March 13, 2012

Who Cares about Quality Writing Anymore?

Bored girl holding her head in her hand

No, that’s not a rhetorical or trick question.  Recent events in the publishing industry have left me asking that as a serious point of confusion and discouragement.

I know this is an ongoing complaint about the state of literature.  Over a century ago, people complained about penny dreadfuls and dime novels, and then moved on to complaints about pulp magazines, comic books, and mass-market paperbacks.

In many ways, this argument has historically been framed as genre fiction versus literary fiction, but I’ve known too many genre authors (including myself) who genuinely care about the craft of writing to allow that attitude to stand.  Now the ability of people to accept low-quality writing is creating surprising situations.

What Are the Gatekeepers Protecting Behind the Gates?

In recent decades, publishers were seen as the gatekeepers, the ones protecting readers from crap writing.  A story didn’t need to be merely good, it had to be great.  Publishers began cultivating their reputations as these gatekeepers.

As self-publishing rose in prominence in recent years, publishers promoted those reputations even more.  They wanted readers to associate their names on the spine with quality writing in order to differentiate themselves from the deluge of self-published books.

A self-published label doesn’t automatically mean the writing will be crap, just as a traditional publisher doesn’t guarantee quality.  However, that fact didn’t stop some agents and publishers from bemoaning the lack of gatekeeping infecting the industry.

Enter the “celebrity” books.  These are the books that publishers provide to readers regardless of their quality (or lack thereof) because, like any business, they’re trying to make money.  Yet, even the Snooki book was edited (and most likely, ghost-written), as the publisher didn’t want to damage their reputation too much.

So, what are we to make of the Vintage Books deal for Fifty Shades of Grey?  Vintage Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (which is part of Random House), is supposedly known for highbrow literature.  Which begs the question, why did they release their version of the ebook yesterday with zero editing?

Many people love these books, but even they admit the writing is in desperate need of editing.  At Jezebel, where they share several amusing NSFW (not safe for work) excerpts, their consensus was “the book is pretty ridiculous — for every lashing there’s an “OMG!””

(Mildly NSFW tangent: One sentence from the excerpt had me laughing out loud: “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free.”  Hello, dangling (*ahem*) modifier!  Did his erection have little hands to pull off those boxers? *snicker*  Sorry, I’m not trying to bash anyone—every author makes those blunders—but that’s why editors are so important.)

With their decision to release the ebooks with all these errors intact, Vintage Books has proven they care about money more than their reputation, more than quality writing, and more than the readers.  They say an edited version is coming later—as if that makes everything better.

No, what that means is they’re perfectly happy to sell a version they admit needs editing for the full price in the meantime because they don’t want to lose any potential sales during the current media storm simply due to that pesky concept of quality.  There’s healthy greed, and then there’s naked, ugly greed that breaks trust with readers.

Are the publishers gatekeepers of anything?  Can they still claim to protect the reader?  Do they still care about quality writing?

Signs point to “no.”

As I discussed with agent Rachelle Gardner after my rant about how publishers view social media, “[It seems like] the numbers are more important than the words.”  And she essentially agreed with me.  This latest deal by Vintage Books is yet another example confirming that sad fact.

Do Readers Care?

As mentioned above, readers know and recognize that the writing quality in Fifty Shades of Grey is less than great.  Yet, many of them love the story anyway.

In fact, the book has often been labeled “literary” instead of “genre” fiction, despite the writing quality.  And if literary isn’t defined by high-quality writing, what is it defined by?  Too much navel-gazing?  Not enough of a plot?

Does that mean readers don’t care about quality writing either?

An argument can certainly be made that good storytelling forgives almost any writing sin.  As a writer, I’m more sensitive to mistakes than typical readers because I’ve trained myself to look for them in my own writing.  So yes, my ability to enjoy crap writing is negatively affected in that regard, but this lack of discernment among the NY literary crowd surprised me as well.

Regardless, I have an answer for the question posed the title: Who cares about quality writing anymore?

Me—and all those thousands of other authors who read craft books, attend workshops, value their beta readers and critique partners for feedback, and push themselves to continually improve.

On some level, we always write for ourselves.  We write because we have to, because we’d go stir crazy without that creative outlet, because we want to make our ideas and characters manifest on the page.

That means we don’t need anyone’s “permission” to aim for quality writing.  Even if no one else cares whether I edit dangling modifiers from my writing or spend several minutes debating whether that sentence should have a comma, I care.

I care because I’m a perfectionist.  I care because I respect my readers.  I care because my name, my brand, and my reputation are important to me.  I care because I approach writing as my profession.  I care because I’m passionate about writing.

I care because I’m me.  And that’s really all that matters.

Do traditional publishers still offer benefits to readers over self-publishers?  Do publishers still function as gatekeepers?  Do you think readers care about writing quality?  How important is writing quality to you?  What do you think about this Vintage Books deal?  Does it break an implied trust with readers to sell an unedited version?

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Angela Ackerman

This is the first I’ve heard about an unedited version being released. I am kind of sick at the fact that they know it’s in bad shape and still want to rake in the cash.

I know the reader end of this is important–ultimately they pay cash for the product. But as a writer, I can’t help but seeing it through a different filter. Writers who publish traditionally trade the editing & marketing processes for dollars–we all know that. However, more and more often we hear about how promises made are promises broken with the marketing end…and now it’s happening with the editorial end, too?

Right now, trust is one of the few layers that keeps career authors with publishers when many can do better on their own. I wonder how the author must feel, knowing they’ve been let down by the publisher in this manner. I would not want my ‘rough writing’ out there for all the world to see, no matter how many sales might come of it.

Nathan Lowell

The thing about ‘quality writing’ is that it’s just not that cut and dried. In the first place, there’s a continuum of “quality” that needs to be recognized. The axiom I grew up with was “It’s never done, it’s just due.” The idea of “good enough” has a negative connotation but it also means that I have to accept that it will never be perfect. I can make it as good as I can, but there comes a point where additional polish doesn’t add anything. It just delays the inevitable. Worse, too much polish takes the edge off the story, takes the bite out of the prose. (I realize that’s not what you’re talking about here, but it’s really the crux.) In the second place, there’s Sturgeon’s Law — that 90% of everything is crap. What gets lost is that it’s a unilateral finding. You don’t get to pick the 10% of good stuff for me. That’s what mainstream publishing has been claiming for decades – the prerogative to find the good stuff and to screen out the crap. The problem is capacity. They lack it. They can’t publish everything so they pick the top 1% of stuff they think can sell. Which brings up the third thing. Their definition of quality is “what we can sell most of.” Contrary to popular belief, the gatekeeping function is not about quality writing — and certainly not quality story telling. It’s about what has the best probability of selling a metric buttload.…  — Read More »

Jen J. Danna

Readers certainly should care about writing quality; as a reader, I know I certainly do. I wasn’t aware that an unedited ebook versi0n of FSoG was released yesterday, but it clearly shows the desire of the publishing company to make a fast buck versus turn out a quality product. They wanted to get in on the current furor over this piece. Let’s be honest, if it was top priority, they could have done a fast edit and gotten it out there in 3 or 4 weeks, but instead they took the shortcut. It certainly says something to me about Vintage Books, but it isn’t anything good!

Jen J. Danna

I’m coming back one more time to say that I just went and read the Jezebel article you linked to. o_O I actually laughed out loud, and I’m pretty sure that first sex scene wasn’t actually supposed to be funny.

Oh my…

Anna DeStefano

Unfortunately, readers care about what they choose to care about.

I think the key is how do we, as writers, connect and server the readers we want to care about our stories. If quality is important to you, both the grammer and the story structure, then figure out how to reach the readers who want the same things. The rest will be happy with Snookie’s next opus. Shrug.


Ah, quality writing. At one forum, one user posted an interview of an YA publisher, and another user reacted along the lines of “they want more of what we don’t want?!”

For the record, the user was probably referring to dystopian romances with female protagonist and love triangles with best friend/mysterious friend as lovers…which describes the majority of mainstream YA, sadly.

Shannon Bibby

I completely agree with your post. Publishing companies are definately about the big money and no concern for reputation or quality. As far as myself, I would much rather have quality when it comes to my writing. Editing is a HUGE thing for me, so once I have my book completed I certainly intend on hiring an editor even if I don’t have a big name publisher. Thanks for your post! I enjoyed reading it!

Macy Beckett

It’s not *only* the lack of editing that bothers me. What I want to know is how the author of 50 Shades (aka: Master of the Universe) isn’t being sued by Stephanie Meyer for publishing fanfiction.

Hey, I’ve read some fanfic in my day, and I have no problem with folks sharing it for free. But once you piggyback on the coattails of a successful author in order to establish a fan base, then change the names in your story and try to sell it, that’s SO. NOT. COOL.

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

>>”They say an edited version is coming later—as if that makes everything better.”

Ahhh, so they’re releasing a Beta version of the story. I wonder how they’ll enable early buyers to upgrade to the latest version. I didn’t realize the publishing industry was mimicking the software one.

*calls FSoG book support*
“This book is terrible, with grammar so bad English teachers everywhere are spinning in their graves. Even living ones.”
-This is Steve, I’m sorry you are having problems. What version of FSoG do you have?
“Version? Um it’s an ebook.”
-Please go, enter your serial number, and get the latest version.
-If you have a support contract, you can upgrade to the latest version.
-Thank you for calling FSoG book support. Have a Grey day.


Brooklyn Ann

That is just too funny…and terrifying.

Melinda Collins

LOL!! But the sad part is that this may be what they’re going to end up doing in order to get an updated version into the readers’ hands. 🙁

Buffy Armstrong

That made me snort through my nose. My boss is looking at me like I’m idiot. Too funny!

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

Yay, I made someone snort and it’s not even noon. My work for the day is done.

Seriously though, writing quality is extremely important to me. I love to beta read in part because I get to see a story evolve from an interesting but ugly duckling to a gorgeous and even more interesting swan over the course of a few revisions. The finished story, with improved pacing, better plotting, and fewer things pulling me out of the world is far more compelling. (And yes, it makes me downright giddy when an author incorporates my suggestions into their story.)

Which reminds me, my beta pile is empty…


Brooklyn Ann

I think the big issue is that most readers don’t know what quality writing is. I blame this on the text-messaging generation. Social networking sites are filled with teens’ status updates that read: “OMG im so board,” “wat r u doin” etc. So what we see as unedited crap, they see as superior spelling and sentence structure. It’s really sad.

Anna DeStefano

Readers know what they want when the see it. Or when a publisher or social media “expert” they’re following tells them what they want.

How do we counteract that pattern? By telling them a story that’s so good, so well-written, so “effortlessly” better than anything else they’ve recently paid money for, they give us some of their time. And tell others, and build a buzz, and the social media flies…because of quality.

I don’t mean to be beating the same tune all over the comments. But it begins with what we do as writers, and then it spreads, as we figure out how to make what’s important to us clear and appealing to the masses.

We’re not getting anywhere saying it’s not fair that quality isn’t what’s being bought above all else. We’ll make that change by supporting publishers who still care about the books they sell, over (or as much as) the dollars they make, and by banding together to reach the readers who care about the same things.

Or am I just ranting???

Buffy Armstrong

As a reader and as a writer, good writing will always be important to me.

I read somewhere when I was in high school or college, “Computers have made bad writing easier.” (I am paraphrasing here.) That always stuck in my head. I guess we can say that the ease of e-books has made bad publishing easier. That statement is directed more at Vintage Books than at the self-published author.

I have different standards when it comes to self-published novels. I can forgive a multitude of literary sins. I can’t say the same for traditionally published novels. In the last few years, I’ve read some truly awful bestsellers. To add insult to injury, I bought them in e-book format and I can’t even donate them for the few dollar tax write-off or bounce them off the wall in frustration.

I know as a writer I worry all of the time about the quality of my writing. I am learning every day and I still know I have a long way to go. But isn’t that the point of becoming a writer in the first place?

Melinda Collins

As an avid reader who thoroughly enjoys the hard work of the author and their editor, and also enjoys received *top quality work* for her hard-earned $$….and as a writer who has spent, like you, an enormous amount of time, energy, and $$, learning and perfecting her craft, I am absoluetly apalled that this particular book was purposefully released by a traditional publisher. And what kills me is that THEY ADMIT IT’S IN NEED OF EDITING! *sigh* I really, really don’t understand and I do wish that someone, maybe from another planet, would explain it to me. Other than that, quality writing and hard core editing is extremely important to me, and not just with my own work. If I’m paying for a traditionally published book then I expect that book to be *almost* top notch (hey, we all make mistakes and there are a few out there, but no where near as bad as they could be). Every writer should care about their quality of writing. Think about it, if you go the self-publishing route you’re expected to be an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t open a bakery and sell half-baked muffins just the ingredients for someone to go home and make the goodies themselves. So why would I publish, or much less a publisher publish, a piece of work that’s not complete in it’s baking process? I think I just asked the question that you’ve already answered though. LOL! Greed!! $$!!! Anyway, I value my brand, my work, my readers,…  — Read More »

Nancy S. Thompson

“I care because I’m a perfectionist. I care because I respect my readers. I care because my name, my brand, and my reputation are important to me. I care because I approach writing as my profession. I care because I’m passionate about writing.”

I could have written this. I feel exactly the same way. Is there really anything more important than this, at least from a writer’s perspective?


I can think of one advantage a big-name publisher can offer a reader: I’m more likely to walk into a bookstore and find the book on the shelf. As someone who can spend HOURS wandering the aisles, this is a big deal for me. Smaller publishers are likely to be overlooked by big chains, and it wouldn’t surprise me if your mom-and-pop bookstore can’t afford the prices from a smaller publisher.

That said, I’m not sure there’s a valid marker of quality writing any longer. Look at all the books that get nominated for the prestige awards (Man Booker, Nobel, National Book Award). Without fail, I pick up one of those books and I fall asleep within minutes. The writing might be top notch, but in some instances, the editors are fawning all over the writer and not bothering to edit AT ALL (and I can name at least two authors who need better editors, and both have large followings, and no, the first name does not begin with the letter “S”). Other times, editing won’t help a story without any action…and God knows how much time I’ve wasted reading (and buying) books that end up being nominated or winning awards and they are, I swear, the most boring books ever written.

Julie Glover

I wonder at times if we are so judgmental about the current state of literature with the new publishing paradigms merely because we don’t recall the history of books.

I have a history degree, and I see this with politics and culture all of the time. People assume that politicians are far less civil now than ever, which is terribly untrue because we don’t all study the vicious presidential campaign of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson or the name-calling against Abraham Lincoln. We don’t remember the past because who researches that long ago and that much when we have plenty of other things to take care of? We remember the big stuff.

I’m not sure that books were that much better in quality with the Big Six or around the time of the printing press than now. I think people have always wanted to make money with books, so they are willing to publish whatever they believe will make money. It’s a creative calling for many writers, but it’s a business for publishers and distributors. We writers ourselves need to encourage a higher level of writing! So yeah, I agree that we need a higher quality of writing, Jami. I just don’t know if the publishers are the ones to do it.


I’ve chosen the path of self-publishing for a variety of reasons, but I will never deny that “validation” from the industry isn’t something I wouldn’t take if offered. By validation I mean review and editing and suggestions about my work, by people considered professionals.

I feel sorry for the author of 50SOG since it is obvious now she is simply a cash cow to not only her old vanity publisher but also to her new one. I would be horrified about seeing my subpar work out there but maybe that is just a level of standard I have that she doesn’t. In fact I think I would have worked it into my deal in the first place (editing before re-releasing) but I suspect all parties in this are more concerned about money than anything else.

Thanks for the discussion.

Anne Forlines
Anne Forlines

Love it or hate it, nearly everyone agrees that Fifty needs a good edit. At the very least, a copy edit. I’m astounded that the new publisher would release any version without first copy editing. Money talks, but an extra week would not have made a significant difference in the numbers.

Jessica Schley

I think Julie Glover’s point is a sound one, that to some extent, we do f

At the same time, I feel that at a minimum, a major house should be ready to take on the responsibility of at least editing for things like grammatical errors. I threw the sample on my nook yesterday morning just to see if they’d edited anything, especially given the substantial similarity between the fic “version” and the published one.

Not a word was changed. The opening is still riddled with all the sentence structure errors that it always has been. And more interestingly, all the front matter is still from The Writers’ Coffee Shop, despite the fact that the version is listed as published by Vintage.

And the REALLY scary thing…the paperback is supposed to drop on April 3, according to the B&N title computer. That means, with a 750,000-copy run, it’s on the press this week in order to be in stores for an April 3 release.

When were you planning to do that editing, again, Vintage?

Jessica Schley

And totally abandoned that first sentence! Talk about a need for editors. 🙂

I think Julie’s point is a good one–that we do forget the past. For instance, there’s been a good deal of discussion in various parts of the net about how the “ebook revolution” in some ways mirrors the “POD revolution,” in that people assumed it was going to revolutionize the industry, but in the end, it simply gave major houses an even better way of controlling costs to keep their backlist in print.

I do think ebooks are behaving differently than POD in many ways, but I do wonder how it will all end up shaking down, and how radically different publishing will actually look when it’s all over…I mean, obviously James could’ve gone entirely self-pub a la Hocking and made her millions long before anyone gave her a contract, yet still she went with houses.

But, if publishing houses are going to say that they add value…I would like to see them add it. Having worked in one for a few years, I believe they do…but I can’t imagine my little house putting our name on something as poorly-edited as FSoG.

Jamie Raintree

I definitely care! And this is one of the reasons I still want to pursue traditional publishing in the age of self-publishing. I don’t trust that I can get it perfect by myself, no matter how much research and studying I do. I like the idea of creating a book as a team effort. I still have faith that traditional publishers can offer that. Maybe there will be some that are led astray but I think there will always be those out there who put quality first.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

Lots of thoughtful details here. I will be back to read it again.



I think what a lot of the news media outlets and bloggers are forgetting is that The Writers Coffee Shop was not really a publisher when they started. TWCS was a site dedicated to talking about Fanfiction and a general place for people to go and discuss anything they wanted. The site was created by women who loved FanFiction. Much like and Omnific. was one of the first sites created that was solely dedicated to Twilight fanfiction and their forums discussed a wide variety of topics. That site was created by the same woman who founded Omnific Publishing. The Writers Coffee Shop followed suit when Omnific Publishing launched. Both sites were a group of women who were lovers and readers of FanFiction and wanted to publish some fics and make some money. Neither of these two “publishers” had any experience with the industry, and for the most part flew by the seat of their pants using the fandom to sell their product. TWCS just happened to pick more risque fics like “Master of the Universe” and “The Perfect Wife” both titles had a lot of controversy around them, so it looks like TWCS won the battle. I do believe Omnific tends to produce more quality books in terms of editing and standards and removing anything Twi related, unlike TWCS who never had any proper edits on their books. Everyone is talking like TWCS “snagged” ’50 Shades of Grey’ but they didn’t. They approached Icy about publishing it and…  — Read More »

KB/KT Grant

Over at Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life someone commented that the 50 Shades books are being edited for Vintage:

“It was edited and is currently being re-edited for the Vintage edition. Nor were just character names replaced before publishing. This work has characters that were not in Twilight. Did Edward Cullen have a bodyguard named Taylor in Twilight? No. Is Bella raised by her step-father? No. Is Edward seduced by an older woman? No. Yes, the roots of this story are widely known now. It’s the story of the day and tomorrow’s birdcage lining.

Fans of Christian and Ana are buying not only the first but the second and third books,
which are also top of the NY Times Bestseller’s lists. That shows that
people are enjoying this sexy romp that at its heart is a classic
romance with a kink.

Young innocent girl meets commanding, brooding, wealthy, older man was done before Ms Meyers. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Tess all came long before Twilight. ”

But money talks and if a book can make a publisher a boatload of money without edits, then they’re not going to edit. 50 Shades is a perfect example of this.

The Chaser
The Chaser

Hi Jami Very interesting post again. I read a lot and very diverse subjects. I love beautiful sentences but beautiful writing with an engaging story is a rare contemporary find in my view. John Birmingham wrote an op-ed in the Herald today, which finally addresses the fanfic/MoTU link. He also makes some interesting points about the future of publishing. But I do wonder if he has read the books and if Random House weren’t his publisher would he have addressed the end product – its lack of editing/polishing etc etc blah blah? I enjoyed parts of the Fifty Shades trilogy simply for the novelty factor, and in THAT particular context of finding out about the whole fanfic genre and how the two versions were virtually unchanged. At the time it was just a bit of escapism. I did find the writing quite, well, awful in parts, particularly the contract which was just hilarious. But my personal peeve was the use of adverb overkill. I find this whole THING – the fanfic link, the mainstream media’s denial, the WAY they’re promoting this book as ‘Mommy Porn’ no less, a major publishing House failing to push the book as a decent end product by doing its job, I mean there are just so many issues. A part of me does admire the writer for her drive but at the same time I wonder if she’ll be churning out books about these same characters as they dodder around the Red Room of Pain…  — Read More »


[…] more willing to allow books to appear under their auspices without proper quality control. “Who cares about quality writing anymore?” she asks, and uses as an example a current big release from Vintage Books which has been […]

Robert Medak

Great article!

As a freelance writer, blogger, editor, reviewer, and avid reader of most genres, I detest low quality writing.

I try to write in the active voice and help writers do the same with quality. There are many. Books that cross my desk that are in need of editing that I read for review.

Fiona Ingram

This is a very interesting discussion and raises several points, which all concern the future. Can any writer sustain more books if they clearly have not grasped the basic concepts of grammar and sentence structure (don’t you just love those little hands yanking the boxer shorts???)? I think Random House have committed the unforgiveable in rushing into releasing badly edited (badly written?) novelty material? Their actions show they are concerned with cashing in quickly on trends which, through e-publishing, are becoming more and more shortlived. They must be so worried that next week someone else will come out with a new trend (the mind boggles!) that they are prepared to disgrace themselves by releasing material that clearly (judging by all the OMG-help-me-up-from-the-floor laughing) needs a LOT of work. Good quality, well written books are here to stay. The reaction of serious writers about the release of dreadful work is unanimous – these writers respect themselves and their readers. I really think this is a flash in the pan and will not last. I get angry when I read bad grammar and spelling that ANY computer program would have picked up. (The red line for a spelling error; the green line for grammar…) I hope other publishers will restrain themselves from flooding the market with unadulterated garbage. This is a warning to writers – are you in it for the long run? Do you respect yourself and your work enough to strive towards polishing and perfecting your work? Do you have…  — Read More »

The Chaser
The Chaser

Perhaps ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ should be compulsory high school reading.

Click to grab Ironclad Devotion now!