Reasons a Book Gets Bad Reviews: The Storytelling Lacks


What makes a great book? A lot of things, actually, but to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the storytelling, stupid.

Publishers I talk to are always looking for a story that is compelling, one that’s unique, relates to the reader, puts the reader into the author’s world, and evokes an emotional response. So, too, are ghostwriters, as I wrote last week.

However, having a compelling story and being able to write it compellingly are two different things that require different skills. Ghostwriters have to recognize a compelling story when they encounter it, and then be able to write it compellingly.

Unfortunately, the book world is awash in bad reviews in which the chief criticism is that the story wasn’t told in a fascinating and irresistible manner. It doesn’t matter if the book is fiction or non-fiction. The compelling aspects of the story must be presented, emphasized, and highlighted.

The following are examples of bad reviews I found in which the writing quality was taken to task. I can’t verify whether these book were ghostwritten or not, but it doesn’t matter. The point is ghostwriters need to avoid scathing reviews so they can live to ghostwrite again.

“The prose in White is shapeless, roving, and aggressively unedited. One waits in vain for an arresting image … one cannot read White as anything but a book about being rich and bored.” — Andrea Long Chu, Bookforum, on “White” by Brett Easton Ellis

Chu actually states the premise elsewhere in her review: “American culture has entered a period of steep, perhaps irreversible decline, and social media and millennials are to blame.” She disagrees, but that doesn’t matter. I find the premise intriguing and would be interested in reading Easton’s arguments. Except now I’m not.

“However accurate and sobering such characterizations may be, they all belong in a folder labeled Stuff We Already Know. … Anonymity is often granted to acquire additional information, but in this book, it excuses giving less. … We don’t need a secret administration insider to tell us to pass the torch of liberty; we need that person to detail whether and how the torch is being doused. … A Warning does not cut through the noise. It just creates more of it.” — Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, on “A Warning” by Anonymous

The book was actually written by Miles Taylor, a Department of Homeland Security chief of staff in the Trump Administration. The inner workings of a presidential administration has great potential to be a compelling read, but Lozano points out it’s not.

“Once McEwan has established his premise, however, The Cockroach stalls. It devolves into self-satisfied, fish-in-barrel commentary about topics like Twitter and the tabloid press. The literary references…are plummy and tortured … The idea of writing The Cockroach probably seemed, in the shower one morning, like a good one. Later, after coffee, it might have occurred to McEwan that suggesting your opponents are cockroaches might be to drop down to their carpet level.” — Dwight Garner, New York Times, on “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan

The premise is promising: A satire in which a cockroach is transformed into the prime minister of England. I’d read that! But Garner makes it clear that McEwan failed.

It seems that in these examples, the authors (or their ghostwriters) failed to remember that storytelling, especially when emotion comes into play, livens up the copy and makes it more readable. It takes the audience on a journey they will fully enjoy when it’s over. The reader remains engaged, stays with the book longer, reads and understands more, and if the book is a nonfiction work, is more likely to heed the call to action. Ignoring the human element that is inherent in storytelling severely hurts the quality of the book, which in turn hurts sales.

Here’s a great example of the value of storytelling, even if only the principle pertains to books. Researchers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn listed 200 insignificant items on eBay and having short heartfelt stories written about each item in the description section. Combined, each item averaged $1.25 in value, or $250 in total. They sold for nearly $8,000, or 3100% of their value.  

I’m currently ghostwriting a memoir in which a woman married and later divorced a psychopath who stole money from investors. Then she fought the state of Arizona because it came after her for the money he stole while they were married (even though she derived no benefit and actually lost money herself), and then she succeeded in getting the law changed so no spouse would ever have to endure what she did — all while suffering from PTSD. Everyone I talk to thinks that’s a compelling story, and it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s told in the most interesting way possible.

I am a ghostwriter in Portland and that’s what I do, so contact me when you know your story idea is compelling and worth telling, but you need help telling it.

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