Lisa Williamson on female authors and gender neutral book covers

I attended a panel discussion with leading YA author Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal), senior editor Vicky Blunden (Myriad editions) and Leicester-based author Bali Rai. The event was held in one of the University of Leicester's lecture theatres.

Lisa Williamson on female authors and gender neutral book covers

This event first interested me as I have recently been involved in several debates about women in film, however I'd never really thought about female writers. The response from the panel - as well as most young girls in the audience - was that their bookshelves are 80% full of books written by female authors. Not necessarily by choice but by what the subject matter was and being able to relate to it more than if it was written by a male author.

This discussion quickly moved onto whether a front cover could be designed to appeal more to men or women, the final conclusion being yes in most cases. Pink, flowery, sparkly designs do not attract the average male, but on the other hand they also don't attract most females. However, statistics show that a book written by a female author, as well as having a female orientated cover and storyline, is more likely to be accepted by editors and generally have a higher selling rate than having a gender neutral cover.

Overall the question of whether it makes a difference if the writer is male or female was a no, but whether it was male or female orientated greatly depended on the content and front cover design.

Q&A with Lisa Williamson

Do you think it makes a difference if a writer is male or female, in terms of readership?

I think this very much depends on the individual. As a reader, the gender of the author does not impact my likelihood to pick up a book. I'm far more likely to be swayed by a review or recommendation. The description on the back or inside the jacket is also a major factor for me, the cover less so especially now I read so much on my kindle. However, when browsing in a bookshop, I am more likely to investigate further a book with an attractive cover. I do tend to favour books by female authors but suspect this is because the themes and plots are more likely to appeal to me as a female. This is entirely personal though!

As an author, I go into schools regularly and have asked pupils on a number of occasions whether the gender of the author impacts on their choice of reading material. Almost all answered no. They were far more likely to be turned off by the genre or cover. I think the design and marketing of the book has a massive impact on how it is perceived. In young adult (YA) fiction, many of the most popular series that appeal to both boys and girls (e.g. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth), are written by female authors. It's worth noting these tend of have quite gender neutral covers and very action-led plots. I think things become more tricky when it's perhaps a contemporary story, perhaps with a romance element, something that is seen as traditionally more 'female', which is a shame because I think it's a big fat myth that teenage boys are not interested in reading about love or relationships.

In your opinion would it be easier for a female author to write the male point of view or a male author writing from a female point of view?

I don't think it matters. For me it makes no difference. We are all people! However, some authors do admit they struggle to get in the head of someone with a gender identity that differs to their own and that's fair enough. I enjoy the challenge of putting myself in someone else's shoes, and preferably someone very different to me. That's the fun of writing.

Do you think there's better chance of success for a book with a male author's name on the cover as opposed to a female's?

I think this varies massively. It's worth noting that two of the standout bestsellers from the last couple of years were written by female authors (The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). Male authors have dominated the charts for a long time so it's exciting to see things even out a little. I certainly hope it's not a trend and that readers are savvy enough to make up their own minds and judge books on their individual merits. In certain genres (e.g crime, thriller), male authors do continue to monopolise and there is a slightly irritating tendency to create sub genres for books by female authors which are perceived to have a particularly 'female' focus or appeal. I do find it slightly disappointing that JK Rowling's chosen pen name for the Cormoran Strike series was a male one. I understand the reasoning behind it (to throw readers off the scent as to the true identity of the author) but it perhaps reasserts the idea that male authors write one sort of book and female authors another, something which is simple not true.

The front cover for The Art of Being Normal is quite gender neutral, was this your intention?

It was certainly my hope. When I first saw the initial designs, I was really, really happy. So many young people are missing out on great stories because they're worried about being seen with a book that looks too stereotypically male or female. Because TAOBN was written to hopefully appeal to teenagers of a range of gender identities, it was very important to me that the cover reflect this.

Aside from the points we've discussed, do you have any further thoughts on whether it makes a difference if a writer is male or female?

Personally, I love reading books by both male and female authors and so the gender of an author would never impact on my decision. In terms of YA fiction in particular, I'd love to see more gender neutral covers and efforts to market books in a broader way. It's the joint responsibility of authors, publishers, teachers, parents and librarians to create and promote inclusive books and try to get them into the hands of the young people that need them. Ultimately, I don't think the gender of the author is a barrier in this case. It is a far more complicated matter with many, many strands to unravel.

What's your next project?

My next project is about a complex relationship between a mother and daughter. It's in its early stages so I'm being a bit superstitious about it and not saying very much!


Georgie Cubin

Georgie Cubin Activist

I am a full time media student and spend my free time writing, making films and roller derby. I completed my Gold Arts Award in 2014 and absolutely loved it and everyone I met along the way.

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  • Bhavesh Jadva

    On 14 April 2016, 12:52 Bhavesh Jadva Voice Team commented:

    I think my process for choosing a new book blindly is an odd one. I'm very swayed by a nice front cover, I'm more likely to pick up a pretty front cover than I am a book with an interesting title, in honesty.

    As for what I 'go for' in a front cover, I think it just has to appeal to me in how it looks in a fairly genderless way - I've swirls and fleur de lits as much as I have straight lines and maps. I think, more conversely, that rather than patterning a cover to appeal to a demographic, an opposing pattern should be printed on the cover only to reinforce the idea of not to literally judge a book by its cover. Maybe that'll go some way in eliminating what book is 'for boys' and what is 'for girls'. But that's probably a bigger issue than we think!

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