16 May, 2013

Coverflip: Sex and the Art of Book Covers

I'm a little late to the party when it comes to blogging about Coverflip. For the last week the literary world has been fascinated by a project which was started by the author Maureen Johnson through an idle remark on Twitter. In case you aren't someone who follows this sort of news, let me explain...

The Original Cover...
The idea behind Coverflip is to take a well-known book and re-design the cover as if it was written by someone of the opposite sex. It shouldn't make a difference, right? The sex of the author should make no difference to the way a book is marketed - a plot is a plot is a plot. But it's not true. Female authors usually - not always of course - get given covers which are much more "girly" than male authors would be given. This touches a nerve with me for two reasons.

First reason: I am uncomfortable with feminism. Perhaps it's just because in general, I don't feel unfairly treated (though I'm aware millions of women in this world are) - and I think men can be victims of sexism sometimes too. Don't get me wrong, I am so grateful to the women (and men!) who fought so that I could vote, go to university and work where I want, but I don't think women will really be free until we can choose to be a housewife or a mechanic and be equally respected for both choices. I don't think feminism always helps with this. Forcing women out of the kitchen is not the same as allowing them out of the kitchen. Insisting that we're treated as if we are the same as men is not the same as insisting on being treated equally to men. Therefore I just get a bit British and awkward when it comes to anything that's used to highlight how unfair life is for women.

Second reason: I DO think this part of the publishing industry is unfair to women - I don't want to agree, but I do! I'm sad that it seems almost certain that should my first novel ever be published, it will be marketed as "women's fiction", just because I don't have a Y chromosome. It's not about families or romance or shopping. Maybe a publisher will surprise me, but I dread the thought of it being given a pink cover and called a "summer read". Being pigeon-holed like that regardless of the quality of my writing is actually something that bothers/scares me a lot. The fact that I'll accept it if it means making a career out of what I love, makes me sad. Do you think I need to worry about this or is it a problem that will go away over time?

...Coverflipped by Gillian Berry
I have the very strong suspicion that if a book like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides had been written by a well-known woman writer, it wouldn't have got half the attention it did. Never mind the distinctly un-girly plotline, the word "marriage" couple with a female name on the cover would've had it in a glittery dust jacket before you can say Chick Lit. The Marriage Plot is one of the books that has had its cover flipped by people inspired by Maureen Johnson. Take a look at a slideshow of some of the beautiful covers - original and flipped - here. I thoroughly recommend it just for the fantastic art!

There are so many more intelligent and worldly people who have spoken about this in the last week, so I won't try to match them. Instead, if you're interested, I recommend this Guardian article about it. Here are a couple of quotations taken from that article:

"I'm sick to death of this. I am so sick of the constant, blatant sexism. And any time anyone points anything out as being sexist, they're accused of 'whining' or 'nagging' or 'not taking a joke. [...] More women read books than men, more women write books than men, but only a small fraction of books that win literary awards are written by women. Women are the publishing industry's bread and butter, we are the backbone of the damn entertainment industry, but we are constantly demoted to 'fluffy' to 'light' to 'meaningless'." Amanda Hocking

"I was critiqued for having 'obligatory romance' in all my books. When in fact, just last year, my book had none. Why is it 'domestic fiction' if a woman writes about family/relationships, but if a man does that, it's Pulitzer-worthy?" Jodi Picoult

Are there other groups of people who you think struggle with being stereotyped in the literary world? Is it just as hard for men who want to write light romances? 


  1. Oh interesting! I've not heard of any of this - clearly I've been painting too much. Love the cover flipping.

    I used to be a bit uncomfortable about feminism too, but feminism IS about wanting to be treated equally. To have my gender not hinder my opportunities. It was only in the past year or so, when I heard of how women in my work were being treated and how I was treated when I spoke to my solicitors about moving house - that I had to change my views. I've been lucky to have been treated without my gender being an issue up until this point. But it saddened me to see in many places/areas of society that it can still be VERY sexist.

    Many women, perfectly wonderful at their jobs and going above and beyond were turned down for a promotion, simply for "being a woman" (swiftly denied that was ever said of course). This is in a University, with EDUCATED people! Heaven only knows what is being thought about and not spoken. Also, many issues of sexism and jobs actually comes from women themselves! A test was done, where identical applications (except for their names) were sent to Universities for a post-doc and guess who got invited for interview every time and who didn't? Many of the sifters were women too. Goes to show that something deeper is going on.

    Anyway, I digress. It's a very complex situation and I don't think you should worry because it's too big an issue to have any influence on. What's more important - having people read it or getting prizes? Publishing companies market for a particular audience, and a more 'feminine' design might get you a bigger audience. Who knows!? I really don't.

    I'd struggle with not having control over the design aspect too, but I guess it's about trusting the publishing houses know their markets and what sells visually. My aversion to pink is probably in the minority. It's a tough one though.
    : )

    1. Oh dear - sorry for the essay!

    2. Essays welcome! That was more eloquent than the post ;)

      As a teenager I used to say I didn't like feminism, but as I've got older I've realised how silly that is. It's so important. I just think it can go too far, so some aspects of it make me uncomfortable. I've become more comfortable with it as I've written a character in my novel whose attitude to women is appalling! I am sad that such attitudes exist somewhere like a university, but not surprised. I've followed the Everyday Sexism project off and on and am amazed at what people still think is acceptable. I wonder if I'm sexist too? I'd like to think not, but I suspect there are some jobs I'd feel more confident seeing a man doing. Hmmmm. Interesting.

      I guess that's why publishers do it - they know it will sell more books. And I definitely want to sell books! I don't think I'll be someone to make a stand. Just be great one day if the sex of the author didn't come into the design at all.

    3. Yes and I totally agree. It would be nice. I would love to have just my initials on my book. But hey, more girls read anyway, right? So maybe marketing to the bigger market isn't such a terrible thing? But then, I'd like to encourage boys too.

      My head hurts!

  2. I think, with books, that the marketeers are looking for angles, and a well-defined (by them) genre helps focus on a target market. Which doesn't mean to say it's the right target market as far as you're concerned. I'm told that my latest book could be described as bloke-lit or lad-lit, and I wrestle with whether I ought to be pitching it that way. Even though it contains strong and varied female characters as well as the male lead. I think once your book is out there you can make the case that it's suitable for different types of readers. The cover, however, is trickier, since it IS how many will judge it, taking the cover to be representative of the contents.

    I think feminism gets a bad press because it's seen as one-sided rather than something that addresses an already one-sided equation. Maybe 'peopleism' could be proposed? I'd be happy to secede the copyright.

    The world is fundamentally unfair (somewhere in my blog I talk about equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome), but that's no reason not to do what we can, to stand by our own convictions, and to empower others to do the same. Even if we don't necessarily agree with them.

    1. *round of applause* Well said. Targeting a certain market is vital. The problem here is when an assumption is made about the target based on the author and not the book.

      Actually, you said something in a blog post a long time ago that really struck me and I think of often. You said something like "It will never be your turn. There's no such thing as turns". It inspires me in a good way, even if that sounds negative out of context!

  3. Hmmm... I'm unconvinced by the Coverflip thing, mainly because they've been done to prove a point, yet people (not you!) have been holding them up as 'proof' that there's a bias in cover design. It's a fun exercise, and it's produced some interesting images (although several look like terrible self-published jobs), but it doesn't prove anything.

    I was going to say that the female authors on my shelves don't have particularly girly covers ... but then I realised that maybe that's an indication of how this kind of stuff manifests. But it shows that it's not a case of all women being allocated 'lady' covers by default. The exception to this is "Day" by A.L. Kennedy - the cover shows a man in uniform and a woman sitting together on a bench, the title and author's name are in pale orange and dusky pink, the overall impression is that it might be a wartime romance. But it's a story of war and life in a POW camp and it's pretty hard-hitting in places. There are better editions now, but that's the one that was around when it won the Costa Prize. Go figure.

    If there is a type of reader who goes into a bookshop and feels that if she (big assumption there, I know, but bear with me) picks up a book in pastel colours, a title in swirly writing, with a cartoon woman and hearts and stars on the cover, then that's the type of thing she'll enjoy, who can blame publishers for pushing book designers that way? I've no idea if this is true; it would be interesting to know if there's ever been any kind of study into what draws different types of people towards certain books.

    I think the covers designed by Salt Publishing are a good example of images chosen to represent the story, rather than the author. They look really striking, and without the author's name on the front you'd be hard pressed to tell whether they were written by a man or a woman. Which, I think, is how it should be.

  4. Oh yeah, Coverflip certainly doesn't prove anything, it was just a fun game that came out of a serious point. There have been a couple of real life things that have brought this point into the media now - I'm thinking particularly of the new cover for Slyvia Plath's The Bell Jar which is ridiculous for such a hard-hitting book.

    I'm sure there are female writers who aren't making it on to men's bookshelves because of their covers, though nobody was ever saying it was every book written by a woman that was affected. Maureen Johnson's articles and posts explain the issue far better than I could/did. I'm also sure publishers only do it because it makes a book sell more, so perhaps we shouldn't complain?

    A couple of my friends who love chicklit have seen this as an attack on chicklit, but that wasn't the point. Chiklit-type covers are perfect... for chicklit!

    Everything I hear about Salt Publishing is good! They've really made a splash in the world of writing, haven't they?

  5. Before I begin my thoughts on the more important themes of this post, I'd just like to point out that neither cover appeals to me as a reader. It is the amusing and curious title that would interest me enough to at least find out more.

    As for this issue, it has caused me to have a rummage about in my own library. As a voracious fantasy reader, my own collection consists of a variety of book covers, from the chaotic detail of Terry Pratchett's Discworld covers (which to my horror are being replaced by much simpler styles) to the elegant simplicity of my books by George R R Martin and Robin Hobb. For me, the covers of Fantasy novels are not so governed to target a specific author's gender, although some covers may be prettier than others. Certainly its not as noticeable as in my collection of historical fiction. It troubles me that authors might find their book targeted at an audience they did not intend, or even be passed up completely, because of their gender. Sadly, as some female authors have resorted to male pseudonyms in the past just to get their work into print, maybe some will consider it so their work will be promoted correctly!

    Although, there are books like Bring up the Bodies. I would say that the cover (not counting her name plastered across it, of course) gives nothing away about the authors gender. Sometimes the plot has to win out, and making the cover artist read the book before they start probably helps too. And I'd imagine that different publishers work differently.

    As for the cover designs...last year I had a very enjoyable chat with a fantasy author called Adam Dalton and we got onto the subject of the book cover for the book he was promoting. Turned out he was not entirely happy with the design, thinking his character looked far too feminine, but was much better than the initial design he was shown. Apparently he was so horrified by it that it was changed. Again, that might have something to do with the publisher and how they operate, but I find it comforting that Dalton was at least permitted some input in the cover. Personally, I quite like the cover....it has a dragon on it.

    On the other hand, if I did read a book that I thought had a misleading cover I would point it out to the publisher. Fortunately, the books I tend to favour have very specific themes. I imagine it would be quite tricky for a fantasy novel, or a novel based on roman history, to have a misleading cover. But then again, I hate chick-lit with a passion, so the wrong cover could indeed make me look away from the book in disgust.

    Feminism is a difficult topic for me. I've been disillusioned by too many so-called feminists who cry out for equality in the workplace and in the schools, but in the next breath start mewling that nobody holds doors open for them any more. It's no surprise to me that women read a lot more than men, but to my logic, surely that means women are much better suited to writing books than men are? As I said before, women relied heavily on male pseudonyms in the past to get published, so maybe women writers just need to push a bit more.

    1. I do think it's much less of a problem with genre fiction. As you said, sci-fi, fantasy and history (such as Bring Up the Bodies) have a more natural cover design that is much less to do with the author. It's contemporary commercial fiction where this is a problem, I think. (I am shocked you say they are producing Discworld books with simpler covers! Those covers are ICONS!)

      I have a friend who truly hated the cover of his published book (which actually was genre - crime). He desperately tried to get it changed and the publishers were having none of it :(

  6. I've read quite a few books in my (short) life, and like you've pointed out, there've been one or two which particularly standing out as not-suited-to-their-covers which really is a problem - just because the author is male/female doesn't mean they HAVE to appeal to a certain demographic. It's another problem entirely that the book inside might be very suited to a person, but they may never get to read it because of the way it's marketed.

    I chose a book not long ago because it looked like a quite summer read from the outside (I was indulging myself on holiday...) but on the inside it turned out to have a lot more deep content than I expected - I really enjoyed it and thought it was written really well. I'm convinced that this is exactly what you're talking about - it had flowers on the cover for Pete's sake, even though it had nothing to do with the storyline, and you can say for certain that if it wasn't for the gender of the author, it could have looked a lot different and therefore be much more successful!

    This really is something I've never thought about before - I'm glad you brought it to my attention!

    1. Thanks for that example. That IS the sort of thing Coverflip is talking about. There may be a book a man would enjoy very much, but he's not going to pick it up (perhaps!) if it's all flowers and hearts on the cover.

  7. Exactly! And that gives us a distinct disadvantage as female writers!


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