September 22, 2010
Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?
Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?
DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.
But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.
But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.
But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.
When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.
But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.
Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.
JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White Teeth, Music for Torching, Eat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.
I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.
JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.
That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.
Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?
The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.