How Many "Really Good Books?"

A well-known publisher often tells a story of his early days in the publishing business when he visited a large commercial book-buyer to present the titles forthcoming from the firm he then represented. After the presentation, the buyer looked at the young salesman and said, “How can you say all that with a straight face? Last year, you came and told me that those titles were the best ever, and the ones you just told me about are better than the ones that were the best ever? I only have so many feet of shelves, and every year you and the others come and tell me that this year’s offerings are the best ever…”

If the Locus annual review of the number of F&SF titles published is accurate, and I have no reason to believe that it’s not as close to the real numbers as any such compilation could be, last year 1,710 original F&SF books were published, of which 693 were hardcovers, along with 1,013 reprints of already-existing titles. But how many were “really good books?”

How about 1,710? After all, these publishers wouldn’t publish books that they didn’t think were good, would they? Well… maybe a few that would appeal to people with, shall we say, “particular tastes.”

Of course, this all brings up the question of what “good” means. For some people, it means a fast and exciting read that removes them from their not-so-wonderful day job and otherwise mundane circumstances. For others, it’s all about the choice of words and structure of the sentences [I kid you not; I’ve seen books described as classics that had NO plot and no action]. For others, it’s the play of ideas or the characters.

Even the so-called experts don’t agree. I’ve seen SF books listed as “Best of the Year” by Kirkus or Booklist that don’t make the annual and long Locus recommended reading list. Books that get starred reviews by Publishers Weekly can get poor reviews from various genre reviewers. One of my books that got starred reviews from most sources and won awards got a very mediocre review from Romantic Times [which, believe it or not, reviews lots of F&SF].

All this confusion may well explain why the largest reasons people pick up books are either because they already know the author OR because a personal friend or close relative has recommended it. I suspect the latter works because we tend to know what our friends like, or don’t, and can factor what we know about them into our choices. It works both ways. If one friend in particular raves about a book, I’ll probably never read it because I know from experience that I’ll most likely hate it.

One reviewer lamented recently that she could find fewer and fewer books to recommend, but is that because there are fewer good books… or merely fewer books of the kind that meet her criteria for excellence — or, perhaps, a little of both?

In the end, though, I’d have to say that there aren’t nearly so many good books as the publishers claim and more than any individual reviewer would admit. But then, that’s just my opinion on “really good books.”