Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Coverflip Debate (though, really, what is there to debate?)

I have a confession to make: I judge books by their covers. I know it’s kind of inherently wrong, but we all do it, don’t we? After all, covers give us that first impression about what kind of story is going to be hidden within a book’s pages. Something with a spaceship on the front: sci fi. Sepia image of barbed wire with silhouette of a soldier: war fiction. Partial body-shot of a woman in soft tones? Chick-lit.

I find cover design and cover conventions endlessly fascinating, but author Maureen Johnson recently got me thinking even deeper about it than I had ever done before. After tweeting, ‘I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so that I can read it – signed, A Guy” ’ Johnson set her followers a challenge: take a popular book, and reimagine what the cover would look like if the book had been written by someone of the opposite gender. The results are not only fascinating, but also quite revealing.

First, though, take a moment to visit your local Waterstones. Wander down the bookshelves, through fiction and teen fiction, and take a look at the covers. What do they say to you? How often is a book written by a female author (particularly in the teen section) given a pink or ‘girly’ cover? What reaction does this illicit from you? What, after all, does ‘girly’ mean?

Johnson (and others) argue that there is a tendency for books by women to be given a female cover, no matter what the subject matter actually is, or even whether or not the protagonist is male or female. Sarah Rees Brennan points out that books by female authors are, more often than not, “Packaged in a way that clearly indicates that they’re a girl – and thus that the work isn’t as good as a guy’s… Books that look like that are girl’s books. Girls’ books aren’t good.”  The perception is that if a book has a girly cover then the words inside are fluffy, light, breezy, when in fact they are just as likely to be anything but. Why are we, and the publishing industry, bowing down to this?

Consider this: John Green’s bestselling The Fault in Our Stars. A book written by a guy, but told by a girl. It actually has a very non-descript cover that doesn’t tell you much about who the people inside are likely to be or what they’re likely to be doing and, as such, is not marketed specifically to boys or to girls, but is (theoretically) equally likely to be picked up by either. But what if John Green was Joanna Green? Most likely result: female author writing a female protagonist, equals female audience, which equals female cover, such as with Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (a book which covers a similar subject to Green’s).

What, then, makes one book a girl’s book, and what makes another book a guy’s book? Is there – or should there be – such a thing? Why does a book featuring a girl and written by a girl have to be marketed exclusively for the domain of girls? Why should it be that boys can’t read books about girls? I’m a girl and I’m perfectly happy to read books about boys and by boys, and I’m sure there are plenty of boys out there equally interested in reading about girls - as highlighted by Maureen Johnson’s tweet. But when they’re put off by overtly girly covers it’s surely a knock back for everyone involved.

The correlation between cover style and content means that because I think I know what kind of book I like to read and what kind of covers are generally used on those kinds of books, I know what sort of covers to look out for. But does this limit my reading choices? Surely putting pink and girly covers on books – covers that put boys off – means that boys are missing out on these great books, their thoughts, ideas and adventures.

Some of the new book covers created by Maureen Johnson’s coverflip challenge are absolutely brilliant, and in some cases (particularly where a female author is reimagined as a male author) much better and more imaginative than the originals, not only proving Johnson’s original point, but also made me interested in books that I hadn't been grabbed by before. After all, cover design is ultimately about getting as many people as possible to buy the book, isn’t it? And when marketing departments choose to stereotype books by female authors as being appropriate only for a female audience - targeting only half their potential audience - aren’t they automatically cutting out a big pile of revenue?

Finally: will the industry sit up and take notice, or will the internetish stir Johnson’s post has caused simply be a flash in the pan? Gender stereotyping shortchanges everyone involved, so why don't we put a stop to it? Either way, all hands down to Johnson for raising (or re-raising) a thought-provoking issue and asking thought-provoking questions. I don’t think any teen (for she is commonly categorised as a teen author – though that’s a matter for a whole other discussion) could go wrong by having her as a role model – whether they are male or female.

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