Book cover trouble: On gendering book covers and reading between the lines (pt 1)

Top-10 fems

In the process of researching the publishing world, from sifting through the profiles of midsized to micropresses, to wandering through bookshops and talking with book people, I stumbled upon a variety of opinions and resources that have gotten me thinking about gender equality lately.

It started with book covers. A few months ago, after a few hours of browsing in Rand McNally bookstore I realized how seldom I pick up a book by a female author I’m not already familiar with. But why? Do books written by women have such blatantly ‘girly’ covers, or does the back cover text reduce the books to stereotypical female themes so much that I quickly put down the books in favor of books which seem edgier and ultimately less female?

In May, an author who was tired of the gender stereotypes appearing on her young adult book covers did an interesting experiment. Maureen Johnson called upon her followers to “flip” the covers of favorite authors and reimagine how they would have been designed if the author had been of the opposite sex (or a different sexual orientation, etc). Huffington Post picked up the “Coverflip Challenge” story and it went viral, with thousands adding their own coverflips to Tumblr and Twitter.

Many bloggers used this opportunity to discuss the problem of gender stereotyping on book covers, in particular when it narrows the potential audience of the book. A lot of women writers and bloggers said they were also turned off by overly feminine covers and would prefer more gender-neutral covers with graphic design elements (opposed to photos). While this experiment only scratches the surface of how a book might be marketed based on gender stereotypes, it still provides lots of food for thought about why gendering books (as well as their potential readers) could be problematic.

Rachel Stark, from Simon & Schuster, wrote an incredibly incisive piece on the Coverflip Project, which addressed both how the “flipped” covers largely stayed within the gender binary. She also pointed out the insidious misogyny at the heart of people’s discomfort with covers they associated as being “feminine” (for example, one Tumblr user kept pairing the terms “girly and vapid” in her description of the feminine covers). In Stark’s words, “devaluing the feminine and those who embrace it is not the answer to sexism; it is a part of it”. Here’s the whole article.

Which brings me back to my bookstore browsing and my own aversion to book covers or blurbs that charactize a book as being too feminine for my tastes. Is it an aversion to the gender stereotypes, or the female perspective in general? As Rachel Stark says, it’s just as problematic to discount the so-called “feminine” as inherently inferior to the gender-neutral or masculine. Then again, this language is still firmly rooted in a gender spectrum, if not binary. But why can’t we acknowledge this spectrum of preferences and values without assigning them to certain genders? Or if one insists on gender categories, still acknowledging we all have elementsfrom both sides? Each person is a unique expression of these various possibilities. There is no black and white, just endless kaleidoscopic permutations.

In terms of book marketing, what could the answer look like? In a day and age where we have realized that identity is fluid, and gender identity is likewise a variagated spectrum, it seems terribly reductive to create marketing strategies aimed at men or women readers – not only because this excludes potential readers, but because it doesn’t acknowledge the real diversity of these audiences. At the moment, every publishing house is eager to get more nuanced information about readers – HarperCollins even has a new department dedicated to consumer research. I think categories such as gender have functioned as poor stand-ins for real data on readers, who can be grouped in a myriad of specific ways, such as fields of interest, profession, hobbies, media consumption, etc, all of which tell much more about readers’ tastes than their gender does.

I’m not saying one could or should remove all gender associations from a book’s cover or marketing texts, after all, the narrator’s perspective is ususlly a gendered one, and that can play a significant role in stories. But the idea that a certain aesthetic will especially appeal to women or men seems antiquated in an age where the the idea of “gender” is increasingly associated with “trouble”.

HAPPY PRIDE WEEK, to people everywhere on the spectrum!

PS: This will have to suffice as part 1 of a series on gender, women writers and the book world; I actually meant to write about the VIDA statistics, but a lot more has been on my mind. But soon I’ll be adding a link list of exciting projects focusing on women’s, feminist and queer perspectives.