|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
- 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?