We have standards in place when we evaluate industries, events, and people. Look at sports. We apply a statistical analysis to determine how good an athlete is and then seek to make comparisons with players from other eras. Sometimes such comparisons fall short because too much has changed over the years to be able to fairly judge one over another. What standards do we have when it comes to evaluating books?
Some questions come to mind:
Is there a single standard used to compare books? Does using a standard, even if inferior, help others compete to become better writers?
Does a standard exist, not for everyone to follow, but to provide a baseline for others to deviate from?
Do our standards change over time – as well as our tastes, preferences, needs and desires?
One can judge a book based on any number of individual standards, such as:
· Total book sales
· Ranking on best-seller lists
· Number of book reviews – and overall rating
· Number and types of awards won
· Number of Google searches or social media posts about a book
· Opinion polls about a book
In the end, individual readers determine if they like a book, and if so, to what degree. Do they read a book and say they love it? Do they think about the book a year later or recommend it to others? Do they refer back to it in a decade or mention its relevance to their life? Did this book deeply influence and impact them?
But in order to rank a book, one must have read other books, have some life experience, and/or have some sense of expectation or need or desire that needs to be met and fulfilled by a book. Perhaps, when our lives are a clean slate and our reading history is brief, when we are young and not fully aware of the world it is then that a book’s significance to us is magnified and it has the greatest sway over our minds and emotions.
Books, like people, can appear to be one thing to us at a certain point in our lives, but then seem very different at other times. Friends can become enemies; books that seemed amazing become downgraded when revisited after many life changes. And people that didn’t seem to figure in our earlier lives may go on to play a greater role as we mature -- and age. Some books that we may not have been in a position to fully understand or deeply appreciate at one stage of life could prove to be indispensable at another stage.
Books don’t change – but people and the times they live in do. Once we determine a list of great books, how much can that list be changed over time? Will we replace titles on it or simply add more to it? Will newer titles displace some old ones – or will we find some older books need to replace other old or even some recent books?
With the creation of a reading list, do we permanently close ourselves off from ever reading other books -- given we have limited time? Or does the list seem tentative, a mere place holder until we discover or are guided to read other books?
Look at life to help us understand books.
· There’s more than one religion – if one chooses to believe in any – to help people live life and discover truth.
· There’s more than one person we could fall in love with.
· There’s more than one piece of artwork that we can value.
· There’s more than one town or country that we could live in.
· There’s more than one standard of beauty.
· There’s more than one brand that we feel loyal to.
Get the picture. If it’s hard to develop a consistent standard in all other facets of our lives – and if society struggles to agree on any standard for anything – can we really expect to have a standard in place for books? And even if we agree on the standard or methodology by which to judge the writings of others, how consistently will not be applied by everyone?
I don’t believe having standards is the answer. In fact, we should have a standard always – but it should allow for flexibility, change and growth. Standards can and should change, but there should always be one that is upheld and defended – until it’s deservedly dethroned. We shouldn’t falsely or blindly defend our standards and preferences when it comes to books. No, we should constantly test the standard, push it to new heights, or find the proper evidence to reaffirm it the way one may decide to renew their wedding vows after seriously reflecting on their marriage and contemplating the possibilities. You can only declare a renewed commitment after crunching all other options and scenarios.
Books today are greenlighted for several reasons:
1. Belief the book will be a commercial success (with no deep concern for its quality).
2. Belief the book is great and deserves the opportunity to find a readership (even if it doesn’t sell a ton).
3. Ego: the self-published author needs no one’s approval and elects to publish a book simply because he or she can, and because he or she, perhaps with an overinflated view of things, believes the book needs to be published.
4. The publisher or author believes the book, separate from its literary merits or commercial viability, has a message that needs to be shared and consumed by others.
5. There’s a belief the book contributes something of value to existing books or to a particular subject. Sure there may be lots of books on Elvis Presley, JFK, or the Beatles, but maybe this one adds something to the subject that needs to be recorded from a historical perspective.
6. The hope the book influences public policy or powerful forces, just as political candidates lay out their platform or agenda with books during election season. The government or other powerful forces seek to get a certain message out to influence public opinion or undermine a viewpoint or value.
How do we set standards for books when wild numbers of them are being published for a variety of reasons and not simply based on whether a book, by some standard, is truly good (in quality and purpose)?
We are pretty good at knowing when a book is terrible. It bores us. It is poorly edited. It prints obvious lies or is not grounded in reliable, source-based facts. It is confusing, too long, or filled with offensive concepts. But do we really recognize genius – and can we agree on what’s great vs. merely a good, flavor–of–the- month book?
Maybe we don’t need lists of books or agreed-upon standards to permanently judge books. Society will decide what gets read, remembered, or used as a basis of influence.
Each reader declares what he or she will read, draw his or her own conclusions, and choose which books to praise, share, recommend, and live by. But in order for people to even know a book exists, we’ll need lists and standards to get exposure for such a book. You may not necessarily discover 1984, Romeo & Juliet, or Crime & Punishment on your own unless you’ve been exposed to it in school, by friends and family, book critics, or some other authoritative source. Of course, once given a chance to read a book, each reader decides whether to read it, and how it is to impact their lives.
How often will we read out of our comfort zone? How experimental will you be with the genres, eras, authors, and subject matter of books you plan to read? How will you determine the place any book will have in your reading list or lifestyle?
We would like to think there are agreed-upon standards out there, but they are lacking in certain respects. We, even if agreement of the standards to evaluate a book is achieved, will still wildly disagree on how a specific book measures up to the standard.
So where does all of this leave us? It would serve us well if we collaborated to build a greater standard for books and then educated others on this standard – even if, and hopefully we do, disagree.
Please feel free to join me on LinkedIn --https://www.linkedin.com/in/brianfeinblum/.
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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.
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