It’s not a secret that the quality of books published by traditional publishers varies greatly. Some are breathtakingly magical, some read like lukewarm porridge.
I personally have long felt that authors cast too many aspersions against traditionally published books and underrate how good they really are, particularly if you’ve never read slush to get a sense of the “competition.” If you’re not finding more wonderful books than you could possibly have time to read, you’re really not looking very hard.
But it’s undoubtedly true that there are some traditionally published books that feel a bit, well, mailed in. And whenever an author brings one of these to my attention and uses it to interrogate the standards at traditional publishers, I often ask this question: was it a debut?
There are many reasons an established author might get a so-so book over the line to publication: they might have a faithful readership who will buy any book that hits the right notes, or it may be as simple as the author delivering a second or third book in a contract that has already been signed. These books may not need to reach the same level of excitement that’s required for an editor to go through the hurdles of acquiring a new book on behalf of the publisher.
If you want to know how good you have to be to get a traditionally published book across the finish line: look to the debuts. Those are the ones that had to get an editor excited enough to make an offer and take a chance on an unknown author.
Now, that book you might not like may still be a debut. And this gets to the other essential point: tastes are subjective. There are no crystal balls, there’s no standardized threshold for what constitutes “publishable” or “literature.” One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and there are a lot of reasons a book might appeal to people beyond mere writing craft.
At the end of the day, if your goal is pursuing traditional publication, all you can really do is to write the best book you can, pitch it as best you can, and the market is going to do what the market is going to do. But the real measure of your competition is the debuts, not a bestselling author’s twenty-fifth novel.
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Art: Jumping the Gate by James Seymour