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! 

10 comments

  • The problem with pink is that it is decisive. Men avoid it, even while girls and increasingly women are told to wear it. Brand girl has less power, status and respect than brand boy - we all understand this and in our efforts to have power, status and respect, many avoid the lower status brand. I hate all the gendered colouring, it seams no-win for women and girls. I want power status and respect and don't plan on reducing my chances before I even start with overt displays of pink.

    Commenter
    Elka
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 15, 2013, 6:36AM
    • As a child I loathed the colour pink, and refused to wear it. Looking back I realise that I knew at an unconscious level that the wearing of pink labelled me as an inferior being. My favourite colour was, and always has been, green.

      Commenter
      lizzy
      Location
      the deep north
      Date and time
      May 15, 2013, 10:21AM
      • "the wearing of pink labelled me as an inferior being."

        I'll remember that next time my wife wants me to buy a pink business shirt. Perhaps it would help if I do some Monty Python-esque "Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!" while in the store.

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        May 15, 2013, 10:32AM
    • I'm a writer too - but I know there's a lot more to design than simply colours and choice of image.

      I would be interested to read this piece from a designer's point of view as well, particularly one who worked in publishing. Also the publishers themselves could shed some light on why they would push one cover over others. I imagine this would be highly sales-focused, whereas the writer wants to see their creative vision realised. The push and pull between these two is what makes the designer's work difficult!

      I think the publisher's explanation "men won't buy anything with pink on it" is a pretty simplified explanation of what goes on in their marketing departments, and a bit more digging would reveal what actually goes on in the world of book cover design.

      I do agree however that simply choosing pink to flag anything female is utterly crap - lazy, reductive and in many cases really patronising (Mother's Day run and the breast cancer awareness campaign for eg). Would love to see less of it in general!

      Commenter
      designfriendly
      Date and time
      May 15, 2013, 10:49AM
      • A good article. I dare say though, that the predominant thought behind the cover choice is the profit margin rather than any form of misogyny or paternalism. Two books with identical contents, one with a pink cover and one with a blue one; should the one with pink sell more then that is where the money lies.

        While arguments may abound regarding the enforcement of colour reinforcement of gender may continue, people will still judge a book by it's cover and if subconsciously the intended audience are more likely to buy said pink or blue book, then that's where the marketing department will go.

        Commenter
        Titus
        Date and time
        May 15, 2013, 11:12AM
        • Interesting perspective on this, but not sure I agree. Rather than focusing on gender differences and their impact on cover design and preference, we might be better served to discuss what the digital landscape is demanding of cover design. There is an increased reliance on the postage stamp sized cover icon to introduce, promote and sell our novels. That digital reality screams out for more simplistic and arresting cover designs of every colour. When designing the cover for 'eloves me, eloves me not' , a romantic comedy about looking for love online (yes, chick lit, but with a geeky twist and a surprising depth!) this was definitely an influencing factor. And I wanted a cover that at-a-glance appropriately communicated what the story was about. Men and women alike are complimenting the cover AND enjoying the book. And there is no pink or blue anywhere in sight!

          Commenter
          LA Johannesson
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 15, 2013, 1:04PM
          • Interesting perspective on this, but not sure I agree. Rather than focusing on gender differences and their impact on cover design and preference, we might be better served to discuss what the digital landscape is demanding of cover design. There is an increased reliance on the postage stamp sized cover icon to introduce, promote and sell our novels. That digital reality screams out for more simplistic and arresting cover designs of every colour. When designing the cover for 'eloves me, eloves me not' , a romantic comedy about looking for love online (yes, chick lit, but with a geeky twist and a surprising depth!) this was definitely an influencing factor. And I wanted a cover that at-a-glance appropriately communicated what the story was about. Men and women alike are complimenting the cover AND enjoying the book. And there is no pink or blue anywhere in sight!

            Commenter
            LA Johannesson
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            May 15, 2013, 1:05PM
            • Hmm, arguably the worst cover on any book I've ever purchased has to be 'The Giant Book of SCIENCE FICTION Stories'. Edited by Isaac Asimov.

              Has a painting of suitably sci-fi attired people on the cover but, on closer inspection one is ringo star and another is jim morrison-

              http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/1854871501/ref=cm_ciu_pdp_images_0/185-4833215-9664917?ie=UTF8&index=0

              ha ha.. oh, it's just so bad, I can't stop laughing now.

              # But I bought it, used for $3 anyway, regardless of the incredibly crap cover.

              Commenter
              Alex
              Location
              Finley
              Date and time
              May 15, 2013, 1:37PM
              • I've said before about many diverse issues and maintain to this day: money is unbiased.

                If pink covers (or any particular style for that matter) are used for books targeted at women, it's because research, focus-group testing and analysis of historical data has shown that a book in pink, or using a particularly 'female' style will sell more.

                To some people, like Elka, above, this seems to necessarily entail a value judgement on women or that society/the man/evil corporations are 'telling' women to wear pink.

                It's a bit of a vicious circle but that's ALL fashion and it's not discriminatory - styles which are selling well are copied and proliferate. That is simple economics and it applies to everything in that sphere.

                And, as a final note, directed at Elka above, 'brand boy' does not have more respect or power than 'brand girl'. That's drawing a conclusion that feels right to you because it fits your world view but is beyond what you can reasonably infer. What you are thinking of is muted, restrained clothing with neutral colours rather than bright or unique clothing. I.e. clothes that say 'I am here to work, not socialise'. An equally valid inference is that men are 'told' that those are the qualities they should have - quiet, restrained, hard-working - and they should eschew other qualities like individuality, self-expression and creativity.

                But of course it is women who are being repressed and told what to wear and how to behave. Damn society for telling you what colour books to buy.

                Commenter
                RG
                Date and time
                May 15, 2013, 1:42PM
                • Just another reason to move to e-books.

                  Commenter
                  kindsight
                  Date and time
                  May 15, 2013, 8:03PM
                  Comments are now closed