Good and Bad Books

I’ve been following (via Twitter) some of the testimony in the antitrust case the US Department of Justice brought against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

I confess I haven’t followed it in detail because (a) I’m opposed to mergers of big publishing houses (and other large corporations) in general, so I don’t need to read much about it to know what I think, and (b) I know enough about antitrust law to know it’s painful to read about even though it’s important.

I may go back and catch up, though, just to get a feeling for how well DOJ is doing. Over the years US antitrust enforcement has become very weak, so even though it’s pretty clear that these companies shouldn’t merge, it’s by no means certain that they’ll be stopped.

Even if I catch up, though, I’m not going to write about antitrust issues, because I only do that if someone is paying me big bucks. (I used to have to edit antitrust class action stories in my day job and let me tell you, I earned my money and then some those days.)

One thing that really got me from reading Twitter was the realization that lumping writers together as one category makes almost no sense.

I think there are three things that most writers have in common:

  1. They want to write.
  2. They want to be read.
  3. They want to get paid.

There are exceptions even to those three categories, but those three things are true of most of us.

But when it comes to what we want to write and even what we’re willing to write to make money, writers are arranged along a long spectrum.

There is a world of difference between a journalist who writes best-selling self help books and someone writing, say, experimental fiction.

I was brought to this example by the fact that a journalist who pivoted to self help books and made money opined on the witness stand that there are a lot of “bad books,” which apparently was his explanation for why some people made money and some people didn’t.

I have to say that, in general, I consider most self help books to be “bad books,” though there are a few writers who manage to use the genre to say something valuable while still writing something that sells.

Self help sells well, especially if you catch the trend just right (something a journalist should be well-positioned to do), because the world is a fucked up place and we are all greedy for things we can do to be happier.

But since making sufficient changes in our lives to be happier takes more than a few superficial habit fixes — especially when we individually are not the real cause of the problem — most of those books don’t fix anything.

Books that probe more deeply into how to live well do not sell as well as pop self help, though they are likely better books.

Experimental fiction doesn’t sell well at all, but I suspect some of it provides a valuable shift in how we see the world. The same could be said of poetry, a field of writing that will never make anyone rich and only a very few moderately famous, but which provides more guidance in life than a self help book.

I am ragging on this because I think someone writing pop self help has a lot of nerve talking about bad books. I don’t mind if he wants to write them. I don’t mind if writing them pays the bills for a writer so they can do the work they want to do that doesn’t pay as well.

But he doesn’t have the right to say he made money because his books are good and other people don’t make money because theirs are bad. He made money because he wrote on a trendy topic and had a publisher that pushed the book.

I don’t think even writers who write very good books and make money have the right to say that quality is the reason some books sell better, but at least they have more justification.

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