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Gendered Books... Bring on the Rebellion

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18 months ago, I walked out on my publisher, HarperCollins, because I was sick of seeing my novels getting packaged as frivolous, girly 'chick lit'. This week, eminent British children's author Jacqueline Wilson spoke out about the pink covers assigned to her books, which 'pigeonholed' girls and put off boys. And now, young adult author Maureen Johnson has come up with the #CoverFlip challenge in which she encouraged her 78,000 followers to take a well-known book, then imagine what that cover might look like if the author's gender were flipped. Take a look. Seriously - check it out. In fact, if you check out all of the flipped covers and then think for a minute about this issue and what publishers have been subconsciously doing to children and adults for years, then you won't need to read my furious rant. But don't let me stop you.

When I first signed with HarperCollins, having successfully self-published two books that had amassed a number of reviews by both men and women, I was perplexed by the phrase that was used to describe my imminent works of fiction. Apparently I wrote "women's commercial fiction".

Women's commercial fiction. That's right. My published titles included Golden Handcuffs, the biting exposé on life as a junior investment banker (written from two perspectives: one male, one female) and Poles Apart, the story of a Polish migrant. I couldn't understand why we were effectively trying to alienate half of my readership.

'Your primary reader is a woman,' I was told, by the (all female) editorial staff at the publishing house. Was it? I thought. Since when? 'We need to appeal to Lorraine in Leeds,' they explained.

And then it got worse. Not only were we suddenly aiming my books at Lorraine in Leeds; we were making dire assumptions about what Lorraine in Leeds liked to read. We were thinking 'light' and 'fluffy' and 'easy read'. We were going for pastel colours...
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...and then we were going for stars and swirls and X-Factor branding.

And then, to my horror, we were briefing designers to come up with book covers that looked exactly like the movie poster for the latest chick flick.
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In short, we were forgetting, entirely, about the contents of the book.

Here's the crux of the issue: Publishers are in trouble. They're not making as much money as they used to (because their model is broken and they haven't changed with the times... but that's another story) so they're clinging onto the idea of selling some copies by retreating to tired, old genre stereotypes and these, unfortunately, run along gender lines: war stories and adventures for boys, romance and light-hearted frivolity for girls.

I had my rebellion eighteen months ago; it seems that other authors are following suit. I applaud the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Maureen Johnson for speaking out and I encourage other authors to do the same. Putting an inappropriately 'girly' cover on a book is wrong for so many reasons. It attracts readers who may be disappointed when they discover that the book is not the 'light' read they were expecting. (My HarperCollins books received many reviews along these lines.) It puts off readers, men and women, who may have actually enjoyed the book if they hadn't dismissed it for its cover. (Only last week, a friend texted to say that she was enjoying a Jojo Moyes book that she would never have picked up had it not been for a recommendation.) It gives the author as 'girly' brand, which can be very, very hard to shake off. And finally, it reinforces the dangerous and unnecessary stereotypes that dictate what boys and men / girls and women ought to read.

When I was interviewed on Channel 4 News about this, the interviewer (a woman) asked me: "What's wrong with it?" She told me it looked "OK". This is missing the point. Female authors do not want a book cover that looks "OK". They want one that accurately reflects what is inside, so that readers can tell, instantly, what the book is about. They want a book cover that does not look "dumbed down" just because the name on the front is a woman's. They want to be seen as a fiction writer, not a "women's fiction" writer.

For all the authors out there who are shouting "me too!" at the screen right now, there is an alternative. It involves walking away from your publisher and publishing your books yourself. I have taken this path and I never look back. Would you be able to guess the author's gender from these book covers?

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...and more to the point, would you care?

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