Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Judging readers by their covers - Elen Caldecott

Book covers. We all judge by them. And so we should; the sales and marketing and art departments of publishing companies want you to judge the contents based on the packaging. They’ve put good money into it.

You can tell the genre of the book simply by the font, in many cases.
Pink and swirly? One for the ladies, perhaps to read with a frappachino in a pair of knock-off Manolos.
Gold and Bold? One for Dad at Christmas, especially if it has ‘Eagle’ or ‘Force’ or ‘Bravo’ in the title.

The images too will plonk a book right in the middle of a demographic. Black and white photo of a young child? Middle-ages ladies who like a good cry. A red flower on a black background? Teenage girls who like a good cry. A dragon and a sword? Fanboy geeks who only cry when no one is watching.

We all know which books are aimed at us.
But what happens when we want to read outside our marketing profiles?
I would suggest that it is easier for some of us than for others.

I have a friend who is a female poet, she lives in a small village and shops at the WI weekly sale. She is also a massive fan of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. And there ain’t no font more gold and bold than those. She can quite happily sit on a bus with one of those on show for all to see.
Would the same be true of a male poet carrying a Sophie Kinsella?
I doubt it (though I would love to be proved wrong! Let me know in the comments if you know for a fact that Andrew Motion is an outted Marian Keyes fan!)

Now you might think that this doesn’t matter; an adult’s reading habits are their own affair and people can like whatever they like.

But how much of this is nature, and how much of it is decided much earlier on, in the children’s section of a bookshop (I couldn’t fit the word ‘nurture’ into this sentence)?
Would men like Aga Sagas? They might never know, especially if they were never encouraged to pick up a Jacqueline Wilson.
Women, on the other hand, are happy to give Lee Child a go, because they’re not embarrassed to read Anthony Horowitz.

We can judge books by their covers, but it’s a shame that we are then judged by the covers we own.
Elen's Facebook Page


Stroppy Author said...

Interesting, many French publishers have traditionally used quite uninformative covers (not the case with international blockbusters, now,though). I wonder if that meant it was easier for people to read embarrassing genres? I am reading uncorrected proof copy of a man book at the moment, and do feel slightly awkward on trains. I feel I want a badge saying 'this is not my usual choice, honest! Look, it's for professional reasons!' It's not just snobbery, as I'll happily read picture books on trains (to embarrassment of Small Bint) it's to do with not wanting to give a false image of who I am. In the same way I would feel awkward wearing red lipstick on a train :-)

Leslie Wilson said...

I always feel awkward wearing lipstick.. but what I REALLY wanted to say is that my husband loves Katie Fforde and would read Mills and Boon if I let him, he adores romantic fiction but it has to have a happy ending. On the other hand, he usually reads New Scientist, work, or the sports pages of the Grauniad on the train. I must ask him if he'd read KF there!!

madwippitt said...

I have snagged up books that the titles otherwise wouldn't have grabbed me ... The original cover for Across the Nightingale Floor was one, a beautiful jacket which instantly intrigued me ... and I have a cherished velvet covered Pure Dead Magic which I wanted to stroke as much as to read ... but growing up with my Dad's shelves stuffed full of uniform Penguin covers and post-war austerely bound tomes which offered no clue as to what was inside unless you were familiar with the author I ended up reading across a really wide range of stuff that I might otherwise have ignored. It works both ways I guess!

Anna Wilson said...

The cover debate is always an interesting one. I am constantly irritated by the covers my books are given as I feel they do not accurately reflect the content. (Apparently I am an "animal" author, although my stories deal as much with friendships and family life as they do with animals.) But that's not what the covers are for, as you say, Elen. They are to grab people's attention and to set the books flying from the shelves. I just HATE the whole pink thing as I know it puts off girls who hate pink, and boys who - well, are boys, for heavens' sake. I do have a couple of boy readers who devotedly follow my series and write to tell me so. But they assure me they would never be seen dead reading them in public and ask me why I have chosen pink and swirly covers. I HAVEN'T! I have argued and argued against them till I am pink, blue and sparkly purple in the face, actually. But I will not get my way while the "Pink is for Girls" brigade still rules the roost.
I'm sure this pink thing is a fairly recent phenomenon. As Phil Ardagh commented recently, the Moomin books always appealed to both sexes, but have now been rejacketed to look "girly". Total travesty. Will stop ranting now.

Nick Green said...

"Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
'Cause it's OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you'd love to know what it's like
Wouldn't you"
– from a song by Madonna (possibly sampled from a film, I don't know)

steeleweed said...

Why in God's name would anybody care what other people think about what you're reading? If they are stupid enough to make value judgments based on that, you'd have to be equally stupid to care about their opinions.

I read just about anything, privately and publicly, including poetry and some so-called feminine fiction. In the last 65 years, I've read thousands of books, from masterpieces to utter garbage. From from time to time, I've heard snickers from the redneck crowd while sitting on a train reading Erica Jong - and also while reading Shakespeare.

catdownunder said...

Oh people care about what other people think they are reading all right! You just have to observe them on the train. They observe you too. I often read children's books on the train but I was reading a book on language death one morning. As I put the book away the person opposite me (who often pretends to read government documents) said, "I didn't know you knew how to read anything serious." The person sitting next to him got in before I did and said, "Oh, she graduated from your sort of reading long ago."

Elen Caldecott said...

Stroppy - ooh I love those white covers that the French have - though they do seem to be going out of fashion. Bookshelves look so chic when all the spines are the same. And you're right, so much more anonymous.

Leslie - I'd love to know what he thinks about being seen in public, but good on him for being so open minded.

Nick - thank you for channelling the Material Girl. There simply isn't enough of that kind of thing these days.

Steeleweed - good on you. But I wonder whether your self-confidence is a product of age and a well-lived life. My concern is for boys of ten, or twelve, or fourteen for whom peer opinion is so rigid and severe.

Cat - Yup. My librarians think I'm an odd fish too. They look at my loan history as though it were toxic...

Anna - ouch, just ouch,.

adele said...

I too am a huge Lee Child fan! Not really relevant to the discussion, I know but still!