Last week the papers seized on a story about certain best-selling novelists whose sales have fallen dramatically in the past year. Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes are among them. Here’s The Independent’s take on it:

I don’t want to re-hash what the journalists are writing. But I find several things interesting about this story.

First, that women fiction writers are so often lumped together under the banner of chick-lit, whilst no mention was made at all of ‘lad-lit’ (does it still exist?) or, indeed, of the sales of any male writers.

Second, and leading on from this: what exactly is ‘chick-lit’? The universal (and often supercilious) answer appears to be novels with pastel covers adorned with stilettos, martini glasses, hearts and flowers – in which case, what are Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes doing on the list?

Third, and leading on again: there seems to have been a recent trend among publishers who insist on creating ‘chick-lit’ style covers for a wide range of women’s fiction, regardless of content. A women’s fiction author recently made the headlines by leaving her publisher because of the way her novels were being portrayed by their covers.

A pattern begins to emerge. A sense of blanketing, of homogenisation. Of ‘more of the same.’

Publishers are running scared. It’s understandable. What with the economic climate, the rapidly changing environment of book-buying and reading and the rising costs of actually publishing books, let alone marketing them effectively, little wonder that publishers are becoming risk-averse. If you know that a celebrity autobiography is going to sell in shed-loads, then that’s what you’ll publish. If there’s a call for chick-lit (whatever that may be) then when you publish it you’ll make sure that it's easily identifiable across a crowded supermarket. Chick-lit (so called) has been ruling the roost, publishing-wise, for a decade or more, and publishers obviously want their best-selling authors to keep writing within a narrowly restricted range and to present that writing in a narrowly-restricted set of images.

Inevitably comes a backlash. I think it’s known as entropy. Eventually, trends will begin to turn, usually in the opposite direction. The focus on materialism which began in the 80s and resulted, perhaps, in the chick-lit trend, is losing ground. Already, as the article above mentions, there’s a turn away from materialism towards magic, spirituality and the fantastic. Is this a good thing? Yes, in the sense that it may break new ground. No, in the sense that the same thing is likely to happen all over again.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if books could be celebrated for their originality, their freshness and their difference? Wouldn't it be fabulous if genre and gender came second to sheer, brilliant story-telling? A dangerous notion.

Would love to hear your thoughts...


Rosy T said...

Well said, Susie - sensible sentiments, and beautifully put. I think one reason for readers seemingly turning away from the pink hearts-and-flowers cartoon covers is that they have misled the reading public about what is inside. Only a small minority of books with those covers were actually about shopping for handbags, and finding Mr Right via a series of amusing misunderstandings. Most are - have always been - about the bigger issues facing women's lives. And maybe now that the 'chick lit' cover isn't a guaranteed sell, the publishers will start packaging women's fiction to match what's between the covers.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I do hope you are right, Rosy. I noticed how wonderfully individual the longlisted covers for the Booker were - why the heck can't every cover be unique?

Gillian McDade said...

I run a mile from pink covers! Having said that, I would also give women only gyms a wide berth! I'd like to see more literary style covers on women's fic though even if I don't read the genre.

DT said...

Perhaps, as with so many other industries, as the screw tightens we'll see publishers striving for individuality in their covers and works?

The cut-price world of ebooks seems to be demonstrating that, once price is eradicated as a factor (and don't even get me started on that one), it's individuality and an original marketing campaign that seem to make the most difference.

Perhaps this uncertain landscape heralds the beginning of a new dawn? Maybe it's the end of trends! At least, until a new one bucks the trend...

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Gillian, maybe this term 'women's fiction' is a problem in itself. We don't have 'men's fiction' as a genre.
Derek, I love the idea of a landscape of uncertainty heralding a new dawn. May it be so.