Judging a Book by its (Gendered) Cover

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By Virginia Kettles

In 2013, the New York Times bestselling author Deborah Copaken wrote an essay about her experiences watching her books be “girlified” for publishing.

In the essay, Copaken spoke about the publication of her first book, a memoir about her experiences as a war photographer. After purchasing the rights, Random House changed the title of her manuscript to Shutterbabe and designed a cover involving a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. It took a long fight on Copaken’s side to convince the publishers to rethink the design.

Such is the case for gender-specific advertising, and, as the saying goes, it doesn’t hurt that “sex sells.”

While there is little data readily available on the exact trends of this phenomenon, gender-specific advertising in regards to book covers has become increasingly common.

Walking into any local bookstore, customers can often find two kinds of books: ones with dark colors, thick, heavy fonts, and simple images, and others with lighter, muted colors, cursive fonts, and images of attractive, usually Caucasian, women. Some, as if by instinct, will unconsciously make assumptions on what kind of person wrote the book and, as a result, who the book is catered towards.

What’s wrong with this? Perhaps nothing. After all, a marketing tactic like that must be successful if it is practiced so freely. Consumers are perfectly able to purchase what they like. If that means we humans are slaves to our unconscious preferences that parallel the stereotypes associated with our gender, then so be it.

But this comes at a cost.

Johnson, a successful young adult author, wrote an essay about the uncomfortable attribution of gender and quality when it came to discussing books. According to her, books written by women, and especially books written by women ABOUT women, are often pegged as being of a lower quality.

“When I hear people talk about ‘trashy’ books, 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. When I see or hear the terms ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ ‘breezy,’ or ‘beach read’…95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women.”

Thus, I wondered. If femininity is not taken seriously in the literary world, what does that say about the book covers that employ the feminine theme so heavily? If a person is presented with a feminine-looking cover, will they see the book as being of a lower quality? Would they be interested in reading the book? Would they think the book could win an award?

As a senior in high school, I tested just that.

I created 3 pairs of fake book covers, where one was garnered towards women, and the other towards men, based on the author’s gender, the font, and the image in the background. I attached the different covers to surveys, in which I asked questions about what the book’s quality seemed to be, and whether the book was likely to win a literary award. I then distributed the survey to about 200 students and a handful of teachers at my high school.

The results were fascinating. While the gender of the author for the book Outsider made little difference when it came to the perceived quality of the book, the fonts and images in the other books elicited substantially different reactions. Participants saw the desk-and-skull background for The Study Side as being of a higher quality, and the bold-faced fonts of The Broke Test even more so. In comparison, the image of the woman-smelling-flowers background, or the frilly fonts, did not impress the participants.

It seems there is still a lot to be said about how people view femininity in terms of respect and reputability in the literary world.

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5 Responses to Judging a Book by its (Gendered) Cover

  1. Hannah Denham says:

    Virginia,

    This is really interesting and thought-provoking. Even as a woman myself, I realize that I typically only read romance books by male authors (i.e. Nicholas Sparks) and usually skip over the “dime-store” ones with sexualized cover images that are usually by female writers. Come to think of it, all my favorite books are by male authors. Thank you for highlighting my own subconscious literary prejudices and for encouraging me to diversify my book shelf.

  2. James Gruenberg says:

    Virginia,

    I too found this quite enlightening and timely.

    I am working in fits and starts on my first novel. It is a very “masculine” topic (the Holocaust) but has a female main character/villain (irony intended). As I was pondering my market as an after thought (rookie mistake) it occurred to me that the irony may be too difficult, especially as I thought about cover art. How do I draw a female reader to a “masculine” topic? How do I draw a male reader to a feminine character?

    It may also be a rookie mistake to overthink it but your post has continued my refinement of how those things are viewed. Thank you!

  3. Emily Cole says:

    Virginia,

    This is a very fascinating post. I had never before considered my choice of books as being driven by gendered covers, though like Hannah I now see a definite pattern. Your survey was very interesting and cleverly done. I was especially surprised that you found a large difference in opinion based solely on the bold vs. “frilly” fonts. Funny how such a seemingly small detail as font choice can affect sales.

  4. Arlette Hernandez says:

    Interesting stuff, Virginia! As a card-carrying cynic and skeptic, I pretty much question everything. If there’s one thing I will take away from my college experience, it’s Professor TJ Tallie’s iconic phrase, “Nothing is neutral.” That is certainly the case here. Marketing simultaneously interests and frustrates me. In order to draw a consumer’s attention, you need to play off of readily accessible tropes filed in the recesses of their mind. Yet, while this is convenient, at the end of the day, it’s also problematic, a sentiment which you capture perfectly.
    Tropes aren’t just easy, they’re too easy. They’re half formed ideas, stereotypes and masks that flatten and fail to capture nuanced complexities. So when we evoke tropes like “feminine = soft and frilly,” we participate in problematic essentializing rhetoric. Yet, if all that we consume is so entrenched in such discourse, how can we possibly escape such flattening, how can we achieve true social progress? I think that’s the question at the core of this post and if I’m keeping it real, at the core of my life too.
    Another question tangential to this post and my own previous post on the differences between UK and US book covers, is the issue of genre. In my first 300 level English seminar we discussed the genre of “Magic Realism” and its connection to a colonial past. Magic realism seeks to challenge the rationalism of European Empire through a mixing of the magical and the real–it is a genre that springs from oppression. Yet, because of this common interpretation, within the literary imagination, the genre has become almost exclusively associated with authors of color, effectively colonizing the term. In short, a term originally meant to liberate, now oppresses. Same thing with labels like “Native American Literature” and “African American Literature,” which often because of the genre label tend to be seen as “lesser” or “non-canonical.”
    I’ve always been interested in how marketing (the genre labels we use to organize bookstores and the covers we use to decide what to purchase) pigeonholes authors, trapping them within the confines of a lexical prison and your piece has given me even more food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  5. ferrise20 says:

    Virginia, this exploration of bias based upon book appearances is absolutely intriguing. I’m guilty in my own life of subconsciously casting judgement upon books that have been “girlified.” In response to James Gruenberg’s comment, I don’t think that such a novel is necessarily “masculine.” Must the Holocaust be considered a “masculine” topic? In my own reading, I’ve always been drawn to historical topics, hoping to expose myself to the experiences and sufferings of others. I’ve never felt that the various Holocaust novels and memoirs that I’ve read (from perspectives of men and women) have been generally masculine. Those events touched all aspects of life for both men and women. Simple historical subject matter need not be relegated to a specific gender. However, I agree with Virginia that the narration and presentation of a book can certainly affect a reader’s perception of its gender association and quality.

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