The First Step to a Quality Book–A Doubleday Editor Turned Author Speaks

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As you know, we are ramping up for the very first Worldwide WANACon! Enjoy a conference experience that’s as close to the real thing as possible. Technology now gives us the ability to meet top tier publishing professionals face to face, real-time and from the comfort of home. Finally! A conference you can attend in your PJs. Learn from the best in the industry, pitch agents, and socialize. It’s now all here in one place.

I was fortunate to meet Joel at Thrillerfest this past summer, and I was just blown away by his knowledge, his energy and his personality. That was why he made my premium list of WANACon recruits. Not only does he have experience as an editor, but he’s also worn agent shoes and now is an author as well. Who else better to help us explore what great books really look like?

Today, we are highlighting a small slice of what you can expect from this editor-agent-now-turned-to-The-Dark-Side-author, J.E. Fishman.

Take it away, Joel!


We all know that famous dictum — courtesy of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart — about pornography. To paraphrase: we may not be able to define porn with precision, but we sure do know it when we see it.

The same might be said for book quality.

God knows that certain aspects of quality reside only in the eye of the beholder. And, furthermore, when it comes to books — as with so many things — quality is no guarantee of sales. Similarly, commercial success is no definitive indication of quality. And yet, as creators we ignore quality at our peril.

There are tangible qualities, such as the properties of a paperback book binding. And there are intangible qualities, such as delivery of a good story. The important thing to remember is that, when it comes to books, the intangibles can often be as important to readers as the tangibles.

I have in the past compared storytelling to buildings and to trips down a river, but I used those metaphors to benefit writers. The reader, for her part, will never think of a story that way because the reader doesn’t want to work that hard. Unless pressed, a person won’t ask what’s wrong with that building; she’ll only say, “It doesn’t please me.” She won’t necessarily speculate on what makes for a good trip down the river, but she’ll know for sure whether she enjoyed the journey.

So it is with any kind of book. The reader won’t necessarily bother to analyze what’s wrong or right with it; she’ll only know whether it “works” for her.

Since quality is in the eye of the beholder, the first step toward achieving a quality product is understanding what the customer wants. After all, our delight or disappointment in a book is largely a matter of expectations. While as the writer you can manage those expectations, you are making a big mistake if you think you can dictate them.

Expectations come from the reader, not from the author.

Thus, it behooves you as an author — whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction — to focus on what the reader wants, not what you want.

For example, as a novelist I like having big moral themes in my work. While readers of mysteries and thrillers may willingly consume books that are heavy on themes, they aren’t coming to my books for the themes themselves. I can deliver the theme along with a page-turning story, but if I deliver theme without story then I’m lecturing.

No one wants a thriller to read like a polemic. On the other hand, if we’re looking to read a polemic, we may find a genre story to be a low-quality substitute indeed.

To take an example from the realm of nonfiction, imagine that you are a celebrity chef. Your cooking is to die for, but your personality not so much. What people want from you is recipes. If you set out to write a memoir about your childhood instead, you are quite likely to disappointment those who want you to shut up and cook. I can guarantee that these folks won’t come away with the impression that you wrote a quality memoir.

What of it? you might ask. Can’t I write a quality book that no one will read?

The answer is yes and no. If you write a book that has a natural audience of 100 people, and you know what those 100 people want, and you deliver, then that group will have a perception of quality because their expectations have been met.

On the other hand, if you set out to write a book with a natural audience of a million people but write one that appeals only to 100, those to whom you’ve marketed that book will have a perception of low quality.

No one ever says, “That book disappointed me, but it was A-plus in every other way.”

Expectations are the context in which quality gets judged. That’s why giving the reader the content that she wants is the first step toward quality.


THANK YOU, Joel! We really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to be here.

J.E. Fishman

J.E. Fishman

Former Doubleday editor and literary agent, J.E. Fishman is author of the critically acclaimed animal-rights thriller Primacy, the comic mystery Cadaver Blues (A Phuoc Goldberg Fiasco), and the new financial thriller The Dark Pool. He also sponsors The 1000-Word Cliffhanger Contest. Find out more and follow him through You can also check out his critically acclaimed novels HERE.

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  1. Reblogged this on Madison Dean Fiction and commented:
    This post is definitely worth sharing! I often find myself surprised that reader expectations are not my own, something I need to work on!

  2. Sorry, I know this is a place to comment on the post above, but I can’t find any other contact method. I went to read the Conference agenda and got a malware warning. Not being all that bright, I didn’t know what to do, so I left the page. Please inform? Thanks.

  3. As much as we worry about point of view and spelling and grammar, our readers want to be entertained. So we can produce the most brilliantly written book on the face of the earth and strive for the goal of selling a hundred books. Maybe it’s not fair but it is reality.

  4. Useful stuff, as always.

  5. Since you are a former editor of a house, which I had wanted to be published with and because I like writing stories for children on teaching how to be better athletes, I have a serious question. I published “Making the Team” for a journalism JUCO magazine, but I want it in a picture book. How important is targeting the house? Some believe like I do to get published by the best, you almost have to write the novel for one person – the editor deciding if the house will run with the novel and they will spend millions on the marketing. – Daniel

  6. Totally loved this post, Kristen! And, Joel, what great info!!
    Satisfying Reader expectation is like finding the holy grail…we all strive for it, but hope that in obtaining it we don’t end up like that Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, under a pile of dust.
    I want to make my readers happy enough to greedily read all of my novels, not just one. So quality is key.
    Have a great evening!

  7. Good point, but readers don’t know if they want something until they have experienced it first. If you always write what you think readers want, nothing new will emerge. Readers will be stuck with reading the same old formulas, like what the trad publishers are churning out. My approach is to give readers what they expect in a genre in the broad sense, but with a twist of something new, something unlike anything they’ve read before. That’s my personal flavour, (the metaphysical twist) and it’s what inspires me as a writer. If I felt I had to write exactly what readers expect (a lot of it is pretty mindless in the urban fantasy genre) I wouldn’t write at all. Where’s the interest in writing a book that you can read a million of. As a reader, I also want to be surprised with the unexpected.
    It’s important to balance this perspective with the other side. We should never ignore our readers, but we are equally foolish if we ignore what is in our heart and soul because that is what gives spark to our writing.

    1. The thing is that with a lot of genres we expect something unexpected. So that’s only good, with the twists I mean.
      I find that the advice from “Save the Cat” works. I tried it just a few times: pitching to other people and seeing their reactions. The funny thing is that I made five picthes and my mom liked three of them. She was really up beat about them. My brother was the opposite and told me to ditch exactly those – in other words, back to the drawing board!

    2. My point with this was that pitching is a great way to learn people’s expectations to your own plot.

  1. […] further rumination when I read today’s guest post on Kristen Lamb’s blog titled The First Step to a Quality Book. The guest post was written by a former Doubleday editor and to sum it up, Fishman declares […]

  2. […] Summer Hayes brings us Great Graphic Novels for Teens Top Ten (part 2), while J.E. Fishman explains that book quality is subjective, determined by the expectations of the reader. […]

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