Clue Cake, Anonymity, and Other Unprofessional Behavior

Before we begin, a few disclaimers:

  1. I’m a friend of Anne Stuart, also known as Krissie.
  2. When Harlequin added the moral rights clause to their category contracts in 1995, I called them the Evil Empire on the internet. If I could find the place I said it, I’d link to it, but that was eleven years ago and God knows where it is now, probably orbiting Mars. The gist of it was that HQ had put into its contracts a clause that it could change anything it wanted in the books without the permission of the writers, and I said that was wrong, in several colorful ways that I have forgotten now, but in the midst of that, I definitely called HQ the Evil Empire. I remember that clearly.
  3. I read Miss Snark’s blog for the first time tonight, the entry from 11/03: Nitwit of the Day!

Unprofessional behavior. Yes, I’m talking about the Nitwit of the Day column in which Miss Snark took Anne Stuart to task for saying in public that she was unhappy with her publisher. I had never read Miss Snark before this because I have no time for anonymous writers because unless you have the courage to speak out under your name like, say, oh, Anne Stuart, you can pretty much lob any bomb you want and then slink away into the night while everybody else takes the hit, so you have no accountability and no credibility. So when I heard that Miss Snark was criticizing Krissie, I said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, nobody even knows who this woman is, she’s just an anonymous blogger sniping at a big name from the underbrush. Why is anybody even paying attention?”

Then I read the column. From the first line, I was appalled. “A big hunk of clue cake for everyone at the book buffet” is not snark, that’s just somebody trying way too hard to be cute. I’m almost certain Television Without Pity invented snark, and they’d spit on “clue cake;” if this person is going to appropriate “snark,” the least she can do is not take its name in vain. Maybe in her other entries she writes with wit and verve, but this is the only one I waded through, and wit was notably lacking. Verve also. She did seem to be having a good time, there was a definite God-I’m-amazingly-brilliant tone throughout, but since that tone present in most of my blog entries, too, I’m going to just let that one lie there.

Then she followed up “clue cake” with:

Don’t diss your publisher in public. Not now, not ever. Not even if you think you’re right, especially when I know you’re wrong.

That was when I thought, “Who is this person and why isn’t she taking her meds?” The day my agent told me “Don’t diss your publisher in public” and then followed it up with “even if you think you’re right, especially when I know you’re wrong” would be the day I’d be announcing on the net that Jenny Crusie was looking for a new agent. Talk about unprofessional behavior; this is not the way a good agent speaks to a client or writes on the internet. (I know, ironic, isn’t it?) She’s telling authors in general and Anne Stuart in particular, “Do not say disrespectful things about your publisher on the internet because I know it’s wrong. Do what I say, because I know all.” Which is when I say to her clients, “Run, Forrest, run.” Or whatever the hell your names are, which you don’t know, either, because she’s anonymous. But if you’re an author and your agent has ever said to you, “Don’t argue with me, just do what I say because I know this is right,” run. Delusion of omnipotence is a bad sign in an agent.

One reason it’s a bad sign is that it leads to bad conclusions, and Miss Snark’s Nitwit Blog is an excellent example of this. She wrote:

Here’s why dissing your publisher is stupid. It removes every desire to go the extra mile for you. Every and any.

But Krissie felt her publisher wasn’t going the extra mile and wasn’t ever going to in the future. She was already past the point that Miss Snark was threatening her with. (And by the way, why are we so sure that Miss Snark is an agent? She’s sure threatening for the publishers here.) Miss Snark’s conclusion was that Krissie should have remained silently unhappy, that her abiding sin which made her Nitwit of the Day! was that she spoke of her unhappiness. You know, this is not an agent I’d want representing me. “You told people you were unhappy? You’ve ruined your career! Go sit in the corner! Nitwit!” Miss Snark is forgetting the major tenet upon which all publishing rests: If the book makes money, the publisher will go the extra mile, the extra kilometer, the extra continent for it even if the author is the offspring of Godzilla and The Thing. And if the book doesn’t sell, the author can be Susie Nice Girl and the publisher will dump her in a ditch and spread somebody else’s remaindered copies over her body. Making everything much more complicated, if the author doesn’t get publisher support, she won’t sell. And the only way to get publisher support is to make sure the author and the book get noticed. Which is NOT by shutting up. Miss Snark can sit in the concrete bunker of her anonymity and shake her cake-stained finger all she wants, but she’s ignoring the complexity of the situation and, if she’s any kind of agent at all, she knows it and she’s taking the cheap shot at Anne Stuart anyway. If she doesn’t know it, she’s not much of an agent.

Now let’s look at what Krissie actually said in her interview on All About Romance, and then think about what a good agent, safe in an anonymous blog, might have written.

So now I’m with Mira, who promised to love, honor and adore me. And maybe they do, but they could do more. I know every writer says that, and I hate to be greedy and ungrateful, but they’re not so much about the books. They’re about slots and numbers, not about passion for what they’re putting out there. Or so it seems to me. But then, right now I’m pretty disillusioned about the lack of support from them. I’ll get over it. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong and I’m a middle of the road writer. No, they’re wrong. I’m a goddess. And maybe I’ve misjudged them. It seems to me that they look at my books like boxes of cereal on a shelf, and they’re in the business of selling cereal, not loving it.

Now a smart agent looking for a blog topic would read Krissie’s interview and say, “This is something that everybody in publishing knows but nobody talks about in public (except for Anne Stuart) that some houses are better at taking books to the next level, and I could do it thoroughly because I’m safe behind my anonymity. Or I could go safer and talk about what it means when a well-known author like Anne Stuart is so discouraged about fighting the good fight to get to the top after twenty odd years in publishing that she says, in public on the internet, ‘I just don’t know anymore,’ there’s a good blog in that, what publishing does to the long term author. Or I could go even safer and talk about what happens to both the author and the publisher when communication breaks down to the point that the author becomes so unhappy that she tells an interviewer about it and the consequences for both of them.” But Miss Snark went the safest and most self-centered route of all and said, “Boy, if I call Anne Stuart a nitwit, I can get myself a snappy little column out of this. Because nothing says ‘smart agent’ like making a big name author look bad while sucking up to publishers.” Which is why I’m really starting to think that Miss Snark is not an agent. No good agent I know would ever sound like this. Of course, she’s anonymous, so that makes a difference. Maybe in public, she hides this side and acts like a professional. That would help her keep clients.

The aspect that really makes me think Miss Snark is not an agent is that nowhere in that column does she say what she’d advise Krissie to do in her situation. She has a great time talking about how stupid Krissie is and what a huge mistake she made in speaking out, none of which is helpful in any positive, pro-active way to anybody, but she never says, “If I were Anne Stuart’s agent, here’s what I would have recommended she do in her situation, given her unhappiness with her publisher,” and my guess is that’s because she doesn’t have a clue what Krissie should do. Well, that, and also because there’s no FUN in that. Why be a thoughtful professional when you can be a name-calling mean girl and get the rest of the kids to laugh with you? It’s one thing to call an author to task and say, “That was the wrong thing to do,” but when the agent follows it up with insults instead of insights, I’m not impressed with that agent’s skill set.

But my favorite part is the end where the anonymous blogger makes fun of the author who signed her interview (“Anne Stuart couches her nitwittery behind ‘oh I’m always honest’”) by saying this:

And if you want to comment or email me all atwitter about this post here’s what I have to say to you: ‘I’m always honest’. It’s not true of course. I’ve learned that discretion is the better part of being a grown up.

Well, of course I recognized the maturity in “clue cake” right away (I know, I have to just let that go, but cutesy writing sticks with you like bad shellfish), and I suppose you could stretch and call an anonymous blog “discretion” if someone was doing cutting-edge industry commentary, but that’s not what this blog was; this blog was just plain wrong. Authors can criticize their publishers on the internet and still behave professionally. And survive. With those same publishers. It happens. If you’re me, it may turn out to be one of the smartest things you’ve ever done. If you’re Krissie and some anonymous blogger decides to take a ride on you and call you a nitwit, that’s annoying, but your name gets spread over the internet, and any ink is good ink, plus you’re the New York Times Bestselling Writer and she’s just an anonymous blogger, so you win. Speaking your mind as an author is not wrong. You do not have to gag yourself in order to be successful in publishing. You do not have to shut up to survive. There is no party line you have to toe in writing, damn it, that’s why we’re writers, we do not censor ourselves for the money. That’s a vicious message to send to writers. Who the hell is this woman, Karl Rove? Oh, right, we don’t know. She’s ANONYMOUS.

Okay, by now it’s clear that it’s the anonymity that sticks in my craw. People without the courage of their convictions. Or their clue cake. (Let it GO, Jenny.) People who can say anything because there are no consequences except for all the writers who are now afraid to speak what they think and all the agents out there that people are now suspecting might be Miss Snark and wondering if they’ll turn someday and snarl, “Because I know you’re wrong and I’m right so TREMBLE AT MY FEET, NITWIT!”

And eat your clue cake.

(Okay, okay, I’m OVER it.)

Anonymous blogs that make incorrect statements about the industry without insight or illumination, fueled by ego and tainted by unprofessionalism, ridiculing writers to silence them by threatening them with the end of their careers. Oh, please.

Call me when somebody signs her name.

Confessions of a Reformed Quote Whore

Nothing drives me crazier than author quotes. I hate asking for them, and probably 95% of the people I have asked for them have ignored me completely, which serves me right because I don’t give quotes to 95% of the people who ask me for them. The whole practice is a mass of desperation and bad feeling and you’d think it would just collapse in upon itself except for one thing: It really does generate sales.

The author quote is that sentence on the cover that says “A great read!” followed by the name of an author the publisher hopes you recognize and like. The real gets are Nora Roberts, Stephen King, John Grisham, and that ilk, but enough people want Jenny Crusie that I end up with stacks of manuscripts growing surly in the corners of my living room. I take them because I WANT to give author quotes. I want to help other people, it makes me feel warm all over, and besides that, it’s good for me to have my name on other authors’ book covers. It makes people think I’m somebody. They look at the cover and think, “Well, I’ve never heard of Jennifer Crusie but her name is right there so she must be famous,” and there goes my name recognition, up a notch.

For this reason, some of my friends are Quote Whores, and I say this with affection because they’re good people who like giving other authors a boost in sales. “Don’t send me the book,” they tell people, “just put on ‘I loved it!’ Melinda Q. Whore.” And everybody wins, the author, the quoter, the publisher . . . Well maybe not the reader. Continue reading

Frenching AnneMarie or The Reason I Haven’t Blogged

I’m working on four books. Four freaking books at once.

No, it wasn’t a plan. Do I look insane?

I was supposed to be done with all of them and starting a fifth by now. I don’t know what happened. Well, yes I do.

There was Agnes. She was due August first. Trouble ensued. Now she’s not due until October first. I’m not even looking at her until Monday.

Then there was Mare. She was due April first. Trouble ensued. Then she was due August first. My editor gave birth and moved. She’d just as soon not see Mare right now until her head stops exploding so we have another week or so. We’re using it.

Then there’s Daisy. I wrote her ten years ago. She’s going to be re-issued. She needs spiffed up. Thinking that Agnes and Mare would be out the door by August 1, I promised that editor she’d be done by August 15. Not so much.

Then there’s Trudy. Trudy is done, but once a book’s in the pipeline, it returns in the form of copy edits which must be read and corrected. So I’m in Atlanta at RWA National, going out to dinner with the St. Martin’s people including a lovely marketing director, let’s call her AnneMarie, and I come down to meet her, full of goodwill and ready for a really expensive meal, dressed to kill and she hands me a padded envelope and says, “Here are your ‘Hot Toy’ copy edits.”

I said, “This is a joke, right?”

She said, “Unfortunately, no. I’m sorry.”

I said, “Did you bring the red pen?”

She said, “You don’t have a red pen with you?”

Later in the evening, during an entirely different conversation, she said, “You know, I’m not really one of those huggy, kissy people. People come up to me at conferences and want to hug and kiss, and I just don’t like it.”

I said, “I’m gonna french you over dessert.”

That evening turned out to be one of those delightful, delicious, bizarre meals. I love the people who were there, and the food was incredible, but as the wine was lavish, and as I am currently on medication that prevents me from drinking, it became more and more like a modern drama as they got happier and happier and I stayed stone cold sober.

At one point, my very adult and intelligent daughter frowned and said very clearly, “I don’t like beets.”

The entire table considered that, and then my mass market publisher nodded and said, “I DO like beets.”

I waited a moment, but they were all pondering that, so I said, “And right now, somebody is envying me because I’m having dinner with a bunch of elite New York publishing intellectuals.”

AnneMarie laughed so hard she choked, which she deserved.

Where was I? Right. Four books.

I’m just telling you this because somebody is going to say, “You know, she hasn’t blogged anywhere for awhile.” Yeah, I know, but trust me, I’m working. I’m diagramming structure. I’m e-mailing with collaborators, I’m double-checking things on the internet, I”m running spell checks, I’m rewriting like mad. Come late 2006, 2007, you’re not going to be able to spit without hitting a book with my name on it.

Of course, by then I’ll be curled up under my desk, sobbing and twitching, but by damn, I’ll have gotten these four books done.

In the meantime, if you see AnneMarie, give her a big kiss from me.

This just in from the infamous Needles, aka Kim C. of St. Martin’s Press:

“You should know that AMT handing you the page proofs at the conference was totally my fault. I figured why have them sit on your porch getting rained on and chewed on by wild birds when I could get her in trouble? Needles strikes again.”

I’d say, “If you see Needles, give her a big kiss for me,” but she’d enjoy it. Sigh. Never mind.

I just sent the Trudy galleys (not copy edit) to Needles. She was threatening me.
One down, three to go. (For those of you keeping track, it’s August 8th.)

Mare is out the door. (August 18th.)

The Crusie Theory of Cover Design: A Lecture

Authors are cover-crazed because we know the dirty little secret of publishing: The reason most people pick up a book and buy it is the cover. After awhile, you may build enough of a name that people will pick up your book no matter what, but even then, a bad cover may make readers think twice. So why do so many books have bad covers?

Lots of reasons, none of them deliberate. Most, I think, are because of a disconnect between the art department which is looking for something that’s visually appealing, the marketing department which is looking for something that sells the book in the short term, and the author who is looking for something that represents her book and will sell her entire body of work in the long run. If they all work together and listen to each other, the chances of a good cover are vastly improved. But most of the time, an author sees the cover when it’s done. And sometimes authors don’t see the covers until the books are in stores. Of course, there’s a reason art departments often do not talk to authors: we’re preoccupied with the book itself and don’t know anything about what sells, so a lot of the times our suggestions are disastrous.

Its with that in mind that I sat down to figure out what made a good cover. (Well, that and I had to do a presentation on it in Reno.) Which is how I arrived at the Crusie Theory of Cover Design which states that a good cover has to do three things:

It must catch the eye across a bookstore.
It must be pick-up-able when the reader gets close.
It must capture the mood and the content of the story.


Have you been into a bookstore recently? Lotta books in there. If you’re shelved spine out, go somewhere and weep quietly because you’re done. But if your book is on the shelf faced out, the cover showing, is it doing its job of drawing the customer’s eye to the point where she’ll go over and look at it? Publishers know all about this, hence the flagrant use of foil and bold colors, particularly on paperbacks which really have to fight to get a look. But it’s true on hardcovers and trade paperbacks, too. So how do they do it beyond the foil? They use a strong color, hoping that no other art director has picked the same strong color. They go for strong value contrasts, dark on light or light on dark. They use a startling image or a clear distinctive type face. Anything that will catch the reader’s eye so that she subconsciously thinks, “Ooooh, look at that” and crosses the store to see it better.


Then once the reader crosses to see the book, there must be something on the cover that makes her want to pick it up, something beautiful, fun, startling, quirky, SOMETHING. Designers can do that two ways. One is touchability, something about the book that makes them want to touch it, a textured or matte surface, raised lettering, smooth foil, anything that draws fingers to the book. The other is detail, something that makes them want to look closer. If the first requirement of the graphic is that it hook the reader, the second is that it tells a detailed enough story that the reader needs to physically look closer and PICK IT UP.


Once she’s picked it up, she’s likely to read the jacket copy, look inside, etc. and more likely to buy, which is why marketing stops here. She bought the book, didn’t she? What else matters? Reader satisfaction. While marketing wants to sell THIS book, I want to sell the next book, too, I want my reader to like this book so much she can’t wait for my next one. But if marketing has suckered her into buying a book she doesn’t like, I’m going to get bad buzz because she’s going to complain about that. So for an author, it really is important that the cover captures the story, sets the mood, fits the author’s voice, and hints at the story content. The cover should look like the story in the book.

Romance novels get particularly bad covers because of the disconnect between marketing (sell the book) and the author (get the right reader to this book). For awhile there, publishers were slapping busty heroines and hunky heroes on the cover of every historical romance out there, the infamous nursing mother covers, even if the romances weren’t erotic. It’s gotten a little better, although the tendency now is to slap a cartoon cover on every contemporary romance which is equally bad—I don’t do wacky cartoon cover chick lit, but I had one publisher that slapped them on my reissues anyway, putting a hot blonde in a tight red dress kicking over a wine glass on a story about a shy physics teacher whose hair turned green. You want stories about hot twenty-somethings in the city, don’t read Jenny Crusie, but the cover said, “Get your red-hot chick-lit right here.” Argh. Covers like this are so common in publishing they’ve even led to a folk song for authors, The Bad Cover Song, sung to the tune of “They’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When They Come”:

There’s a bimbo on the cover of my book,
There’s a bimbo on the cover of my book,
She is busty, blonde, and sexy,
She is nowhere in the text, she is
The bimbo on the cover of my book,

More recently, one of my reissues got a beautiful, beautiful cover in pale green with a charm bracelet and a puppy on it. The green was a clear mint color so the design drew people across the store; the cover was matte and extremely touchable and the details were beautiful so I’m sure people picked up the book. So what’s the problem? It looks like a Young Adult or sweet romance and it’s the story of a bitter forty-year-old divorcee and the explicit erotic affair she has with a younger man. Great cover, but not for that book. I have nightmares of kids or conservatives picking it up and being appalled and telling everybody how horrible it was; meanwhile people who like explicit, erotic books are going to sail right on past it because it looks so sweet.

But in defense of this publisher and this design, they’re using the same concept for another of my re-issues and this time they nailed it. Hot pink cover with a giant fishhook and boxer shorts; that’ll get ’em across the store. Then the fish hook is beautifully rendered, great detail, and the boxers have red hearts on them,and I’m assuming I get that gorgeous matte finish again. Plus a lot of the book takes place in a rowboat with hero and heroine fishing, so the metaphor on the cover is exactly right, great quirky/funny mood, fits my voice, and nails (hooks?) the story. I love it.

And then there are the foreign covers. One of my favorites was the French cover for Welcome to Temptation. It was gorgeous, a black and white photo on a red cover with great orange lettering, and the killer touch, the dress on the woman in the black and white photo was colored in red. Just a gorgeous, gorgeous cover.
Except the woman on the cover was wearing a prom dress and climbing out of a dumpster, and Welcome to Temptation takes place in a small town in Ohio, and the heroine wears khaki shorts for most of it. The French cover was dramatic and noir and sophisticated; the book is snarky and bright and definitely down home. Another great cover on the wrong book.

But when it works right, it’s magic. Anne Twomey at St. Martin’s Press put the perfect cover on Bet Me: bright blue sky with bouncy clouds and glass slippers floating down with cherries. Once people went closer to see it, the cover was matte but the slippers and cherries were glossy, you had to pick it up to feel the textures and see the details. And the story? A modern Cinderella story that was cheerful and light. It was a perfect cover in every way. And then Anne interpreted the paperback the same way, jazzing it up a little with pink foil (paperbacks have to pop harder because the field is so much greater) and it was just as good as the hardcover.

Another great cover is on Barbara Samuel’s latest,Madame Mirabou’s School of Love (in stores March 28).
The colors are warm and inviting, and there’s a naked woman on it; people will cross the store to see it. Then I’m betting this is another lush matte cover, but even if it isn’t, people will still pick it up to see the details of that bathroom, the tile, the woman in the tub. The picture is a story in itself the way the Bet Me cover is a story, it makes you want to open the book to find out more. And I haven’t read the book, but I know Barbara’s work, and it’s warm and earthy and lush and always about strong, sexual women. This cover nails all of that. I get chills when I look at this cover, it is just that good.

And then sometimes a cover you’re not thrilled with turns out to be genius after all. We went through at least a dozen different designs for Don’t Look Down and ended up with a really attractive cover that screamed chick lit to me, and Don’t Look Down is not chick lit.
But it was beautiful and the everybody else liked it so we went with it. Then later I was talking to Bob about it, worried that it didn’t really represent his side of the book, and he said, “Well, we could make the cover of the book itself camoflauge. The way Wilder is undercover in the book.” So we asked our goddess of an editor, and she got it done and now a cover I was afraid didn’t represent the book actually had gotten us to a design that represents it better than a single cover that nailed it would have. Not to mention it’s a marketing hook. We’re VERY happy and St. Martin’s comes through like a champ again.

So if you’re an author, what can you do about it? Start by keeping all three of the rules in mind. It’s not as important to exactly illustrate your book as it is to get people across the store to pick it up, so be prepared to give in on some details. You’re going for the feeling of the book, not an illustration of it. Tell your editor your thoughts on the cover, send pictures that seem to evoke the same feelings, give the art department important symbols or images from the book, like the shoes in Bet Me. Try to steer the process in the direction you want it to go before the design starts. Then if they show you the cover as part of the design process (i.e. before it’s finished), have concrete reasons why you want the changes you do, and give alternate suggestions. Don’t say, “I think a dark green cover is wrong,” say, “I think the dark green is too intense for this book. A light green or a light blue might fit the happy-go-lucky style of the story better.” If you can’t explain why something isn’t right and give suggestions on how to fix it, you’re just going to be annoying.

However, most authors are never going to get any input into their covers at all, which is why if you’re a reader, you shouldn’t blame the author for a cover gone bad. Best defense against the cover gremlins if you’re a reader? Open the book and read the first page and then something from the middle at random. You really can’t judge a book by its cover. I can’t believe I ended this with a cliche but hey, like most cliches, it’s true. And still readers buy books by their covers.

And that’s Crusie’s Theory of Cover Design. Lecture over. Until next time.