No, not naughty-bad. Talent bad. Many people will tell you that the first book you write is likely to be bad, maybe even stinky bad. I don't know if that's always true or not, because there are first-time authors who succeed. But who knows how many manuscripts they hide away before they publish that stunning "first novel?"

What is clear to me is that authors can't tell when their books are bad. I had a conversation recently with someone who read, or tried to read, a book by a mutual friend. "I wanted to like it," she told me, "because I like him. But I quit about a third of the way through." This person, I know, considers his work good, so good that when after years of trying he couldn't sell it decided to self-publish and has continuted to do so for some time. Maybe his family and friends are telling him he's good, but chances are he's not.

I recently had the same experience, with another acquaintance and a book not terribly bad but just ho-hum-here-we-go-again. Some of that is the reader, of course. We won't all like everything we read. But if you can't get an agent to read it, an editor to finish it, a company to publish it, you have to consider the material. Maybe it's not ready for prime time.

That's not to say there aren't good books that are missed by the industry. Heaven knows we see enough dreck published because someone with a "platform" or a "big name" wrote it, or at least purports to have done so. And there are lots of good writers out there struggling to break even with small publishers who recognize their talent but can't give them the exposure they need to break through. But we also have to keep in mind that our first efforts are likely to be, well, bad.

So what to do? I've said it here before: put that first MS away for a long time when you think it's finished. You'll find it looks different when you approach it with a fresh eye. Put it out there for (carefully chosen) others to read, and then judge your success by their reaction. Unless they're downright enthusiastic, it's not ready yet. And sometimes, you have to give up on that first book and let it be your bad example. The next one will be better, and the one after that better yet.

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