This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
INTERVIEW BY AMANDA KEATS
When I first met Polly Courtney, we were together on a local radio talking about chick lit and women's fiction and how great we thought it was. We spent an hour, along with author Michele Gorman, justifying the genre to the sceptics out there as a great form of escapism, a comforting and fun read about everyday women with everyday issues.
So I was more than a little confused when I read articles surrounding the recent launch of Polly’s new book “It’s a Man’s World” saying that Polly was anti-chick-lit. Her three-book deal has now come to an end with her publishers HarperCollins, supposedly because they kept putting chick-lit style covers on her books. But surely that is a valid complaint and does not equate to her being anti-women's fiction? After all, you wouldn't put a Jilly Cooper style cover on the front of a Stephen King book would you?
Here, Polly fills me in on what she REALLY thinks of chick-lit and what actually went on with her publishers…
Why did you sign with Avon if you knew they specialised in chick-lit?
Firstly, I'd say that if I had my time again, with the experience I've had, I would absolutely not sign with Avon/HarperCollins. The reason I did was that – and it might seem like a cliché – it seems like the pinnacle of achievement to sign with a big traditional publisher. So when the deal was there on the table, it seemed like madness not to. The option was there to say “Are they absolutely right for my writing?” but I didn't really have the balls to because I was a self-published author and saw what you read about big-book deals and thought “That's what I want”. Also, I thought that they would tailor what they did for my book. They knew what I'd done in the past, the two books that were out already. I thought, they put out a lot of sub-genres within chick-lit so surely they could accommodate me. They wouldn't take me on if they weren't going to represent it. That was my error, because it turned out that the editor I had hadn't read any of my previous books.
When the deal was there on the table, it seemed like madness not to.
So how did the deal come about?
The deal was pretty much on the table, but conditional on myself and my agent thrashing out a vague storyline for my first book with them. We'd be sitting over coffee and they'd be coming out with “How about you write about magical, mythical things?” and at this point I just thought OK you're there and I'm way over here. So I'd come up with more “realistic” ideas that normally had an underdog, social issue or real stuff and they were coming up with fantastical, not real, ideas.
But you still went ahead with it…?
When I look back, we were such polar opposites and it's amazing that we could ever find a compromise and get something we were both happy with but we did in order to get that deal. The first one I did with them ended up being called “The Day I Die” [rolls eyes] which I was not completely happy with. They wanted an unreal element – girl loses her memory and has to start again – which was the bit I really didn't like. I always like to write about something that could happen to the woman next door and how many women do you know that live next door who have lost their memory and blanked out?
If you take that as a given at the start of the book, then you can get through it. Some readers have said they didn't like the silliness of the memory loss and others were saying “It's your best book” so they obviously like the escapism of it. For me, it wasn't a Polly Courtney book because of that premise.
So how did you feel going into book two?
The experience of the first book and the whole process, right from shoe-horning the content through to packaging that didn't represent what was inside, led me to my second book – with a thinly veiled transplanting into the music industry. It was about a young “artist” signing to a “big label” and experiencing the over-commercialism of the industry.
I hadn't realised that!
Neither did my publisher! I mean there were quotes like “You do represent it well, you have done your research! I can't believe how badly young artists are treated.” During the editing process, a little note in the margins, from the same editor who showed me my covers, had written “Is it really realistic that Zoe [the main character in the book] wouldn't have any say in what her album looks like?”
I wouldn't like to make a laughing stock of the individuals involved, they're just doing their jobs, but the big publishers obviously think they are exempt from any criticism and they are completely different to the music industry who over-commercialise their artists.
A lot of people have said that if you weren't happy with the covers and titles of your books, you should have done something about it. How do you defend that?
I was shouting all I could. I was involved in some really antagonistic conversations about it saying that it wasn't right for these readers. With the first two books especially, I did target market research showing a book cover and asking “What do you think it's about?” and “Would you pick it up?”. I fed the results back to the publishers and they basically said “Thanks very much for going to all the trouble of doing that – we're going to completely ignore you.” So yes, I do have input – in that I can say what I like – but they have no obligation to listen. Contractually, they had to show me the cover and that was all they had to do.
So yes, I do have input – in that I can say what I like
– but they have no obligation to listen.
I always asked very early on what the deal was with the cover and they would always say the designer was coming up with lots of ideas and they'd show me some of them – as though they were still at the ideas stage. Then, when it came to me, it was always “Here it is”.
I do feel for the designer though because in the last week I've had lots of people saying it's a real problem because often the designer feels quashed as well. They're not always given a brief exactly – more a “You must do it like that” instruction. You can see it in my last book – it was basically a clone of a film poster – which apparently they used as “inspiration”. I one hundred per cent DO NOT blame the designer. I blame the brief they're given. It's like a game of Chinese whispers as it passes from department to department and by the time it gets to the end it has nothing to do with what's inside the book.
What about the titles?
The titles are more of a grey area. Contractually I think I should have had more say but it wasn't clear and in reality, it's the same as the cover. They suggest ideas and then run with it. What I discovered was that it's bad to make the working title the title you want – they see it as the working title and think “OK now let's come up with the real one”. If you called it “Book 3” though then you might actually get the chance to pitch them an idea. For my style of writing, when I was self-publishing, I always preferred clever, punchy two-word titles. For this last one, I thought “Harmless Banter” suited. It's that phrase that gets used over and over again about whether a slap on the arse or a sexist comment is just harmless banter in the office – or is it something more? That was the big question for the book. That was the working title but as you know, it got “It's a Man's World”.
You seemed happy enough to add quotes from reviews, labelling it chick-lit and singing the book's praises, to the website and general publicity. Why was that?
It's horrible when you've had that battle internally to fight for your cover and your title – and lost. The publisher says it's going out with this title – what do you do? You're in the middle of a three-book deal and you know you have to carry on working with them. Do you stand up at a book-signing and say “Hi, this is my book and I wish it wasn't called this or looked like this.” You're not going to do it. You have to promote it.
Many articles have said you “ceremoniously dumped” your publisher but it did seem that you were still grateful to those who helped you and worked with you on the book.
To read Polly's answer to this question and more, please come back for the second part of Amanda's interview this afternoon at 3.30pm.
Photos by Rachel Ellis