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Why Do Books Written by Women Get Such Audience-Limiting Covers?

We love the authors. We love the books. But what about these covers?
We love the books, but there’s a downside to these covers.

Did I click-bait you properly? Good. I have something to say.

I read an article recently about Elena Ferrante’s book covers in the Atlantic called “The Subtle Genius of Elena Ferrante’s Bad Book Covers [1]” which, to be frank, pissed me off. The thesis of this piece—summarized at the beginning of the article as “Readers complain about the imagery that adorns the author’s highbrow novels. But there’s value in embracing the oft-scorned ‘women’s fiction’ genre.”—is that some marketing genius at her publisher had co-opted women’s fiction covers (or really, worse, chick lit covers, gasp!) and slapped them on literature and presto-bango, we have international bestsellers! Bravo marketing genius!

What the author of this piece missed, I think, is that those very same covers are not some sure-fire way of getting a book onto the bestsellers list, but rather, far too often, the way books written by women get shoved into the “women’s fiction ghetto” where no self-respecting man dares to go. These types of covers tell all far and wide that what is inside the pages is not serious, not literature, something to be digested by a pool and left behind like the dregs in your plastic margarita glass. Which is completely unfair to (a) books written by women, and (b) women’s fiction—which can be as varied and wonderful as anything written by a man. (This should be obvious, but, unfortunately, bears repeating.)

You’ve seen these covers. They have women on them—sometimes headless, sometimes seen from behind, usually with their feet hanging off a dock, or stamping the sand, or hanging in a pool. In one particularly egregious example (apologies to the author, because she wrote a great book, but this same cover got proposed for the French version of Arranged and I turned it down) the woman’s head has actually been erased and replaced by a bouquet. In my view, all these covers tell you about the book is that they are about women. Enough said, apparently.

marriageplot-1Compare those covers to Jeffrey Eugenides’ last book, The Marriage Plot, which was a NYT notable book of 2011 and on a number of other best book of the year lists (Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, Salon, The Telegraph) and nominated for several prestigious awards. This is the book description:

Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Reading between the Cheever and Updike, The Marriage Plot is a book about a young woman who is caught between two men! One who is good for her and one who is bad for her. And she wants the bad man first but realizes in the end (spoiler alert!) that she is better off with the good man (and okay there is one further plot twist that I will not spoil). In short, this is the plot of an Austen novel written to poke fun at Austen and her ilk. With all due respect to Eugenides—whose first two books I loved—if I had written this book, its cover would have looked like this. [2] How do I know? Because it’s my book, Arranged (about a woman who uses an arranged marriage service), which is a send up of the idea that there is a “right” man for everyone, i.e. the central thesis of Austen and all the lesser mortals who have come after her, me included.

Which leads me to the cover for my latest release, Fractured. It’s a domestic suspense novel (i.e. a thriller written by a woman). This genre actually seems to be an exception to the rule for books written by women. Putting aside that many, many, of these books have the word “girl” in the title (when they are actually about women without a girl in sight), their covers are dark and stormy and sans headless women (think Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train). When it came time to design the cover for Fractured, I was super excited to learn that my publisher had hired a male cover designer who had designed covers for, among others, Stephen King. I couldn’t wait to see what he came up with.

And then I got the first set of covers. You can imagine. (You can’t? Something like this.) [3] We went through a couple of (to be honest) increasingly depressing rounds, until I finally asked my editor if she could ask the designer to design the cover he would design if the book was written by a man. And, low and behold, it turned out he had turned in other designs, amazing designs, without a woman in sight. The cover we ended up with—which you can see here [4]—perfectly captures the mood and themes and feel of the book, and is also a cover that is gender neutral. If my name were Connor rather than Catherine, I am certain it would have ended up with the same cover. We picked it and then had to go to bat for it with marketing—putting together a list of comparable titles that didn’t have a woman on the cover. We swayed them and I am happy.

But I cannot help but wonder: would I have even had to fight at all if my name was Cameron?

So, what should you do if you aren’t satisfied with the cover they are slapping on your book?

And if one of the images I wrote about above accurately describes your book, that’s okay! My point, if it wasn’t clear, is against assuming that these types of covers work for all books by women.

What do you think?

Write on.

About Catherine McKenzie [5]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, and FRACTURED, were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, was an Amazon bestseller, picked as a Best Book of October 2015 by Goodreads and one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by Amazon. Her latest release, THE GOOD LIAR [6], released on April 3rd.