Weekly Musing: Beauty Is In the Eye of the Book Buyer

Ah, the old saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Sounds so lovely, so mature but let’s face it, readers do judge books by their covers. And that is unfortunate. Publishers know this. Authors know this. Readers know this at least subconsciously.

What drew me to this topic was an article posted on the Historical Novel Society’s site. The author discusses current trends in cover art for historical fiction and points out sexism within the industry. Covers for books written by female authors tend to have the floating, headless woman body. Alas, covers for books written by male authors tend to have to the same image. The spouse to the floating, headless woman is the floating, headless armor-wearing, weapon-wielding male. Apparently only men are interested in swords and battles and women are to be fascinated by relationships.

The author uses the very funny, but accurate term of textile porn, I’ve also seen it referred to as costume porn as well, with regards to the clothing on the cover. A lot of historical fiction readers, me included, get giddy at the sight of period clothing and publishers know this.

But it’s not just historical fiction that suffers from this affliction. These types of trends can be found in virtually every genre. Science fiction/fantasy usually have some kind of creature looking menacing, a hero/heroine looking menacing, a villain looking menacing, bright colors, or something more stark if the subject is the apocalypse. Chick-lit books usually have baby pastel colors, a torso in front of a solid color background, or a woman with some kind of cheeky look on her face. Westerners have a cowboy and his horse. Horror has well, dead bodies, or parts of bodies on the cover. You get the idea.

What I have found a bit disturbing is the author is almost always excluded from any say in the cover art. Some publishers will bounce ideas by the author or the author will have a say but for the most part, the decisions are left up to the marketing department. And the marketing department will go with what everyone else is using.

When book covers became more than just a solid color with gold lettering noting the book’s name and author, the covers would frequently showcase original artwork. This would usually be done by a book cover artist. The artwork may or may not accurately reflect the book’s contents. Later covers transitioned into photographs. But as technology has improved, it has become more economical to use stock photographs and manipulate them. Models get used over and over again and similar fonts get used over and over again. In many cases the models used on the cover don’t even reflect any of the main characters in the book.

And so we have homogenous book covers. Yet there are many, many book covers that do strive for individuality and gender neutrality. The Twilight series has beautiful covers. Abstract and follow a particular color scheme. You don’t tell what the story is about so you read the back cover.

Another distressing trend in book covers is sexism. In an article appearing on The Guardian website, it discusses book cover trends in Young Adult books. The author argues, and I agree, that books aimed at Young Adult readers shouldn’t be segregated to just girl books or boy books. Pink covers are for girls, blue covers are for boys and never shall the two crossover. It reinforces the notion only girls experience certain emotions and feelings that boys don’t have and vice versa. Yet many of themes written about in Young Adult books are universal.

Unfortunately by the time a reader has reached adulthood, the sexism in book covers does not stop. Oddly enough, many female readers don’t have many hesitations about purchasing a book with a more ‘masculine’ cover but male readers do about ‘feminine’ covers. In an interview with Author Magazine, Emily Giffin mentioned her covers and how she believes it turns male readers away from her books. Her books have pale pastel colors with cutesy motifs like a wedding ring or baby carriage or heart, you get the idea. Yet her books are locked into this because it is what helps sell her books.

In a wonderful article, by Maureen Johnson , she does what she calls a cover flip. She shows how the stark contrast in covers depending upon the gender of the author. She asked readers to create their own and the results are startling. And they are not exaggerations. Search your local bookstore or online and take a look at covers by male authors vs. female authors. These isn’t to say that all book covers are gender biased, they’re not but if a book publisher truly wants to help sales, stop insulting the reader by pandering to gender. Pander to their intellect instead.

Finally, one other thing I’ve learned is there can be different covers based on what country a book is being marketed in. For example, US vs. UK covers. Take a look at some of the covers in this article posted on The Millions. As you can see, some of the differences are quite drastic. Again, it comes down to marketing departments at the publishing houses. What works in one country doesn’t sell as well in another country. Or so they think. I must admit I prefer some of the UK covers over the American version. In particular the books by Hilary Mantel, Madeline Miller, Lauren Groff, and Kevin Powers. With the exception of a couple of the books shown, these covers are also a good example of gender neutral covers.

In looking at my own book collection, the covers I love the most are: Free Food for Millionaires, The Coffee Trader, Love Returns Through the Portal of Time, Brave New World, 1984, and Wench. Any Ken Follett covers because they are always gender neutral. None of these really scream male or female nor do they give away what the book is about. It forces me to read the back or the inside book cover to get determine if I want to read the book or not. What a novel concept!

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