It has long been believed that authors will intentionally select male characters and masculine book covers in order to attract male readers. The idea is that men are less likely to read “girly” books, while women will read anything regardless of the gender of the main character or the cover. Is the solution then, to end gendered book covers?
Author Maureen Johnson tweeted a challenge to her 77,000 Twitter followers, in reply to emails from men asking her to please create a book with a “non-girly cover”. Dubbed “Coverflip”, Johnson asked her followers to imagine that a well-known book was written by an author of the opposite gender and create a cover accordingly. Within 24 hours, she received hundreds of replies.
According to Johnson, we inadvertently perceive the quality of a book by its cover. Female authors generally “get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality” and because it’s girly, it is assumed to be “easier on the palate”.
Of course, most readers will agree that writers of both genders can write high quality books whether the book cover is decorated in hearts and flowers or not. If you look at the examples that were sent in for Maureen Johnson’s CoverFlip challenge, you will notice that when genders are flipped even on books we already know are exceptional pieces of work, the seriousness seems to change once it is girlified.
For example, the cover of Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island” appears as though we would expect it to – a creepy view of an island with secrets. The CoverFlip looks like a view through a cabana window, as if Shutter Island is about taking a vacation to Puerto Rico. Additionally, the words “A Novel of Self Discovery” were included on the female version. Otherwise, same story, same title.
In fact, there seems to be a common thread, at least in the challenge. When the author is female, the cover will include at least one heart, a photo of an attractive woman, soft pastel shades, and all things pretty – even on the flipped version of “Lord of the Flies”. Yet, the book covers written by or flipped to male authors, included abstract images, bold colors and fonts, and all things which exude strength, intelligence, and power.
We can learn a couple things from the challenge. One being that many readers, especially those who sent in covers for the challenge, perceive books written by women to be less serious, safe, and fairly simple. And two, we really do judge books by their covers. Adding a heart or a flower, or effeminate attributes can suddenly change high quality to low quality, even when we already know the book is a best seller. Which, when you think about it, is a little unfortunate.
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We want to hear from you! Do you agree that we should end gendered book covers? Does a gendered book cover affect whether you expect the writing to be low or high quality? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments!
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