Gender & Historical Fiction & Marketing

There’s been a lot of talk about sexism in genre recently. There have been those who were very wise and those who opened up a can of worms. It put the subject of the gender divide firmly in my mind, so I thought I’d mention something about historical fiction and how it’s marketed. I was in Waterstone’s the other day, looking for some historical novels, and was staggered at the gender binary with regards to cover art. You could split the genre in two broad cover categories.

First up, the epic tale book. Written by a man. About a manly war, perhaps. So manly, we’ll pop a super tough man on the cover, so you know he’s a real man. (Sometimes with a weapon, too, just in case you didn’t get the idea.) For example:

Of course, I exaggerate – but I was surprised (and this is me, a former bookseller) at just how many historical novels shared this war-pr0n style. On the other hand, there is the the other type of historical novel, the more feminine side of the genre, shall we say, replete with woman in period costume on the cover:

Again, repeat and fade, alter the dress and pose and setting, perhaps, but you get the idea. For the vast majority of faced-out books in the store, and for the historical fiction display that I looked at for a good while, this was the case. The displays really do enforce the binary.

These are extreme examples, but it leads to questions about gender binary in book marketing. Publishing is a business, of course, and a lot of money is pushed about – these cover art decisions are taken solely to sell as many copies as possible, so publishers will stick to this comfortable approach (though they occasionally don’t).

How much of such marketing actually contributes to the problem of gender divides in the readership? Part of the whole SF and sexism debate was contemplating the issues at a broad level – which is more likely to be affected by things like cover art than a blogosphere that regularly debates issues. So, is what’s happening in the historical genre some kind of book-cover segregation, women through the pink door, men through the blue, and how much does that stop each gender crossing over? (And apologies for sticking to the genre binary here in the first place, people.) I do think that if a male reader, for example, becomes conscious of the way the books are marketed, he will be more likely to read a book by a female author even if it had the most garish period-costume-fetish of a front cover. Readers are in control once they’re more aware of such things.

Anyway, all just random thoughts that came from book browsing. What outsiders would say about the SFF genre?

Share this Story

About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I would generally disagree with you because the covers do, in a way, represent the books. The Red Queen would look a bit daft with a bloke on the cover, wouldn’t it? It’d also be somewhat misleading. The same goes for the cover for The Gladiator – It looks representative of the book. If it was a woman on there, it would also be potentially misleading.

    There are, however, cases where it is evident. I believe it’s Elizabeth Chadwick and her William Marshall books that show it best. Despite having a male protagonist, or at least a consistent male character, they all have women in form f- Ahem, sorry, got a bit giggly there. They mostly have headless women in period costume over all of them. Yes, it’s a consistent theme, but they don’t stand out from her other books. I think one or two have a headless guy, but not many.

    It’s not something I find particularly bothersome. I’m more put off books by overtly sexualised covers, as is prominent in Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance, where you have the leather-clad rear end of a woman adorning the cover, or some topless beefcake posing rather camply with a waif of a female.

    I do think there is a reason for it. Women will gravitate towards certain kinds of books, men towards others. If people are put off a book that is potentially aimed at the other gender (Such as the Roman novel above), then I’d suggest that maybe it’s their problem rather than that of the publisher.

  2. I was hoping someone would say that – you’ve fallen into the gender trap. You’re basically saying that these books are either for women or men, and their covers should communicate wither with the XX or XY chromosomes. That’s enforcing the status quo, and does no one any good. For example, look at the fantasy genre – the most brutal warring books are Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin, for example, yet for their main release cover art does not include only a man on the cover does it? NK Jemisin writes books with a strong feminist leaning, but her covers appeal to those across the gender spectrum. This way the books appeal to anyone, irrespective of gender.

    It’s also worth looking at the crime genre, which is by and large as gender neutral as a genre can be with respect to cover art, no matter who the book is aimed at.

  3. Personally, I think this is due to the echoes big historical-fiction blockbusters have left. Mainly looking at “Gladiator” and “300” for the manly man stuff, and the “Elizabeth” films for the feminine stuff. The examples you gave scream those movies, and a lot of what is on the shelves of bookstores probably do as well. Because of the popularity of these films, the publishers have decided to appeal to the already considerable audience of the films, by reflecting their preferences on the cover art on historical-fiction books. This way, more books sell due to cover-art, which is usually what grabs the buyer’s attention first, thus the most effective hook to reel in the green paper. So, you could say that the cause of this obvious binary is due to the historical blockbusters which normally appeal to a specific gender. I’d go as far to say that perhaps a few of these gender-bound history-fi authors are a fair bit inspired by said films, causing their writing to be targeted towards similar audiences. Honestly, the only historical fiction book I can remember Pre-Gladiator, is “The Pillars of The Earth” and that had a unique and interesting plot with cover art which appealed to both sexes. My point is that before the massive historical fiction blockbusters, the genre was mostly influenced by authors research on historicy. After their release, the genre used the movies as a stepping stone to push itself into the mainstream, and do as the movies did, split the XX from the XY.

  4. Hi Lars.

    Yes, that’s a really good point about the films having a deeper influence on the cover art – and no doubt stresses that commercial desire of publishers. And yes, good call regarding The Pillars of the Earth, another example of appealing to both sexes. It can be done!

  5. Totally based on anecdotal evidence from blokes and my own experience (so not exactly a wide sample) but I suspect women are more likely to cross the marked gender divide in cover trends than men are. Talking in broad as broad comes terms, a lot of men get taught that things that it is shameful to be interested in things that look traditionally feminine, while a lot of women get taught that things that look traditionally male are cool (or at least to be respected and attempted).

    It’s so telling that there’s still so much gendered marketing around (and that it’s emphasised as a really important part of learning how to segment your market when you’re training as a marketer, yeah that was an odd lecture). It seems to show that ideas about how gender affects us have changed very little. And seems to indicate that the commercial world thinks the money of those who don’t match gender seterotypes and traditional gender categories isn’t enough to court.

    I like a range of historical fiction, but tend to blank on the covers because they do tend to fit the patterns you’ve hit on. So, it’s rare that I’ll make a snap decision to buy historical fiction based on a cover, while I buy other books because of cover love. Karen Maitland’s books tends to have covers that are a bit different and don’t fit the gender marketing extremes.

  6. But the cover for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a female on it (Albeit hidden somewhat behind a big castle thing).

    I don’t fall, personally, for what you’ve said I have. I don’t particularly care about if the cover has a man or a woman on it. I buy the edition with the cover I most like, and that’s it. I’ve gone into stores and bought books irrespective of what the cover looks like, whether it’s Withering Tights (A very girly cover) or Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series with the spaceships and stuff on it.

    I’m *not* saying the books you used as an example are for a certain gender. I’m saying certain types of books appeal more to one gender than the other, for whatever reason. Is it not true that Mills & Boon books, for example, have a much greater female following? Those books are bought by women, and as such are marketed towards them. That’s not to say they don’t appeal to some men, but by and large I suspect they’re more for women.

    Honestly, I think it’s more about people forcing themselves into gender stereotypes rather than doing what they want. If a book looks interesting to you, buy it! Don’t go “Oh, no!” because it’s got a woman on it, or some bloke dressed like a gladiator. That’s the consumer’s problem, not that of the publisher.

  7. @UnravThreads

    The whole point of the (very clever) way books are marketed is that it affects buyers while they believe they’re making free choices based on their individual tastes and interests. They’re not conscious of being manipulated otherwise they wouldn’t go along with it. If someone walked up to me and said, “Aha! Twenty-something white female: this is the book you will want to buy today!” I’d throw it right back at them because I want to be treated like a person not a marketing category, because I want to decide for myself what I read and because the idea of books and readers being segregated in that way is icky. However, this doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to the many cues in cover design that are intended to appeal to someone of my demographic. As Mark said, this isn’t about readers’ *conscious* reaction to book covers, it’s about readers being influenced without being aware of it.

    I know a few readers who have very narrow tastes – they only read chicklit or epic fantasy with elves for example – but I don’t know any readers who force themselves into stereotypes. That is, my friend who likes chicklit happens to like only one type of book, she doesn’t choose those books because she thinks they make her a proper woman. Book covers are tools to help readers find the books they’re likely to enjoy and avoid the ones they’re not – this isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. But when book covers reinforce negative gender stereotypes and segregate readers, I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame for that wholly upon readers and absolve publishers of all responsibility.

    Incidentally, I remember reading a post on NK Jemisin’s blog about the cover of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The character shown is the god Nahadoth who (assuming gods can be) is male, although Jemisin said lots of readers have assumed that it’s Yeine, a female character. I wonder why so many readers have made that assumption?

  8. minusakidney – thank you for that, and for expressing it so eloquently. What you said! 🙂

  9. Oh. I really need to work on my reading comprehension.

    Those are some very fair points minusakidney, although I wasn’t placing blame wholly on the readers. I think publishers should perhaps work on their covers BUT the reader should also buy what they like and not worry about what others think. The Kindle, and other ereaders, help breach that wall but it still exists in print books.

  10. Who desides the direction cover should be taken to? Im assuming it goes something like this:

    If it’s the publisher they just send covers of 2-3 recent bestsellers as reference and say “we were thinking along these lines.. please submit final image in 48 hours” 🙂

    If it’s the illustrator he will think what kind of a picture..
    ..has brilliant idea (story, emotion, evocative)

    ..grabs your attention (eyes)
    ..tells what the book is about
    ..is recognizable from distance (no small clutter)
    ..works well with portrait aspect
    ..others are doing

    If you follow this kind of rule set it should be easy to get results like in your post without any conscious segregation.

    Note that author gender does not matter in the image. If the picture tells what the book is about, male reader should come consious of what his reading preferences are, realize they are sexist, and start reading books with princess covers instead. (i kid, but you get the point)

    Better target for education would be authors and publishers, you could try to sneak words like
    graphical: ( http://kirjasto.risingshadow.net/images/books/6276.jpg )
    narrative, story, atmosphere: ( http://fengzhudesign.blogspot.com/2011/04/classic-childrens-book-covers.html ) in to the initial design brief 🙂