the author if they don't. Every writer has gotten one star reviews that leave us scratching our heads.

The second problem is that mediocrity doesn't seem to put people off. We all stick with TV shows we like, even if last week's episode was so-so. We all buy the new bestseller by author X even though the one that came out last year wasn't nearly as good as her first few books.

I didn't like Thomas Harris's last two books. But I loved the first three, so I'll be first in line when his next one comes out.

Would I be hurting my audience and career if I published something I felt was Grade B rather than Grade A? Am I even able to accurately judge my own work?

Why not just release my trunk trilogy, as-is, be done with it and move on?

I won't do that. But I'm questioning myself.

Gary Ponzo said...

If a book is properly vetted, edited, formatted, etc, and it strikes the right chord with the story you wanted to tell, then you've probably accomplished your goal. Anyone could be a Monday morning quarterback and improve on their past work, but I say move on. However, digital is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

Joe Konrath said...

I hear you, Gary. But I'm better than I was.

I just reread part of WHISKEY SOUR in order to get Phin's backstory right. Haven't read that since I wrote it in 2001. And I went "Ewwww... that scene wasn't very good."

This book has sold over 100k copies, and has gotten great reviews. But 15 years later, I'm better, and I'd do it differently.

So even though I accomplished my goal then, part of me still wants another crack at it.

A Cooper said...

I'd recommend giving them to a trusted first reader for their input. Maybe you're too close to the stories to see that they're good for what they are..."newbie" stories?

Also, ask my time better served rewriting these stories or putting out new work? Do they do the job they're supposed to do...entertain? If so, release them like the caged birds they are and let the readers decide. :-)

Graham Powell said...

I think that books that your heart really isn't into but sell well are at WORST the equivalent of a day job. You gotta pay the bills. Have you thought about doing the math, figuring out how much polishing this book an extra two or three weeks would most likely cost you?

I heard George Pelecanos speak years ago, and he said that there was a lot more freedom when he wasn't getting paid much. As his advances went up, he felt a responsibility to make the books commercial enough so that he didn't feel like he was ripping anybody off. But in your case you can choose how commercial you want to be.

Maxwell said...

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I'm not sure who said that first, but I think there are tons of unfinished stories in the world suffering from the tyranny of the perfect. This is mostly a problem of people too terrified to just publish, like me.

In your case, since you're established, you need to run it through an ROI analysis of some sort. Read them, and get an idea of how much work you'd need to give them that special something. Take your other projects into account and proceed accordingly. If you're just going to be sacrificing some down time to spruce these titles up, that's one thing. But if you are really going to be robbing time from some other pressing projects, that's something else.

If you can easily get them to the point where you think they are as good, or better than, Disturbed, that's probably what you should do. But if you would be adding three new entries to your personal list of "worst efforts," I can't see how your pride could stand for that.

Stephen Parrish said...

Hemingway complained (in A Moveable Feast) about Fitzgerald altering his stories for commercial purposes. The term Hemingway used to describe the practice was "whoring." You are right to make your books as good as they can be before releasing them.

Rob Cornell said...

Joe said: I just reread part of WHISKEY SOUR in order to get Phin's backstory right. Haven't read that since I wrote it in 2001. And I went "Ewwww... that scene wasn't very good."

This book has sold over 100k copies, and has gotten great reviews. But 15 years later, I'm better, and I'd do it differently.

So even though I accomplished my goal then, part of me still wants another crack at it.

By that logic, you need to go back and rewrite all your older books to bring them up to your current level of craft. But then, you'll be better in another ten years, so you'll have to go back and rewrite everything again.

There is no perfect book. And, I think, you're better off looking forward than behind. So either publish them as is (after a good copy edit, perhaps), or leave 'em in the trunk and write the next one.

Look, dude. If you're doing this gig right, you'll always be better than you were with the last book. I second guess myself enough with my current work. I'd go insane if I kept looking back at the old stuff.

Michael Alan Peck said...

I've only got one book out there thus far, with two more on the way that won't be finished for quite some time. I'm slow. As in really slow. So with that plus my rankings, my take may not be worth much. That said, however, I think good and bad are too subjective to be a standard. I go with how happy I am with the book, given how much effort I've put into it and how proud I am to send it out there to speak for me.

If I know I've done my best, then I can live with those who say my book isn't for them. But if I were to put out something I'm only so-so on, it would bum me out to have people rejecting it when I would know it wasn't a true reflection of what I'm capable of.

I've had unsatisfying jobs my whole life. If I go "meh" on what I'm putting in front of readers, then this thing I say is so special to me will just be another one.

In one of the greatest sports movies ever, North Dallas Forty, John Matuszak goes off on Charles Durning: "Every time I call it a game, you call it a business! And every time I call it a business, you call it a game!"

Well, this thing's both. But if I have to err on the side of one, I'll err on the side of the game, which is why I started trying to do it to begin with.

Again, just the take of a newbie. There's no right or wrong to it, only preference.

Joe Konrath said...

Also, ask my time better served rewriting these stories or putting out new work? Do they do the job they're supposed to do...entertain? If so, release them like the caged birds they are and let the readers decide. :-)

I think my time would be better served putting out new work. But I also think these stories would entertain readers--but they'll entertain more if I put in another two weeks of work.

Joe Konrath said...

Have you thought about doing the math, figuring out how much polishing this book an extra two or three weeks would most likely cost you?

The math is tough, because when I'm into a book I can write fast. Like 9k a day fast. Then I'll take weeks off. So I'm losing "in the zone" time, but when I'm revved up I can stay in the zone. I'm delaying the new book by working on this, so it isn't time lost so much as time postponed.

Joe Konrath said...

Read them, and get an idea of how much work you'd need to give them that special something.

To more weeks for this one. A month each for the other two.

I think I'm circling my problem. I thought these would be ready quickly, but it's taking longer than expected. Since I want readers to like them, I guess I'll take as long as they need.

Joe Konrath said...

The term Hemingway used to describe the practice was "whoring."

I think whoring is a noble pursuit. Why should pleasing others equate with zero integrity?

Joe Konrath said...

But then, you'll be better in another ten years, so you'll have to go back and rewrite everything again.

Yes. And no.

My improvement as a writer from age 22 to age 30 was much more dramatic than 30 to 47.

Joe Konrath said...

But if I were to put out something I'm only so-so on, it would bum me out to have people rejecting it when I would know it wasn't a true reflection of what I'm capable of.

Agreed. But some people are going to reject it, and some people are going to like it, regardless of how you personally feel about it.

My novels are like my children, and I like some more than others. Some also need more help than others.

These three books are my three youngest kids. They need a little extra attention to thrive. I'm just not sure if it's worth it.

Iain Rob Wright said...

You've just described the past 6 months of my life where I have agonised over my earlier books. I rewrote 2 at the expense of a new novel. I then settled on having my mid-and-recent books proof read again just so i know they are at least without any typos or mistakes. I hate reading my own books as I want to change everything. It's like walking into an inescapable trap. You can never truly be happy so how do you know when enough is enough? By the way, long time no speak!

Joe Konrath said...

Hi Iain!

Did you notice an uptick in sales and/or better reviews because you rewrote those two books?

And do you feel your efforts were worthwhile?

I'm committed to releasing, and fixing, these three novels. I think they'll make worthy additions to my backlist.

That said, I'm doubting myself on an hourly basis that this is worth my time.

Casey Moreton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrice Fitzgerald said...

I have some pen name books (sexy, like yours, Joe, but not AS sexy!) that I know have typos and other bits I'd like to correct. But they don't sell as well as my science fiction--which might have more to do with the time I've spent on the latter versus the former--so I don't know if it's worth devoting the time to tweak and reload. Ahem.

One of these days I may do it. Or not.

Interesting discussion here. Nice to see your typeface!

Dan McGirt said...

I'd apply the "What would Joe Konrath do?" test.

Just guessing here, but I think he'd put out the old books as is and call them the Classic Editions. Then he'd revise each of them into the improved Special Editions. Then he'd bundle each Classic Edition with its corresponding Special Edition and release those. Then a box set of all three Classic Editions, followed by a box set of all three Special Editions. Then a box set of both versions of all three books. At this point, having turned three books into twelve books, he'd add a couple of short stories using characters from the three books, pull in characters from his other books, and turn the whole thing into a prequel for Draculas. Meanwhile, the rest of us would simply shake our heads in awe and wonder at what Joe hath wrought. :)

Walter Knight said...

I attached my weakest book "Vampire in the Outfield" for free to the back of better selling "America's Galactic Foreign Legion - Book 12 - The Ark." Another, "Zombie Missouri" I combined with a friend's book that wasn't selling, "Night of the Guppie" as a way to add more value. This way I was able to write outside my science fiction comfort zone and still provide value.

Iain Rob Wright said...

No uptick at all. The way I looked at it was of by chance a stranger takes a chance on one of those books, they are more likely to become a fan if it's better. Sometimes you only get one chance to hook a Reader. Every book is a hook in the water. Better the book bigger the hook.

Joe Konrath said...

I agree, Iain. But I believe, as far as time and money goes, this will never pay off for me.

And yet I persist.

jim kosmicki said...

there are readers who want story, but there are other readers who want craft and skill. Sometimes they are the same readers, but sometimes not. I see this in comics all the time: people who hate the art or the story, but read anyway because they love the other part of the equation. It's easier to separate with comics because you do have the two interacting elements. We aren't always able to separate them as easily with writing. For example, I think that Fitzgerald writes some beautiful prose, but I find his stories to be boring and predictable. My English teacher colleagues who prefer beautiful prose styling over other aspects of writing continue to teach him in class. I choose to teach other writers who may not write as beautifully, but I think have more to say.

I think you can please both masters. Get it "good enough" and put a note at the very beginning indicating that it is an early work. I love John Irving as an author, but while I've read all of his works, I've never chosen to re-read his first three because they simply weren't as strong as his later, more mature works. But they weren't presented to me as NEW JOHN IRVING books - they were presented to me as EARLY John Irving books. Context is important. Similarly, an album release of early works by a band I like is not going to be expected to be up to par with their later, more evolved works, but it still has a value to show us where they came from.

Context is important.

J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

Are you having fun getting the first of the three ready for prime time? If you are, then carry on. Maybe it's feeding your creative voice in some unexpected way. Or maybe there is some unexpected benefit to the work that you intuitively perceive, even though you cannot articulate it logically right now.

Or are you finding the work onerous? If so, I'd follow @jim kosmicki's advice above: publish them with only a quick copy edit and a foreword that presents them as early works.

Michael Ryder said...

Joe, I believe you know what you're going to do. You pulled these books from the attic and deemed them good enough and are now blogging about them, which indicates you're invested in their future. You have a standard to make every book you write and publish as good as you can make it at the time. You have enough experience under your belt to know you can make these unpublished books better. Since this decision is a one-time event (you implied your other trunk novels aren't good enough to publish), I wouldn't sweat this further. Spiff up these puppies, publish them, and move on.

I appreciate you posting about this. I rarely look back -- nostalgia's not my thing -- but on occasion I find myself wondering if I should dust off my own unpublished novels to see how awful (or salvageable) they truly are. So far, at least, I haven't done that. Perhaps I'll feel differently when I reach your level of experience.

One selfish closing request: Please blog more. I miss your voice. :-)

Jeff Ezell said...

Joe, great to have your voice back. Ever take a vacation? One or two week vacations, even a long weekend are not value judged on money we'll make while vacationing, but doing something we "want" to do. Joe, take a "WHISKY SOUR vacation" (rewrite) for the time needed to reach the level of quality accomplishment you desire. Then get back to work on your new projects, refreshed, not burdened mentally whether it was the best investment of your time. You were on vacation! You had fun.

Geraldine Evans said...

Joe, you're going to worry about those books if you don't do the work they need. Look at the time you've wasted writing this blog post and replying to the comments. You're clearly a perfectionist, so for God's sake, do it! Then you'll get some peace.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

I have the advantage of having published for the first time at an age much more advanced than yours.

And I'm very slow due to illness. And I write mainstream. I won't be able to write that many books in my life, so they will be the 'books of the heart.'

We are vastly different as writers.

I think this affects everything you said in this post: I have two modes, final - and not ready yet. It took me fifteen years to get that first book out, and it is done. Final, As perfect as I can make it.

Makes sense for me - but not for you.

OTOH, if you never wrote another book, your legacy would be fine - so you get to decide exactly what your standards are - and will have gobs of readers for all of it because of your hard work.

I think you already know your own answer: what feels right to you.

Mark Asher said...

Joe said: "I believe, as far as time and money goes, this will never pay off for me."

You will feel better about the books. That counts for something.

You seem to have a very good stream of income so you can afford the luxury of polishing just like you can afford to take weeks off when not writing.

And you never know -- you may pick up a few extra readers rather than alienate those same few if their first exposure to your work is one of your poorer efforts. Over time those readers may buy your other books.