Tired of Trends?

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Whoever said variety is the spice of life obviously knew nothing about the publishing industry.  For women’s fiction (that infuriating term) it seems the pendulum has swung wildly to the opposite extreme from the nineties Chick Lit obsession, to a dark and disturbing landscape of Grip Lit, full of domestic violence, rape, child abuse and murder.  It seems writers (or is it publishers?) are going for the most controversial themes and pushing them to their limits, with stark covers and blurbs that will grab you by the throat.  And it would appear that the demand is limitless, as was seen at the recent London Book Fair.

Many publishers were less happy with the continued demand for psychological thrillers, or “grip-lit” in the mould of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. Across LBF’s packed halls, editors and agents were agreed that the genre has peaked.

One agent, who did not want to be named for fear of upsetting lucrative clients, said: “We really needs to move on, but no one has come up with anything to replace it.”

But agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown was pessimistic about the prospect of readers becoming bored of grip-lit any time soon. Working 18 months ahead of what book buyers see on shelves means publishers are always first to call the end of a trend, he said: “Readers still want psychological thrillers, even though we’re all really tired of them.”

The Guardian

But what is the attraction?  And why does it feel as though someone has lifted a stone and millions of psychological thriller writers have emerged, blinking and dazed, into the daylight?

Let’s start with the readers.  “If you cry, you buy” is another trite dictum used by Geller to explain the demand for the ‘weepfest novel’, the only other game in town, equating tears with cash.  He has me there though, I love a good old cry.  The emotional release is oddly pleasing and I imagine it’s similar for fans of crime fiction and the disturbingly titled ‘domestic noir’.   It’s clear that we love a bit of a scare every now and again.  Horror movies, ghost trains at the funfair, European politics – they all serve to give us the feeling of fear, but in a controlled environment.  It’s okay to read a scary book because if it gets too much, you can just close the covers and throw it under the bed (or stick it in the freezer like Joey with The Shining).  Fiction gives us the means to explore the things that scare us… but only as far as our imaginations and our experiences allow.  I’m not sure what current trends say about society, or readers, or women (if anything), but perhaps it’s a way of confronting what are very real issues (violence against women in our culture), but at a safe distance.

It’s all a far cry from the young women we were all addicted to reading about when Chick Lit was at its height.  These were bright-eyed career women, making the most of the opportunities and freedoms that the previous generation were denied and we couldn’t get enough of it.  It was all about girl power and finding an equal footing with our male counterparts, although the plots tended to disintegrate into a search for Mr. Right. But, as it turns out, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Once again the insatiable appetite of the reader and the publisher’s determination to keep them fed flooded the market with inferior, copycat books that ultimately sounded the death knell for the genre’s popularity.  Which is a pity because people still want to read contemporary romance with humour, and writers still want to write them, but they no longer fit the trend which is more towards violence than Valentino.

So what about the authors?  What’s their excuse?  Were they secretly grip lit authors all along?

There will always be people who attempt writing to trends.  The success of 50 Shades of Grey unleashed a plethora of writers who, in their desperation to be signed to a publisher, tried their hand a bit of slap and tickle.  I’m not judging (much).  I mean, why not?  It’s worth a punt.  No-one was more surprised to find out that women enjoy reading erotica than the publishers and they struggled to keep pace (ahem).  The irony of all this is that it is the publishers and agents themselves who advise writers not to write to trends.  I see this all the time on submission pages and yet the majority of new authors signing to the Big Five are grip lit.  Hypocritical much?  There are also suggestions that new authors are being shoe-horned into the genre, demonstrating once again that publishers simply want the same thing, only different.

Another reason why some female writers choose a darker subject matter could be that they don’t want to risk their book being wrapped in pink paper (the dreaded swirly font) and in order to be taken seriously.  Kate Harding wrote a fantastic article all the way back in 2010 entitled “Women’s fiction:  All misery and martinis”  While this article refers to Misery Lit, which was probably a bigger trend in America, it follows the same reasoning for the switch from Chick Lit to Grip Lit here and in the UK.

If an unusual number of female novelists “have resorted to the tactic of choosing themes that are as dark and miserable as possible,” it’s probably because “[w]e are sick to death of the assumption that because we are women we must be writing CHICKLIT.”

Jessica Duchen, author

“American writers in particular are often anxious to be perceived as ‘serious,’ which they tend to equate with a mournful solemnity. Like most attempts to appear grown-up, it just makes you look childish. Comedy is as essential a lens on the human experience as tragedy, and furthermore it is an excellent ward against pretension.”

Laura Miller, critic

Obviously, not all writers are contriving to write something dark in order to be taken seriously.  For some writers (thankfully) this is their natural home and they have made the genre what it is today.  But before you purchase a Grip Lit for dummies guide, in an effort to jump on this over-crowded band wagon, just remember, for every trend that sweeps through the publishing landscape, there are  readers seeking out an alternative for when blockbuster fatigue sets in.  I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard people say they need something different to read, after an onslaught of mind-bending, plot-twisting, gruesome and violent grip lit reads.  Most readers enjoy variety and look for something that will appeal to all of their emotions.  Not that being trendy is a crime (ha-ha, oh).  It’s popular for a reason, people like it.  But when a trend looms so large over the industry, it stifles diversity and makes it harder for any new voices coming through.  In fact, novels that don’t fit into either camp are almost considered ‘fringe’.  I find it hard to discover new books outside of the trendy genres because, well, they’re not being published in any great numbers and it’s interesting to hear that even publishers are growing weary of the sameness.

One thing these trends do highlight, however, is the narrow definition of the role of women in these books.  We’re either ditsy wannabes, ‘having a go’ at a career, sex objects to fulfill someone else’s desires, or victims of violence and abuse. Obviously, this is fiction and fiction is escapism, but wouldn’t you wonder about the kind of world we’re choosing to escape to?  If the writing is good, I don’t care what genre I’m reading.  It takes a talented writer to tell you a story you didn’t think you wanted to hear, to make you laugh or cry against your better judgement.  Maybe they don’t always have to find Mr. Right, or even look for him, or end up being choked to death by him either!

 

The Wacky World Of Genres

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Following on from my piece about Book Snobs, I’ve decided to wade into the murky pool that is ‘Genre’.  Genre is what keeps us innocent readers from picking up the wrong kind of book by accident (God forbid), but do we really trust the ‘genre police’ to get it right?

 

Some genres are easily determined, like taking a novel’s length for example or if the content is fiction or non-fiction.  However, some categories and sub-categories are more loosely defined and end up creating a very vague grouping of books with tenuous links.  If you are a female author writing about a contemporary female character, chances are you will be shoved into the ‘Women’s Fiction’ genre.  It has taken quite a few years to appreciate how the term Chick Lit really devalues what is a popular and entertaining genre.  These books are contemporary fiction and should have been labelled as such.  Why was there a need to create a separate category for ‘Chicks’?  Ah, well that’s all down to the marketing department.  It’s a label that says ‘don’t take this author too seriously’, which trivialises the authors and the subject matter, giving the entire genre a bad reputation.  Nowadays, calling a book ‘Chick Lit’ is like the ultimate put-down, which is such a pity because so many talented female authors have found themselves quarantined in that sub-category, never to escape.  I can see the same thing happening now with Grip Lit – it seems to be losing its originality as the publishing houses churn out more and more imitations.  The marketing is simple: they want the same thing, but different.

So Women’s Fiction is the new pigeon hole for female authors.  But did you ever stop to wonder why we have Women’s Fiction but not Men’s Fiction?  Booksellers might say it’s simply a marketing tool, a way to help readers find what they want, but why make women a sub-category?  Women’s fiction includes books that have absolutely no relation to each other and span a dizzying array of styles and subject matter.  The only common denominator is that they are written by women.  In an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian, she questions the relevance of the genre:

I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Regular readers will know that I love a good scientific study to back up my claims, and this week is no different.  So I went to the great trouble of looking up some of my favourite contemporary reads on Amazon to see what genre ‘the genre police’ have put them in.

David Nicholls – One Day  ‘Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY.’

Genre – Fiction

(A contemporary romance, by any other name…)


Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Effect  ‘Love isn’t an exact science – but no one told Don Tillman’

Genre – Fiction > Humour

(eh… a contemporary romance?!)


Jojo Moyes – Me Before You  ‘Neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time’ 

Genre – Women’s Fiction > Romance

(Contemporary romance.  Hang on, why’s this listed under a different genre?)


Marian Keyes – Rachel’s Holiday ‘They said I was a drug addict. But my occasional drug use was strictly recreational. And, hey, surely drug addicts are skinny?’

Genre – Women’s Fiction > Humour

(So here’s a darkly funny look at addiction.  What genre should that be in?  Is it written by a woman?  Just stick it in women’s fiction)


Wikipedia describes Women’s Fiction as:

an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers

Which begs the question: Why don’t we have an umbrella term for men-centered books that focus on men’s life experience that are marketed to men?  Oh no, hang on.  We do.  It’s called fiction.  Shouldn’t we be moving beyond this?  An author is an author, regardless of their gender, and a book is a book.  Why do readers need warning signs that the book might be about women’s issues or written by a woman?  Is all this marketing and categorising just limiting people in their reading lists?  Understandably, some readers might prefer a book with a male or a female protagonist, but is that not what a blurb is for?  To inform the reader of what lies between the pages?

So who created the category of women’s fiction anyway and how did that conversation go?

*A boardroom clad in mahogany, somewhere posh*

Head of marketing: “Hate to be the bearer of bad news old chaps, but it would appear that the women are trying their hand at writing books.”

*One board member faints.  Another hurls himself out of a window.*

Second in command: “Say it isn’t so!”

Head: “I’m afraid it is so.  Now brace yourselves; it looks like we might have to publish them.”

*Two more exit via the window.*

Head: “Pull yourselves together men!”

Second: “But how will we know which books to read?  I mean, isn’t there a danger that we might mistakenly buy a book written by a woman?”

Head: “Ah, yes, now I’ve considered this frightening consequence and come up with an idea.  We will label their books ‘Women’s Fiction’, so there will be absolutely no confusion.”

Second: “Splendid idea!  Proper fiction will still be written by men and we can funnel the ‘ladies’ into their specialised sub-category.  For women.  Who read about other women.  Who write about women’s things.  Which have no bearing on our world.  The end.”

*All characters are fictional, any resemblance to the real people behind the women’s fiction label is purely coincidental *

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Women’s Fiction: The Big Cover Up

custom-wrapped-rose-and-pinks-31Following a recent discussion with an online book-club (which I am now ripping off for this blog!) the subject of covers reared its’ pretty head.  Pretty being the operative word, and a pejorative one in this case.  A male reader asked the question, why do publishers insist of giving female authors the kind of covers that men wouldn’t be caught dead with?  Of course, there was also the argument that some men wouldn’t be caught dead reading a female author, period; regardless of the cover.  In this day and age, I find that a bit sad to be honest.  It just perpetuates this idea that women can only write about things that concern women – as if men wouldn’t find anything of interest in ‘women’s things’.    Furthermore, what does it say about a man’s sense of identity, that he can’t ‘be seen’ in public with a woman’s book?  All big questions, which I will now neatly side-step in order to get to the side of the argument that best serves my agenda.  Girlie covers – what’s it all about?

Just to be sure I wasn’t being a complete hypocrite, I made a quick scan of the books I’ve read over the past few years and there is an approximate 60/40 split in female to male authors on my list.  I think it’s only natural that we will veer towards our own gender, but I was quite pleased to see that my reading has been fairly balanced.  I never really think about the author’s gender when choosing a book.  My decision is based solely on whether or not the story piques my interest.  That… and the cover.  It was at this point I realised that the guy in the book club had a point.

One of the most important jobs of a book cover is to let the reader know, as clearly and succinctly as possible, what they are getting with this book.  If I see a dark and moody cover with blood stains, I’ll probably keep moving.  Crime fiction isn’t really my thing, but how many good books have I missed because of these preconceptions?  Readers make their minds up in a matter of seconds, based on the cover of a book.  So it follows that the publishing industry, rightly or wrongly, create covers that they believe will sell; even if this is at odds with what lies between the covers.  However, there is an even greater divide when it comes to books by female authors.  Regardless of their literary merit, many publishers seemed determined to shoe-horn women’s books into the kind of covers that female readers themselves feel may be undervaluing the author’s work.  It has long been argued that the Chick Lit genre has become something of a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it has introduced readers to a lot of very talented female authors, but it has been marketed in so much pink fluffiness, that many of these writers are doomed to spend eternity on a dusty shelf, trapped in pastel coloured covers and not taken seriously.

A recent article by Emily Harnett in The Atlantic reveals the thinking behind these covers:

Like any form of advertising, book covers tell women what they want by surmising who they want to be.

Image result for typical chick lit book covers

I’m guessing the assumption is that we all want to be white, thin goofballs with a hidden intelligence, all wrapped up in designer clothes!  Please don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing this book or its readers, but I am questioning how the author’s work is marketed and whether or not this is a hindrance to women’s writing as a whole.  If you are a woman and you happen to write about anything involving relationships or family life, chances are that this will be your marketing strategy.

The following graphics from an article on Flavorwire show some examples of how male authored books are marketed completely differently.  The jumbo writing is a classic of the genre, which almost screams ‘This is important!’  It demands to be taken seriously, and as such, lends an air of gravitas to its reader.

The female authors have markedly different covers.  They are warm, decorative and while they’re not as garish as the Chick Lit cover, we immediately assume that what lies inside is somehow more feminine in nature.  Would a man pick up any of these books?  I would like to think that in this day and age, yes, he would.  But why are the publishers trying to divide us at all?  As an author, I would hope that both male and female readers can enjoy my stories, but have I subconsciously placed a barely perceptible ‘Men Keep Out’ sticker on my book just by the covers I’ve chosen?

And it’s not just a male/female divide.  There is also the question of what makes a book commercial fiction as opposed to the more highbrow literary fiction?  Who decides this and what are the criteria?  If you’re confused, take a look at these covers for the same book and tell me the publishers aren’t playing some sort of minds games!

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The first has a quote from literary heavyweight John Banville (a man!) comparing the author to Edna O’Brien, another literary biggie, and features a monochrome image of a child and an old man.  The second, features a young woman with a tagline from one of Ireland’s most successful commercial fiction authors, Cecelia Ahern of PS I Love You fame.  This is the same book, people!!  How could a single story be marketed so differently?  Well, on closer inspection, it turns out that the black and white cover is the hardback and the carefree young woman is the paperback version.  According to author Jennifer Weiner, who treads the fine line between commercial and literary fiction, “Hardcover is when you get the reviews and the profiles, paperback is when you get the readers.”

So what they’re saying is, they don’t want to challenge us too much, but give us something wrapped in a package we are already familiar with.  Are we such predictable repeat shoppers?  I’m not so sure.  One of my favourite novels this year was The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild.  It’s a mystery art caper, that takes us from the auction houses of London to Nazi Germany, and questions the true value of art and man’s desire to acquire beautiful things in search of salvation.  AND YET.  One of the male readers in the book club said he would never have picked it up, but his girlfriend had it and so he started reading it (and loved it).  A woman in the group said she wouldn’t touch a book with such a cover with a barge-pole (the cover in question was the red paperback).  The hardback features original artworks, while the Kindle version on the end features a palette and dispenses with the swirly writing altogether.  In this case, I imagine that the publishers are trying to cast their net wide and get as many potential readers as possible, so why not do that in the first place?  I really feel for the authors who have absolutely no say in how their work is packaged or marketed.  Perhaps self-publishing will change the face of cover discrimination, or will we, for lack of any better ideas, just perpetuate it?  The question we are all trying to answer is, what do readers want?  Perhaps a little less cliché and a little more originality.

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Sometimes I think we should just go back to the days when book covers were cloth bound and the title embossed in gold leaf.  These days, we have grown accustomed to the kind of aspirational lifestyle marketing that bombards us for clothing, make-up, interiors and cars, but isn’t there something about books that should be held sacred?  In reading, do we not seek to move beyond the shallow and superficial?  I love book covers, just as I love design and art, but matching an image with a story is a tricky business and can often be misleading.  I suppose the same can be said for blurbs, which are more often than not a bunch of sound-bytes to reel you in.  The Blind Date Book Company is a fantastic response to the publishing world’s attempts to manipulate our reading habits.  Their tagline, rather predictably asks us to ‘Never Judge A Book By It’s Cover’, but rather choose ‘blindly’, based only on a four word description.  I think it’s a really lovely idea and an innovative way to broaden your bookshelf and find some new books to love.  It is, after all, blind 😉

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Whether you like my covers or not, you can get my books here:

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Women & Self-Publishing

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“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Virginia Woolf, the original self-publishing guru, paved the way for many female authors who have chosen to by-pass the publishing house and publish their own books.

According to a recent article in the Guardian, more and more female authors are choosing to self-publish and are doing so quite successfully.

The success of EL James and her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy did much to overturn the stereotype of a self-published author. Now academic research further challenges the image of eccentric hobbyists scribbling away in their sheds by revealing that it is middle-aged and well-educated women who dominate the growing e-publishing market.

Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree.

The most telling point about self-published authors and their books, is their close connection to the reader and reading trends.  In the current market, large publishing houses are clinging more and more to celebrity authors and genres that guarantee sales.  These literary gatekeepers decide what type of books will be available to readers and are more often than not, out of touch with the actual trends among readers.  How often have we heard as authors that our genre ‘just isn’t right for our lists’?  I mean, who could have predicted the success of the Fifty Shades trilogy?  Another self-publishing success story – if that’s your cup of tea.  And that’s the point – it is thanks to self-publishing and the courageous efforts of independent authors that we have a more diverse and varied pool of creative writing to choose from.

And whether we like to admit it or not, there is a certain amount of sexism in publishing.  Take the recent example of author Catherine Nichols who, after submitting her manuscript to publishers under a male pseudonym, found that she received eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.  You can read the full story here.  So even though self-publishing might seem (at the outset) a scary place to be, it might just be the level playing field that our books deserve.

Just as independent musicians, film makers and artists produce a more exciting mix of talent in each of their disciplines, indie authors offer an important alternative to the mainstream.  Today’s indie writer is completely au fait with the publishing industry from page to print, hiring freelance editors, designers and promoters to produce a high quality product that meets, if not surpasses, the traditionally published titles we have all come to expect.  It is such an exciting time to be a female writer and self-publishing has never been more accessible.  However, it is the readers that will ultimately determine the success of self-published books.

You can read the full article here.

And if you’re looking for an independent, best-selling, Irish historical fiction read, click on the cover below.

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