Do Sales Make an Author Overrated?

On Tuesday, Alex Good and Steven W. Beattie gave another good stir to the CanLit pot by listing who, in their opinion, are the ten most overrated fiction writers in Canada. Now, I’m not going to take sides; BookNet Canada officially loves all books equally. But working for BNC, whose SalesData service tracks approximately 75% of the Canadian book market, does make you wonder about “real value” in publishing.

As Good and Beattie readily admit, calling an author overrated is at least partially a subjective judgment. But I have to wonder if sales figures played a larger role in their listings than they’d like to admit.

It would be a mistake to classify an author as overrated simply because they are a household name or a bestseller. We all know that sales do not correlate to literary reputation. But when sales are involved, it becomes difficult to be subjective at all. Authors who sell do so because people want to read them, and if people want to read them then they’re delivering something valuable. Even if it’s not the grandest literary accomplishment, a successful book deserves some level of respect, doesn’t it? After all, publishing is about communication, not just self-expression. When a book speaks to an audience it is an accomplished book, is it not?

Of course, Good and Beattie aren’t discussing authors is general; their focus is literary fiction and stylistic merit. But that’s not all there is, and being a bestseller remains something to be proud of. I’ll let The Afterword moderate the debate about whether Joseph Boyden is untalented and Bill Gaston is the real literary genius. To my taste, both are wonderful writers.