The short answer is- because I read Let’s Get Digital a very good, very free book on e-publishing by David Gaughran. I highly recommend reading it before you do anything with your book. (And, no, I’m not getting paid!)
The real answer is slightly more complicated but starts with the stupid cover letter all authors are practically required by law to send to every darn literary agent in the country. There’s a very strict form one must follow in writing this letter, and if you color outside the lines even a tad, every writers’ forum in the world warns that you’ll never see the promised land of flourescent bookstore lighting shining on the spine of your novel.
Aside: This post refers in particular to “Lucky and Grace”, which at the time, I thought I’d finished writing, but which I’ve since decided to retool. In web terms, it’s been “sent to the end of the queue”.
The agent query letter for Lucky and Grace took me at least a week to write- not bad for a query letter- but I was never happy with it. Other than the daunting task of distilling three hundred pages of prose into one or two tantalizing paragraphs, my major problem was the first sentence. It’s supposed to go something like this:
Dear Ms. Gatekeeper-to-the-doors-of-Readerdom-
I’m seeking representation for my novel “Boopy and Beppy Get Kidnapped by Aliens”, a work of literary fiction complete at 190,000 words.
I had no problem with the title or word count, but the genre KILLED me. Here’s a link to Genre descriptions on Agent Query, a site which also has nearly all the information you could desire on finding a literary agent, should you decide to go that route, and an entertaining and informative Author! Author! post on query letters.
In publishing, genre is everything. It dictates your market, your cover, which agents you query- which publishers they solicit, and your chances of getting published to begin with. Each genre is fairly narrowly defined. I changed the first sentence of my query letter ten times, from literary fiction to women’s fiction to contemporary fiction and back again, without ever coming to a real conclusion, because my stories are all three.
Agents expect authors to have a “clear idea” of everything- their (pretty good) theory being that if the author isn’t clear on her concept, the story will also be muddy, confusing, and unclear.
I know precisely what the theme of Lucky and Grace is, the same way I know life doesn’t fit in little boxes, either. Life is funny and tragic and full of grief and optimism, sometimes all in the same day.
Life is messy! (At left, a beautiful literary fiction cover.)
Your agent query letter is also supposed to match the tone of your book, another little box I didn’t want to be squished into. Lucky and Grace varies widely in tone. Her memories
of childhood are haunting and desolate, but Lucky herself is a sassy, funny, take-no-prisoners woman- on the surface. My approach to prose is always “literary”- the written word the medium I use to paint portraits of complex, often confused characters in equally confounding circumstances. Each individual chapter might slide by itself into one genre, but not the book as a whole.
(At right, a fun “chick lit” cover.)
Lucky is modern and independent- like the women who will read her story- but calling it “women’s fiction” shoves Lucky & Grace into a box that can also seem “light-hearted” and has come to denote triviality in some circles. An attitude, by the way, I find unfair to all women and all “women’s fiction”. Lucky has some extremely UN-light-hearted moments, and a reader confronted with a “Chick Lit” cover might expect a Jackie Collins beach read.
As a new novelist, I’d be highly unlikely to even get “veto power” over the cover art, never mind a chance to design it myself.
It’s unlikely anyone besides me would be optimistic enough to design a “look” for me with more than one book in mind.
As a writer, I plan to keep writing. As an artist, I’d be very very unhappy with a cover I didn’t like. For EVER. And I prefer not to be unhappy. Author Karen Brichoux tells a cautionary tale about her own cover drama on her blog. (At left, one possible template design for future book covers.)
So, here I am… with two good books fitting firmly in the Contemporary-Women-centered-Literary-Fiction genre. And I can call it anything I want- because I’m in charge!