Following a recent discussion with an online book-club (which I am now ripping off for this blog!) the subject of covers reared its’ pretty head. Pretty being the operative word, and a pejorative one in this case. A male reader asked the question, why do publishers insist of giving female authors the kind of covers that men wouldn’t be caught dead with? Of course, there was also the argument that some men wouldn’t be caught dead reading a female author, period; regardless of the cover. In this day and age, I find that a bit sad to be honest. It just perpetuates this idea that women can only write about things that concern women – as if men wouldn’t find anything of interest in ‘women’s things’. Furthermore, what does it say about a man’s sense of identity, that he can’t ‘be seen’ in public with a woman’s book? All big questions, which I will now neatly side-step in order to get to the side of the argument that best serves my agenda. Girlie covers – what’s it all about?
Just to be sure I wasn’t being a complete hypocrite, I made a quick scan of the books I’ve read over the past few years and there is an approximate 60/40 split in female to male authors on my list. I think it’s only natural that we will veer towards our own gender, but I was quite pleased to see that my reading has been fairly balanced. I never really think about the author’s gender when choosing a book. My decision is based solely on whether or not the story piques my interest. That… and the cover. It was at this point I realised that the guy in the book club had a point.
One of the most important jobs of a book cover is to let the reader know, as clearly and succinctly as possible, what they are getting with this book. If I see a dark and moody cover with blood stains, I’ll probably keep moving. Crime fiction isn’t really my thing, but how many good books have I missed because of these preconceptions? Readers make their minds up in a matter of seconds, based on the cover of a book. So it follows that the publishing industry, rightly or wrongly, create covers that they believe will sell; even if this is at odds with what lies between the covers. However, there is an even greater divide when it comes to books by female authors. Regardless of their literary merit, many publishers seemed determined to shoe-horn women’s books into the kind of covers that female readers themselves feel may be undervaluing the author’s work. It has long been argued that the Chick Lit genre has become something of a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it has introduced readers to a lot of very talented female authors, but it has been marketed in so much pink fluffiness, that many of these writers are doomed to spend eternity on a dusty shelf, trapped in pastel coloured covers and not taken seriously.
A recent article by Emily Harnett in The Atlantic reveals the thinking behind these covers:
Like any form of advertising, book covers tell women what they want by surmising who they want to be.
I’m guessing the assumption is that we all want to be white, thin goofballs with a hidden intelligence, all wrapped up in designer clothes! Please don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing this book or its readers, but I am questioning how the author’s work is marketed and whether or not this is a hindrance to women’s writing as a whole. If you are a woman and you happen to write about anything involving relationships or family life, chances are that this will be your marketing strategy.
The following graphics from an article on Flavorwire show some examples of how male authored books are marketed completely differently. The jumbo writing is a classic of the genre, which almost screams ‘This is important!’ It demands to be taken seriously, and as such, lends an air of gravitas to its reader.
The female authors have markedly different covers. They are warm, decorative and while they’re not as garish as the Chick Lit cover, we immediately assume that what lies inside is somehow more feminine in nature. Would a man pick up any of these books? I would like to think that in this day and age, yes, he would. But why are the publishers trying to divide us at all? As an author, I would hope that both male and female readers can enjoy my stories, but have I subconsciously placed a barely perceptible ‘Men Keep Out’ sticker on my book just by the covers I’ve chosen?
And it’s not just a male/female divide. There is also the question of what makes a book commercial fiction as opposed to the more highbrow literary fiction? Who decides this and what are the criteria? If you’re confused, take a look at these covers for the same book and tell me the publishers aren’t playing some sort of minds games!
The first has a quote from literary heavyweight John Banville (a man!) comparing the author to Edna O’Brien, another literary biggie, and features a monochrome image of a child and an old man. The second, features a young woman with a tagline from one of Ireland’s most successful commercial fiction authors, Cecelia Ahern of PS I Love You fame. This is the same book, people!! How could a single story be marketed so differently? Well, on closer inspection, it turns out that the black and white cover is the hardback and the carefree young woman is the paperback version. According to author Jennifer Weiner, who treads the fine line between commercial and literary fiction, “Hardcover is when you get the reviews and the profiles, paperback is when you get the readers.”
So what they’re saying is, they don’t want to challenge us too much, but give us something wrapped in a package we are already familiar with. Are we such predictable repeat shoppers? I’m not so sure. One of my favourite novels this year was The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. It’s a mystery art caper, that takes us from the auction houses of London to Nazi Germany, and questions the true value of art and man’s desire to acquire beautiful things in search of salvation. AND YET. One of the male readers in the book club said he would never have picked it up, but his girlfriend had it and so he started reading it (and loved it). A woman in the group said she wouldn’t touch a book with such a cover with a barge-pole (the cover in question was the red paperback). The hardback features original artworks, while the Kindle version on the end features a palette and dispenses with the swirly writing altogether. In this case, I imagine that the publishers are trying to cast their net wide and get as many potential readers as possible, so why not do that in the first place? I really feel for the authors who have absolutely no say in how their work is packaged or marketed. Perhaps self-publishing will change the face of cover discrimination, or will we, for lack of any better ideas, just perpetuate it? The question we are all trying to answer is, what do readers want? Perhaps a little less cliché and a little more originality.
Sometimes I think we should just go back to the days when book covers were cloth bound and the title embossed in gold leaf. These days, we have grown accustomed to the kind of aspirational lifestyle marketing that bombards us for clothing, make-up, interiors and cars, but isn’t there something about books that should be held sacred? In reading, do we not seek to move beyond the shallow and superficial? I love book covers, just as I love design and art, but matching an image with a story is a tricky business and can often be misleading. I suppose the same can be said for blurbs, which are more often than not a bunch of sound-bytes to reel you in. The Blind Date Book Company is a fantastic response to the publishing world’s attempts to manipulate our reading habits. Their tagline, rather predictably asks us to ‘Never Judge A Book By It’s Cover’, but rather choose ‘blindly’, based only on a four word description. I think it’s a really lovely idea and an innovative way to broaden your bookshelf and find some new books to love. It is, after all, blind 😉
Whether you like my covers or not, you can get my books here: