Pretty Colors

It’s been said women want the same things men want, but in prettier colors. You can see this preference in action at any formal event in the Western world: men dress in dark suits, and women in a full spectrum of colors.

This phenomenon has a profound effect on book marketing.

Author Randy Susan Meyers (among many others) rightly point outs that the term women’s fiction unfairly segregates books by female authors: “Are there not many books written by men and marketed to all genders that include abuse, poverty, divorce, familial breakdown, and other social struggles? … If ‘women’s fiction’ is a marketing device, it’s confusing as thus. Label a novel ‘women’s fiction’ — is the message  ‘not for men’?”

There’s no comparable label for men’s fiction, but from a marketing perspective, men’s fiction does exist. It’s just called fiction. Here’s what it looks like.

Cormac McCarthy's  novel The Road

The colors on this cover are black, white, and brown. There’s no image to evoke emotion. Clearly, this book is being marketed to men. If it hadn’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and Oprah hadn’t selected it for her book club, women for the most part would never have noticed this novel on the bookstore shelves.

Contrast this with a women’s fiction cover from multi-RITA winner Barbara Samuel O’Neal.

Barbara O'Neal's novel The Lost Recipe for Happiness

I love this cover, for so many reasons—and yes, color is one of them. First, look at the title, the complementary shades of cheery orange and fuchsia. To that, for drama, they’ve added blue as a contrasting color, in text as well as the image. And that image! The yellow lab suggests loyalty and unconditional love. The woman’s stance, mid-stride, evokes determination and dynamism. Her clothing is casual and comfortable, and the whisk adds to the mood of quiet domesticity.

I want to live inside this book.

That, my friends, is how you market to women—who, in general, buy more books and read more voraciously than men do. Of course book publishers want to tap into this demographic. So the concept of women’s mainstream fiction was born.

The problem, of course, is that books aren’t just products—they’re art. And for whatever reason, the literati have decided that books in boring covers marketed to men have more literary value than books in beautiful covers marketed to women.

It was bad enough when women’s fiction was just a marketing term used inside the industry. Now, thanks to Amazon, it’s escaped into the marketplace—along with the commensurate prejudice that these books are only for female readers.

As Meyers points out in her article, men are often surprised at how much they enjoy books labeled with that women’s fiction moniker. We need a new name, like book club fiction. Because a savvy decision to market to hungry female readers shouldn’t come with the penalty of excluding the male readers who would love the book as well.

Do you think the term women’s fiction unfairly limits the appeal of books to female readers only? What do you think about changing the name of the genre to book club fiction


About AndreaJWenger

Andrea J. Wenger is an award-winning writer and editor in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in the fields of creative, technical, and freelance writing.

Posted on June 11, 2014, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I agree that the labels assigned different genres seem to further fragment the market. But I’m not sure book club fiction would work, either. At the risk of sounding sexist, are there a lot of men’s book clubs? Might that label still turn off some men? Why not just call these books what they are: fiction.

  2. When I see “Women’s Fiction” I immediately think “romance in disguise” – and I hate romance novels.

  3. I’ve always embraced the women’s fiction label because these stories typically chronicle a woman’s journey of self-discovery. However, I do worry that the term automatically excludes half our population. After all, I don’t personally know many men (okay, any man) who would pick up a book labeled women’s fiction. Like Tracy, I’m not especially fond of the Book Club Fiction title for the genre either.

  4. Reblogged this on Reese Ryan — Novelist | Journalist | Essayist | Hopeless Romantic and commented:
    Interesting post from the brilliant Andrea J. Wenger on the dilemma of whether the term “women’s fiction” helps or hurts the genre.

  5. I agree that women’s fiction is a sexist title for books that men would read IF they weren’t labeled “women’s fiction”. I think what I write is just plain fiction and I resist my work being labeled “romance” because, though I often read romance, I don’t know how to write that genre. One of my books is in a male POV so I like to think I write fiction and I would hope I would have help creating a cover that’s appropriate for it. I don’t like the boring black and white and brown colors of what’s termed “literary fiction” no matter WHAT it’s about. I like Barbara’s book cover way more whether it’s women’s fic, literary fic, or just plain fiction.
    AACK – labels!

  6. Thanks for commenting, everyone, and Reese, thanks for reblogging.

    I love hearing these different perspectives. I mention book club fiction because that term already exists. I’m not particularly fond of it, but I think it’s better than women’s fiction. Ultimately, my preference would be just to call it mainstream fiction. The genre shouldn’t be determined by what kind of cover they put on it.

    Eilene, women’s fiction isn’t romance—it’s mainstream fiction, and often doesn’t necessarily have a central love story. (Unfortunately, some self-pubbed authors are categorizing their romance novels—including erotic romance—as women’s fiction, which is just plain wrong.) A couple romance authors I really enjoy are Virginia Kantra in her Dare Island series, and Melissa Cutler in her Catcher Creek series. These books go beyond the central romance to explore complex family dynamics, and offer wonderful insights that hit you right in the heart.

  7. Labels are hard. Book Club fiction sounds more gender neutral, but I agree with Tracy–I don’t know any men in book clubs.

  8. I believe that writer’s are more conscious of these labels differentiating books and genres than readers who don’t write. I also think the look of the cover is far more important to the reader and helps him or her decide which books to check out.

  9. Janna Qualman

    Genius. You’re so right! I never thought about it.

    Explaining “women’s fiction” to those who aren’t familiar with the genre is difficult. And you’re right, it does sort of avoid a certain readership, even if that’s not the intended effect.

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