Dear Bitches, Smart Authors Podcast

40. Listener Mail - and A Quiz!

We start with a quiz that was entirely inspired by Linda Holmes' Television Pop Quiz on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Sarah challenges Jane to identify which book description is an actual book. Jane does abominably well – five correct, two wrong.

Then we tackle reader mail. AWESOME reader mail. Or listener mail? Either way, you wrote, we respond. We talk about a whole assortment of topics thanks to your way-too-interesting email messages.

A word about the sound. You might notice that Jane sounds a bit different. I could try to say that we had some technical difficulties, but the truth is, I threw her down a well and made her record from the murky depths under the bucket. She knows why.

And we have a special addition to the podcast entry this week!

One of the email messages we answered was from Kathryn, who wanted to know why Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series isn't shelved in romance:

I find them the perfect mix of romance, humor, suspense, and time jumping that I marathoned all of them from the library. 

So my question is this, why are those books not shelved in the romance section? This may have changed in the last few years, but when I was looking for her books at B&N when I first got into her I had to ask a shop attendent where they were after I failed to find them in the romance section. Lets be honest here, the series is giant interconnected group of historical romance and I just don't understand why her books are shelved in the Fiction section. 

While I was editing, by coincidence I received an email from Willig herself about something entirely different. I asked if her ears were burning and told her about Kathryn's email and how we'd answered it on the podcast. She responded by saying that she had quite a story about the eventual arrival of the Pink Carnation series in the Fiction section – and then wrote the whole (hilarious) story out for us.

 

So, as a special addition to the podcast entry, I present, Lauren Willig:

 

Why the Pink Books are Shelved in Fiction/Literature or Welcome to the Wild and Wacky World of Publishing

 

When I wrote my first (publishable) book, the book that became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was pretty sure that I was writing a romance novel. 
 
The working title was A Rogue of One’s Own, because everyone knows that every good Regency romance needs either a rake or a rogue.  I went with the latter because I really didn’t want to spend years fielding inquiries about garden implements.
 
On my first phone call with my brand new agent, I burbled about the book being in the tradition of Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick, and could we please, pretty please, shop the manuscript to Avon?  Visions of mass market paperbacks danced in my head.
 
“I’m not entirely sure you’ve written what you’ve think you’ve written,” came the voice of my new agent across the line.  “Let me try something else first….”
 
“Sure!  Absolutely!” I said. 
 
As a first time author, these were the words I used most frequently.  Also, I had coffee dripping off the end of my nose, which tends to be a bit distracting. 
 
(To explain:  at the time of this phone call, I had just returned to Cambridge, the U.S. one, after a year abroad in England, and was engaged in trying to figure out the workings of the coffee maker that had been bequeathed to me by my German subletter.  Since technology and I don’t get along, this had resulted in a rather dramatic caffeine explosion, just as the phone rang.  I conducted my first conversation with my new agent with coffee matted in my hair, dripping down my arm, and liberally bespeckling the phone.  Note to self: coffee should not be taken topically.)
 
In any event, one month later my agent called me back to tell me that a prestigious hardcover house was making an offer—but not as a romance.  “You’ve invented a new genre!” he said.  “Historical chick lit!”
 
To which I replied, “Huh?”
 
Once I’d adjusted my jaw, I took the sage advice of Ghostbusters: when a publishing house tells you you’ve invented a genre, you say yes.  Even if you have no idea what they’re talking about.
 
This was, after all, 2003, when chick lit reigned and new subgenres of chick lit were being discovered on a more or less daily basis: lad lit, mommy lit, second cousin once removed lit.  Just add “lit” and stir.
 
Plans proceeded apace for the publication of the book, now re-named The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, because A Rogue of One’s Own was too romance-y.  (There was a brief, awful phase where it was almost named Eloise Kelly and the Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but, fortunately, that didn’t fit on the cover, so it got nixed.) It was going to be published in hardcover, as Fiction & Literature, with a chick lit cover featuring a modern woman in a Burberry jacket with a very cute bag.  I had nightmares about readers opening it, finding themselves in the Regency, and demanding their money back.
 
“Whatever you do, don’t call it romance!” I was told.  “It’s historical chick lit.”
 
Then, overnight, chick lit died.  RIP.  Within two days, my publisher had come up with a new, historical cover (and I breathed a very deep sigh of relief).  Just about to go on my first ever book publicity junket, I was warned, “Whatever you do, don’t call it chick lit!  It’s historical fiction.  Got that?  Historical fiction.”
 
I’d gone through three different genres without re-writing a word.
 
Meanwhile, the book hit the shelves, followed by sequels, and the genre confusion continued.  I was adopted by the mystery community, who informed me that what I was really writing were historical mysteries, and why wasn’t I being shelved in mystery, where I belonged?  Friendly Borders reps told me that my covers were all wrong and I needed something that correctly represented the spirit of the books.  What would that be? I asked.  They didn’t know either.  In the absence of consensus, the books went into that great catch-all category on the shelves: Fiction & Literature. 
 
I just went on playing genre stew, writing what I was writing, going to everyone’s conferences, and hoping that someone would eventually figure out where on earth to shelve me.
 
This went on until 2009, when the market tanked, e-books took off, and suddenly romance was outselling other genres.  After years of being told, “Stop calling your books romance!”, the world had come full circle.  I got another one of those phone calls: the first Pink book was going to be reprinted in mass market—huzzah!—with a romance cover.  And, by the way, did I realize I’d been writing romance?
 
There was just one slight hitch.  None of the major retailers would shelve it in the romance section.
 
Ironic, isn’t it?  Apparently, once a book has been shelved in a certain section, it’s against store policy to move it to another.  Ditto any books in the same series.  The book that I had initially written as a romance was finally being printed as a romance—but it couldn’t go in the romance section.  The mass market copy found itself incongruously wedged on the Fiction & Literature shelf next to its hardcover and trade paperback siblings.
 
That’s publishing for you.
 
As to what my books really are… I have no idea.  I’ll leave it to you to decide.  (Although I’m fairly certain that they’re not Sci Fi.  At least, not yet.)
 
I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to write a book that’s incontrovertibly in one genre or another: a contemporary romance or a whodunit.  One of these days. 
 
My first non-Pink book, The Ashford Affair, which comes out this April, is a women’s fiction/historical fiction hybrid with a mystery component, set in three different time periods on three different continents….  Let the shelving confusion begin!

 

AND, as a special bonus, I have the original cover, as well, provided by Lauren:

Here's Pink Carnation as Chick Lit: 

Pink Carnation as chick lit - close up of red haired woman with a pink purse and a diary sticking out

 

Compare that to the hardcover and paperback versions: 

 

Pink Carnation Hardback Cover    PInk Carnation paperback - pink dress, only facing away from the reader, of course

 

The books we discuss in this week's podcast include:

 

Mystery Man - Kristen Ashley Cover Lora Leigh - Nauti Temptress Book Simply Irresistibie - Jill Shalvis

Book Ellen Hartman - Out of Bounds Karina Bliss - Bring Him Home Book-  HelenKay Dimon - Lean on Me

Book - All He Ever Needed - Shannon Stacey Book - Her Best Worst Mistake - Sarah Mayberry Lisa Kleypas- Smooth Talking Stranger

Lisa Kleypas - Sugar Daddy Lisa Kleypas - Blue-Eyed Devil Julie James -  Something About Your

Book  - Julie James - A Lot Like Love Can't Buy Me Love - Molly O'Keefe Sarah Morgan -  A Night of No Return

The music this week was provided by Sassy Outwater, and the track is called Pro Terezku (Reels) by Dún an Doras. You can find them on MySpace and at iTunes.

If you like the Podcast, you can subscribe to our feed, or find us at iTunes. You can also find us at PodcastPickle.

You can email us at sbjpodcast@gmail.com, or you can call and leave us a message at our Google voice number: 201-371-DBSA. Please don't forget to give us a name and where you're calling from so we can work your message into our next podcast. Thanks for listening – and for all your email! 

 

Press play!

Add Your Comment →

  1. 1
    Kaetrin says:

    I CANNOT believe I missed podcast 39!  Oh well, now I will have 2 at once so there’s that. :)

  2. 2
    Kathryn Lebda says:

    Thank you so much Sarah and Jane for the first answer to my question, and a HUGE thank you to Laren Willig for the personal answer! Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that. I find it very interesting, and also practical, that bookstores can’t change the shelving of a book after the first decision.

    I am eagerly awaiting The Ashford Affair coming out this year!

  3. 3
    Ros Clarke says:

    That was completely fascinating from Lauren Willig. I’m not sure that any of those covers convey the tone of the book accurately to me, though.

  4. 4

    Great podcast and I love the explanation of publisher craziness. “Did you know you’re writing…”

  5. 5
    cleo says:

    The Pink Carnation covers are fascinating.  Wow – it really shows how each genre has it’s own visual short hand.  Now I’m wondering about other genre-straddling books.

  6. 6
    Livingreadgirl says:

    I was working in a bookstore when the first Pink Carnation book came out and yes,I do have that ARC with the “historical chick lit” cover! By the time the second book was ready to roll,the cover art was more in line with the historical angle and I remember a couple of years ago when the artwork changed yet again,some of the readers were so angry that they set up an online petition to protest.

    To me,as long as it looks good and suits the theme of the book,I’m on board. In my opinion ,the Pink Carnation series has had better luck with cover art than many other books have(in many genres)and it’s the inside that counts:)

  7. 7
    Laura says:

    I prefer the historical cover, with the painting of the woman in the historically accurate dress, but I’ve got to admit – that Burberry coat in the original *is* fantastic.

  8. 8
    laj says:

    I love the early covers of Lauren Willig’s books.  The cover of the Pink Carnation is what drew me to take a look at it in the first place. The Mischief of the Mistletoe is one of the most beautiful book covers I have ever seen.  The writing is good too!

  9. 9
    Loni says:

    I did the quiz on the podcast with my sister and she wants it known that she got all but one right.

  10. 10

    I was stuck on a hellishly long bus ride today and I got a chance to listen to the whole podcast at once – something that doesn’t happen often – and I loved how you were talking about objective quality and the “I just Loved it!” quality.

    Because, it was so true.

    And I loved that story about the Pink Carnation, I would probably have been all over that if it had been marketed as Chick Lit or Historical Romance because, hello, Pink Carnations are my favorite flower :) But I never got around reading those books – though they were recommended to me – because it was called historical/women’s fiction (which I don’t read because they rarely have HEAs or enough romance) and a mystery (which I NEVER because I’m so not patient enough for them). Which just goes to show how publishing often gets all tangled :P

  11. 11

    I was stuck on a hellishly long bus ride today and I got a chance to listen to the whole podcast at once – something that doesn’t happen often – and I loved how you were talking about objective quality and the “I just Loved it!” quality.

    Because, it was so true.

    And I loved that story about the Pink Carnation, I would probably have been all over that if it had been marketed as Chick Lit or Historical Romance because, hello, Pink Carnations are my favorite flower :) But I never got around reading those books – though they were recommended to me – because it was called historical/women’s fiction (which I don’t read because they rarely have HEAs or enough romance) and a mystery (which I NEVER because I’m so not patient enough for them). Which just goes to show how publishing often gets all tangled :P

  12. 12

    I was stuck on a hellishly long bus ride today and I got a chance to listen to the whole podcast at once – something that doesn’t happen often – and I loved how you were talking about objective quality and the “I just Loved it!” quality.

    Because, it was so true.

    And I loved that story about the Pink Carnation, I would probably have been all over that if it had been marketed as Chick Lit or Historical Romance because, hello, Pink Carnations are my favorite flower :) But I never got around reading those books – though they were recommended to me – because it was called historical/women’s fiction (which I don’t read because they rarely have HEAs or enough romance) and a mystery (which I NEVER because I’m so not patient enough for them). Which just goes to show how publishing often gets all tangled :P

  13. 13
    Cate says:

    Now I may be in the minority ( I usually am)  – but I think the historical chick lit (what a mouthful !) cover is fab ! Am totally gagging for that mac ! Also gagging for Ashford & Plumeria ….. All hail Lauren Willig :)

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    LOL that’s AWESOME. Mad props to your sister. Which one did she get wrong?

  15. 15
    Jennifer says:

    Thank you, Sarah and Jane, for answering my question about quality in romance novels.  I found your discussion illuminating.  Particularly Sarah pointing out the value in reading romance with a critical eye (in order to find your own personal story crack!) I don’t know how I have read romance for so many years without doing that, but probably because it is a bit like work. 

    I am going to push Kristen Ashley up to the top of my ebook pile, because I suspect her crack will work on me.

    As to judging quality of romance novels verses judging quality of other fiction I think there is a difference.  I think with romance the emotional connection I have with the characters is the most important component of a good story.  Whereas I can read a poorly written romance and not even notice or care as long as the storytelling is good. I can’t enjoy a romance if I can’t identify with the characters and feel that vicarious emotion. 
    That is not the same with other kinds of fiction.  As an example, I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a few months ago (actually because it was recommended on Pop Culture Happy Hour).  I found the characters truly repulsive, but I still enjoyed the book because I enjoyed the mystery and suspense.  Also, I was hoping unpleasant things would happen to characters.  Disliking the characters was almost part of my enjoyment.  But, if this story had been a romance I wouldn’t have been able to finish it because it wouldn’t have given me what I was looking for as a reader. 
    I don’t know if other romance readers feel this way, but I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts about it.

  16. 16
    SB Sarah says:

    Jennifer, I agree with you. I think empathy for the characters (both of them) in a romance is important for me as well. This is especially true for me because with romance, there’s so much intimate thought going on – not just sexual but emotional intimacy – that…well, I don’t want to know that much about people I don’t like!

  17. 17
    cleo says:

    I just listened to the podcast today and I’ve been pondering this question of judging the quality of romance novels.  I think that in every genre I read, my first judgement is based on my emotional connection to the story, and how much I enjoy reading it. My standards of enjoyment are different for different genres, but for me, if I’m not emotionally invested in the story, if the story doesn’t call to me emotionally in some way, I don’t care how well written it is, I don’t enjoy reading it.

    I certainly see the distinction between good writing and good storytelling in other genres.  I think Stephen King is a great story teller but not a great writer – or at least, I don’t care for his writing style, it feels clunky or something – but I read The Stand compulsively because it sucked me in and wouldn’t let go (and that’s my definition of book crack). 

  18. 18
    Cassidy says:

    Not to be too pedantic, but it’s not an historically accurate dress – the paintings is of a woman in a costume from (I’m guessing) the mid-19th century, intended to look like an 18th century française.

  19. 19
    NBLibGirl says:

    Thank you for a great discussion! I’ve been wondering many of the same things as Kathryn: why are so many really poorly written romances published? How can so many readers rate some books so highly but leave me cold? and yet some of my favorite romances suffer the same issues for which I find fault in others? etc. etc. Storytelling vs. writing! Thanks.

  20. 20

    AHHH!! That commenter is NOT joking about CA cyclists!!

  21. 21
    Tsuki says:

    Hi.  I love the podcast but I was wondering if you could provide the links to books not discussed in detail but mentioned?  The quiz mentioned specific titles and it would be nice to be able to go into the podcast post and click on the correct answers.  I’ve seen this in the other podcast posts and had to go listen through the podcast in order to find the book mentioned in passing that sounded interesting.

    Thanks!

  22. 22
    Rachel Rogers says:

    Very late response (I’m behind on my podcast listening!), but I loved the discussion about good writing vs. good storytelling. Bad writing (meaning bad grammar, flat dialogue, unedited, awkward sentence structure, misuse of words) will almost also defeat the crack with me – it’s very rare that I can get past the writing even I love the story and the characters and the tropes. I end up spending too much time being annoyed at the writing.

    On the other hand, good writing isn’t enough for me to love a book. One of my more common 3-star reviews on Goodreads is a variation on “Well written, but it just didn’t grab me”, meaning there wasn’t that extra zing that makes it a beloved book. For me, it needs that base of good writing (particularly lifelike dialogue – flat dialogue kills a book dead for me) for me to like it, but it needs something special, something extra for me to love it. This is why I personally have such a hard time comprehending the popularity of books like 50 Shades – all the story crack in the world couldn’t get me past the constant repetition of words and phrases.

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