Your book got *that* classification – what do you do?

So your book got published by a very good publisher, but you’re not happy with how it was classified. Instead of being pushed as mainstream fiction, your publisher slapped your book as “chick lit.” What do you do? Do you smile graciously and feel grateful for your success, or do you get huffy and slam the door on your literary future?

UK author Polly Courtney chose the latter and made a very splashy, public declaration at her book launch, of all things, that not only was she unhappy with Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins, classifying her book as “chick lit,” but that she was ditching her meanie publisher as well.

The outrage!
The horror!
The aching ridiculousness!

That she chose her book launch party to make her point is like the beagle telling me we’re out of tequila right before a party.

Polly insists that she’s a serious writer and that Avon was condescending to her by the merits of her cover art, editing, and classification of “chick lit.” She writes commercial fiction, NOT chick lit. Harrumph.

Admittedly, chick lit casts a wide net, but it’s not solely about women who are looking to meet the men of their dreams. That’s romance. Chick lit has evolved over the years to tackle weighty issues that appeal to and affect women. And what’s wrong with this? Let’s face it, women make up the bulk of readers, so I can think of worse fates than appealing to the largest readership. I can also think of worse fates than being published by a major publisher.


Prior to her book deal, Polly had self-pubbed two books. Those successes were the impetus behind HC offering her a three-book deal. I appreciate that Polly is mindful of her book’s classification because she doesn’t want to lose her already-established readership. She’s created a brand for herself, so logic would recommend the adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But if her readership loves what she writes, then won’t they buy her books anyway? How many of you see an author whose books you enjoyed, and said, “Ugh! This got classified as chick lit? Not in this lifetime!” No, you probably just buy it. Chick lit isn’t that far away from mainstream…they’re shelved in the same place.

Of course, there is the editing to consider. Polly says that the editing process morphed her book into something quite unlike what she intended. This is troublesome because she had to approve of those edits. Editors can’t just rewrite your book and publish it la-dee-da. We need authors’ approval because authors do the rewrites.

None of this was a shock, so why didn’t she say something at the outset? None of my authors are shrinking violets when it comes to the integrity of their books, and we openly discuss the shape and tenor of their books before we offer a contract. Did she and her agent engage in a discussion with the editor about their vision for the books, or did they assume all would be lilacs and daisies?

It could very well be that Polly’s editor told her to pound sand and that they’d publish her book however they saw fit. It happens rarely, but it does happen. But if that was the case, then why did she go on to publish two other books with them? Yes, I realize the contract must be adhered to, butI would expect her agent to step in with a very large stick in order to protect her client. At least, that’s the way it would play out here in the US.

The long end of this is that I think there’s more going on than meets the eye. It’s disingenuous to take the money and run, and then kick in the teeth of the very people who published your book because things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. I also think it’s a bit slimy to air your dirty Victoria Secrets in public because no one ever has both sides of the story. And really, who cares? It’s a private affair between you and your editor. It’s not like the checks bounced, or they’re scam publisher.

Was it her aim to kill sales for this book and punish Avon? Because, believe me, Avon will survive this kerfluffle. Will she? Or will readers see this very public display of bad manners and be turned off. I said it here, that an author’s behavior and demeanor affects sales.

I understand being angry, but what happened to being gracious and smiling through your gritted teeth, all the while promising that you’ll never get yourself embroiled in that particular situation again.

What would you do if it was your book? Would you voice your displeasure to the point of slitting your literary throat at a public event that is celebrating the birth of your book?

If so, why? What would be accomplished?

15 Responses to Your book got *that* classification – what do you do?

  1. Why No, Lynn, I would not take my complaint to the masses. If I had a problem with the book they published, I would smile through my discomfort and tell myself it was a lesson learned. Then I would plan what to do with my work once my rights reverted back to me. Under the radar, Lynn. It’s all about staying under the radar until you’ve crossed the border.

  2. The author’s an outlier who got attention because she’s an outlier. I’m betting 99% of the authors who have issues fight their battles in private. Still, the occasional public kerfluffle is useful. It points out some of the issues a clueless author may run into (and some authors don’t have agents to champion them). And it’s a reminder of what happens to folk who make less-than-wise decisions. Plus it’s fodder for myriad tweets and blog posts. A happy distraction for a day. What else would we talk about, eh?

    As far as following an author across genres, it would depend for me. I read and write genre fiction, so I have no snoot in my ooty. But I do have comfort genres where I tend to read most. I wouldn’t follow a fave fantasy author into procedural territory or into chick lit, for instance, where I might follow them into science fiction or women’s historicals. Different strokes and all that.

  3. Since chick lit is a dead market with the exception of a few writers who survived the market crash, I’d say she has a right to be concerned, and I’d have to question Avon’s decision, but she definitely went about it the wrong way.

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m not into chick lit at all. Fortunately, I doubt anyone would ever…hrm. No. I have one book that might cross the sci-fi chick lit line by your definition. Uh. Eep?

    Truthfully, though? I might argue a classification I disagreed with…privately, and with research and ammunition on my side to make the only argument a publisher is going to listen to: It will sell more this way. That’s what it boils down to, ultimately. Selling books.

  5. I have no objection with talking to the editor about the classification because chick lit is seeing a downward spiral. She has a valid point that should have taken place privately. It’s possible Avon told her to go bite herself, but I have a real hard time believing this because I have a number of editor friends with large publishers, and they operate the same way I do – we listen and look for ways to accommodate everyone.

    But we’ll never know the real story. My problem is with her delivery. It was tacky to air her dirty Vickie Secrets in public. That it was her book launch is even more egregious. Shame on her.

  6. Redleg says:

    Well, I never heard of Polly Courtney. Until I read this post.

    As Phoenix pointed out, she’s an outlier and now she’s getting attention because of it.

    Will bad publicity really hurt book sales or will more people now pick up the book to see what all the fuss is about?

  7. With one of my two traditionally published books, before crossing over to the dark side as an independent, the publisher did something that, to this day (7 years later) still leaves me seeing red. Did I make a public fuss over it? No, even though it significantly affected my marketing of the book, and of myself as the author. Doing the public ‘woe is me’ dance would have just made matters worse, especially here in Canada where it is hard to get recognition as an author if you are not writing plotless fiction, or your name is not Margaret Atwood.

    What really bothers me about the Polly Courtney case is she furthered the stereotype that authors can be flighty and hard to work with. That impacts us all.

  8. I’d be amazed that authors would advance their sales by behaving badly. Why would I pay for someone who acts this poorly? My curiosity doesn’t run that deeply.

    Gordon, you bring up an important point. Regardless of whether the fight is public or private, the publisher is inclined to do things the way they see fit. Of course, it’s suicide to push too far because we know darn well that the author will be less inclined to promote the book.

    It’s easy for authors to forget that publishers have to think globally, while authors tend to think individually. But I also see it as a publisher’s responsibility to explain WHY they’re doing something. The idea is to preserve the relationship, not drive it under a garbage scow.

  9. Sally Zigmond says:

    My mum knows nothing about writing or publishing but I know what she would call it: appallingly bad manners, ungrateful and ungracious.

    And me? Should any imprint of HC offer me a contract, I’d bite their hand off. They could call my novel dogmeat. As long as it was promoted, advertised and praised and available to buy in large numbers that’s fine by me.

  10. You never fail to make me laugh, Sally, and your mum is right, of course. But you bring up a good point that no matter the classification of your book, you aren’t precluded from promoting to your intended audience. Working smart toward a common goal is much more productive than being cranky.

  11. Kim Kircher says:

    Lynn, I always appreciate your ability to take a public example and turn it into a lesson for all of us. I’ve heard the maxim that “any publicity is good publicity,” and I simply don’t buy it. It’s hard enough to sell books these days, no reason to make it any more difficult.

  12. awparker says:

    Maybe I am the strange one of the group, but how many of us really look at a book’s classification and say, “Nope! I shall not read Chic Lit even though the cover is calling my name and the back cover tells my life’s history in two paragraphs.”

    I read a book because someone said it was good, the cover caught my eye, the back cover had something good to say, or I have read the author’s other books. I have read chic lit. I, on occasion, read a romance my wife says I will like. When in a bookstore, I look at the discount bargain bin first. She should be happy I am not reading her book right now.

    This is all about nothing. Someone should have told her that. Oh Lynn, I guess you did. SOrry.

  13. Lauren says:

    I can see and sympathize with both sides. Really. I don’t read fiction, but if I did I would avoid any book with pink, sheathed leggy legs in high heels, shopping bags, purses, or other “distinctly female” signals on the cover because those have, for better or worse, become immediate nonverbal cues to the genre termed “chick lit.” Regardless of how the book is written—and the author says hers deals with social issues—I simply won’t consider books within the defined parameters of the genre.

    That said, who knows better than the publisher what covers will promote sales? It’s not only their job but in their best interest to make sure that the cover does what it needs to do—entice readers to pick it up and buy it, in other words, successfully market it. For reasons none of us will really know, they thought this cover not only conveyed the story but would sell the book.

    So I guess it’s a draw. But what is painfully obvious and true is the lack of class displayed by the author. Kicking her publisher in the teeth (at the launch party?) is undignified. Will her hurt her? Maybe. It has certainly destroyed her chances with any publisher. Since she is going back to self-publishing maybe it matters not. But, honestly, is is really better to prove yourself a person of low class and no manners than a human being who can handle problems with dignity?

    (Don’t answer. I know that many people—some days it seems like too many—prefer the former. Sadly, it’s the way we are headed.)

  14. Perhaps she’s a smart cookie. We’re talking about her. She and her book are getting some buzz.

    That said, I’d never do what she did. I would beg my agent to fix it for me. 🙂

  15. Yes, we are talking about her, but in the context of what not to do. I daresay the majority of readers wouldn’t be inclined to buy a book based on an author’s temper tantrum.

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