Not All Books Need to Be Well-Written to Sell

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether your book is more about ideas/information or art.

If your book is more about ideas/information, it means:

  • you need credibility or authority of some kind in your subject area to be taken seriously by publishers and other insiders
  • you need expertise and/or experience to understand the conversation/community you’re entering into and how to present fresh and compelling ideas or information
  • you need an excellent understanding of your audience and their needs
  • your platform (or visibility) in a community will be essential to selling and promoting yourself and your book
  • you don’t do the book first to become an expert; you’re an expert or credible source first (with a platform) which justifies having a printed book
  • you write a book proposal because you need to present a business plan for why the market needs your book
  • your audience doesn’t care as much about the quality of expression (artform) as the quality of ideas and information

If your book is more about art, it means:

  • you need skill at the craft to be taken seriously, which usually means years of practice
  • you may not need any expertise/experience of any kind if your writing evokes strong emotion, passion, or deep meaning
  • you often need to write the book first, and write it flawlessly, in order for it to sell (assuming you are not a celebrity or notorious or bizarre person who can garner media attention)
  • you might write a proposal, but when it comes to art and making meaning, storytelling is much more powerful than statistics and business plans (of course, remember that even a book about ideas/information needs a mythical story behind it or a way to help people find meaning to stand out from the crowd)

If your book is about ideas/information, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be as well written as possible. In fact, the most powerful books about ideas (by people like Malcolm Gladwell) are works of art.

But when you’re pitching an agent or publisher, make sure you know whether your book is idea-driven or art-driven. It makes a difference in your perspective and slant.

When it’s about the ideas or the information, you’re a salesperson armed with information on the market and your authority. You can do the same with your art, but if the art doesn’t match your sales hype, you’re back to square one.

Photo credit: Sailing: “Footprints Real to Reel”

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0 thoughts on “Not All Books Need to Be Well-Written to Sell

  1. Jane Friedman

    My main point is that when pitching or selling many nonfiction books, the art and craft of the writing itself is not as important as the commodity of the idea. Writing can be improved, but a bad idea or concept doesn’t improve through good writing.

    Most nonfiction books are not by "writers", but experts. Experts often use ghostwriters and editors to ensure their ideas are conveyed clearly. It would be a waste of time for such people to concentrate on artistry or convince an editor/agent they are a "good" writer. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t matter.

    Regular readers of this blog know how strongly I advocate a good editor and revision for all types of projects. Most people in fact don’t care enough. But some people never start their project because they think they’re "not a writer." That’s a shame.

  2. Gale

    Good writing does not preclude simplicity. Simplicity is a hallmark of good writing.

    I especially want my cookbooks and other manuals to be well-written."Joy of Cooking" is a good example of a cookbook that is well-written and serves as a model of clarity. In "Joy" the information is accurate, the basic rules of English usage are followed, and the principles of good composition adhered to.

    It seems like you advise authors not to bother caring about the craft of writing. I find that cynical and discouraging. If you plan to write a book, write it well and use an editor. And, no, I am not an editor.

  3. Jane Friedman

    Perhaps "well-written" is a poor description for what I mean. In the context of this post, I’m using it to define the difference between what is useful (but maybe not traditionally "well written") and what is artful (aesthetically beautiful).

    E.g., if you are looking for a vegetarian cookbook, a woodworking project book, or a diet book, would you care more about how well-written it is, or more about how accurate and useful the information is?

    If the measurements are wrong, if the information is flawed, it would not matter if it were beautifully written.

    Similarly, a beautifully written handbook by someone with no experience or expertise in the subject matter may never get anywhere because no one trusts the author’s credentials.

    A good idea might be useless if the reader can’t understand it or is confused, but a good idea is still useful if simply expressed. For most ideas, serviceable writing will do.
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  4. Gale

    This statement seems very discouraging to me and shows disrespect for you readers. "your audience doesn’t care as much about the quality of expression (artform) as the quality of ideas and information"

    When I purchase a book, I expect it to be well-written regardless of the subject matter. I expect it to have been edited. A good idea poorly expressed is useless.