Monday, 8 June 2009

Trios: Diary Of An On-Call Girl, by E E Bloggs: Cover Story

Here's the latest installment in the Trios series about Diary of an On-Call Girl: True Stories from the Front Line, the memoirs of an anonymous police officer, P. C. Bloggs. Following on from his discussion of TV options and rights sales, today Dan Collins (Bloggs' publisher at Monday Books) examines the importance of good title and cover design. The final article, written by P. C. Bloggs herself, will appear next Monday and looks at the problems of writing her blog and book while still working full-time as a police officer.

Diary of an On-Call Girl is going to be serialised on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour next week, following an interview with PC Bloggs on Monday 15 June. You can listen to the serialisation between 10.45 and 11am each morning, Monday to Friday, and if you miss it (as if you would) there will be a repeat each day at 7.45pm.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Sadly, people ignore this. The story of Diary Of An On Call Girl actually starts with another book, our second. Called Wasting Police Time, it was based on PC David Copperfield’s Policeman’s Blog. It was all about the Gogolian, Orwellian and Kafka-esque scandal of bureaucracy as it affects the police – and therefore, the public – and it sold very well (nearly 80,000 copies to date, which is ‘very well’ by our standards).

After BBC1’s Panorama called to ask for our help in making a whole show about the author, we decided we were onto something; having struck brass with Wasting Police Time, we decided to try to repeat the trick.

WPC Ellie Bloggs, author of the PC Bloggs blog, wrote about similar issues to Copperfield – the pointless box-ticking, the cowardly arse-covering and the mindless management – but from the perspective of a woman officer.

Some of her stories were amazing – like the one where a mum reports her four-year-old son missing and then declines to join the search for him, saying she has a hairdressing appointment and demanding that the cops bring the child to her at the salon if they find him.

Her blog had a reasonable readership (if not quite PC DC’s tens of thousands), we had lots of people clamouring for a follow-up to Wasting Police Time… what could go wrong?

Well, something did: Diary Of An On Call Girl has sold far fewer copies than Wasting Police Time, despite being (I think) a much better book.


It’s not about the words in the book, which manages to be both extremely funny and also very moving.

As proof of this, take the reaction from TV companies: within a few months of publication, we had received six approaches from production houses eager to buy the rights so they could turn it into a policing comedy. They included Hat Trick (Have I Got News For You, The Armstrong and Miller Show) and Talkback Thames (Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge), and we eventually did a deal with Clerkenwell Films (this is John ‘Rebus’ Hannah’s production company, and they are currently working on a pilot episode for the BBC).

I mention this astonishing response not to boast (well, just a bit) but to show that, objectively, other people with great experience in judging literary works for their commercial value thought it was a good read (the BBC are making it a Book of the Week on Woman’s Hour this month, too.)
Could it be that people had just lost interest in the subject? I don’t think so – the national debate about police bureaucracy which Copperfield did so much to create continues apace, and a third book, Perverting The Course Of Justice by Inspector Gadget is selling very strongly.

Partly, I think the smaller sale is because Bloggs is a woman; a chunk of the title’s market would be police officers themselves, and they are mostly male, and, for some strange reason, men don’t seem to buy books by women (while women are happy to read books by men).

Mostly, though, I think we (by which I mean Monday Books) screwed it up.

We did this by getting both the title and the cover wrong.

The ‘On Call Girl’ bit of the title was meant to be a sort of play on the Belle Du Jour books. The jacket, equally, had a model (that’s not PC Bloggs) looking at the camera in a way which was supposed to convey the idea that she had a secret of some kind, but ended up just looking mildly suggestive.

Based on the two, I fear the potential reader may have been expecting the memoirs of a hooker who specialised in punters who like uniforms.

In the worst of all cases, many people wouldn’t be interested, and those who did buy it would have been rather disappointed.

So, misjudgments all round, though, in our defence, it was quite hard to get right. It is the novelised truth about life as a modern female police officer which attempts to make serious points about crime and society in a humorous way: how do you suggest that?

If we were back in 2007 and I could do it all over again, I think I would have called it Life On Venus (as a counterpoint to TV’s Life On Mars) and would probably go for a more ‘chick lit’ cover – probably illustrated and possibly pink… but I still don’t know if that gets it, either. We’re currently working on the follow-up (which I think will be called Life On Venus) and may well reissue DOAO-CG in a new cover. So any and all ideas for both are more than welcome! (The Gadget cover returned to the Copperfield style.)

Thanks to Dan's generosity we have three free copies of Diary Of An On-Call Girl up for grabs. If you'd like one for yourself you have to answer this question: what is PC Bloggs' day job? Email your answer to Dan at "dancollins at mondaybooks dot com". Make sure to put "HPRW Trios competition" in your subject line and include your address, and on Monday June 22 he'll pick three names at random to send those copies off to. It would be good if you reviewed them in a couple of places once you've read them: if you do, remember to post a link to your review here.


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Crazy Name Crazy Gal said...

Is it just me or has BuffySquirrel completely missed the point??!
The publishers are admitting they got the cover and title wrong... so your contribution is to tell them that, er, they got the cover and title wrong.
Sheesh. I like that insight!
Personally, pink's OK for me, too!

none said...

You know what Crazy Gal? You're right! I shall remove my contribution forthwith!

Jane Smith said...

There was no need to remove your posts, Buffy: I thought you made a valid point, and I'm sure that Dan can stand a little robust comment. Especially when it's from someone who is actually agreeing with him.

(Does this mean you'll not be emailing him to put your name down for one of those lovely free copies?)

none said...

Lol, Jane, I'm in two minds about entering the competition. It would feel a tad hypocritical...but then again, free book!

Jane Smith said...

Yes, but think how great it would be if you loved the book, and wrote a positive review for it?

If you're not convinced, it's worth taking a look at PC Blogg's blog and seeing what you think. I think she's an excellent writer, and some of the stories that she tells are astonishing.

none said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's a great book; the publishers killed it--that's the surprise.

none said...

Okay, I entered...after the usual struggle with the mailserver.

Methinks the internet will break long before the Singularity.

word ver: herpling (a minor reptile))

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Jane, this sounds like an interesting book! I've entered the competition too.

catdownunder said...

I am ashamed to confess I would probably have prowled past the title without bothering to open it and having made completely erroneous assumptions about the that the publisher or my prejudices showing?

News from Monday Books said...

Thanks for posting this up Jane - we've had a few entries already.

Buffysquirrel - "The publishers killed it; that's the surprise."
Yep, we hold our hands up there.
I suppose we could have chosen another book to write about, but I felt it would be more interesting for people to hear about one which didn't go as smoothly as it should have! If I'd read this post by someone else while we were thinking about titles and jackets for Diary of an On Call Girl, maybe we'd not have made the same mistake. (I ought to point out, though, that the title was actually suggested by PC Bloggs herself.)
Anyway, like most people we make mistakes - I wish we didn't, because I'd be writing this from Mustique, not Leicestershire, but there you go!

Catdownunder - as I said in the post, that's the problem. It really is a very good read - not just our opinion, but obviously that of lots of TV types and so on agree - but the title might lead you to ignore it.
It's frustrating, but there's no-one to blame but ourselves.
The hope is that when we bring out book two, those who enjoy that will go back for the first one.

none said...

Learning from mistakes is all we can do most of the time :D.

PC Bloggs said...

Just to join the debate, I thought it's worth saying that the concept of the title and cover were devised between Monday Books and me as a completely mutual enterprise (the title was my idea). We pictured it as a "take-off" of Belle de Jour, thinking that the irony of title and cover would be obvious. Of course, it's hard to be ironic in picture form, and it didn't really come out exactly how we'd pictured (for which I entirely blame the fact that the final touches were chosen by a bloke). But actually it looked all right in soft form.

Personally I think the cover/title are only half the story, and that one of the reasons it was hard to come up with those is because we didn't want to be ridiculously girly and turn off the male reader, but also didn't want to go down the blokey route of the male officers' books, because the whole point is that this one is by a woman. So we wanted it to be obviously by a woman, but still get taken seriously. Easier said than done, because women's literature tends not to be taken very seriously at all. THAT's the real frustration.

Jane Smith said...

Bloggs, thanks for dropping in. I've been getting a lot of visitors from your blog in the last few days: thanks for linking through to here.

If it's any consolation, I take women's writing VERY seriously, and am grateful to you for contributing to my blog, too. Your piece is going to appear here on Monday next week, at 10am.

I heard two trailers for the serialisation of your book on R4 today, and another couple yesterday: I don't recall hearing so many trailers for other dramatisations, and I often listen to the station while I'm driving; is R4 promoting yours more heavily, do you think? It seems so to me.

Christine Coleman said...

I've only just discovered this brilliant blog today and I've found this post both fascinating and uncannily relevant to my own recent posts - having been deeply involved in the decision about the cover of my latest novel, I decided to canvass the opinions of potential readers- I was 100% sure that I'd be using my own favourite, but after a huge percentage of the responses (84 people out of 150 chose what was originally my least fsvourite, and I've been won over!) take a peek at my blog - there's a link to it from my Blogger page