This Just In: Men and Women Are Different!

One of the writing groups I follow on Facebook linked a post by Maureen Johnson on Huffington Post titled “The Gender Coverup”. Maureen took the stance, and eloquently, I might add, that publishers package books by women as “girly” and therefore view them of less quality in a literary sense. The conversation sparked a Twitter-fest about redesigning covers of current books with a “gender flip”. A follow up article with a slide show of some of the images can be found here.

There are a lot of issues to discuss from this, but I’m going to try to focus on one for today: the idea of gender bias or profiling on book covers.

First of all, I wanted to say that I thought many of the newly created covers in the coverflip slideshow were very well done. Many of them, however, for the books that I’ve read at least, did a poor job of portraying the actual story. Let’s look at Game of Thrones as an example.

The real cover for Game of Thrones on the left, and the gender flipped one on the right.

The real cover for Game of Thrones on the left, and the gender flipped one on the right.

While clever and nicely executed, I don’t think anyone who’s read Game of Thrones would think the second cover does an adequate job of characterizing the story inside. I know if I had purchased a copy with the gender flipped cover, I would have felt badly hoodwinked after reading it, regardless of the gender of the author.

So, to me, the question is: does the cover fit the story? If it doesn’t, then maybe there is some truth to the gender profiling notion.

Here’s a random sampling of some books I’ve read over the years by female authors. All excellent books by the way, GoodReads links at the end of the post. Click on the image to see it bigger.

9CoversbyWomenAuthors

This is hardly a scientific sample and it’s heavily skewed toward fantasy. However, looking at these as objectively as I can, I don’t see gender bias or profiling. I see covers that reasonably represent the mood and contents of the books.

One could argue that, being of the male persuasion, my buying habits tend toward covers that are gender neutral or have a male slant. I’m willing to concede that point. I certainly don’t gravitate to books with women in large, flowing dresses or guys flexing their abs on the cover. By and large, however, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that books with covers like that have strong romantic components. I’m generally not interested in reading romance as a personal preference.

As such, only one of these covers is classified as YA (Young Adult), The Hunger Games. Maureen and I both write YA books, and I can see more in that genre where a “girly” aspect to the covers is in evidence. But, let’s think for a moment who the large majority of those books are written for and marketed to: girls. The vast majority of YA readers are girls/young women. Of course publishers are going to create a cover designed to cater to the largest demographic. It only makes sense.

Big publishers are not the only ones following the money. Have a look at self published YA novels. The trend continues. Lots of pretty girls, elegant dresses, and hot guys. If there is any misogyny going on, it’s being perpetuated by the female authors themselves.

While I agree with many of Maureen’s points, especially the need for modernization and gender equality in our educational system, I don’t see a conspiracy by the publishing world to treat women authors’ work as second class or “trashy”. I know from experience that it’s difficult to find readers when your book doesn’t fit neatly into a specific category, as many of Maureen’s don’t. But we can’t blame our covers, or even society, for that. The simple fact is, men and women are different and are drawn to different images and stories. No one is the same and it’s our differences that make the world such an interesting place!

GoodReads links:

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

Robin Hobb, Fool’s Errand

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Elizabeth Haydon, Rhapsody: Child of Blood

Fiona McIntosh, Myrren’s Gift

Barbara Hambly, The Time of the Dark

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

Rachel Caine, Ill Wind

Melanie Rawn, Stronghold

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About Alan Tucker

Writer, Dad, Graphic Designer, Soccer Coach … not necessarily in that order!

Posted on May 9, 2013, in Books/Writing, Random/Rants and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. sharonledwith

    Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same, Alan? Wink. Great post on male/female slants on book covers! Cheers!

  2. I dunno, I kind of liked the Game of Thrones cover reboot. 😉

    I hear what you’re saying, but I think fantasy is somewhat of a special case because of the medieval tack of a lot of the sword-and-sorcery, hero’s journey books. The emphasis in the story is typically less on the romance and more on the battles — which draws in the guys.

    As an aside, I see a lot of dark, tough-looking covers in urban fantasy (stuff by Patricia Briggs, C.E. Murphy, and so on), but there’s usually a shapeshifter on the cover along with a woman. And the woman is often sporting a tattoo. It’s all about knowing your audience, I guess. 😀

    • Yep, and that’s exactly my point. Most covers are created with a target audience in mind, rather than the author’s gender. I just think some people are seeing conspiracy when it’s really a simple matter of marketing. Thanks, Lynne for stopping by!

  3. I agree it is marketing not gender.

  4. I’m curious though Alan, if you would steer clear of a book with a chick in sunglasses, carrying shopping bags, or something silly and fun… which had no romantic slant to the story? A lot of the slides in the coverflip post had some great fake covers like that, which would TOTALLY change the audience, I think. It definitely does depend on who your audience is (or who you think it is) certainly… but some books are neutral for sure, and I do think authors should try to have the covers designed as such!

    • Lisa, thanks for commenting! I have to say, yes, I probably would steer clear of that. And yes, a lot of those covers would totally change the audience, but would they remain true to the story? Game of Thrones is bloody, gritty, and gruesome. I don’t think the gender flipped cover would accurately represent what’s inside, regardless of the gender of the author.

  5. Very interesting! I’m going to bookmark this for my next book!

  6. Great post— and, yes, a book is judged by its cover, so thoroughly think it through and invest in a quality cover that will appeal to your target audience. Personally, I see ripped abs on a cover and lose interest. The gender slant reminds me of an article I read about J.K. Rowling. Her publisher had her go with her initials so boys would read Harry Potter. Apparently the belief was they’d be more likely to read a book written by J.K. than Joanne.

    • That’s very true Elise. Some of that stigma has gone away with the success of Suzanne Collins – lots of boys have read and enjoyed the Hunger Games, but it’s a difficult hurdle to jump. I remember shying away from female authors when I was young, even though now I read at least as many of them as male ones.

  7. Hmmm… not sure I agree on the Publishing world. While there probably isn’t a conspiracy… (noted reviewers are downright dodging conducting reviews of bestselling female authors, and so on – and they do their reviews based on the big pub house’s biddings)… they definitely are a screwy, skewed lot… I don’t trust a single one of them.

    • Agree with you there Ms., they are a shifty lot. What I wanted to highlight was that it’s easy to blame the big bad publishers, but I think much of the responsibility should go to the authors and readers. So many Indie books follow the same tired tropes for their covers, and look at book bloggers with cover reveal posts. Which ones do they swoon over? 9 out of 10 it’s the beautiful girl with the flowing dress or the hot guy with the exposed six pack.

  8. Much of the pressure to put covers like this on books actually comes from Barnes & Noble believe it or not. Several authors I know have had to change their covers to get B&N to shelve them. And B&N, apparently, are big fans of the vapid girls in fluffy dress covers. I think foreign editions and paperback or redesigns are really good demonstrations of what the problem is.

    Often the first edition of a YA book will be very girly – Beth Revis’s Across the Universe for example or Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me, the latter of which is not a very complex design concept. The redesigns in both cases however are more gender neutral AND more thoughtfully designed. In other words, once a female author has PROVEN she can sell books she gets a serious and appropriate cover.

    Then you have foreign editions. Read my recent blog post for more on that: http://angelhorn.com/2013/05/07/a-visual-demonstration-of-coverflip/

    Yes self-publishers contribute to this problem, but by definition their covers are simple because they don’t have the design team at Penguin at their disposal. And a lot of self published books are pretty trashy, so trashy covers suit them. The complaint is that female authors who write serious books are being given trashy covers because people see not only female authors as pulp writers but female literary themes as trashy. So a book about sexism at work = trash (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2037566/Novelist-left-banking-sexism-fires-publisher-putting-fluffy-degrading-covers-books.html?ITO=1490). A book about sisters and cancer = tearjerkers trash (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10917.My_Sister_s_Keeper). And one of the most seminal (excuse the irony) feminist novels of the 20th century gets turned into trash (http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/02/cover-story-bell-jar-reprint-artwork-generates-furor-and-parodies/)

    We are not imagining this. These famously incongruous covers (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/10/incongruous-book-covers) are all written by women, bar one. And it has a naked woman on the cover. Sex sells I guess.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts! Sex does sell and that’s really the heart of this problem I think. Sexism also sells, as much as we’d like to believe it doesn’t. I still think the main motivation behind some of these awful covers is money, not bias toward the author’s gender. The publishers know that the largest reading market are attracted to the types of covers we’re seeing, so they specifically target that market, whether it’s fully appropriate for the book/author or not.

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