Judging a Book by Its Gender

Readers, for better or worse, judge books by their covers. We all do, and the industry knows this. Cover designers have a tiny window of time in which to seize a reader’s attention—if they can sway the reader to pick up the book, the reader is five times more likely to purchase it— and they must make a shrewd effort to utilize this window effectively. Much of this effort concentrates on engaging a specific target audience. Book jackets are painstakingly tailored to reflect not only the content of the book but the reader the book is meant for. In addition to being characterized by demographic identifiers such as age, location, and education level, this reader is almost always given a gender.

Thus, so is the book’s cover design. In today’s market, books are highly gendered objects. There is no overlooking that—the visual cues are not exactly inconspicuous. However, women make up about 80 percent of book buyers in today’s US fiction market. Women are also more likely to be heavy buyers, and publishers primarily target heavy buyers who account for most of their sales. In a survey carried out in 2000 for the Orange Prize for Fiction, it was found that “women are far more likely to read books regarded as male reads (40 percent of the women in the survey), with only a quarter of men interested in a book if they regarded it as a female read” (Clark and Phillips 2014, p. 230). Women make up the bulk of sci-fi readership in addition to romance readership. They aren’t put off by “masculine” covers.

Yet women writers still find themselves marginalized on the shelf by curly script and a florid indulgence of pink. Which begs the question: to what purpose, when women already read everything?

Here’s a hypothesis: Hyperfeminine design elements on book covers probably aren’t intended to attract women. They’re intended, whether consciously or not, to shrink the work of women writers and to repel men.

While masculinely-coded books get to occupy aesthetic space we might describe as neutral, especially in literary fiction, femininely coded books are routinely gussied up with colors, fonts, and images that invoke an infantilizing sense of feminine triviality. Almost to comedic effect—these highly gendered elements are applied even when the book’s content runs perpendicular to the expectations they conjure.

One need only look to the oft-scorned covers of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for an example. The pastel-colored images of children and weddings suggest stereotypically cloying, sentimental books about motherhood and romance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with books about motherhood or romance, but the implication is a far cry from Ferrante’s fierce and unsparingly candid bildungsromans. Not convinced? Give the jacket of Faber’s 50th-anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar a peek. What does a woman powdering her face in a compact mirror have to do with a roman à clef about a dark and frightening descent into mental illness? What conclusions might a reader draw about The Bell Jar if they’d never heard of it before and had just spotted this edition in a bookstore?

Perhaps such a reader would assume The Bell Jar was frivolous and low-quality. Certainly one message on both Plath and Ferrante’s covers is loud and clear: These books are about girl things. These books are not of interest to men.

Let’s examine two design elements that communicate ideas about gender on book covers, and how those elements affect a book’s perceived quality.

Color palette

Pink is the big offender here. Feminine books often feature a splash—or a deluge—of bright color, especially pink. One wonders whether pink functions as a kind of Darwinian signal in bookshops: a danger warning for men like the stripes on a coral snake. Red touching black, safe for Jack. Pink touching yellow, emasculate a fellow.

Masculine books, meanwhile, stake an almost exclusive claim on neutrals. Palettes stay cooler and covers are often blue or brown.

The visual messaging here? Masculine books, in their muted, grown-up colors, are serious and authoritative. Feminine books, in their brights and pastels, are childish and superficial.

Typeface

Certain kinds of fonts are so firmly entrenched in the collective conscious as indicators of “chick lit” that they look out of place on anything that isn’t marketed aggressively to women. These are the fonts of makeup packaging, boutique salon signs, and wedding invitations. They are looped, curly, and embellished, and they congregate like unwanted guests on many books by women authors. Script fonts and cursive handwritten fonts loudly warn the beholder that a book is a “female read.”

Masculine fonts are serious. They invoke a promise of authority or creative genius. They are often tall or heavy sans serifs—the kinds of fonts that dominate the covers of business books and thrillers, both genres overwhelmingly gendered by masculine design. If a handwritten font is used, there isn’t a loop in sight. Capital letters are often utilized, as is a classic canon of well-used, well-loved serifs, especially in literary fiction—another genre ruled by masculine design. Or neutral design, as far as neutral means not-feminine.

The message is similar to that conferred by palette. Masculine fonts present content as timeless, high-quality, and universal. Feminine fonts present content as trivial, low-quality, and “trashy,” a term often invoked to mean enjoyable for women and women only.

Because neutral design elements are applied to books by male authors but rarely to those by female authors, books deemed female exist in a quarantine. They remain separate; their jackets belie the publishing industry’s perception of women authors and their work as inferior. Such jackets also embody a long-held assumption that men cannot relate to books by or about women. Thus they become self-fulfilling prophecies, perpetuating a static loop of devaluation and avoidance by male readers, who likely fear the social consequences of a gender transgression.

But how much of this fear has more to do with gendered covers than with the gender of a book’s author or protagonist? Would the number of men who read women authors rise if we stopped belittling the work of women authors with unnecessarily and often nonsensically hyperfeminine design? Would we begin to take the work of women authors more seriously overall? Would the publishing industry?

If we as book designers commit to confronting this problem in our own work—especially when it is subconscious and deeply internalized—perhaps, finally, we can begin normalizing women’s writing as valuable and of equal quality on the shelf.

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