What Makes a Good Book? By Matt Cost

What makes a good book is a conundrum. For many years a good book has been determined by a select few reviewers who dictate whether a book has literary merit. But the truth of the matter is that most (almost all) readers do not have a PhD in English nor an MFA in writing. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the majority of readers will have different tastes in books than the reviewers, certainly those at the most established and hallow of institutions?

If not reviewers, then, perhaps it is popularity as determined by lists such as the New York Times Bestseller List or the Amazon Best Sellers. Interestingly enough, these two lists have very few crossover titles. They are both based on algorithms only known to the powers that be, and again, are suspect in how accurate that they are.

The New York Times collects their data from a smattering of stores across the country ranging from big box stores, large chains, and small independent shops. They do not share from which particular sellers that data is compiled. They do take into account Amazon sales, but not to the tune of the 65% of market share that Amazon controls. In other words, it is not a accurate list.

Amazon is even more disingenuous. They don’t share their algorithm for determining sales but say it involves past rankings, current trends, product price changes and promotions, and other things as well. Other things? It seems to me this would be simple. They sold 113 copies of MOUSE TRAP and that was more than the competitor, MIND TRAP, at 111 copies. Nope. Activate the algorithm. That is not how it works. Nobody knows how it works.

So, if literary reviewers are merely opinion based human beings based on life experiences that don’t match hardly any of the population, and popularity indexes are suspect at best, what are we left with in determining a good book?

Here is my guide to choosing the book that is right for you.
1) Find reviewers, big or small, who speak to you. Chances are, you’re not going to like the same books espoused in the New York Times Book Review. That doesn’t mean you don’t like reading. That just means they don’t speak for you. Find YOUR reviewers.
2) Share books that you liked with friends without judgement. Maybe you like romance. Good for you. So does most of the world. Maybe your thing is horror, or fantasy, or mystery. Heck, maybe you’re an adult who loves young adult titles about historical characters. You have to be honest with yourself, speak up, and share what you like. And listen to others that do as well.
3) Know what you like, or more importantly, what you don’t like, and pick accordingly. I recently had a reader ‘shelve’ one of my books as potty mouth. Yes, it has bad language. If you are offended by swearing, don’t read books that contain it. The same goes for violence and sex.
4) Pacing: Characters, adjectives, description, and setting (CADS). How fast or slow do you like the story to go? If you prefer breakneck speed, you might not like page-long descriptions of characters using many adjectives to fill out the setting of the book. Or vice versa. Many people love detailed and lyrical prose on every facet of the book. Chances are you fall somewhere in the middle.

In summary, be honest with yourself in what you like to read. Then, find reviewers, friends, and authors that represent that genre you call your own and live there. Read on. Write on.

Matt Cost is the highly acclaimed, award-winning author of the Mainely Mystery series, the Clay Wolfe/Port Essex series, and several works of historical fiction.

Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.
Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.

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3 Responses to What Makes a Good Book? By Matt Cost

  1. John Clark says:

    I would add one more to the list. Ask your local librarian for suggestions. This was one of my most important services when I ran public libraries. I knew who had similar interests, read what I considered to be pretty unbiased reviews in Booklist, and could look at not only my circulation statistics, but aggregate ones from Minerva which was comprised of many of the larger Maine libraries. Josh Tiffany at the Gray Library posts a high demand list monthly on the Maine Library listserv as a public service for other librarians. It gives everyone on the list a profile of the books, audio books, movies, etc. with the highest number of holds. It’s a great help for smaller libraries as a collection development tool.

  2. Julianne Spreng says:

    You have a Basset hound. Yay! My advise…open the book and read.

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Love this. Life is too short to bow to the gatekeepers of “litrahchure.”

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