Friday, September 16, 2011

Are chick lit book covers a feminist issue?

In today's Guardian, 16th September, there is an article about a Harper Collins author, Polly Courtney, ditching her publisher at her book launch, after three years of pent-up frustration over how her books were marketed. Her latest novel, It's a Man's World, has a picture of women's legs, perched on a desk - a woman with no head. Polly Courtney will now self-publish.

I can see that if you are writing a book that makes serious points about careers, and you are an investment banker who quit her job for whatever reasons - stress, trying to make it in a man's world, sexism at work, long hours and the inability to lead a balanced life, you would be very frustrated at having sexual stereotypes displayed on your book by your publisher.

So, what is my reaction. Firstly, as a publisher, I know that the cover is a piece of marketing, and it's aim is to get the book picked up and looked at by a potential reader. And readers of new fiction have choice -so much choice it is unbelievable.

So, you want Waterstone's and WH Smith to display your book. And, here's the rub, as Shakespeare said, the retailer's buyers have the power. They can make publishers change covers when you want the order. And you only have one time window to get said order, for new books. So you, the publisher, whether Harper Collins or a small independent, like Marion Boyars, have little power.

Now, it is refeshing not to have to bow to the pressure of other people's agendas. And authors are self-employed, of course. They choose to write, and they hopefully enjoy the process of meeting readers, being entertaining, and writing.

When we published Maureen Freely's novel, Enlightenment, in 2007, we designed covers with passports, Istanbul minarets, and menacing birds in the sky. The buyer at Waterstone's did not place an order. Then we changed it to represent the main character's feet in sling back black shoes - yes, disembodied sexist, women's feet, against a plainish grey floor. We used the moon and sickle emblem from the Turkish flag to signal that this was a political novel. We got the order from Waterstone's and Maureen Freely got the right reviews, describing the book as a 'gripping novel' and 'a powerful fictional version of the argument that Turkey does not yet subscribe to the levels of democracy and human rights required if EU membership is to mean more than a passport with economic improvement.' The Guardian.

Of course we did not interfere editorially with the plot, the 'inside' of the book. But we had to interfere with the 'packaging', in order to make sense of the years that Maureen Freely had spent writing her book. So Polly Courtney, try to find a middle way and a publishing team who will listen to your frustration, but still give you packaging that means your books sell. And I will look out for It's a Man's World - as will many women who have read the article in The Guardian today.