I read a blog post last week written by a fairly successful self-published author who said, outright and clearly, for everyone to hear, “It doesn’t matter if you’re good, what matters is that you’re marketable.” The basis of her argument is that lots of good books fail, and lots of bad books not only get published but hit the bestseller lists. Right now, you’re thinking of at least one example of a terrible book that hit huge and whose author is sitting on a beach sipping Mai Tais right now, and on the tail end of that thought, a secret voice in the back of your head is saying, “Why bother?”
This is an interesting thought, and one I’ve come back to a number of times. After all, I’ve struggled with becoming a better writer since the day I started writing. I took classes and practiced and read books and paid attention to my craft. I suffered and fixed and worked and learned, and then I started teaching. So understand that, as I write this, if being good doesn’t matter, then I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy, and should probably find a new job.
But here’s why I think it does matter; because quality always matters. Can you get published being a horrible writer? Well, sure. Happens all the time, every day. Can a horrible writer be a huge success? See the answer to the first question. But I think the jump from this raw data to, “It doesn’t matter,” is a big one, and fraught with many dangers, because it presupposes that the only thing that does matter is getting (traditionally) published, or being a huge bestseller (either through the Big Six or on one’s own.)
Being good matters for a number of reasons. If you want to be pragmatic about it, you can say that success is a strike of lightning and the better you are when that lightning strikes, the more likely you are to hold onto and build your audience, and I do believe that’s true. But let’s forget pragmatism. Let’s forget money and success and the validation of having one of the Big Six say yes.
Let’s talk about what really matters. Let’s talk about the story. If you write, you’ve been called to write, and that’s sacred. It’s not about money and success and fame—much of which most writers, good or bad, never see to any measurable standard. It’s about being the best you can be at what you do.
It’s about the work. Money, success, fame… that’s all well and good, but the reason most of us want those things is because of how it affects how others see us, not how we see ourselves. In the end, I want to be able to respect my work, flawed as it will always be, as the best I could do at the time I did it. Yes, I would love to have more money, more security, because chasing your passion professionally is the world’s least secure way to make a living, but more than that, I want to know I did good. I want to know that my work is solid, and improving. I want to know that I took my calling seriously, that I treated it as the sacred thing it is, and that I moved forward into that space with purity of heart and intention.
My primary goal isn’t to get published; it’s to tell the absolute best story I can, and then move on to tell an even better one. So while security matters to me, and validation matters a great deal to a lot of writers, when it comes down to it, I think that being the best writer you can be matters more.
And I’m gonna stand by that.