Last week, for the first time in the sixteen years I’ve been reading, I was angry at the publishing industry. Books have always been a source of comfort for me – everything from the Amelia Bedelia series to Harry Potter to to Stephen King. J.K. Rowling and John Green in particular inspired me to pursue a career in writing and publishing, in the hopes that I could bring similar books to other young readers out there someday. So when Stacked Books, a book review blog run by librarians – whose tagline is ‘librarians, reviews, mayhem’ – published some raw data revealing the sexist and patriarchal nature of publishing I was shocked and saddened, but ultimately angry.
It has been common in the past few years to assume that women dominate the young adult fiction (YA) genre while men dominate the literary fiction genre. Even if you haven’t explicitly heard this assumption yet, I would bet that if you name a few YA novelists off the top of your head, you’ll come up with writers like Stephenie Meyer, Aly Carter, Sarah Dessen, J.K. Rowling or perhaps even Suzanne Collins before you name any men. Without realizing it, the idea that women are more prevalent in YA fiction has become entrenched in readers’ brains – for both readers who do and don’t read YA.
Stacked Books’ November 4th post set out to break that assumption down. In the statistics collected and analyzed by Stacked blogger Kelly J, women are outnumbered almost 2 to 1 on the weekly New York Times YA bestseller list. In fact, Kelly shows us that throughout 2013 so far, women have outnumbered men on the New York Times YA bestseller list a total of two times. Kelly explains, “Before you get excited that women had finally ‘taken over’ in their representation on the list, I’ll report to you that they didn’t take over in numbers. Those weeks showed five individual women on the list, which is a number still smaller than the average number of men who appeared on a weekly basis. Women dominated as individuals none of the time.”
I couldn’t believe that the industry where I have set my sights is just as much of a boy’s club as any other industry. Call me naïve, but I thought books were the one place where only merit – and not gender – mattered. I used to be comforted by the idea that I could prove my talent and affinity for books and that would be enough to succeed. I attributed sexism at work to other offices that I had not interest in – lawyers, accountants, or insurance executives. I was banking on the fact that the skirt I would wear to the office would not define my job potential or detract from my success in my writing. Stacked Books’ post showed me that this is not, in fact, the case.
Why aren’t women’s books selling? After a little research, I discovered that a lot of this circles back to the debate about “girly” covers. YA novelists Maureen Johnson and Ally Carter have brought this discussion into the public forum via Twitter many times over the past few years, and though I understood their arguments, I never really gave them much credit. After reading the New York Times data, however, I took a better look at what they have to say.
(Disclaimer: For the sake of the rest of this article, I want to clarify that although I understand that more than just preteens read YA fiction, for the purposes of my argument, I’m going to focus on that particular targeted audience.)
Johnson and Carter believe that covers for YA books written by female authors are marketed to be more appealing for girls; the cover images often feature girls wearing heels or makeup or kissing a boy. Although I understand that more than just preteens read YA fiction, I focus on this demographic because this is the demographic that the books are being marketed to).
Carter’s 2010 spy novel features a close-up of a young, attractive girl wearing designer sunglasses with her finger pressed against her lips. I will venture to say that this kind of image is not something that young boys regularly pick up off the shelves. While girls are more likely to pick up a book with a dark-looking castle complete with dragons and a moat, boys are less likely to pick up books with girls in high heels on the cover. Female authors are losing out on half of their potential sales just because of cover art. It has nothing to do with the literary merit of the novels, and everything to do with the publisher’s choice of marketing strategy.
Although the publishing industry has certainly disappointed me, I realized that it has more power to effectively change than other male-dominated industries. Readers and publishers alike need to understand that book publishing is the cornerstone of the female empowerment movement. A change as simple as choosing gender neutral cover art for all YA books (think about John Green’s covers, Scott Westerfield’s, or even J.K. Rowling’s as compared to Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry cover), could even the playing field between male and female novelists. The publishing industry could be on of the first to become completely gender-equal.
I don’t know how publishing companies will be able to feasibly tweak their marketing strategies to aid female YA novelists, but to me anyway, it seems like a simple, plausible adjustment that holds the potential to be the beginning of a huge social change.
Megan Tripp is a senior Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College. When she's not writing, she drinks copious anounts of coffee, watches Netflix, and thinks about what she wants to write next. Contact Megan on Twitter.
Image: Disney Publishing Worldwide