And you can’t read it either.
My great-grandma used that saying to refer to her cooking, which didn’t always look great, but usually tasted pretty damned good.
I think the same concept applies to writing, as well. You can dress something up with all the bells and whistles (great cover photo, snappy title, awesome reviews), but if it fails to deliver on the promise, you’re going to be a one trick pony and no one will be interested in buying your next work.
For example: One of the websites I like to read on a regular basis used to have this columnist who always had really interesting sounding articles. I’d read the headline and think that I just had to click through to read the article. And then the article would be a huge disappointment, because it didn’t cover the subject of the headline or did so in such a poor manner that it wasn’t worth the read. So, whoever wrote the headline was a genius, but whoever wrote the article was unable to deliver on the promise made by the headline. It finally got to the point that I would read who the author of an article was so I could avoid any articles written by that person.
So, what does this mean for writers? It means that you can write the best query letter in the world, but if the book behind the query letter doesn’t deliver, that you’re not going to get signed. And it means that even if there is some magic, secret cabal that will publish you if you have the right connections that you will not be (long-term) successful if you can’t provide a product that readers want.
(Caution: Bad Analogy follows) It’s like dating someone who’s really good-looking and finding out that all they are is really good-looking. A great trait in a coffee table book or arm candy for impressing your friends, but not what you want to curl up with in bed at the end of a long, exhausting day.
Don’t get me wrong. Appearances matter. Ideally, you have both the looks and the substance to back it up, but if you want to be in the game for the long haul, you must have the substance.
And, yes, I can point to any number of counter-examples to this, both in business and writing, but generally life catches up to the folks who lack substance eventually. So, if you have the choice, and you want to be a writer, focus on your ability to consistently and effectively write a good story.
You don’t want to be like a writer that a friend recently recommended to me. Her comment: “I saw him speak and he was really witty and entertaining. I just wish his books were as good.” She recommended his books because she liked him as a person when she met him, but I didn’t bother to write down his name, because what she was telling me is that he’s not actually a good writer.