Is Excellence Enough?

One of the problems that the “social” scientists have historically had is the lack of empirical evidence and data necessary either to support, reject, or modify their theories of human behavior. The July 24th issue of New Scientist contains a story reporting a source of such data – the internet and the world electronic communications net, both of which track large numbers of people and their behavior.

In one on-line tracking experiment involving 14,000 people, dealing with the popularity of music downloads, the researchers investigated the influence of excellence and of “popularity.”  Their results showed, unsurprisingly to me, at least, that recordings that listeners rated as good in terms of quality rarely did poorly and those rated as poor seldom did well.  But… when listeners were able to see how others rated a recording, termed “social influence,” the popularity of some “good” recordings soared, often wildly, and the popularity of “poor” recordings declined even more.  In addition, the researchers concluded that, when social influence is a factor, accidents as much as true quality determined which songs were at the top of the chart… and that herd instinct played a significant factor in amplifying the effect of those accidents.

While no research to date has apparently been published focusing on book sales, this early research on social influence tends to support my own observations – that the bottom-line requirement for success as a writer is to be able to write well.  Beyond that, how popular a writer is depends largely on crowd dynamics and social influence.

Certain writers have been able to create some of that influence through blogs and Twitter, but those who have are [sorry to say, for all their efforts] the beneficiaries of luck and timing as much as anything else, because for every writer who has been able to generate such “social influence” there are scores who’ve gone through the same steps, some offering better “quality” and some offering less, who’ve not been anywhere near as successful.  In short, “wild” success still remains a crap-shoot, but pretty much any sort of success remains dependent on at least competency in writing and story-telling.

What the research doesn’t address to date, and probably never will be able to address, even with the wealth of information on the internet, is how closely reader or listener perceptions of how good something is tracks actual excellence, given the subjectivity involved in assessing such excellence.  I’ve noticed, for example, that there’s a definite difference in reader perceptions of my books, as manifested in reader reviews, between the reviews on the Amazon Canada, the Amazon UK, and the sites.

The other question, given the growing role of “social influence” created by on-line social communities, Twitter, and by reader reviews on sites such as and, is how long excellence, as opposed to being “not terrible,” will even matter.  Certainly, in popular vocal music the overall technical quality of singers is on average far lower than it was sixty years ago, and back then the singers didn’t have the electronic “correction” technologies now available in every recording studio.  Admittedly, the performance spectacle element of pop music concerts and music videos can be awesome, and that’s not surprising, not with the ever-greater emphasis on the visual, but does this mean that manga and anime will continue to elbow out “real” books in bookstores and other book outlets?

Given the factors of excellence, visual appeal, and social influence, I’m getting the feeling that quality [not even excellence] is coming in last in determining what books are published and how well they sell.  But then, excellence has always tended to be last.  It just wasn’t that far back a century ago.

3 thoughts on “Is Excellence Enough?”

  1. Shae says:

    I relate in many ways to the themes, concerns, and the almost-cynacism of this piece. I have seen the trends pointed out with the same sense of concern.
    But I want to underpin these concerns with a subset.
    I honestly beleive, and strongly maintain: in all honesty the internet is the provence of 11-18 year old children (-or that part of all humanity that is roughly that age deep-down-inside. But that is the matter of a slightly seperate an no less important conversation.)

    Humanities youth turn to the internet for one reason; let us state that assumption: Instant Gratification.

    I am astounded constantly at the young age of children joining wrting communities based on the internet. Flabbergasted at the young age of the “board-owners” of these communities -given they are only children themselves, and yet in a position where they may in fact be influencing the learning patterns, proceedures, and ambitions of the next generation of writers.

    The root of this problem is that the new generations of humanities children require instant gratification for any endeavour they undertake -or will go where they can get it. This is why the arts and disciplained crafts suffer, and why freak-popularity becomes more pronounced.

    The internet is a province where forethought, the perseverance to research and genuinely learn, work toward, or further understand anything is at a serious risk. Who is moderating the quality of information? Take wikipedia! It is rife with the gently asserted agendas of those writing. With no real authority, or ability of enforcement to moderate the information our youth are actually learning from. I have the unhappy duty to report that humanities children are using wikipedia in place of the library, or (no less alarming) refering to wikipedia first of all.

    So, in terms of entertainement, it is frightening to see the freak-popularity effect coupled with the pull of the flock. It is alarming to see that quality has very litle standing in the “popular” market.

    But in summary: underpining that same concern is the fact humanities children have the same addiciton and requirement of instant gratification when they turn to the internet to learn, and to display what they in turn have produced. Is it any wonder, when wikipedia has replaced real learning or the craft of understanding, that quality -as opposed to ticking the boxes now- hold the day?

  2. Candacey D. says:

    As a person studying to be a social psychologist, i am sorry to say that yes, excellence and quality take a back seat to popularity. They always have, but today, when not simply your immediate group of peers but a large international group of perceived peers can influence your decisions from their desk, there is even more pressure to belong, fit in, and do what it expected and popular. This does affect books in that the next great book series is not likely to be one that is rich in plot or character development, but one that is appealing to the mass market.
    But there is more than one audience. While the larger group of teenagers, bored housewives, an stressed salary men are not interested in anything more than a quick diversion, there are still many who want a captivating plot and engaging characters. This is your audience an those that want quality and excellence. Avoiding all Twilight(sparkling vampires?) examples, many books and series that have blown up have not been the type to appeal to your audience.

    This holds true for other forms of entertainment. Music on the radio is so generic that you can flip through 10 stations and hear only 3 songs. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing else or that good music will stop being made. It just means, that like everything else worth having, we will have to search for it and support it when we find it. And the truly good music is worth it. No Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, or Justin Bieber type will ever really replace the Esperanza Spalding’s, Cecilia Bartoli’s, or Norah Jones’ of the world. Or whatever you consider to be good music. Just remember to keep your eye out for excellence an keep it going.

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