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Gendered book covers are over, if you want it: Tumblr, Fan Interaction and Publishing

Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip project, which made the rounds on twitter, tumblr and news sites such as the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, calls attention to the differential treatment of male and female authors, specifically in relation to the covers for their books. Johnson, a veteran YA author, notes that the treatment of texts written by female authors still “is of a lower perceived quality” than work by male authors, and is so outfitted in “girly” packaging and reduced to being called a “girl book” or “chick lit,” no matter what the subject matter. Johnson asked her followers to take book covers and redesign them as if a person of the opposite gender wrote the book. Her call to action resulted in hundreds of flipped covers, with books by Salinger, Kerouac, Jonathan Franzen, among others, appearing with teenage girls on softly-lit pastel backgrounds, while covers of Lauren Olivier, Sarah J. Maas and Johnson herself lost those qualities.

Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user <a href="http://heart-deco.tumblr.com/post/49833231620/so-i-was-inspired-by-maureen-johnsons-post-to">heart-deco</a>. Used with permission.
Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user heart-deco. Used with permission.

In a follow-up post after her idea went viral, Johnson both defended the right to like the more feminine covers (after all, femininity is not inherently degrading!) and stated that despite the buzz, nothing is likely to change on the publishing end of things unless the readers speak out. She invites readers to not only consider books beyond the cover, but contact publishers to let them know what they as readers would like to see instead.
Johnson acknowledges that the writers themselves, for the most part, have no say in what cover appears on their book.  She also is clear that she doesn’t believe publishers are “trying to subvert the cause of feminism and keep us down”. Instead, they are just trying to sell books. The decision for covers are up to the publishing house, usually a team of editors, designers and marketers. The publishing team chooses a cover that reflects what they think is the taste of the market. Since #coverflip, it has become evident that the taste of the market is more broad than publishers previously assumed, and that gender-neutral covers are, in fact, desirable.

As publishers, I think it is important that the demand for gender-neutral covers is not forgotten or disregarded. Besides eliminating underlying sexism, gender neutral covers expand a book’s market by making it more appealing to all readers, instead of just those who are attracted by “girly” covers. Johnson tweeted “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy.” Johnson’s tweet suggests that there is an untapped market of male readers who are put off by feminine covers, and the following discussion surrounding #coverflip indicated that many female readers feel the same way. While this is not the venue to discuss why feminine covers are seen as unappealing to guys (and girls), it is significant to note that readers want book packaging to appeal more broadly to them, in order to help them find reading material that they like. If a gender-neutral cover could help sell more books, why would we as publishers not accommodate that?

06book  "Why We Broke Up" by Daniel HandlerInstead of creating another lookalike feminine cover because we think that’s what the market wants, those of us in the publishing industry should strive to deliver strong, interesting book packaging that doesn’t rely on gender stereotypes or suggest that women’s writing is inherently less valuable.

For publishers, #coverflip shows again the values of a fan base on social media as a means to engage and mobilize an audience, while at the same time it gives the publisher more information on what readers would like to see in regards to the books they read. In addition, Johnson’s call for readers to contact or tweet publishers with their concerns further highlights the role of social media as a way not only for readers to connect with authors but publishers as well. By giving consumers the opportunity speak directly to the publishing house, the publishing house is able to collect more information about what their readers want to read and possible new directions or trends to follow.