Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jeffery Eugenides Looms Over Times Square; Sells Books to Women

Wall Street Journal

You don’t often see authors’ faces on billboards, so even Jeffrey Eugenides was surprised when Farrar, Straus and Giroux decided to hype his new book The Marriage Plot with a Times Square ad. It’s a refreshing sight, but it’s also a throwback to a time when we treated writers a little more like we ought to --like rock stars.

It's not like 1971 anymore, when Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a literal fistfight on the Dick Cavett show.  How long has it been since two writers faced off on a talk show? When Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time last year, he was the first writer in ten years to do so. So, more of this, I say. Our writers ought to be our idols.

The Eugenides billboard brings up another point, though. Take a good look at how the billboard is designed, and at how the book appears to be marketing itself. From the wedding ring on the cover to the frilly font and the posing of Eugenides himself as a sex god, The Marriage Plot (note the title, too --sounds madcap) is clearly aimed at women.

Wedding ring covers: pretty much an indicator of marketing to women.

Just to make it extra-clear that the billboard is more yin than yang, I did a Google search to see what sorts of things are described as “swoon-worthy.” 

Swoon-worthy things, according to Google:

  • Zac Efron shirtless
  • the cast of Twilight
  • wine and sunsets
  • lace-trimmed outfits
  • cakes
  • wedding dresses
  • lavender sweatpants
  • a pistachio-colored handbag
  • boyfriends doing the cooking

Is it me, or do those seem a tad on the girls’ team?

I bring all this up because a few female authors of late have taken umbrage at the packaging of their books, complaining that the marketing strategy is too female, and that the publishers are selling the authors short. Most recently Polly Courtney dropped her publisher because of cover art she claimed made her novels seem like chick-lit.

The cover that was the last straw for Polly Courtney.

If anything makes Polly Courtney’s novels seem like chick-lit, it might actually be the novels themselves. While they may not have the fashion designer namedropping, they do have amnesiac women torn between two men or feisty women working in a man’s world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these storylines (this isn’t a criticism of Coutney’s work or genre), but they do seem aimed at women. Chick-lit review sites concur that her book is par for the course with what they read and review.

Courtney isn’t a literary writer or a particularly ground-breaking one. Eugenides actually is (That’s his Pulitzer talking, not me.) It’s a distinction worth noting because it raises the question: Why isn’t Eugenides upset that his books are being marketed toward women? He certainly could argue that the publisher is narrowing his potential fan base.

The answer, though I can’t speak for Eugenides himself, is probably due to the fact that women make up a whopping 80% of the fiction market. With that in mind, why wouldn’t someone like Courtney --whose books are not going to close any gender gap in fiction reading by plot alone-- want to market to the people who are actually doing the buying and reading of books like hers?

Nicholas Sparks is another example of a man who seems pretty pleased to have his books marketed to women (his covers tend to have moody sunsets and couples-in-a-clinch). His estimated net worth is a cool $30 million. (His latest movie deal stars Zac Efron. Whether or not he’s shirtless will no doubt determine the swoon-worthiness.)

Nicholas Sparks: Marketing to the 80%.

Best of luck to Polly Courtney, but if she wants to succeed on a level like Sparks or Eugenides, she might do well to understand who her audience is and embrace them instead of looking down on them. She might also want to understand that book packaging has less to do with the gender of the author and everything to do with sales.

Do you think publishers are wrong to determine a book’s audience, or should the author have the final say? And which author would you like to see looming over you from a billboard? Better yet --if you were on the billboard yourself, which adjective would you want emblazoned across it?


  1. Perhaps Courtney was not upset at being marketed to women, per se, but at being marketed to fans of "chick lit" specifically? I am a woman, but I don't find myself reading a lot of pink books with wedding rings on them. Maybe that explains something about my life.

  2. Point, but Courtney's book isn't pink with wedding rings. It's a little more akin to what is usually marketed as "Women's fiction." You wouldn't read a book with her cover, but I also wager that you wouldn't be interested in her books anyway. With a different, less feminine cover, I think she'd be misleading people, when in fact her books really are somewhere between chick-lit and mainstream fiction.

  3. I would hope the publishers market to the widest possible audience and I wouldn't care how they achieved that goal.

  4. A wedding ring on a book cover would not entice me to buy a book at all just as any book labeled "Chick Lit" would probably make me steer clear. But I do think that labeling does present that problem. I've brought up this point on my blog as well.

    That was the point I made on my recent review of Talli Roland's Watching Willow Watts. Sure, it probably has it's greatest appeal to female readers, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story and think that labeling it "chick lit" or "romance" might deter certain people from reading the book.

    I made a similar observation when I reviewed Sun Tunnels and Secrets which announces on its cover that it's an "LDS Novel". I think this label will severely curtail readership of this book in which Mormonism is not overly espoused. It was a fun story and not a treatise on Mormonism. Why would the publisher want to announce a label such as they did on this book when it will put off a number of readers?

    I understand a certain need to categorize books to make it easier to make reading selections, but I think it also limits the audience.

    Tossing It Out

  5. Lee: But does it really limit an audience? That's the point I'm trying to make here.

    The women's fiction/chick-lit audience buys a LOT of books. If a book like Courtney's (which IS that type of story) was not packaged as such, it wouldn't attract its MAIN audience. It might reach a more diverse readership, but far fewer people overall. That's why writers like Nicholas Sparks are happy to be marketed to one group. It's a huge group! He's made $30 million! So, is it really beneficial to want to market to everyone? I think it could actually be harmful.

  6. Heard about the Courtney kerfluffle, and along with several others, think her timing was kinda suspicious. It's not like an author sees the cover of her book for the very first time at her launch party. Someone suggested that perhaps she wasn't offered a continuing contract with that publisher, therefore she decided to milk the launch party for as much publicity as she could get.

    Covers are tough - what sells for one audience (bonnet books, anyone?) will be a total turn-off for another. Yet bookstores (there are still a few left) need to know where to shelve the thing. (Thus say I, who's writing a cross-over genre book, lol!)

    Right now I understand the term "chick lit" is poison, but a few years ago it was THE thing. As an author, I'd be happy for whatever support I got from my publisher. And I'd be happy with any of these men on my billboard or in a book trailer:

  7. I'm with you about the suspicious timing, Beverly. It makes for a good publicity stunt. I think the publishers have been given short shrift, too. I have seen a few cases where covers were not appropriate to the content, but this is not one them.

    (Also, more people need to leave links to videos with shirtless hunks.)

  8. Mercenary that I am I would certainly agree with that point that you are making. If it comes down to huge money guaranteed, I wouldn't care how they marketed my book. Rich in this lifetime is more palpable than legacy after I'm gone or accolades from critics and scholars.

    But if I didn't want to be stuck in a box and restricted to having to live up to a certain reputation for a certain group of readers, then I might be more concerned with my literature to have a label.

    It might be interesting to see a marketing experiment where the same book is packaged and promoted in different ways to see where exactly sales come from. Impractical for most publications, but possible for books with very large runs. I've seen the books with different artwork on covers but I've seen them displayed in the same place. And maybe this has been done.

    Impractical for bookstores probably. What a nightmare giving multiple shelf space to the same book--but then again maybe not.

    Maybe Courtney is looking at her overall long range reputation. Once you are typecast it can be difficult to break away from what people expect. I don't know anything about her or her intentions, but I guess she may have different aspirations that what her previously published works reflect.

    In the end, the publishing company should make the money fueled marketing decisions since they are the ones paying for it and they probably know what is best for sales. The author can have the option of marketing their message in interviews and the like.

    Tossing It Out

  9. A literary legacy is certainly something to consider. To some extent, though, the content drives the legacy far more than the cover. Dickens and Doyle both wrote serialized commercial fiction, and in the case of the first actual books, they were packaged like popular fiction (Dickens' books had cartoonish comical characters on the fronts.) The books succeeded because they were excellent.

  10. Strong words. I suppose you could say Courtney has principles, but in this case they will cost her.

  11. As long as the cover reflects the main thrust of the contents I can't see there's much to complain about. It's not in publishers' interests to mislead their target readership.

  12. Agreed. I think Courtney is conflicted about what her actual contents are. Therein lies the problem.

  13. I hopped over from Arlee's site, and I am so glad I did. What an awesome post! If Courtney indeed writes chick-litish work (and I have not read her writing), then she really needs to rethink her complaints.
    I love elevating writers to rock-star status. I'll have to think about who I'd want to see on a billboard.

  14. It is tough to give total control to a third party when it is your words on the paper. I've known many who have suffered from cover issues during the publication process.

  15. It's a tough call - the experts know what they're doing (I hope! :)) - but it would be nice to have some input too.