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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.

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Should Authors Tweet? Publishing and Platform in the Social Media Age

Publishers Weekly’s recent article Teenage Tweetland by Karen Springen investigates the importance of social media platforms for authors trying to capture the teen reader. The article examines many of the top social media sites and gives examples of authors successfully using them to engage their readers. The article notes that some authors devote up to several hours per day maintaining their social media presence, while others consider it a burden. The verdict: a well-attended social media platform can help sell books, but the hot social media space for teens evolves quickly and authors will need to adapt.

The PW article demonstrates the importance of linking authors through social media with their audience, especially for books aimed at a teen audience. The article recommends that authors select platforms that their audience uses, but only ones they themselves feel comfortable using. Examples include YA author John Green, who has 1.5 million twitter followers, 1.1 million YouTube subscribers and over 400 000 Tumblr followers. While Green’s social media platform with the largest scope can arguably said to be his YouTube channel that he shares with his brother, Green asserts that Tumblr is “right now a bigger deal than facebook or twitter” and that the best use of Twitter is to promote one’s tumblr. Green says that social media promotion helped him sell “a LOT” of The Fault in Our Stars leading up and at its release. But a year after its publication, “it’s other people talking about it, not [Green], that sells it.” Green’s case is one that demonstrates the benefit of an active social media presence and fan base: it helps get the initial word out there, while engaged fans keep spreading the word after the book moves off the frontlist.

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Tumblr > Facebook and Twitter, According to John Green.

As a reader, I like to keep track of my favourite authors through social media – in fact, it is one of the primary places I learn about books I might like to read. Being able to engage with an author’s online content, and having the illusion of intimacy that social media gives, allows me to be a more involved reader and fan. I follow and engage with John Green on all his social media platforms, for example, in addition to being a consumer of his books; in fact, I was aware of his social media presence before I became a reader. The same can be said, for me, of Neil Gaiman, Maureen Johnson and Kate Beaton. In reverse, when I find an author I like, one of the first things I do is look for their Twitter account so I can stay connected with them – frequently I find that they have no meaningful social media presence (Daniel Handler, Jonathan Safran Foer, Donna Tartt, I’m looking at you). I count this as a missed opportunity for the author to promote themselves to their fans.

As a publisher, this engagement on established social media platforms is highly desirable for an author, from the acquisition of their manuscript to the publication of their book, because it indicates both a built-in audience and some measure of sales for the author’s book. As a publisher, I would look for an established social media platform from any new author I would attempt to acquire; if they don’t have one, I would suggest getting at least one platform, probably either Facebook or Twitter, depending on what the author is comfortable with, and the demographic they are attempting to engage.

Besides building engagement, social media platforms also allow publishers to mine data about an author’s fans. Through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the publishing house can establish information about where an author’s fans live, and provide concentrated real-life media promotion to those areas, adjust print runs accordingly, tap overlooked markets, or keep those destinations in mind should there be an author tour. The publishing house can also find out more about the readers’ other interests, which may help them discover new trends. The information about a customer’s specific reading habits (as discoverable on GoodReads, for example), or general interests (such as on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) has not been freely available in the past. I would argue that access to this trove of information is something that publishers should seize upon and use to their advantage, especially during the midst of the digital and e-reading revolution. Social media benefits both the author and the publisher: the author can interact with a fan base and self-promote, while the publisher profits from the author’s established fan base and free information on the consumers of the product. Overall, as both a reader and a future publisher, I think that engaging readers through social media has become an important and necessary part of the job.