The YA author Maureen Johnson recently wrote an article for The Huffington Post about how the gender of an author can specify the type of cover a book has and, in turn, the gender of audience. I work in non-fiction so gender specific cover designs are not a recurring problem but with the rise of the crossover novel and ‘New Adult’ fiction, more and more books are being published with duplicate covers for multiple audiences.
Johnson’s article argues that as a female writer her books are subject to overly feminine covers, regardless of content:
“A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.”
The bookshops in the airport lounges are a fantastic example of seeing gendered covers and Johnson’s argument in play – all soft, hues and swirly writing for women’s holiday reads and the men get dark covers with images of mysterious shadows.
Gender of author has never been something that I’ve paid much attention to – I pick books up based on their blurb or a good recommendation rather than who has written it. Like Johnson, I have read a fair few classics that would fall into the ‘boy book’ category and but looking at my bookshelf and my favourite female authors, I would find it difficult to believe that a man would comfortably pick up a Jodi Picoult, Daphne du Maurier or even Jane Austen with the covers that are currently on them.
“As a lover of books and someone who supports readers and writers of both sexes, I would love a world in which books are freed from some of these constraints. Maybe we should do boys the favor we girls received — a reading diet featuring books by and about the opposite sex.”
In reflection of this idea, Johnson asked her 77,000 Twitter followers to take part in an experiment called ‘Coverflip’ – to reverse the gender of the author of well-known novels and redesign their cover accordingly. Hundreds of reimagined covers flooded in and you can view most of them via Johnson’s tumblr page but here are a few of my favourites (original designs on the left, revisions on the right):
Looking at the contrast in cover designs, you can see Johnson’s point – I’m not sure Carrie or The Game of Thrones would have enjoyed their rip-roaring successes if their cover designs were more feminised. Would A Clockwork Orange have been a cult classic with this revised cover?
I don’t believe that Johnson is calling for universal non-gender specific covers or for publishers to unisex their author’s names but her opinion is an interesting one. Obviously this argument is dependent on a purely visual judgement of books rather than content, but (as we all know) first impressions are often lasting.