Remember Coverflip? I hope so, because it just happened. But if you don't know what I'm talking about, click the link or Google it or just make something up in your head.
It got a lot of coverage. First in the United States, the article went slightly supernova here on HuffPost, becoming one of the top articles on the site. Lots of other places started sharing the link (or mentioning it). It turned up on Jezebel, and the USAToday Books page, and on The New Yorker site, The Rumpus, and on Wired.com. In the UK, people started really talking about it quite a lot. I missed two emails from the BBC that came while I was sleeping asking me to speak on Radio Scotland and the Newshour (a UK author did the piece, as I was too late for the time difference). There were two pieces in the Daily Mail, including one in which Jacqueline Wilson (the grande dame of middle grade and YA in the UK) called for an end to the genderized covers. There were two in the Guardian, and the amazing Katy Brand wrote about it for The Telegraph. Jacqueline Wilson came back swinging even harder in The Telegraph.
Plus, blogs. Lots of blogs.
Which is all very nice -- it really is. This is more than you can really hope for for what was essentially an offhand tweet about something I thought everyone knew about. But here's the thing...
When an issue like this comes up and people feel OUTRAGE and a link gets popular, the media steps in and covers it, because it is a current story. Hands are waved, and this gives the appearance that Something Is Happening and Things Are Now About To Change! Because, it's in the news, so...
...so something is happening, right?
Thing is, once an issue like this has run, the idea is that it's been covered. It's done. Then interest fizzles out like last week's Diet Coke left in a hot car. It all just goes away, unless people decide not to let it go away.
In the light of all of this, I'd like to offer two things:
1. A clarification on some points
2. An ACTION PLAN to take it FURTHER.
ANSWERING THE COMMENTS
Because I've been on the internet before, I did not read the comments on the article. And when I say, "I did not read the comments on the article," I mean I read some comments on the article before I remembered not to read the comments on the article. More than that, I read hundreds (a thousand?) Twitter replies, and I want to comment on the things I saw come up.
What if I like the "girly" covers? Are you saying girly covers are bad? Isn't that just as discriminatory?
No, I wasn't saying that. But a lot of the other articles about it came to the girly = bad conclusion, so I can see why you'd think I was saying that. I pointed out that the covers women get and the covers men get are almost universally different, without passing judgment on what covers were good or bad -- because that's subjective.
It is true, however, that certain covers, which are slapped with the label "girly" are often equated with badness, or trashiness, or the assumption that the book behind the cover has something to do with issues traditionally associated with women, such as love (something guys also do), shopping (something guys also do), and the wearing of shoes (something guys also do). We carry certain pieces of baggage around with us because of things we've heard along the way, and for some people, this means that pink = bad, in sort of the same way that "Four legs good, two legs better!" became a slogan in Animal Farm. It's not true unless you believe it to be true, and it's important to ask why you believe it to be true, which is what coverflip is about.
So what IS a bad cover? Surely, they must exist. And this may be a question to be answered by an artist. But I would suggest the following:
• Covers that are overly general and/or designed to look almost exactly like the cover of another book that sold really well that may or may not be anything like the book in question.
• Covers that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the book, and are merely designed to look like other books (so, basically, my first point, with a little extra irrelevance for flavor).
• Covers that deliberately change the race of the characters in the book. (This is a HUGE TOPIC normally called "whitewashing.")
• Blotchy mishmashes of stock art thrown together at the last minute because no one could think of a cover. (Rare, but I suppose it must happen from time to time. Covers are usually obsessed over.)
Publishers are bad for doing this! Publishers are trying to keep us down!
Publishers, to my knowledge, are not trying to subvert the cause of feminism and keep us down. They are trying to sell books, which, as it turns out, is hard. They use cover images that they think readers and buyers will like. How the covers are actually made -- who designs them, why they are picked -- is really a very individual matter in the case of each book. Also, it tends to be very much a committee decision. It's not like the cover is made and the artist throws down the brush and takes off his floppy hat and says, "Eet es finished! My great werk!"
First of all, no one talks like that. Second, the covers are seen by pretty much everyone in the company, and then are shown to the people who buy stock for the stores, and everyone has an opinion. Editorial, sales, marketing, everyone has a peek at the cover. And all committee decisions tend to get watered down, because it is a rare thing for large numbers of people to agree on a single point.
HOWEVER, and this is where my ACTION PLAN comes in... if publishers know you want something different, they will be DELIGHTED to oblige. They're really only trying to please you, reader. So if you want something different, that has to be reflected in some metric they can measure. Like sales. Or letters. Or blog posts. Or Coverflips!
THE ACTION PLAN
Coverflip's ultimate goal is to show that books have no gender. Let's stop pre-determining what's for boys and what's for girls. And it aims to do this by playing around with the cover image to show that covers are simply covers, and you can switch them around and change perception in a heartbeat. The media is not going to fix this. And publishers can't really fix it. It's up to readers. To paraphrase John and Yoko, "Gendered books are over, if you want it."
READERS CAN DO THIS...
Go into a store and really LOOK at how the books are sorted, what labels they're put under. Those labels are not accidental, and they're not always that accurate (especially in big stores). What's in fiction? What's in "Women's Fiction"? What's in "Urban Fiction"? Put some covers side to side and really have a good long SQUINT to try to see what it is you're being told and sold. Tyr out something new, something that sounds like it might be good, but has a cover you don't feel is meant for you.
And if you don't like the cover, take it off or make a new one! It's YOUR BOOK.
Also, write to/tweet at publishers and TELL THEM what you think!
TEACHERS CAN DO THIS...
Do a Coverflip in your classroom! Post the results! If kids can't do the art, have them write about it. Teachers have already started doing this, some in just 40 minute periods, and are getting some amazing results.
LIBRARIANS AND MEDIA SPECIALISTS CAN DO THIS...
Mix up those displays. Do a BLANK COVER table. Give kids something you know they'd like, but might be afraid to be seen reading. Set a coverflip challenge!
The covers change when the feedback changes. So, change the conversation, change the cover.