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What Makes a Good Book – A Publisher’s View

September 3, 2017

As a publisher, you’re forever looking for the next ‘good’ book to add to your list but what makes a book ‘good’. This very much depends on who is answering this question.


First of all, lets narrow the definition of a book. I, and therefore Holland Park Press, focus on literary (yes point for another discussion) fiction and poetry. We will consider literary (that word again) biographies and memoirs (for the latter: aka autobiographical novels), and of course fiction includes novellas and short story collections.


But please, please, no series. I know they are potentially a publisher’s dream and a excellent way to build an audience, but I prefer to have the freedom to invent my own imaginary sequels after finishing a book, and so can’t deny the same opportunity to the buyers of our books.


Actually, I was recently introduced to two ‘series’ that are rather famous at the moment. I share a house with my brother, an author, and reading inspires his writing. His favourite author is Dutch Gerard Reve. At long last his debut novel (not his best book according to my brother, but it’s actually quite good, I would have published it if I had been around in 1947) The Evenings has recently been published in English and highly recommended.


Anyway, my brother decided to read Elena Ferrante, and recommend My Brilliant Friend. I loved it and especially liked the open ending, only to discover that Ferrante has written several more books to gives a further account of Lila and Len?? lives in glorious detail. I couldn’t and haven’t read them, it would spoil My Brilliant Friend.


The other author that caught my brother’s eye was Karl Ove Knausgaard. Again, another excellent writer but yet again one who writes series. Why? I read two of the My Struggle books: Dancing in the Dark and A Man in Love and now I’m completely Knausgaarded out. He writes beautifully and looks at the every-day world with fresh eyes, yet his editor should have said: this is too much.


Back to what makes a ‘good book’. For a reader this is based on many things: the story, the characters, subject matter, having a strong affinity with the subject matter or simply associating the book with a time of great happiness among many other factors.


On the other hand, for an author, his or her books are probably never good enough. Which is exactly the right frame of mind to be in when writing a book. As an author, you have to remain your own worst critic, you do see that this sometimes goes awry when an author becomes very famous.


For publishers, it’s a business and you have to make money, that’s why you can’t blame many houses that gravitate towards, pushing famous authors to write more books, do series, publish books by celebrities.


Because, frankly, no one knows, whether a book by a new author or relatively unknow author is going to be successful. If you could predict success, publishing would be quite a different business.


However, when reading the first pages of a manuscript that has arrived in your inbox, one of the greatest pleasures in my life, you know immediately whether it is good or not. Unfortunately, in this life, good does not mean successful.


There is another type of manuscript which is disappointing and time consuming, that’s the one that collapses half or three quarters through. It started out so well but then it loses its plot.


And then there is something else, something which is often ignored. You have to give a book time to find its audience. This is just about the worst thing you can say to an author but there are such famous examples of this phenomenon: I give you Stoner by John Williams.


John Williams actually taught one of my authors and I think several of my authors will end up being famous but I can’t predict when. All I can say that I put my money where my mouth is and I’m throwing everything at it to make this happen.

publisher in action