What Determines If a Book Is Good?


What determines if a book is good?

The answer is a 7-letter word.

Unlike many conventional puzzles, plurals ending with -s are allowed.

The answer is not E-D-I-T-O-R-S. Although they may be able to help make a book better and they might be qualified to judge writing on many levels, whether or not a book is good doesn’t ultimately depend on the opinions of editors. There are, in fact, highly successful books that many editors don’t think highly of.

The answer is not R-O-Y-A-L-T-Y. A good book doesn’t need to be widely popular; a good book can provide value to a small audience. There isn’t a magic number of sales or royalties to determine if a book is good or bad.

The answer is not R-E-V-I-E-W-S. Even the most highly esteemed books receive critical reviews. So just receiving good reviews doesn’t make a book good, and receiving bad reviews doesn’t make a book bad. The number of reviews doesn’t make it or break it, either, as this depends strongly on the number of sales. The average star rating is not a good indicator, as opinions and systems for reviewing can vary wildly from one person to the next.

The answer is not P-U-B-L-I-S-H-E-R. Aside from the fact that this word has too many letters and the reality that for decades publishers have prevented many book ideas from ever being read, publishers don’t ultimately determine whether or not a book is good. In fact, there are many popular stories of publishers who have turned down books that later turned out to be amazingly successful.

The answer is not A-U-T-H-O-R-S.  Well, this depends in part on how you want to define a ‘good’ book. The author determines whether or not the book is good enough to share with others. The author also determines whether or not the book is successful; what one author considers a success, another might deem a failure. We’re not talking success versus failure, or how the author feels about his or her own book. A ‘good’ book should provide value to more than just its author.

The answer I have in mind is R-E-A-D-E-R-S. But not in terms of the total number of reviews or the average star rating; the answer is readers, not reviews.

Publishers think in terms of sales, investment, risk, net profit, and cost-benefit analysis. They don’t determine if a book is good; they strive to determine what will make them money. And they sometimes make mistakes with their predictions.

Different editors think in terms of writing style, storyline, plot, characterization, grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. And each editor has his or her own set of opinions, and knowledge of various ‘rules.’ It’s possible for a writer to adopt a writing style or method of storytelling, for example, that creatively blows the ordinary rules right out of the water, while also producing a really good book. Ignoring the rules certainly doesn’t make a book good; and following any usual rules or guidelines, in itself, doesn’t distinguish good books from bad ones. (However, as you know if you read my blog, I do stress the importance of editing.)

Royalties and sales reflect how wide your paying readership is and how successful your book is business-wise. But what if tens of thousands of people read a book because you’re a very popular author, but later feel strongly that it didn’t live up to their expectations? All those sales don’t necessarily imply that the book was good. And what about the book that has a really small readership, but where most of the readers loved the book. Isn’t this book good?

What I Don’t Mean

I’m not saying that bad reviews indicate that a book is bad. Most readers don’t review books at all; surely, their opinions count, too.

I’m not saying that good reviews necessarily make a book good.

Again, I mean readers, not reviews. And I don’t mean all readers. No book pleases everyone, so it’s not possible for everyone to love a book.

What I Do Mean

If complete strangers discover a book and feel that it was worth the read—that if they had time machines at their disposal, they wouldn’t choose to go back in time and not read the book—then to these readers, the book was good.

If some wish they hadn’t read the book, this doesn’t make the book bad. Every book that’s had thousands of readers has some that strongly dislike the book.

Good, Better, Best

I don’t think it’s helpful to try to rank books. It’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges. If you love apples, can you fault the orange for trying not to fit the apple mold? Even if two books fall into the same subgenre, like romantic comedy, different authors and readers vary in their perception of just what a romantic comedy should be. So two different romantic comedies aren’t two kinds of apples, one is a lemon and the other is a lime. Two different books aren’t supposed to be the same; they were intended by their authors to be different.

What I feel is more important is the notion of improvement. I’m a fan of the compare-yourself-to-your-former-self concept. If we can all achieve this, surely the world will be a better place. If an author learns ways to improve, the author can make his or her book better.

Another factor is doing your best with the time and resources you have available. Strive to do your best each time, and as you learn and grow as an author, strive to become better. If you feel strongly that you should have done something different, then your book could have been better than it was.


When the author feels that he or she should have done better, that the book really wasn’t fit to be published, the author is judging that his or her book isn’t good. When no readers will ever feel that the book is worth reading, they are judging that it wasn’t fit to publish. (If there is a narrow audience who just hasn’t discovered the book yet, that’s different.)

A books that was written for the wrong reasons, which is lacking in effort, which no reader will enjoy, had ample potential to be something much better.

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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13 comments on “What Determines If a Book Is Good?

  1. I was thinking T-E-Q-U-I-L-A, but your word makes more sense. I think my favorite part of this post is the one about author improvement. A lot of people (authors, readers, etc.) seem to act like you put out a book and you’re locked in the style or ability that you show. The idea of an author’s evolution seems foreign to them, so they toss the person aside without a second thought.

    • Maybe your answer will help books be better.🙂

      There may be a fine line with the author’s evolution. Being too much the same presents a set of problems, too. I love Franz Kafka’s short story, A Hunger Artist, at least I like one of its interpretations, the one that has to do with the challenge of being an artist.

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