discussions genre stuff

Seeing Red

The Guardian blog on giving pink sparkly pony-tailed book covers to girls:

Earlier this year Meg Rosoff expressed a desire to let loose with an illegal firearm, goaded by the “aggressive pinkness” of the upcoming Queen of Teen award. My immediate reaction was to applaud her vehemently. The Q of T website has all the delicate aesthetic subtlety of a meths-laced fairy cake at a hen night, and the questions the winning author is fated to answer leave me colder than a dead penguin. “Bags or shoes?” – in what universe would Philip Pullman or Melvin Burgess be asked such a question? And what would the King of Teen equivalent be? “Cars or bikes?”; “Knives or guns?”; “Gods or men?” (Actually, “Gods or men?” is quite good. Everyone should answer that one.)…

I acknowledge that I’m a massive snob about cover-design, and particularly about pinkness. Not only (alas) do I no longer belong to the teen target market, but even at the appropriate age I ostentatiously scorned such flouncy frivolity (although I wasn’t above trying to shock fellow Tube-travellers with the Marquis de Sade). In fact, while I don’t object to nudity, foiled fonts, Gothic excesses or guns, I find it almost impossible to pick up a book with pearly grins and pony-tails on the cover – still more so if the background is rose-tinted. Last week I strove to overcome the prejudice (which kept me from enjoying Jacqueline Wilson for a stupidly long time) and bit the rosy bullet, seizing three books of undeniable pinkness from the library’s teenage-fiction shelves.

From my bookselling days, I remember just how bad these things could be. Chick-lit fiction was by far the worst offender, with its garish, pink, stilettoed caricatures. And you only have to walk into bookstores – mainly the fiction section – to see just how bad such the stereotype on cover design is still. I understand the urge for a publisher to make that connection to a potential fanbase. “Hey, you – you’re woman. You like, uh… shopping and shoes, right? Buy this book! It’s got shopping and shoes, too!”

Crime fiction covers seem to do a very good job of treating genders equally. They are all miserable. You only have to look just how many women buy crime fiction, or how the covers of Martina Cole’s books, for example, seem to connect to female readers without resorting to stereotyping. Genre books seem to, for the large part, serve the genders fairly equally. I can’t recall the last overtly pink genre cover that was aiming for female readers, though when you get a bare-chested Fabio on the front, I guess many male readers aren’t exactly going to rush out and buy it. Has anyone got any great examples of gender stereotyped genre covers?

Though it’s worth pointing out this post about – it’s about an advert for a dubious urban fantasy cover shoot.

I like to think that the internet community helps break a lot of this reliance on stereotyping. When there is discussion of the innards of a book, readers will rely less upon the cover to make their buying decisions. Readers of all genders can focus on how good the book is, rather than what subtle marketing signals are supposedly being sent by the cover art. And ebooks will ultimately help either way – men will finally be able to go on the bus and read the books with bare-chested Fabio covers, because the cover won’t be revealed at all.

The post on the Guardian concludes:

After all, girls happily read books marketed to boys – Robert Muchamore and Darren Shan go down a storm with child and teen readers of both sexes – but boys will never pick up a book that bellows its girly credentials outright, even if they secretly harbour some curiosity about what it is girls read, want and incessantly giggle about. Surely it’s daft and wrong-headed to ensure that half of your potential audience will never pick up the product?

The responsibility lies with publishers, but they’re only responding to us – which makes us, the reader, responsible for any change.

By Mark Newton

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

9 replies on “Seeing Red”

I have to say that romance novels are by far the worst offenders of gender stereotyping when it comes to cover art, but for a good reason.

In the bookstores we have a saying: If a romance cover has a bare chest, half a head, tartan, a castle, a sword and flowing drapes it will sell.

And it is true. Romance novels especially seem to sell on jacket treatment alone.

Good lord. That Teen of Queen website is … Good lord.

Interestingly (to me anyway), pink used to be a boy’s colour and blue was for girls. Pink, being closer to red, was seen as hot and therefore aggressive (good qualities for little boys), and blue, being cool and therefore passive, was clearly good for girls.

I’ve wondered about this with paranormal romance covers. A lot of them have a shirtless (and immensely fit) guy on the cover, but more and more I’m seeing young (and immensely fit) women. The women are usually shown complete with motorcycle or sword or something else to say these are no shrinking violets. Those covers seem to be designed to appeal to both women, who can fantasize about being the tough lady on the cover, and men, whose fantasies will take them in a different direction.

I hate the bad rap romance gets all around. I haven’t read much of it, admittedly because the covers scare me off, but what I have read runs the gamut from excellent to horrid just like any other genre. I loved “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough. My copy I stole from my mom. It had that infamous orange cover with the family (all fully clad) in the outback. If it had a racy cover, I never would have pinched it from my mom’s library.

Sort of all goes back to the discussion about female characters we had awhile ago, don’t it? I think it goes for women, in general, fictional or otherwise, too.

No one likes to be boiled down to a marketing point.

I think it must be really tough for publishers, if I’m being fair. On one hand, they have to speak to the audience. Covers are shorthand – and a very quick one of that. They need to be. So although I think indeed no one likes to be boiled down to a marketing point, a good chunk of them need to.

I’ll be interested to see how covers change in the digital future, though.

Rachel – I’ve heard that before somewhere. I want to say something about blue/pink boy/girl being Victorian in origin, but I could be making that up.

DJ – I do think you’re right about the change from men to women on covers, though that’s only on my casual observations. If you can broaden your audience, that’s extra money to publishers.

A lot of urban fantasy covers are actually designed very well. I have a lot of books in my home and visitors inevitably gravitate towards the urban fantasy novels, because the striking covers attract them.

As for chick lit covers, the ones aimed at teenagers are often dreadful because they are not just pink but sparkling. However, some of the chick lit covers aimed at adults feature interesting graphic design, even if they could be a bit less pink. For example, Little Black Dress books, a UK chick lit imprint, usually has great covers.

Romance covers are generally better in the UK than in the US, where the barechested guy with long flowing hair or the barely dressed couple locked in a torrid embrace is still way too popular. When there’s a romance novel I’m interested in (and no, they’re not all crap – some of them are quite good), I usually wait for the UK edition rather than buy the often horrid US cover.

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