Lies Writers Tell Ourselves: Publishable Quality

Long ago, when I was young and innocent and just starting out on my journey through the world of publishing, I had the idea that my job was to write a book good enough to be published. Once I did that, everything else would follow—because if it’s good enough to be published, that means it’ll be published, right?

HA HA HA HA HA. Oh, what a fool I was.

I think this is a common myth, though. More than once, I had various industry professionals tell me my book was publishable quality, too, reinforcing my idea that there was this bar, and once you passed it, you were in. But this is a very dangerous illusion.

It’s a strange idea in the first place. Books get published all the time which you or I might very well not consider of Publishable Quality. And I’ve certainly beta read a decent number of books which I consider to well surpass that bar which have not yet found a home with a publisher. It’s not like you can put a manuscript on the Awesomeness Scale and see if it rates at 90% or above and slap a “Grade A” sticker on it and put it on the shelf.

One problem with the Publishable Quality idea is that it obscures the truth: publishing is incredibly subjective. If you and I did a blind taste test of 20 novels and had to check off which we thought were of Publishable Quality, we’d be extremely unlikely to come up with perfectly matching lists at the end. Nearly every published debut novel out there got rejected at some point. The idea that there’s some way to objectively gauge novel quality leaves us open to greater pain with rejection, because then instead of meaning we didn’t find our book’s  agent/editor soul mate, it means our book wasn’t good enough.

The Publishable Quality myth comes with another hidden catch. Even if you assume we could come up with some vague level of “Yeah, most people agree this is good enough to be a published book,” there are more books meeting that bar than there are slots for books to traditionally publish. Writing a good book is a rare skill, and one we should be proud of—but it’s not so rare that there isn’t still competition once you clear the elusive “publishable” bar.

Which leads to perhaps the most insidious danger of this notion of Publishable Quality. It can lead you to believe that once your book hits that level, you can stop trying to make it better. I know when I first started querying, I thought I just had to make my book good enough. But now that I’ve immersed myself in the world of writing and publishing for a while, I know that’s not true.

You can’t stop at good enough. You probably shouldn’t even stop at as good as I can make it. You have to keep going until as good as it can possibly be.

If you strive for less than that, you might still get published. It’s a subjective business, after all. But you’ll have failed to do your book the justice it deserves. You’ll have missed opportunities to make yourself a better writer.

So don’t ask yourself “Is this book publishable?” Ask yourself “How can I make this book even better?” You’ll go less crazy and write a better book.

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of THE TETHERED MAGE, first in the Swords & Fire trilogy, out now from Orbit Books. I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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