Saturday, September 17, 2011

Defining a Few Terms

We've been talking pros and cons of direct publishing a little here lately. So when Matt Zandstra (@inflatableink) tweeted a link to this Guardian article, it caught my attention immediately. But maybe not for the reasons you might think.

The article is about an author, Polly Courtney, who successfully self-published two books. That landed her a 3-book deal with Avon HarperCollins, a reputable big publisher with one of the best PR machines in the industry. Their publicists are ace. Their marketing is top shelf. So this is why I sat up straight and paid attention when this author announced she was dropping her publisher and going back to self-publishing because of their marketing approach to her titles. How can this be? Is the best in the business no longer good enough? I mean, we all hear about the tailspin every day. Marketing and PR efforts are dwindling, authors don't get good support, etc., etc.

So I read the article. And this is what I read:

"[T]he real issue I have is that it has been completely defined as women's fiction. … Yes it is page turning, no it's not War and Peace. But it shouldn't be portrayed as chick lit.... The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams."

That sound you hear is my mental brakes squealing as my ability to empathize with this author crashes. I say that in full awareness that the article might have been slanted to create this reaction. Perhaps those are not exact quotes. Perhaps the author got it right during the interview, but it was transcribed incorrectly. So I don't blame the author, and I certainly don't hold it against her.* Lots of people would read this article and not have my reaction to it. But those people? Probably aren't all that aware of the way books are marketed in this industry.

And the article's implication is that neither is the author. The implication is that an author who is complaining about her marketing is so unaware of marketing terms that she can't distinguish between them. Knowledgeable people read that and think, "She's cutting herself loose from one of the best teams in the industry because of how they slotted her, and she doesn't even know that these slots she mentions are not interchangeable."

So, I responded to the original tweet from Matt to suggest that there might be a credibility issue here, and we had a nice chat about it, and Matt asked me to define some terms. I attempted to do so in 140 characters, but the more I thought about it, the more I knew this should be blogged. Ergo:

Women's fiction = an umbrella term to define a broad segment of books targeted at women readers. For marketing purposes, this includes chick lit, romance, family sagas, old-fashioned glitz novels, what some call "weepies," and some mainstream and upmarket stuff. It's an important market segment because women tend to buy and read more books than men. (Note: Romance writers tend to use the term "women's fiction" to describe all stories for women which are neither romance nor chick lit. I disagree with that usage, as do some of other publishing pros I've talked to over the years. But it's not a problem as long as you're aware of who you're talking to.)

Romance = a type of women's fiction in which the central plot involves the formation of a romantic bond between characters. These stories are folkloric in both origin and structure (as we've repeatedly blogged about -- just click the structure link in the tag list on the sidebar for a sampling). They are close cousins of fairy tales or wonder tales, which are also forms of folklore. It's an important market segment because romance readers tend to buy and read lots of books, and they tend to buy only (or mostly) romance, so they're good customers. Consequently, before the arrival of chick lit, the overwhelming majority of books for women were romance novels. (And some family sagas and glitz novels, but mostly romance.)

Chick lit = a type of women's fiction about a young woman reaching maturity or coping with adult issues for the first time. These stories are akin to coming-of-age tales given that in our modern world, adolescence typically ends in a person's mid-20s. First real job, first real relationship, first steps toward financial independence, what it all means, a girl's place in the world -- these are the themes of chick lit. Romance can form a part of that, but doesn't have to. These books caught fire in the 90s and sold as fast as they could be printed, proving that women readers were interested in things other than the classic romance. In some circles, they were heralded as a feminist success because they portrayed women's full lives, not just their romantic lives. (That statement misunderstands the nature of romance novels, so please, romance novelists, no need to chide me.)

So maybe you can see why saying, "They defined my books as women's fiction," doesn't state a problem if, in fact, the books are aimed at a female readership. And maybe you can see why defining chick lit as "about a girl meeting the man of her dreams" muddies the distinction between chick lit and romance. Again, this is not meant to be a knock on this particular author, who may have had legitimate concerns about her cover art and other aspects of the marketing, and who for all we know never said these exact things*. But perhaps it should serve as a warning sign. Know the industry. Use terms precisely. If you're going to burn a bridge, be able to explain clearly why you lit that match.


*I suspect that the Guardian misrepresented the author's words, in fact, because they tend to toss around the term "chick lit" as a pejorative to stir up controversy. And their disrespect of romance writers has led to worldwide protests. So I think they probably either screwed up or misquoted her on purpose. And I do still think that the Avon team is crackerjack, despite whatever may have happened here.


green_knight said...

The way I read the author was that she said 'ok, it's not literary, but this is a serious book that happens to have a female protagonist, it is not chick lit.'

All the chick-lit titles I've seen in the UK had a central romance - usually starting with girl shacked up with Mr. Wrong, or bonking several Mr. Wrongs, and ending up with Mr. Right. The women's fiction titles I've seen had more varied plots - finding a partner, coping with divorce, splitting up with Mr. Wrong, mending a relationship - but they were still largely relationship-focussed.

I have no idea how one would market a book that doesn't fit into that mold - 'literary' seems to be the only option.

What I am dismayed about is that the author does not appear to have an agent, and that these issues - how the book was supposed to be marketed - do not appear to have been discussed.

Evangeline Holland said...

Except now she's a household name because of the chutzpah of walking away from a major deal and telling everyone why she was unhappy. It seems like a win-win situation for her: success through self-publishing; advance, marketing, and exposure through Avon, and publicity and even more exposure for walking away (and continuing to self-publish will equal greater profits).

I can't seem to get too worked up about this because it isn't the end of the world. Ms. Courtney probably stepped on a lot of toes, but she's still a writer, she can still write, and people will still buy her books, and at the end of the day, that's the most important thing for writers and readers.