The dumbing down of ‘chick-lit’

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I already know what ‘serious’ writers are going to say: chicklit is ‘dumb’ by definition. I beg to differ; however, I also think that the derision isn’t entirely without foundation. My own reading and writing habits have led me to this conclusion. But let’s start in broader terms to address the question of whether writing and the literature that is the result has, overall, suffered from the dreaded ‘dumbing down.’ Many believe so.

In a 2015 piece by Stephen Carter, a Blomberg View columnist (he also happens to be both a law professor at Yale and a novelist), he quotes prominent science fiction writer Ursula K. Leguin who refers to what she sees as the twenty-first century formulaic creation of best sellers in this way: “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food…I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”[1]

Of course she refers to the influence of Amazon and its well-pondered algorithm for determining best-seller status. Carter, however, isn’t buying it. He believes that perhaps a more important part of the issue is that readers’ tastes have changed; attention spans are shorter. Perhaps we have done it to ourselves. But others take a different view.

There is much grumbling in the ‘serious’ writers’ communities about the perceived negative impact of self-publishing on current literature; there is a significant sentiment (not held by all self-described serious writers, I might add) that it has been the proliferation of unedited self-published books that has had the most serious effect.

One online writer has suggested that “with self-publishing it seems like the editors have all disappeared. Ten or more books on recent New York Times Best Sellers List are there because the millions of fanboys and fangirls have bought their hero’s book…maybe the bar is set a bit too low.”[2]

So there seem to be two issues that people consider to be characteristics of ‘dumbed-down literature.’ The first one (and a big one for people like me who have taught writing over the years) is the issue of actual command of the language including grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice and all those things that our English teachers tried to inculcate in us over the years. The second one is the substance – or lack thereof – of the books that are popular today.

In my view, the truth is that quality writing can be practiced in any genre from literary fiction to popular erotica and everything in between. The topic seems secondary; if you’re passionate about writing it, you’re good at it, and your readers love it (or at least the first two if your readers haven’t found you yet), then I say write on. Even if what you write is derided by some as merely ‘chick lit.’

In general, the term chick lit means any literature that appeals mostly to women. So, what’s wrong with that? Does that make it dumb? If chick lit is dumb, then women are dumb by extension. Don’t say that to my face. But has even literature aimed at women been dumbed down? I have a personal hate on for many pieces of chick lit and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.

In my view, women are infantilized by their chick lit not so much by the stories or the writing, but byu the covers. Have you looked at any lately? I’ve been examining them as we contemplate the design of my new book which is women’s fiction. Is this really how women see themselves?

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Need I say more?

 

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Okay, just a bit more!

 

 

Well, I’m a smart woman and I write #litforintelligentchicks. In fact, I love to read chick lit, but I can’t get to your really great story if I feel infantilized by the dumb cover – whether it’s an illustration or a stock photo depicting a sweaty clinch and a few bits of a six-pack.

Okay, my rant is over. Back to the drawing board for that new cover.

Sources:

[1] Stephen L. Carter. June 11, 2015. Don’t Blame Amazon For Dumbing Down Literature. Bloomberg View. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-06-11/why-ursula-k-le-guin-s-amazon-pan-is-only-half-right

[2] Self-publishing and the Dumbing Down of Literature. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/21/1452940/-Self-Publishing-And-The-Dumbing-Down-Of-Literature

The book cover debate: Here we go again

?????????????Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote a backstory about my book cover adventures. Then back in May of this, I wrote about the beginning of my newest book cover adventure starting with the news from my editor at that, as he said in an email, “Time and budgetary restraints being what they are, we’re unable to ask our designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch. Rather, it falls to you (and to me)…”  And that’s what got me thinking about the differences (or lack thereof) between traditional and independent publishing.  At that time I lamented that if I have to design my own cover, what in the world are publishers paying those designers to do exactly?

So, I went on to the web site where this publisher buys stock photos and drawings to search through thousands of images using a variety of relevant search terms.  I narrowed it down to a few, modified them in Photoshop, added the appropriate cover text, ran the design by my in-house consultant (my husband) and sent the mock-up along to my editor.  A month or so later (he apologized for taking so long to get back to me – evidently during conference season it’s hard to find their marketers.  It occurs to me that if you’re at conferences selling books, then you are a sales person.  If you are a marketer, I thought that you worked on marketing strategy including cover design – but I digress), he emailed me telling me that my cover mock-up was clever, but they didn’t think it really represented the book very well.  Never mind that I don’t think a single member of the ‘marketing team’ has actually read the book.

Then he sent me a stock photo that they thought was appropriate.  It. Was. Not.  And it wasn’t clever.  And it wasn’t interesting.  And it wasn’t an image that a single one of my intended readers (this is targeted non-fiction this time) could identify with or would even click on to get further information – and make no mistake, that’s how books are bought these days, particular this kind since they are not designed to go to book stores.

life without end
My first-ever book published by a now-defunct Toronto publisher. Twenty-four years ago, designers actually designed clever covers. It’s time for them to start again.

As any writer of book-length work realizes, the old maxim “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is becoming more and more irrelevant.  You might not be able to tell a lot about what’s behind that cover just by seeing the image and text, but in my view (a) you ought to be able to, and (b) that cover really does need to be dynamite these days.

I recently read a marketing study where eBook covers had been changed and sales tracked before and after the change.  Just as you might expect, improving the cover increased sales.  Although this is not an eBook (but there will be an electronic version naturally), sales will accrue through online channels.  This means that the potential buyers will be moved to either explore further or not by what they see on that cover.  The truth is, though, that no one has the definitive answer to the question of what makes a truly good book cover design.  That’s because each book is unique.  So where does that leave us?

Just by coincidence, or perhaps serendipity, The New Yorker online published a piece today titled The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover.  The writer Tim Kreider says,”… publishing houses hire professional designers for books’ covers and allow their authors very little say over them…”  Clearly he doesn’t know about smaller publishers who seem to have less than no money these days for design.  He did however describe his own recent experience in which he seemed to have embarked on a similar back and forth between him and his publisher on the design of his book cover.  When he suggested that the cover he liked the least was always the one they seem to like the best, I was on his side again.  However, he seems to think that well-designed book covers are on their way out, blaming the electronic book trend for this phenomenon.  Book covers, he believes, are dull and getting duller.  I happen to think that book cover design is going to be even more important as we move ever deeper into electronic purchasing and electronic reading.

I will say that I was completely in agreement with him at the end of the piece when he and his publisher finally agreed on the cover design for the new book.  He describes it this way:  “…a result nobody would voluntarily have chosen but which everyone could acquiesce to, if only out of exhaustion.”

I am sorely afraid that this is what will eventually become the cover my new book.  And it had better happen fast because it’s on the publisher’s fall list.

Again the question: What makes a good cover design?  No one really knows these days.  While I await my editor’s next move (back to the drawing board he said yesterday after he finally, a month later, responded to my email detailing why I thought his suggestion was lame) I’d be interested to know what draws you into a book that no one has actually recommended to you.  Is it that cover?

Finding a home for the next book: Traditional or self-publishing is the question

Film StripI received an email yesterday from my editor at the University of Toronto Press with the news that we’re now embarking on the cover design for my new book.  Although this is good news (I had been wondering where we were in the process after I sent him the final edits back in January before I went on vacation, it got me thinking yet again about the traditional book publishing process .

This marks the ninth time (ten if you count a second edition) that I’ve been through this traditional publishing process where control is largely given over to the publisher.  The truth is that I’ve been more or less happy with the outcomes as I look at them winking at me from the top shelf above me; the process, however, has not been without considerable frustration.  I’ve also gone the self-publishing route three times now, and I’m kind of at a crossroads.  I have a new book ready to make the rounds – and have queried a couple of agents already – but I’m still wondering if I should do it myself.

This reflection on my publishing adventures resulted this time from my editor’s simple statement in his email: “…Time and budgetary restraints being what they are, we’re unable to ask our designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch. Rather, it falls to you (and to me)…” and then we’re to send this to the so-called designers.  It seems to me that a designer should be doing the designing, and if he or she isn’t doing the designing, what in the world is he or she being paid to do?

This might seem to you to be the moment in time when I make that decision to move to self-publishing for that next book, but I’m also reeling from yet another telephone call from iUniverse – an attempt to sell me yet more services thinly disguised as a wonderful opportunity for me.

Here’s what happened earlier this week.

At dinner time one evening (they are always at dinner time when I’m feeling just ready to punch the next telemarketer who calls despite being on the do-not-call list) the phone rang.  The caller was a “marketing specialist” or consultant or manager or some such thing; iUniverse seems to either have an enormous staff or massive turnover since this is the third or fourth such person to whom I have evidently been assigned.  Several incarnations ago I asked them not to call me with marketing ideas ever again.

Grace Note Cover PaperbackIf you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that my avocation is writing historical fiction – I do love that research and the need to shed everyday life to get into the head of characters from long-ago times and places.  Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow was published by iUniverse a couple of years ago now.  It was selected as an Editor’s Choice book (meaning that since I’d paid to have it professionally edited and I didn’t sound like a moron it would get this stamp), and thereafter chosen as a “Rising Star” (not sure how high up the scale of non-moronic a book has to be to receive this elevation).   All of the editing etc. that was done made the book more polished and professional to be sure, but it did not come cheap.  And make no mistake, every time anyone called after that to extol the virtues of my book, they were indeed trying to sell me services.  This time it was that it is so good that it should be a movie.  Would you be interested in having it shown to Thruline Entertainment?

I told him to send me an email and hung up (I was more polite than that, but that’s the edited version of the story).

The email arrived in due course (read; immediately).  Here’s what he said in part:

I called in earlier today to inform you that your book, “Grace Note” can be adapted into a motion picture.

Hollywood Coverage: Your book has all the elements Hollywood wants — an exciting plot, well-developed characters and fresh content — yet there’s still a crucial piece you need in order to be taken seriously by established entertainment executives.

We would like to know if you’d be interested to have your books presented to our newly acquired partner, THRULINE Entertainment. THRULINE is a Hollywood production company and they are basically looking for good books to adapt into a movie.

The contract has just been sealed last August and basically we want to impress our new partner. We don’t want to provide them with a “just-an-ordinary” material. We are putting our best foot forward because we want to prolong this contract.

If you’re interested, your book just needs a Script coverage in order for us to present this to production companies and producers. That is the basic tool that they would look for instead of reading the whole book.

He then went on to tell me that the two-part script coverage would be done by a professional who has done this before etc.  What he did not tell me was the price or any reference to the fact that he wants to sell me a service, but I knew that this was precisely what was happening.  And indeed research on Thruline uncovers a company with self-described ties to the Hollywood machine that works with self-publishing companies to part authors from their money.  Well, they didn’t’ say it that way but I can read between the lines!

Of course, if your book is really adaptable as a movie, you can send it to an agent who does this kind of thing.  Options on books can and are taken from the book itself.  And doesn’t it make sense that someone who is actually interested in adapting your book might actually have to read the book?  Yes, script “coverages” are done, but really?  I actually had an earlier book optioned and learned that the vast majority of optioned books never even make it to treatment phase.

The iUniverse price for this script coverage is $859.00.

This is what I said in my response to the email:

Thanks for this.  Don‘t bother telephoning me.  I’m not paying upwards of $900 for any more service from iUniverse.  If you think the book is good enough to be sold to “Hollywood” then I think you should be willing to put up the money for a percentage on the back end.  Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about.  I’m an accomplished writer – I can do this myself.

I think it’s time iUniverse took a different tack when it comes to ‘services’ for writers.

But call he did.  This time I didn’t answer. So where does this story lead me?  Well, this morning as I checked my Twitter feed I came across a link to a blog post titled “Publishing 101 – Money” on The Passive Voice blog whose author considers whether or not the price of self-publishing is worth it.  She and I agree that it is, but it does seem to me that there is a limit to what one should reasonably spend.

Self-publishing requires an author to be a writer, editor, interior book designer, cover designer, marketer and promoter.  So is this so different from traditional publishing these days?

When an editor at a traditional publishing house tells me that he is “unable to ask [their] designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch…” it seems that the two publish models are getting closer together.

So, am I any closer to a decision about my next book’s home?  Not really.