Making books 'women-friendly'

The US book cover  of Sarah MacDonald's <i>Holy Cow</i>.

The US book cover of Sarah MacDonald's Holy Cow.

I love pink. Not soft pastel or bubble gum pink but dark, vibrant cerise. So when my book Holy Cow came out I adored the Indian pink back cover and spine.  After rejecting a front cover featuring snake charmers and broken down buses and suggesting Shiva (the Lord of Destruction) for the front, I wanted the rest to signify feminine Shakti power, the flash of a sari and the lotus flower of perfection that arises from the muck. 

I didn’t think about gender at all.  Let alone the book looking or being ‘girly’.

Yet when Holy Cow came out in the UK and Holland the back cover and spine had become blue.  The publishers explained that men wouldn’t read a pink book in the tube or bus.  I laughed and accepted their wisdom that Aussie men were more comfortable in their masculinity than Europeans. The Americans (after putting sunglasses on the god) and the Czech went with yellow, the Estonians orange.  The Germans removed and replaced the splendid god with a boring butter lamp and a turgid title that translated as ‘where does one go to be enlightened?’

A mock up of of a 'male' version of Sarah MacDonald's <i>Holy Cow</i>, by Daily Life.

A mock up of of a 'male' version of Sarah MacDonald's Holy Cow, by Daily Life.

Obviously there are cultural differences at play in the book market.


But gender is massive. 

There’s no doubt book covers are becoming increasingly gendered.  Much was made of the reissue of Sylvia Plath’s seminal novel The Bell Jar.  Gone were the striking concentric circles that descended into a vortex, replaced by a weird woman putting on make-up.  Some writer friends of mine didn’t care about the makeover, but others howled. Jezebel gave us other tacky reissues; Anne of Green Gables looking like a soft porn blond and Virginia Woolf’s suffragette novel Night and Day with side boob.

American writer Maureen Johnson recently bemoaned the fact that female authors are much more likely to be given a cover that is ‘girly’, of a lower perceived quality or that signifies an easier read. Infuriated there are 'girl books' and 'boy books', she put out a challenge for others to take a well-known book and re-imagine the cover if it was written by the opposite gender.  

Maybe there’s something wrong with me but I’m drawn to the 'male covers'.  Perhaps I’m an intellectual snob yet I’m actually not literary leaning.  It’s more that the male covers have a strength and vibrancy. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume pink books with ethereal girls, red-lipped lovelies or sexy legs on the cover are less intelligent than others. I love women’s stories and have dismissed books I’ve later loved because the cover was too ‘feminine’.  Perhaps it’s my inner sexism, my superficiality at judging a book by its cover, or publishers’ fault for selling the books short.

When Tara Moss releases a book in Australia she has some say about the cover.  For Assassin, she was keen for her name to be in pink to contrast with the very hard black and white image of the woman holding the weapon. “I felt that something about those visual elements and the tension of the feminine/masculine represented an aspect of the conflict Mak (the main character) experiences in the book. It would be a mistake to think that pink, or what is perceived as 'feminine glamour' represents weakness.”

In Brazil, Moss’s books have been released under the name “T Moss’.  Having a non-gender title is one way around the cover dilemma and the entire perception of author as female. We’ll never know whether JK Rowling, PD James, George Eliot and others would have sold nearly as many books if they had used their full names. Yet all knew men’s books are more likely to be reviewed and taken seriously.  As Tara Moss notes in this essay, in the 2011 New York Review of Books 627 male writers were reviewed, 143 female.  

Even for authors of so called ‘chick lit’, this is a factor.  Lisa Miller’s first cover Liar Bird was very girly; attracting women to pick it up, but not reviewers. Her second cover for Sex, Lies and Bonsai was plainer and more widely reviewed. When Brigid Delaney went to meet the designers about her book, This Restless Life, she was steeling herself for a gendered cover.  There was an early mock up of a pink cover but she was incredibly relieved when they showed her the blue version that hit the stands.  Delaney knows other writers who were pitched for a certain market that pushed pink and felt they had to go with it. 

Recently, as a fundraiser, Penguin re-released 12 classics with hot pink instead of orange on the covers – including The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary and Alice in Wonderland.  Writer, feminist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich may scream if she saw them.  Her book Smile or Die was inspired by her experience of breast cancer where she found herself endlessly confronted by ‘a whole bunch of idiotic pink products, from proud cancer-defying sweatshirts and breast cancer candles, to a teddy bear with a breast-cancer ribbon sewn on its chest.’ For Ehrenreich, a breast cancer culture about pretty and femme that repressed women back to being a little girl was infuriating. 

Perhaps the book industry is going the same way.

Before we get too irate, let’s understand where the covers are coming from. Publisher and agents will tell you that women buy books.  Men may buy history and biographies but eighty percent of novels are on the woman’s side of the bed.  This is why book groups serve wine and cheese rather than beer and writers festivals are a sea of women.

The fact is: women read.

So in a way, nearly all novels are ‘chick lit’.

But fact is those writers festivals sport a lot of grey hair.  Hence, publishers are keen to get younger women buying books.  That’s what these covers are about.  They’re assuming they need to sport a certain young feminine style. Perhaps it’s not women writers or women readers who should be offended but young women.  But let's face it: if these covers weren’t working they probably wouldn’t be used.   A publisher told me that recently in the UK there were endless books of candy coloured text and ditsy looking girls with high heeled shoes and champagne bubbles on the front.  They didn’t sell as well here so we were almost spared. 

It’s interesting that the biggest chick lit or rather ‘clit lit’ of recent times, Fifty Shades of Grey, had such a masculine, monochrome cover. Perhaps it was signalling this book is so hot you don’t need colour. Or perhaps it was so women wouldn’t feel self-conscious reading it in public.  Or men.

One day when my dad picked up my big sister from gymnastics at the YMCA she realised instead of watching her cartwheels he was giggling his head off behind a newspaper.  She found out the paper was actually a screen for Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying -- a romp and feminist classic where she yearns for a ‘zipless f-ck’.

Which only goes to show men will read ‘women’s books’. 

So I suggest the publishers do a real cover flip.  Put out some so called ‘chick lit’ with big words and simple strong images. We just may get men reading fiction!