I Am Not Supposed to Like Lisa Scottoline

Inside the career of a best-selling writer.

I am not supposed to like Lisa Scottoline, the local author of 19 books of fiction, four books of personal essay, and a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her 20th book, Don’t Go, will be released next week.

I’m not supposed to like chick lit. Not only am I supposed to find the genre insipid, as a woman (forget about my career as an academic and a literary magazine editor), I’m supposed to even be offended by the term “chick lit.” I wonder a bit about that. Why is it OK to acknowledge that, of course, most women care more than most men about panties, holiday decorations, small dogs and chocolate, but we must not admit that many women might be entertained by chick flicks and chick lit?

When I was in middle school, I read young adult chick lit voraciously, tearing through at least six paperbacks per week. I used to sit and devour them one at a time per sitting, hungrily, repeatedly, like a bag of chips. The librarians who ran the bookmobile that came near my home kept records and made sure to get me fresh selections every week.

I’m not sure exactly when I made the shift away from young romance and became a snob about these more formulaic books. The very formulaic aspect is what had appealed to me like a young teen’s prayer. I knew the female protagonist would like a guy who would ignore her/be an adversary in another arena/have a girlfriend, or some combination of all three. The protagonist would almost always have some other problem: a dead parent/too many freckles/the wrong address, or some combination of all three. Troubles ensue. Troubles resolve. Girl gets guy. I’d close the book with the same satisfaction that I have when I wipe Dorito dust out of the corner of my mouth.

Lisa Scottoline’s first two books (and probably more) were direct to paperback. I’ve seen her interviewed, and she says that she had a hardback offer and a paperback offer and went for the paperback, hoping the lower cost and portability would help her sales. Twenty-five million sold copies later (translated in 30 languages), I’d say she made the right decision.

That was back in the dark ages of 1994. Now authors have to make decisions based on format with the same bottom line: How will I get the most readers? Do I publish via Amazon? Do I look for an agent and press or self-publish? Do I publish digitally or print or some hybrid combo?

The recent buyout of Good Reads by Amazon has people outraged and worried about the publishing industry. Well, more than 10 years ago the creation of XLibris by Random House did the same thing when the publisher put the power into the hands of the authors, but rather transparently acknowledged that they would the suck the cream right off the top; if an author’s sales went well, they would swoop in and print and promote the book.

Amazon’s purchase of Good Reads exacerbates a situation that’s existed for at least two decades: Authors have to take greater and greater responsibility for promoting their own work. The conundrum is this: Does cream rise, or do new and exciting authors—people we “should” be reading—get lost in the mire?

I’d like to be optimistic about all of this and point to now classic success stories, self-published works of great value like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. I’m the first to admit that the “popular vote” is sometimes twinge-inducing to me. I mean, this is the culture whose newest form of entertainment is DIVE (I don’t think I will over wrap my mind around that one); I will sound like the worse kind of snob right now, but I attempted to read and was unable to get through more than a paragraph of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, even less of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the late 1950s, everyone read John Updike. Part of the reason why is because John Updike is an excellent writer. But a big part of the reason is there was simply less choice of entertainment.

Now authors have to develop their own audiences, create personas, and Lisa Scottoline is obviously doing a great job. She’s won myriad awards and been on the best-sellers list of all the major outlets, including the New York Times. I always tell my students it’s too easy to be snarky, to reduce someone down to one characteristic. When your target wins awards like the “Fun Fearless Female Award” from Cosmopolitan, she’s an easy mark. Reading reviews of Scottoline’s books are interesting, too. People say things like “a typical Scottonine heroine” and an “unlikely ending.” But they check off YES when asked if they would recommend book to others. Scottoline can take those criticisms and the labels straight to the bank with her royalty checks.

She’s traversed two decades, big changes in the publishing industry, and remains one of the most prolific and successful female authors. I’d say she’s figured something out.