In which I meet Maureen Johnson and talk about book gendering

9 Jun

My Wednesday evening consisted of an impromptu trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival, after YA Author and Tweeter Extraordinaire Maureen Johnson announced that she was giving away a spare panel ticket. The panel was on the question “Do you judge a book by its cover?”, thus neatly combining two things I adore: science and books!

For Maureen-followers, an obligatory description of Maureen Johnson being just as strange in real life as she is on the internet must follow. I met her in the queue for the event, and she instantly started grilling me on whether I wanted a drink or some cake, insisting that I looked “in need of cake” and as though I “might be about to die”. I reassured her that I was fine and not, to my knowledge, dying, so she went off to get a drink for herself while I tweeted about the bizarre experience, because obviously Twitter is the only sensible response to Maureen. Once she got back, I turned the weirdness tables on her by claiming that I’d have to kill her if I told her about my job, and warning her to watch out for poison in her newly-acquired drink. She unfazedly assured me that she was “very difficult to kill”, then we were herded into the panel and entered Serious Mode.

The panellists were pretty interesting: the creative director of a major publishing house, the CEO of Waterstone’s*, and a neuroscientist who studies decision making. I suspect Maureen was more interested in the publishing industry types, while I was there mainly for the science, but there was one point on which we were united. We wanted to hear them talk about how gender affects covers.

Maureen’s written before about the ways that books by women get pigeonholed, and I seriously suggest you give it a read. Her “coverflip” experiment, where people took popular books, switched the author’s gender, and redesigned the cover “appropriately”, is a good visual example of what she’s talking about. And she’s far from the only one raising such concerns: Jacqueline Wilson, for instance, has some excellent thoughts on the subject and why she doesn’t want her books to be covered in pink.**

Eventually, near the end of the panel, the moderator brought up Jacqueline Wilson’s comments, and asked the panel if they thought “gendering” of covers existed, and if so, how it affected our judgement of books. The neuroscientist, who had the microphone at the time, replied that she hadn’t done any research into that area and therefore couldn’t possibly say. Which is fine: I respect someone who admits when they can’t give an informed answer far more than I respect someone who ploughs ahead with a completely uninformed answer. But there were 2 publishing industry professionals on that panel who might’ve been able to answer the question, and somehow the moderator kind of… glossed over them. It was a rather disappointing resolution to the question we’d been anticipating for so long.

The panel concluded with us being shown 6 possible cover designs for a new book, and asked to vote on our favourite. The book in question was an Austen remix: described to us as Pride and Prejudice seen through the eyes of the servants. It was written by a woman – two women if we’re counting Jane Austen, although her name doesn’t appear on the cover. The cover that won the audience vote showed an old-fashioned handheld mirror, with the back of a woman’s head reflected in it. I thought it was an interesting design, capturing the book’s idea of familiar characters seen from a new angle. Then they revealed the cover the publishing house had actually chosen. And I should add a disclaimer at this point – the fact that the actual cover wasn’t the winner of the audience vote (although it did come a close second), and that it wasn’t to my taste, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad cover. These people are professionals and presumably know more about what makes a good cover than I, or most of the panel audience, do. But it did strike me that the cover they’d chosen was by far the pinkest of the six options. Which brings us right back to the unanswered question about gendering.

So when, during the roving-microphone audience Q-and-A portion of the panel, Maureen turned to me and said, “you should get the microphone and get our question back”, it was obvious what she was talking about. It took me a while to agree, because I am generally awkward and ineloquent in public speaking situations, but on the other hand, I did really want them to answer that question. So eventually I held my hand up, I got hold of the microphone… and then the moderator announced that we’d had enough questions and that the panel was over.

Were we going to let it stop there? Of course not! We’d been told the panellists would be at the “Talking Point” afterwards, where we could catch up and ask further questions. So we followed (after a brief delay in which another audience member waylaid us and told Maureen off for using her phone throughout the panel – because, of course, Maureen was livetweeting. Protip: if something bothers you that much, maybe you shouldn’t wait until afterwards to let the other person know it’s bothering you). Eventually I got in front of the publishing house’s creative director, whereupon the following conversation ensued. Please note that this is all paraphrased from my probably-poor memory.

Me: “You mentioned, in the panel, the problem of book covers that don’t reflect a book’s content. Going back to the question about gender that was asked, how often do you think a book cover reflects the author’s gender more than the book’s content, and what impact do you think that has on sales?”

Her: “What do you mean, covers reflecting the author’s gender? Give me an example.”

I find the “what do you mean?” rather strange, since one of the examples she’d used earlier in the panel involved a case where they initially designed a book cover “to have wide appeal”, and when the book didn’t sell as well as they expected, redesigned it “to target the female audience”. Clearly gendered covers are something she already knows about. But okay, if she wanted an example, I had one ready to give her – straight out of the works of my companion for the evening.

Me: “Well, for instance, all the headless girl covers on young adult books by female authors.”

Her: “But that makes it easier for people to identify with the main character, because we’re not showing any distinctive physical features.”

Okay, two points to make here. First of all: a headless body is not devoid of distinctive physical features. Your headless girl is still visibly thin, white, and apparently able-bodied. These things are not default states of being! A thin, white, able-bodied woman does not somehow become a blank canvas with which any woman can identify just because you’ve cropped out her face. So no, you are showing “distinctive physical features”, and claiming that you’re not just reinforces all sorts of problematic assumptions about what’s “normal” versus what’s “distinctive” in a person’s body. However, those problematic assumptions were not what I came to talk about. Nor did I come to talk about why headless girls are used on covers. I came to talk about the fact that they’re used disproportionately on covers of books written by women. So the second point to make is this: a defence of headless girls on covers is an answer to a completely different question from the one I was asking. Time to get back on track.

Me: “But a more abstract cover wouldn’t show distinctive physical features either. Look at John Green’s covers, for example – like, his first book has a cover with an extinguished candle. Why is it books by women that get the headless girl treatment? It seems like those books are being labelled, by their covers, as being girly books that only girls can read.”

Other audience member: “But those books are targeted at women because men don’t buy them!”

Really? You’re telling me that most men would hesitate to buy books with pink, headless-girled, clearly-intended-to-be-feminine covers? Well yes, that is part of the problem. Culture tells men that they’re somehow lesser if they have any association with female-coded things: suddenly worthy of bullying, ridicule, and the questioning of their sexuality. So a feminine cover clearly sends a “this is not for men” signal. If you market something as only intended for women, and the resulting product is predominantly bought by women, that does not prove your marketing strategy was the right one. That’s like me choosing to advertise something entirely in Scottish cities, then claiming there’s no point extending the advertising campaign to England because our retail stats show that only Scots are interested in the product.

Besides which, “men don’t buy them” isn’t even true.

Me: “Actually, the first headless-girl book I ever bought was recommended to me by a male friend. He told me ‘it’s a good book; ignore the terrible cover’, so I did.”

Despite all the deterrents, all the signs and pieces of cultural conditioning that tell men, “this book is not for you”, there are still men out there who are buying and reading books by female authors. Just think how many more such men there might be if the covers and culture weren’t doing so much to push them away.



* My favourite chain of bookshops. I have a loyalty card.

** I do find it strange that Jacqueline Wilson tends to get such “light and fluffy” covers while dealing with such weighty issues. When I was in school, I loved her books. My favourite had a storyline revolving around children acting as carers for a mentally ill parent, and included some pretty dark stuff. This was its cover.


5 Responses to “In which I meet Maureen Johnson and talk about book gendering”

  1. D.S. Cahr June 9, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Great piece – fantastic that this discussion has progressed so much over the past few weeks. There really is a gendered response to YA – from both the industry and from readers. I have some thoughts about this issue as well, from a different perspective, here:

  2. Tasha Turner June 13, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    Why am I not surprised that they shut down and/or seemed confused by gender cover questions? I don’t care for pink covers, or featureless women, or half-naked people on covers (even if its romance LOL). It keeps me from buying a number of books that might be quite good but I’m afraid the book is going to be mostly romance and if I’m looking for SFF or mystery or something not strictly romance than I’d prefer a cover to let me know that.


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