Don’t judge a book by…

Cover, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, 2010, Lauren Willig, Signet Select
Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (Cover), Signet Select, 2010.

This post was originally published on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and accompanied a podcast. The post appears here with the permission of Sarah Wendell and Lauren Willig:

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.

Covers, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, unreleased, 2006, New American Library, 2010, Signet Select, Lauren Willig

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!

Lauren Willig

Lauren Willig is the New York Times bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series. After graduating from Yale, she embarked on a PhD in History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law, while authoring her "Pink" series. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the ALA's list of the best genre fiction. She now writes full time.

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