I’m thrilled to welcome THE WATERSHED YEAR author, Susan Schoenberger, to Women’s Fiction Writers. I first met Susan on Backspace, but really became acquainted with her when she wrote How a Christian Publisher Found My Mainstream Novel for STET: The Backspace Blog. We’re all so concerned with finding the right niche for our books — and you know what? Sometimes the niche just finds us!
All aspiring women’s fiction authors I know struggle with titles and visions for their novel(s). Susan shares insights on how her second-choice (maybe third-choice?) title is the one that garnered the attention of editors; and how the a book cover she never imagined is the one that sends the perfect message.
Many thanks to Susan for sharing her story with us!
How The Right Book Cover and Title Can Help Women’s Fiction Cast A Wider Net
by Susan Schoenberger
In the years I spent writing my recently released debut novel A WATERSHED YEAR, I never thought about how it would be labeled and packaged as a commercial product. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think categories, labels or commercial prospects figure much into the effort to create a compelling narrative. When you’re in the thick of it, you just want to write the best book you can.
But if you’re lucky enough to find a publisher, you get a crash course in how a manuscript gets turned into something that can be marketed and sold, and it’s both difficult and transformative. Here’s my story:
The original title of my book was “Intercession,” which referred to the main character’s interest in saints as well as to the many situations in which the characters intercede in each other’s lives — bidden or unbidden. I frankly thought it was the perfect title, but when people asked me what my novel was called, they sometimes frowned or nodded with a polite smile, and eventually, one highly educated lawyer I knew said, “I have no idea what that word means.” Even then, I wanted to stick with it until my agent suggested we try changing it.
So using my background as a copy editor and headline writer, I immediately whipped off ten titles including A WATERSHED YEAR, which my agent picked over the others. Suddenly, we had more interest from editors simply because a more accessible title casts a wider net.
On to the book cover. When I allowed myself to fantasize that I would ever have a professionally designed cover around my manuscript, it was black with the stark word “Intercession,” and the image of a plaster saint that looked chipped or worn around the edges. Looking back, it’s almost like I didn’t want people to pick up the book, or if they did, only after they had been warned that it tackled serious subject like faith, death and unrequited love.
In reality, though, my book isn’t all that weighty and serious. It’s about faith, death and unrequited love, yes, but it also features a slightly demented great-grandmother, a not-to-be-trusted adoption agent with an office adorned with Beanie Babies, and a self-centered sister-in-law with a penchant for Prada. It’s women’s fiction, and even if it won a literary prize, it needed to have a cover that appealed to women of all ages.
I wasn’t crazy about the cover at first. The photographic image of a woman walking away from the camera and holding the hand of a young boy didn’t match the characters as I had described them in the book. The bright orange accents didn’t appeal to me either, but I can’t tell you how many readers have told me how much they love it. It’s clearly a woman’s book that deals with motherhood, but it’s also inviting in a way that I didn’t initially understand.
Let’s face it, you want people to pick up your book and buy it. If you’re fortunate enough to have a publisher and that publisher has a track record of designing appealing packaging, you pretty much have to go with it. In the end, it’s really what’s inside the cover that counts, but readers won’t find that out if they don’t pick it up in the first place.
Susan Schoenberger, a native of Newburgh, N.Y., graduated with honors from Dartmouth College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Since college, Susan has been a writer, editor and copy editor at various newspapers, including The News and Observer, The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant, and she now works as an editor for Patch.com.
Susan began writing fiction seriously after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2001. Her short stories have appeared in Inkwell and the Village Rambler and one was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings contest. Her most recent publication, the story Crossroads, can be found on the website www.bartlebysnopes.com.
Intercession, her first novel, received the gold medal in the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing competition, and Susan received an Artist Fellowship Grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism in 2007. Intercession, now called A Watershed Year, was published by Guideposts Books in 2011.
Susan lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. She is working on a second novel.
10 thoughts on “How The Right Book Cover and Title Can Help Women’s Fiction Cast A Wider Net”
You had me at the gorgeous cover! That said, I did opt for instant gratification and downloaded it to my kindle :). Either way, I look forward to the read. Thanks for the enlightening interview and congratulations on the book’s release.
It’s so true! I didn’t like the title my publishers came up with for my first novel and since it’s a trilogy, all the titles had to have at least one of the parts of the two names in the title – but, just as you said, I’ve received such great response to the titles! I loved the image on my cover but hated the pink background – so ironic since my MC hates pink *laugh* – but have since grown to love the cover.
I do like your cover; it’s compelling and interesting – and I completely understand how the people don’t match how you ‘see’ your characters, but if I read your book, I’d be inserting how I ‘saw’ them anyway 🙂
I love the cover! Great post.
Oh, Susan… I fear I may be just like you when it comes to cover design (and maybe this is my journalism/design background. “I know what I want.” “I’ve envisioned my cover for so long.”). I am afraid I will be that author who will never be happy with the cover put before me. But your message is well-taken: that you have to trust the professionals. Of course, all of my pontification about whether I will like my book cover is a bit presumptuous. The current WIP isn’t complete, I don’t have an agent, and I don’t have a publisher. YET! But one can work toward those dreams. Congrats on your book, which now MUST be included in my TBR list. (Thanks, Amy, for another GREAT post that is so specific to women’s fiction)
So glad to hear that everyone “gets” the cover in a way that took me some time. Thanks for the support, and if you do read the book, please let me know what you think.
Melissa, keep plugging away. Writers who are successful keep their eyes on the manuscript at all times because that’s one of the few things we can control. But having that dream is what motivates us to put in the work.
Thanks for chiming in (again), Susan! For me it’s a title issue. I think I will suggest a new title before my novel goes back out on submission, a small tweak may send a big new message. (Fingers crossed!)
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Very interesting post! I’ve been looking at covers a lot lately. I published my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, with a traditional publisher, and they changed the cover for the paperback in order to capture “the women’s book club audience,” according to my editor. What happened is that they ditched the rodents and rubber boots on the hard cover for a fairly generic (but happy) cover of a little girl (not me) running through an orchard. Did the book do better as a result? I have no idea! But I still prefer the first cover. Now I’ve decided to publish a novel myself, and I’m facing a similar dilemma: My designer has offered a gorgeous, literary looking cover, and then an alternative, which looks like soft porn to me. My mini-focus groups (tolerant friends) are split completely down the middle, so once again, I have no idea what the “right’ cover will be. I started looking at women’s fiction covers and discovered that most have either a woman with a back to her camera, a woman’s legs (or maybe just feet in high heels or boots), OR a few abandoned house objects (seriously, another teacup on a table? Another empty bench? Another window with great curtains?)
What’s a woman writer to do???
I love these comments. I’m in the process of pre-publishing and facing the cover design conundrum. I actually bought an original painting because I thought it would make a beautiful cover: very literary in style. When I showed it to a group of romance writers, they were horrified. Mind you, I’m not writing romance but, rather, women’s fiction, but I thought I’d try to “commercialize” a bit. So I posed my daughter, facing away from the camera, at the end of a dock in a beautiful black and white Italian ball gown (her wedding dress) and holding a black umbrella, took the photo in a soft rain at dusk and voila!…maybe…the title is Ladies in Low Places….it’s a short story collection with all female protagonists, all living in the coastal Carolina Lowcountry. And, yes, I may be self-publishing because I can’t face the uphill struggle to find an agent. But I’m wondering if any readers have ever tried debuting a book with two different covers? The literary cover with an added book club guide and perhaps an article on the Southern Woman’s Mystique and the more commercial cover without those two add-ons…same price…good or bad idea? Mary Ann Henry
Interesting, Mary Ann. I’m sure there are self-published authors out there who’ve thought of doing this as well. I’m sure if you Google or ask around you’ll get opinions! I don’t have any experience in the self-publishing world. Good luck, sounds exciting!