This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Ilana Fox has kindly given us permission to republish her original blog post here on Novelicious. Thanks, Ilana.
This morning I read a piece on The Bookseller and on the Guardian (ugh) about how author Polly Courtney has ‘ditched’ her publisher Avon / HarperCollins because she doesn’t like how her novels have been packaged.
She said (and I take this quote from the Guardian, in case anyone wants to get Johann Hari on my ass):
“My writing has been shoehorned into a place that’s not right for it. It is commercial fiction, it is not literary, but the 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.
“I’m not averse to the term chick lit, but I don’t think that’s what my book is. The implication with chick lit is that it’s about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams. [My books] are about social issues – this time about a woman in a lads’ mag environment and the impact of media on society, and feminism.”
And it is this quote – along with how she’s publicly treated her publisher – that irritates.
Ask anyone what a chick lit novel looks like and the answers will pretty much be the same; there will be an arresting colour cover, possibly a swirly font, and the main image will be of a striking young woman.
What chick lit isn’t is one sort of book, with the same subject matter rewritten over and over again. It’s a genre of books, and within it are even more sub-genres. Yes, you can get idiotic novels about girls who are obsessed with shopping (if that’s what floats your boat), but you can also find novels – just like mine – that have a focus on interesting and relevant current affairs. Take a look at the synopsis of THE MAKING OF MIA, which explored how women’s magazines can negatively impact on women’s perceptions of their looks and lives. Does that sound any different to what Courtney described as “the impact of media on society, and feminism”? I think not.
So if Courtney and I are writing similar books, and mine are chick lit and hers aren’t, what’s the difference?
Obviously how you categorise a book is a personal preference. I don’t have any issues saying my novels are chick lit – I’m proud that they’re chick lit, especially when you consider how popular the genre is – and I’d also say that some books that you wouldn’t necessarily consider to be chick lit could be categorised as such. I personally think the incredibly popular One Day, for example, could be seen as chick lit – and the only reason it wasn’t was because the publisher chose not to market it as women’s fiction. They marketed it as a novel that could be enjoyed by both genders, and the mainly orange cover – a colour beloved by EasyJet – signposts this for potential readers. If you replaced the orange with hot pink, would it have had the same multi-gender appeal? I doubt it … but I also know of many men who couldn’t finish the book because it was too ‘girly’ and they felt tricked into buying what they thought was something along the lines of a Nick Hornby.
And it is this marketing which brings us nicely back to Courtney, who disliked the marketing of her novel as chick lit. When you look at Courtney’s covers – or even her website – they’re pretty terrible (yet not pink and ‘fluffy’ – which is what she’s complained about). I’m not exactly a marketing expert, but if you put one of her books in front of me, I could guess that they were being marketed as chick lit, but I couldn’t be certain. They look cheap and nasty, and I can see why Courtney didn’t like them. The books look like they’ve been created by a publisher that wanted to market as chick lit – because that is what’s popular and will therefore get sales – but it looks like the design and style have been compromised to make Courtney happy with them. Ultimately they don’t really work – who would pick any of those books up? – and that’s because they don’t lend themselves strongly enough to one particular genre. They don’t look like chick lit, they don’t look literary, and they don’t look like anything in between. They just look bad.
Courtney has made a mistake to claim her novels aren’t chick lit, and if an author is going to publicly complain about a publisher then self-publishing is probably the proper space for them to operate in. It’s not professional behaviour, and it smacks of a precious author who thinks she knows better than a publisher with years of experience and success.
Ultimately Courtney may find her return to self-publishing a fruitful one (especially if she sells her books for 10p on Amazon like many other self-published authors), and I wish her well with it. It is difficult to find a unique marketing identity in the mass-market book industry and if Courtney doesn’t feel the tried-and-tested way of promoting and selling books is right for her content, then she has to find her own path.
However I think she’s wrong, and I also think she’s insulted those of us who write chick lit that’s intelligent, fun and culturally aware. A book can be meaty, it can be clever, and there may not be one word about shopping within it. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t chick lit … and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t capitalise on the phenomenally clear marketing power that chick lit novels can harness.
PS – yes I have read one of Courtney’s books. And I thought it was chick lit. x
Later this week Amanda (who was there at the launch of It's A Man's World) posts her report of the event and an interview with Polly Courtney.