So Maureen Johnson, YA author, threw down a gauntlet a couple of days ago regarding the way books are marketed and asked her jillions of Twitter readers to gender-flip some of their favorite book covers. To make a cover that might have been offered up if the book was by a person of the other gender, or was gender neutral (initials instead of full names. She’s written a terrific article about the whole problem of gendered covers here, and it is truly worth a read. Really truly honest to God.
But if you never click through on another link I offer, go check out the slideshow of covers people did, because they’re flipping awesome. Er, so to speak. Let me show you my single-most favorite of all of them, or at least my favorite of the fantasy novels. This is a recent GRRM cover for A GAME OF THRONES:
This is Georgette R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES (image by Electric Sheep Comix):
“Her publisher decided she didn’t need the second “R” in her initials,” said the artist.
It’s nearly perfect. I think the font is actually *too* ornate, but I totally get a Jody Lynn Nye vibe off this, and wouldn’t be surprised at *all* to see it on one of Michelle West‘s books.
Now: for a degree of fairness, GRRM’s covers have undergone enormous changes in the past 15 years. This is the first one I actually remember seeing:
It’s still aimed at a totally different audience than Georgette’s cover is. And honestly, of the three, Georgette’s is the least likely one I’d pick up, although for me, the fact that it has a woman’s name on epic fantasy would make me take a look, anyway.
There’s a Tumblr tag of genderflipped covers that is one of the most worthy things on the internet. Some of them are merely in the A for Effort category, which is admirable on its own, but honestly, many of them are *brilliant*. Check out this TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY by Johanna Le Carre (image by xotus):
This, this, *this*, this is what makes me want to run the Great Social Writing Experiment. To write two series of the same type under one obviously female name and one under an obviously male name, and not let anybody, including my editors, know the gender (clearly a theoretical agent would be in on this, but beyond that) of the person writing the books. Just to see what happened with covers, reviews, promotion, sales, all of it.
This is not, mind you, a practical experiment. I mean, it’d be a lot of time and effort and investment and while I was getting it off the ground, what, I’m going to survive financially by saying, “Hey, here’s my Kickstarter! Fund me, and in ten years you’ll find out what the project was! Hardcover LEs all around!” or something? Yeahno. :) But oh how I would love to try it.
(Someone asked on Twitter, so I’ll answer it here too: No, I haven’t seen any “EC Murphy” covers (and don’t expect to, because my name isn’t that big), but I have to admit I’d kind of love to see THE QUEEN’S BASTARD or PRETENDER’S CROWN with the assumption of a male writer. :))
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t necessarily want all covers to be gender neutral, but what prompted Maureen to do this genderflip thing was saying “If I had a dime for every boy/man who’s said “Can’t you get less girly covers so I can read this?”…” She went on to say,
The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle.
Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate — as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything…
There’s obviously a larger societal problem going on here, but it’d be pretty damned nice to see Michelle West (or Kate Elliott or Judith Tarr or or or or or) getting covers that weren’t oriented At Girls.
It would be even nicer, of course, if a cover like Georgette Martin’s or Johanna Le Carre’s wasn’t off-putting to boys. Making covers more neutral can’t be just about making them more appealing to the male of the species; that’s still assigning them a gender preference, the one we regard as default. But! As an awareness issue, this kind of project certainly does the trick, and I loooooove it!
Mary Alexandra Agner
Having not read any of Martin’s work myself, but having heard so many negatives about the TV show, I want to say that the “girly” cover is more appealing to me for the simple fact that it tells me (1) there is at least one woman in the story (2) she has some power, given the little dragon and the glowing jewelry, (3) she may be a (single) mother, because of the child’s appearance, while doing all the epic fantasy things and (4) taken with the title, she may be a player for the aforementioned thrones. To me, that’s much more of a hook than a sword. (Although the T in “thrones” is a little over the top.)
As a female writer trying to break into the horror/fantasy field I find this discussion fascinating! And think I’ll probably use my initials.
I used my initials because I never thought Catie, which is what I (mostly) use in real life, looked grown-up enough to put on the cover of a book, and I don’t particularly like being called Catherine, which is my full name. It was years after I’d been published that people started asking me if I’d used “CE” for gender neutrality, and I was gobsmacked.