So yesterday Maureen Johnson wrote an article about how common “gendered covers” are in the publishing industry. In an article for the Huffington Post, Johnson noted how frequently women authors are pressured to represent their writing in certain kinds of ways and—perhaps, even, to write about certain subject matters. Apparently—and this is news to me, though pretty obvious if you really start to look at the covers—the way this parses out is that women end up with covers that stress the romantic elements in their stories (even if they’re non-existent), because romance is what sells to women after all (duh!).
You might think to yourself, so—especially if you are a fan of the works of these authors, but as Maureen noted these gendered, frequently overtly romanticized covers have broader ramifications for women authors, all of which Johnson lays out pretty nicely in her piece. I can’t mince words here. We live in a society that is still rabidly patriarchal. Men’s experiences, men’s lives, and men’s writing is presumed to be more insightful, more impacting, and plain old more important. Covers that emphasize elements that have been deemed feminine (and this is a whole other can of worms) tend to alienate male readers (which also speaks to the larger question of how men are socialized) and sometimes women readers as well. So for women authors who have these kinds of covers, whether by choice or coercion, there are very real dollars and cents implications.
Of course, the phenomenon that Johnson is talking about is just a different version of the same old tune. In the same ways that women authors may experience pressures to write certain types of stories or present their writing in a certain light, people of color have long felt pressure to write certain kinds of stories or have certain kinds of cover images (though frequently this goes in the opposite direction of absenting people of color from the image if not the story all together) because of perceptions about the markets for their writing.
All of this boils down to the persistently insidious presumption that the white experiences, male experiences, heteronormative experiences, are the experiences that have a universal resonance. This kind of business model re-entrenches the notion that the experiences and writing of people of color, of women, etc., inherently cannot have meaning and value for those who exist outside of those groups. The reality that some men and women would automatically dismiss books with “more feminine” or romanticized covers speaks to much larger elephant in the room of how we are all socialized both in this country and across the world.
It’s something that I’m very aware of and defiantly ignore in the creation of my own covers. A perk of being Indie is that I do have a hand in the types of images that become my covers. I have the luxury of going with the cover that best expresses the spirit of my work (sheer vulnerable badassery in the case of the heroine of my most recent work). As I helped to design the cover for skinless (part I), my recently released serialized novel, I was very aware of the conventional wisdom about the audiences that I might both appeal to and alienate with the cover imagery that I chose, but—quite honestly—I couldn’t be bothered.
I can’t kowtow to the readers that will not purchase skinless because there is a person of color on the cover. I can’t kowtow to the readers that won’t purchase skinless because it has a woman on the cover and thus is must be a romance or something else unworthy of their time or investment. I. Just. Can’t. Because to do so would be to acquiesce to the status quo and to surrender to the idea that people are and will always be so very narrow in their conceptions of the world.
What I can do is feel a little sad for them because of all of the amazing writing and stories that they are missing out on because they don’t read books by and about people of color, by and about women, etcetera. Oh that and wish them luck in their future endeavors.