Gender-bias in book covers? Coverflip.

A real male author cover

A real male author cover

I’m proud to write women’s fiction, but I know this genre label can raise hackles far and wide. The argument goes that, when men and women write about similar, (often domestic) topics, the men’s work is seen as serious fiction (a.k.a. The Great American Novel), while the women’s work is written off as light, beach-reading fare.

Last year, an author I love, Meg Wolitzer, wrote an excellent New York Times op-ed addressing this issue, and she also raised the issue of book covers, asking if a popular book by a male author with a wedding ring on its cover would have been taken as seriously if written by a woman.

A recent, non-scientific, but nonetheless fascinating experiment takes this argument one step further.

Earlier this month Maureen Johnson posed the question: What would the cover of a book by a male author look like if it were written by a female author? And vice-versa?

She sent out this tweet:

  1. Take a popular book.
  2. Make a new cover for it by switching the author’s gender and imagining the result.
  3. Deadline 5pm today. #coverflip


An imagined female author cover

Ideas poured in, making a strong point about perceived gender bias and expectations displayed on cover designs for female authors vis-à-vis their male counterparts.

Take a look at this wonderful slideshow of the type of covers that came in.

They say a lot about what our perceptions are of literature written by men or women … and maybe the experiment will help us to rethink gender biases when designing book covers.

What do you think, readers (and writers)?


  1. Alison Doherty on May 24, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I am a huge fan of women’s fiction, but I think that too often female authors that are writing other genres are boxed into the women’s fiction category even though that is not where they belong. I thought Maureen Johnson’s cover flip was a really interesting experiment. Thanks for sharing!

    • kimberlysullivan on May 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks, Alison. Agree entirely that women shouldn’t be forced into a category they don’t want simply because of their gender. Meg Wolitzer disusses this in her article. Thought the coverflip challenge was brilliant… and hope it starts a discussion.

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' on May 24, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Interesting topic and immediately reminded me of a similar theme I read last week called We are not just your wives and daughters about gender bias in the literary world.

    It is also interesting how little control over book covers writer’s actually have, evidenced recently by Elizabeth Gilbert calling on her publishers to allow her reading public to choose the cover of her new book as she was so against the cover chosen by the publisher. So the public chose and selected the one she wanted all along.

    • kimberlysullivan on May 24, 2013 at 10:46 pm

      Thanks, Claire. Loved the post you sent as a link. Interesting, too, about Elizabeth Gilbert. Would be nice to see more well-known authors pushing against this typecasting. From what I hear, debut authors have little say.

  3. Nicola Layouni on May 24, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Very interesting post. We all know the saying about books and covers, but I believe we all do it to some extent.

    Overly ‘girlie’ covers aren’t my thing. I’m not sure they do their authors any favours at all. To me, they shriek ‘mindless fluff’. They don’t attract me as a reader. Is that a terrible thing to admit out loud? Yes, I’m a massive, nasty book snob. 🙁

    However, after reading a few of these girlie-tinted books–loaned to me by well-meaning friends–I’ve often been pleasantly surprised. Some are undoubtedly ‘meh’, but others are really well written.

    I say, do away with all these horrid covers. In fact, I’m going a step further and using my initials instead of my name on my own novel. Why? Because I want male readers too. Are men less likely to read a book written by a female author? The few I’ve asked are, particularly when the book is classed as ‘women’s fiction’.

    I have a couple of regular male critters on CC and one of them worries there’s something wrong with him for enjoying ‘women’s fiction’! 🙂 I really enjoy ‘men’s fiction’ (and is there such a genre?), Angus Donald is a current favourite author of mine. Why is it that swordfights seem less shameful than romance? Let’s do away with ‘women’s’ or ‘chick’ when it comes to labelling genres.

    My cover suggestion? James Patterson’s ‘Along Came a Spider’ girlified would probably feature Miss Muffet, feet up in the air, having fallen from her tuffet, bloomers showing, and with a huge spider dangling and grinning(or winking) at the reader. Yuk!

    Okay, I’m shutting up now. As I said, an interesting post, Kimberly.

    • kimberlysullivan on May 24, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Wow, Nicola. I’m going to venture a guess this is something you feel passionately about. : ) I agree that many covers are a bit embarassing. They make me feel like a teenage girl, when the book itself might be quite engaging and well-written. But I also find it annoying that men won’t read books with female protagonists, and honestly, I kind of assume most of my readers would be women. This isn’t such a terrible fate since women are by far and away the largest share of readers in all western countries. Still, it would be nice not to scare those few male readers away with frilly covers. Thanks for chiming in with all your valid points!

  4. Julia on May 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    There is enough evidence out there that there is gender bias in many areas, not just in the literary world. Unfortunately, women also discriminate other women, believe it or not.

    • kimberlysullivan on May 27, 2013 at 7:43 am

      Hi Julia. Yes, having worked in many sectors over the years, I can believe it. : ) And yes, I also find it disturbing to see women discriminating against women, especially female authors who write x looking down at female authors who write y. I don’t see male literary fiction authors bashing male authors who write thrillers or horror.

  5. Celeste on May 27, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    This is a very interesting post, Kimberly. Being Italian, it happened to me to read bad translations of very good stories written in english. This is pushing me to purchase on Amazon the english edition of the books I love. It takes a while for me to read them, but it’s worth the effort.
    Having said that, I think that women’s fiction is just a label that publishers use to sell their books faster. I love Patrick Dennis, the author of Auntie Mamie. His stories are frivolous and girlie, but honestly who cares if he is a man or a woman?

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