The following is a refrain I hear frequently from many different people: "I don't understand how Book [X] got published. That book really stinks. Why can [X] get published but I can't get an agent or a publisher?"
So many answers to that question, but I won't go there today. Rather, I thought I'd review some published books that I've read in recent months and try to answer the question in context. Along the way, let's decide whether or not the quality of the writing had anything to do with it.
BOOK #1: Traditional Mystery/Thriller
Why Was It Published? Author did a good job of setting the book within a particular subculture that is interesting to a lot of people. My best guess: The subculture angle sold the agent and the publisher.
Critical Reception: Quite positive. Author had a following in a different genre before moving over to mystery. Most readers (i.e., Amazon, Goodreads) seem to like it.
How It Did: Very well. It was the first in a series that continues to chug along.
What I Thought: Boring, boring, boring.
Would I Have Published It? No.
BOOK #2: LITERARY SUPERNATURAL STORY
Plot: B +
Why Was It Published? The author's first book was a deservedly huge success. This led to a bidding war for this book, the author's second. This book wasn't quite as good as the first, but the first has a rabid following.
Critical Reception: Mostly positive, a few naysayers. Readers found some frustrations when trying to compare this to the author's first novel, but most who stuck with it felt rewarded.
How It Did: Very well.
What I Thought: Quite good, interesting, different. A bit slow-moving but I read every word. A completely absorbing experience.
Would I Have Published It? Yes. If the book came to me as a first novel, rather than the second book of a wildly successful writer, I would have bought it while worrying that it might be too literary for popular tastes. That wouldn't have stopped me, though.
BOOK #3: SUPPOSEDLY LITERARY THRILLER
Why Was It Published? The author is extremely well connected and has tapped into social media and the cyberworld like nobody I've ever seen. I'm sure the agent used this as a way of convincing the publisher that the book would make money.
Critical Reception: Inexplicably positive.
How It Did: Seems to be doing well for a first novel.
What I Thought: Absolutely horrible.
Would I Have Published It? It came to me and I said No. I could barely get through the first ten pages.
BOOK #4: EARLY BOOK BY A WRITER I HIGHLY RESPECT
Why Was It Published? The author's first book or two had held its own in terms of sales and critical praise. I suspect this book may have been part of a multiple-book contract.
Critical Reception: Positive, but slightly disappointed. Author seems to have a devoted fan base.
How It Did: OK. This writer seems stuck at a certain level of sales and can't seem to break out of it.
What I Thought: Not what I expected from this author.
Would I Have Published It? I would have said, "You are a superb writer, but you have to up your game in terms of plot and character." I would have rejected it. And then I would have kicked myself when I saw what this writer was capable of. His last few books have been absolutely stellar - I have almost written to him to ask him to consider us if he's ever looking for a new publisher.
BOOK #5: SCANDINAVIAN THRILLER
Writing: D (50% of the time), F (50% of the time)
Why Was It Published? Author is Scandinavian.
Critical Reception: MIxed.
How It Did: Underperformed, did not meet expectations. (There is some justice in the world.)
What I Thought: "My God, why am I reading this thing? Why do I KEEP reading this thing?"
Would I Have Published It? Absolutely not.
BOOK #6: SUPERNATURAL THRILLER
Plot: B -
Why Was It Published? Author's first book was a runaway best-seller.
Critical Reception: Decidedly mixed, among professional reviewers as well as readers.
How It Did: Fanastically well, aided by a couple of blurbs from A-listers.
What I Thought: "I read your first book - you can do a lot better than this."
Would I Have Published It? No. I would have thought the manuscript amateurish, too long, and burdened by stereotyped characters.
BOOK #7: STEAMPUNK DEBUT
Why Was It Published? Author is well-known in steampunk circles and has a following at Steampunk conventions. Very present in the blogging world.
Critical Reception: Good among those who appreciate and understand the genre.
How It Did: I'm not sure anything in the steampunk genre does fantastically well, due to the limited market; but there have been other installments afterwards, so I am assuming the publisher finds the franchise profitable.
What I Thought: "I really like this genre - it has so much potential. Publishers should target the mystery-reading public with these books to expand their market share." I thought the author had a light touch and a wonderful sense of the macabre.
Would I Have Signed It? Yes. I dread the day that I get a good steampunk manuscript, because I'm going to end up buying it and then worrying incessantly that we won't be able to reach the market or sell enough copies.