Gender and Book Covers: Where do you Stand?

Posted 19th May 2013 by Tizzy Brown in BOOKS / 🗨1 Comment

There’s an interesting debate about gendered book covers travelling the internet at the moment, sparked by author Maureen Johnson’s tweet:

“I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy”

Ms. Johnson invented a challenge called ‘Coverflip’ for her 77,000 followers. The idea is to take a well-known book and imagine that the author was of the opposite gender, then redesign the book cover accordingly. There have been hundreds of replies that illustrate the perceived differences between ‘male books’ and ‘female books’. There were hundreds of entries, some of which you can see here.

Ms. Johnson argues that: “A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it”. She calls for an end to gendered book covers, saying that she would like to see books “freed from some of these constraints”.
She continues to say that there are many female, best-selling authors on the shelves, but they aren’t given as much credibility as male authors-largely because their book covers make them seem like writers of light and fluffy ‘chick lit’, when actually they write serious, literary novels.  She talks about how male authors still make up the majority of the literary canon that we study at school and refer to as ‘great’ or ‘classic’ literature. You can read the original article here.

In my opinion, there is sometimes a difference between the covers of books written by male and female authors, but this largely depends on the time it was written, and the genre. In the past, women were definitely given ‘softer’ looking covers, despite writing about gruesome crimes, violence, insanity and slavery.

This still happens sometimes, because most authors don’t have much of a say in how their book is presented. Maureen Johnson points to her own book, The Key to the Golden Firebird as an example. The novel is about three sisters who are dealing with the sudden death of their father, yet the bright pink cover, featuring a teen girl and a heart, suggests that it’s going to be a light-hearted, commercial Romance. She argues that it would look different if she were called Maurice Johnson. There are lots of similar examples. Polly Courtney dropped her publisher HarperCollins over the “condescending and fluffy” covers they gave her novels, and Deborah Kogan, who battled sexism throughout her life, had her book about her career as a war photographer renamed ‘Shutterbabe’ against her wishes. Authors like Jodi Piccoult and Amanda Hocking have responded in wholehearted agreement with Maureen Johnson.

So there’s definitely a problem with how women’s literature is presented and percieved. Maybe male authors face similar problems too-being given bold, action-focused covers that deny the romance and sentiment within their pages.

However, I don’t think there’s a gender bias across all genres. Romance novels are still largely written by female authors, but I don’t see a noticeable difference between the covers of their books and the covers of books by male authors like Nicholas Sparks. All Romance novels tend to have soft, ‘girly’ covers, as it’s still a genre mainly targeted towards female readers.

Similarly, crime novels all seem to have a consistent bold and edgy look to them, regardless of the gender of the author. 

The genres that push the boundaries the most are YA sci-fi, urban fantasy and dystopian fiction. With the trend for strong, independent female protagonists, the covers have got edgier and more gender neutral, whatever the gender of the author.

I’d conclude that nowadays the gendering of book covers largely depends on their genre and content rather than the gender of the author. Some genres do appear gender-biased (particularly Romance and Crime), but that’s just how they’re marketed by publishers to sell to the target audience. It’s adult literary novels that seem to be pigeon-holed the most, with books by female authors being marketed as ‘light’ commercial reads, when that’s not necessarily the case. At the end of the day, we’d be missing out if we judged books on their covers alone. You never know what you might enjoy reading until you try it.

Do you agree? Would you like to see more gender-neutral covers?

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One response to “Gender and Book Covers: Where do you Stand?

  1. I think there is still some of this bias, but as you demonstrated I think it's evolved into more of a genre difference rather than gender difference in a lot of cases. Interesting to ponder, though. Next time I'm at the bookstore I'm going to pay more attention to this and see if I notice a difference. 🙂

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