How Tarted-Up Book Covers Belittle Women’s Fiction

The publishing industry’s packaging of women’s literary fiction in stereotypically girly covers makes great books seem trashy.


If you take a look at the cover of Alice Munro’s latest Nobel Prize-winning short fiction collection, The View From Castle Rock, you probably wouldn’t guess it includes stories about cholera, the death of an infant, and domestic abuse. The cover, featuring pink lettering and a neck-down shot of a woman suntanning on a pink towel, suggests it’s a breezy summer read–and not one meant for men.


Over at the Boston Globe, Eugenia Williamson offers an excellent, frustration-conveying account of how packaging literary fiction by women in frivolous-looking covers diminishes its perceived seriousness. Take the cover of Faber’s 50th Anniversary reissue of Sylvia Plath’s harrowing classic The Bell Jar as another example–with curly handwriting and a picture of a woman fixing her makeup, it could be mistaken for a Danielle Steel book.

A gendered cover design for The Bell Jar, left, versus a bold, text-heavy cover for The Flamethrowers, one example of more gender-neutral marketing.

Given the old adage that we all tend to judge books by their covers–at least at first–gendered covers risk alienating half the readership. Yet the publishing industry still relies on these visual clichés as marketing ploys–a woman’s naked back being one of the latest favorites:

In recent years, many of the people on book covers have been women without faces. So prevalent is this visual cliché that the publishing industry has cycled through at least two well-documented iterations. The first, the Headless Woman, features some poor thing cut off above the neck, like the swimsuit-clad beachgoer on Alice Munro’s story collection “The View from Castle Rock.” The website Goodreads’ Headless Women page has 416 entries. Last year, the Headless Woman was supplanted by the Sexy Back, in which a woman is shown from behind, often gazing out over a vista.

Even when their artistic merits are equal, women writers often still lack the cultural authority of their male counterparts, and this rampant trashy branding contributes to that disparity. And despite the fact 80% of book buyers in the U.S. fiction market are women, major publications like the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, and the New York Review of Books are still heavily dominated by male bylines and pieces tend to cover more books by male authors, according to yearly studies by VIDA, a women’s literary arts organization. As Williamson puts it:

Marketing affects the way readers of both genders perceive the artistic merits of a book. Stereotypically feminine signifiers–a lipstick tube, a woman’s naked back–can inadvertently disqualify a novel from the world of serious literature.

The cover of The Flamethrowers, a hard-hitting novel by Rachel Kushner about a motorcycle-obsessed young woman’s sexual and artistic awakening, consciously avoided gendered cliches with a bold, text-heavy design. It’s an example of the kind of gender-neutral marketing designers should aim for to avoid making serious fiction by women look like fluff.

But as it stands, contemporary book covers are usually so unabashedly gendered that, in a recent brilliant experiment called “Coverflip,” author Maureen Johnson asked her Twitter followers to reimagine what the covers of well-known books might look like had the author been of the opposite sex. Hundreds of people submitted parodies.

Head to the Boston Globe for the full piece.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.