On a chilly afternoon in late January, I was in New York City to speak on the “Successful Self-Published Authors” panel alongside New York Times bestselling authors Bella Andre and Bob Mayer at the Digital Book World Expo. The following morning, I was standing in my friend’s New York City living room in a blind panic with only two hours to make my flight home, wearing nothing but a form-fitting “sweater dress” (I use the term loosely; the thing was so short you could almost see my vulva), thigh-high tights, and high heel lace-up booties, looking for all the world like the kind of escort whose boss has the title of “The [fill in the city] Madam.”
I normally wear this lovely ensemble with a pair of skinny jeans and a long-sleeve cardigan of the same color. The problem? I can’t find my pants. And without pants, this outfit won’t fly. Literally.
Of course, I do have two other choices: 1) The outfit I flew to New York in, which now boasts an impressive kung pao chicken stain on the front; 2) The outfit I wore to the conference the day before, which involved thigh-high boots with four-inch heels and a hidden two-inch platform. These are fine for tottering a few feet straight to an awaiting cab; they’re no bueno for hiking through miles of airport—well, not if I wanted to have feet rather than bloody stumps when I got to Denver.
So I quickly improvised. Instead of wearing the long-sleeve sweater, I tied it around my waist, and closed the gap in front with a hair clip. Voila! A makeshift “sweater skirt” if you will. To the rest of the world, this looks perfectly ordinary.
Unfortunately, “the rest of the world” doesn’t include the TSA.
In the security line at La Guardia, I was still silently congratulating myself on my “fly by the seat of your pants” sartorial skills, when I heard a loud, impatient voice on the other side of the walk-through metal detector: “Take off the sweater around your waist.” I froze. “Ma’am,” he barked, “I need you to take off the sweater around your waist.”
Instead of beating around the bush (so to speak), I said point-blank: “I’m not wearing anything underneath it.”
This caused quite a ruckus as I got ushered into the rectangular enclosure a few feet away while they scrambled to find a female TSA ass-grabber. (I love these little enclosures, I really do. I mean, what are the chances that your fellow-travelers are going to be able to see your body cavity search through all that glass, right?)
A female TSA employee joined me in in the see-through barn stall almost immediately and said, “I’ve been told that you aren’t wearing any pants.” She used the same ultra-formal, serious-as-a-heart-attack tone a CIA agent might use when interrogating a spy: “I understand you were sent here to steal our nuclear launch codes.”
By this time, the plastic trays containing my laptop, purse, medications, liquids/gels, and full-length coat had reached the end of the roller belt. My carry-on rolled along, crashing into the bins and pushing some of them off the belt onto the floor. I was trying very hard not to scream in frustration (screaming in the middle of airport security is a poor idea), so instead of answering her I simply hiked up the wraparound sweater enough to show her that between the top of the thigh-high tights and the bottom of my crop-top sweater, there was nothin’ but birthday suit.
She took a startled step backwards, holding up her hands in front of her to shield herself from the horror of my thigh. “Ma’am!” she shouted. “No one’s asking you to do that!”
At this point, I’m certain this debacle’s going to end with me missing my flight and having my name added to the No Fly/No Pants List. But apparently the sight of my thigh was enough to convince her that I wasn’t a threat to national security. Not only did she not frisk me, she and the other TSA officials had a good laugh at my expense (I’ve so rarely seen TSA employees smile that I wasn’t certain that they even had teeth). They actually helped me gather and repack my belongings, with one of them calling ahead to the gate to let them know that I’d been held up at security, and that I was making a run for it.
Thanks to them, I made my flight. I’m not sure if those people make great airport security, but I think with the right training, they’d all made fantastic bellhops. Maybe even valets.
Now. Let’s talk about frogs. No, seriously.
By May of 2010, I’d finished a book I’d titled The Frog Prince, which is about a Denver sex researcher who meets the man who would have been the king of Austria—if the monarchy there hadn’t been abolished in 1918. I thought I had a pretty good book, but I also had two problems: 1) I had no idea what kind of book it was; 2) I had no graphic design skills.
Perhaps these require more explanation.
Point 1: When I originally started writing novels, I wrote thrillers. I’d read thrillers since I was a kid, I read them as an adult. I “got them.” Chick-lit, contemporary romance, rom-com—these were mysterious genres I knew nothing about. Sure, I’d seen movies like Bridget Jones Diary and The Devil Wears Prada (and enjoyed them very much), but hell, I didn’t even know those movies were adapted from books until about two years ago!
Point 2: After a failed attempt at traditional publication with my novel Virgin (A Thriller) a few years before, I was seriously considering self-publishing The Frog Prince. Of course, when you self-publish, all the things a traditional publisher would do for you is now your job—including designing a book cover. A reasonable person at this point would’ve researched rom-com, chick-lit, and contemporary romance book covers to see what readers of these genres expected, or to find out what kind of cover “sold.”
You’ve probably figured out by now that I am not a reasonable person. I may not even be clinically sane. So I did what any author stumbling into the world of self-publication with no graphic design skills would do: I used my mad PowerPoint abilities to design a book cover.
I wish I was kidding.
If you were browsing chick-lit titles in the Kindle Store in July of 2010, you may have run across The Frog Prince. If so, you would’ve seen this cover. If you were browsing chick-lit titles in the Kindle Store in late 2012, you may have run across The Frog Prince. If so, you would see the same cover. Almost without exception, every email I’ve received from fans in the last year and a half contains a variation on the phrase “I love that little frog on the cover!” Fans send me frog lawn ornaments, lighters, candles, bath soap. I’ve even received a crocheted frog tea cozy. They take pictures of frog statues and tag them on Facebook with my name.
It wasn’t until The Frog Prince became an Amazon best-seller in December of 2010 that I really took a look at other book covers in the contemporary romance genre. And what I saw was a lot of variations on the following: pink, pink, pink, followed by hearts, wedding cakes, wedding dresses, wedding rings, and pink. Which is not to imply that these covers aren’t good! In fact, one of my favorite covers is self-published author Beth Orsoff’s Romantically Challenged, and contains both pink and hearts!
So why am I telling you this, and what does this have to do with traveling half-naked? It’s simple:
Sometimes cobbling together a solution in a state of well-meant ignorance is the recipe for a better outcome than you otherwise would’ve had if you’d put a little more thought into it.
If I hadn’t been so frantic to make my flight on time, I wouldn’t have rigged up a barely-there solution to my missing pants problem. And without the TSA repacking my stuff and calling the gate, I almost certainly would’ve missed my flight home.
You know that little ribbon on an Amazon product page that reads “People who bought this book also bought…”? In the case of The Frog Prince, that little green frog on the cover stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of pink. Readers probably clicked on it thinking, “What the…” expecting to find out that it had simply been miscategorized. When they read the book description, many were intrigued enough to buy it and read it. And they told their friends, and they told their friends…
The Frog Prince might have ended up as just another pink rom-com cover, lost in shades of pink. Instead, The Frog Prince made its way onto three Amazon Top 100 lists: Comedy, Contemporary Romance, and Humor, rocketing all the way to the top of the Humor Top 100 ahead of both Janet Evanovich and Tina Fey in July of 2012.
So, with a better understanding of what constitutes the typical rom-com book cover, what are the chances that I caved to convention when designing book covers after The Frog Prince?
About as likely as me trying to fly again without pants.