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Yes, There IS Still Sexism In Publishing

May 7, 2013 by Kiersi

Alter-cover by the fabulous Gillian Berry

I’m shaking as I write this, because I’m both sad and angry. I guess in some parts of the world they call this “frustrated.” Or “sangry.”

I’m sad that as a culture, we’re still divided this way: that some books are girly books, and some books are guy books.

I’m also angry that people still try to pretend like it’s not a problem. That’s it’s not a problem we have to have separate “women-only” book awards, because female authors get so little recognition in mainstream awards (3:10 female to male winners for the Booker). That it’s no biggie when a female author gets slut-shamed while her books get ignored. Or that books by female authors tend to get fluffy, jazzy covers; that female authors have to use pen names to supposedly be marketable to boy audiences (J.K. Rowling?).

Somehow, all this is not a “gendered” problem.

Author Maureen Johnson did a pretty neat piece recently of books written by male authors, with the covers re-imagined as if the author was of the opposite sex or gender queer (also see the top image on this post). And boy, is it fascinating to look at.

I get that it’s not a social science experiment by any measurable standard. It’s conjecture, made up by artists, on a cute little prompt that Maureen sent out.

Regardless, the images are striking. The “boy”-ized version of Throne of Glass probably got to me the most. It’s so… dark. And serious. And totally gender-neutral. I can’t help but feel like when I look at it that yes, this is absolutely the difference between a YA book “for boys or anyone,” and a YA book “for just girls.”

Alter-cover by Ardawling

From a marketing standpoint, I totally get it. I’m not going to pretend like I don’t understand how the publishing machine works. Girls, and parents of girls, and grandparents of girls, buy book covers that look “girly.” Same for boys. Publishers know this. Marketers know this. When they are tasked with selling a book, they’re going to target their audience. (See my post on white chicks in flowy dresses dominating YA book covers.)

Therein lies the problem.

Since when did a romance book become something only women would write or read? What about, like, Goethe? I must be taking crazy pills. That guy lived his life writing romance. Not to mention Shakespeare, the origin of the best romantic comedies ever.

If A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t “chick lit,” I don’t know what is.

When did we as a culture decide that some books are only for girls, and some are only for boys? Maybe if we stopped marketing them that way. Maybe if authors didn’t have to change their names to sound male or un-gendered just to sell to a “wider” audience.

It totally goes both ways. I have a friend who had to shorten his name on his book because it was a “girl” book, and he was a guy author–and his publisher was worried no one would buy a “girl” book with a male author’s name on it.

Even worse: we hear a lot at writer’s conferences that “boys don’t read.” That our books must have constant, page-turning fun and action if the boys are going to keep reading. Since when? The most voracious readers I know are all guys, and have been since they were young.

The problem is two-fold. Which came first: the chicken, or the egg?

1) Boys are raised to like “boy” things. Girls are raised to like “girl” things.

2) Book publishers design their books to have a gendered appeal. More often than not, the “girl” book is obvious. (I think the same reason “pink” is a girl color, but blue can sell to both genders.)

I think it starts with raising our kids to like things based on the story and the content, not the gender of the narrator or the author. But it also starts with publishers getting out of gendered design and marketing. I don’t want my book to be sold as a “girly” book. I want it to be sold as a book about a girl who goes through life (and monsters).

Is that so much to ask?

On a personal note, I did politely ask my publisher not to put a girl in a flowy dress on the cover of my book, and they obliged. Props to you, Rain Town.


  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting read, Kiersi. Thanks!

  2. Sarah N. says:

    Yeah I know!!!! I wish everything was gender neutral and the words “boy” and “girl” are not even a part of the vocabulary anymore!!! It’s so segregating.
    Bathrooms should be always unisex and there shouldn’t even be such a thing as “men’s clothes” and “women’s clothes” we should all wear the same thing, like a gender neutral smock or something. Rock on!

    • Kiersi says:

      Right! And boys should always have to feel bad about liking any girl things such as pink or dolls or romance, right?!

  3. Ruth Feiertag says:

    “When did we as a culture decide that some books are only for girls, and some are only for boys? ”

    Some thousands of years ago, before even I was born. The Song of Songs was to be read only by men (and then only when they, like hobbits, had attained maturity at the age of thirty-three). And then there’s this from the Preface to Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 _Tales from Shakespeare_:

    It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of their ability the writers have constantly kept this in mind; but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task. It was no easy matter to give the histories of men and women in terms familiar to the apprehension of a very young mind. For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken;

    I utterly agree with you that publishers should adopt more gender-neutral marketing strategies, but we have to teach our children to look past them and not to assign boys who read Jane Austen to the not-real-males pile. I also think we should probably can the term “chick-lit.” (And did you see the _MND_ with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, et al.? There’s a mud-wrestling match between scantily-clad Hermione and Helena that’s definitely aimed to take advantage of heterosexual men’s prurient proclivities.)

    Thanks for leading me to Kogan’s painful article. (I love her bio on Amazon.) I want to go out and buy all her books just to support her (I’ll start with just one). And scrolling through Johnson’s cover flips was illuminating. What a brilliant project. All high school English/ Language Arts teachers should share them with their classes. This topic needs to be bruited about much more widely than it is, but so many people whine about being tired of all those feminist rants. I am grateful to read yours.


  4. Females have forever been using initials to keep their gender a secret. S.E. Hinton for one. I’m not sure if that will ever change.

  5. Writerlious says:

    Grrrr. This article made me so mad. I sometimes delude myself into thinking things have changed more than they have, and then I read something like Kogan’s article in the Nation.

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