In the UK, there is a national campaign called Let Books Be Books (part of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign) that seeks to end the marketing of books based on socio-cultural assumptions and stereotypes of gender. Examples of gender-based marketing include books about pirates, trains and adventure being marketed to boys, with ‘pink culture’, books about princesses, ponies, flowers and ponies being marketed to girls.
Gender marketing extends from the content and topics books address to the cover design, promotional blurb and internal design and format. The Let Books Be Books campaign seeks to end gender marketing and argues that books should be allowed to ‘stand alone’ and be marketed on the basis of their individual content.
The campaign has gained a reasonable level of support from various UK publishers, Waterstones (Britain’s largest specialist bookseller) and several high-profile authors including Phillip Pullman, Anne Fine and national children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman.
There are those in the industry who are opposed to the campaign, however, and one of the primary arguments against Let Books Be Books is that gender marketing works. As publisher Michael O’Mara says,
It is a fact of life how a very large percentage of people shop when buying for kids, do it by sex. We know for a fact that when they are shopping on Amazon, they quite often type in ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls.
Stereotypes, after all, become such due to their foundation in fact, rather than fiction. Many boys do tend to prefer planes, trains and pirates rather than princesses and many girls prefer stories about princesses over snot and fart jokes.
Why gender-based marketing is a problem for publishers
While the main priority of anyone working in the publishing industry is arguably ensuring that published titles make a profit, editors and publishers are gatekeepers of the literary world, and as such, also have a cultural responsibility.
Gender marketing is old fashioned and problematic because it is both exclusionary and reinforces traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Gender marketing is exclusionary in that it defines its target audience and discourages any crossover. In terms of potential sales, publishers and booksellers are thus effectively cutting their potential audience, and sales, in half.
Why gender-based marketing is a problem for consumers
In addition to being exclusionary and fragmenting the market, gender marketing is problematic because it promotes traditional gender-based stereotypes about what each gender is supposed to like and be interested in.
This is reminiscent of the days when girls were taught embroidery, cooking and how to manage a household rather than mathematical, scientific or legal concepts their male counterparts were encouraged to learn. Gender-based marketing supports the assumption that each gender should be interested in particular things specific to their gender, and should not be interested in those things designated to the opposite gender.
Why gender-based marketing is a problem for children
The implicit consequence of this is that if a child doesn’t conform to their gender’s stereotype, they are likely to be criticised or ostracised by their peers. This is why, for example, young girls who like playing with blue trains or reading about pirates are described as “tom boys”, when really, they are just girls who are interested in the same things as many boys. This is also why, when young boys demonstrate an interest in typically feminine topics, such as flowers or ballerinas, questions are raised about their sexuality. The Let Books Be Books (2014) campaign understands this, which is why they argue,
Children are listening, and take seriously the messages they receive from books, from toys, from marketing and the adults around them. Do we really want them to believe that certain things are off-limits for them because of their gender? They’re not ‘getting it wrong’ if a girl likes robots, or if a boy wants to doodle flowers. These artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.
It isn’t fair to project these outdated gender-based assumptions onto children—they should be allowed to make up their own minds about what they like and want to read about—and as a society we should be beyond this division. It is time to accept that each human is different and has a complex range of interests and passions, and these do not have to limited to what has traditionally been identified as appropriate for our gender.
While it may be true that gender marketing is currently a successful marketing and sales technique, is this due to natural inclination or something children are conditioned to accept? Surely gender-based preferences are based on socio-cultural experiences children have rather than natural inclination towards particular colours or topics.
For example, one can imagine that young girls are likely to be drawn towards pink if, after being dressed in a pretty new pink dress with ribbon and sparkles, everyone who sees her reacts in such an exaggerated, enthusiastic way. The young girl would then learn to associate the colour pink, ribbons and sparkles with admiration and affection and cultural acceptance, and would then be likely to continue making choices based on this and other experiences that teach young people what is expected of them.
I do not propose an all-out ban on previously published books that have used gender-based marketing, but this is an issue I believe writers, editors and publishers should consider when dealing with future publications. It is important that we discourage gender-based distinctions in book marketing and encourage are more inclusive marketing strategy not only from a sales perspective but with a view to ending all gender-based divisions in our culture and society.
Not only does a gender-based division fragment the industry, it reinforces a gender hierarchy whereby girls and girl culture is considered ‘niche’ and secondary to male, mainstream literary culture. In this world, books for girls are considered ‘lesser’ than books for boys and pink represents not only ‘female’ but ‘frivolity’. This is not good for girls or boys, for the publishing industry, or society in general.
Abrams, D 2014, ‘Should UK Children’s Books be non-Gender Specific?’, Publishing Perspectives, 19 March, viewed 10 April 2014, <http://publishingperspectives.com/2014/03/should-uk-childrens-books-be-non-gender-specific/>.
Brody, RL 2014, ‘The Independent’s new stance on gender-biased books’, I wrote this [blog], 16 March, viewed 10 April 2014, <http://rlbrody.com/2014/03/16/independents-new-stance-gender-biased-books/>.
Flood, A 2014, ‘Campaign to end gender-specific children’s books gathers support’, The Guardian, 17 March, viewed 10 April 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/16/campaign-gender-children-publishing-waterstones-malorie-blackman>.
Kohen, Y 2014, ‘What’s the problem with pink, anyway?’, The Cut, 27 March , viewed 10 April 2014 <http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/whats-the-problem-with-pink-anyway.html>.
Mason-Smith, S 2014, ‘Let books be books: UK group asks children’s publishers to stop gender marketing’, Melville House, 19 March, viewed 10 April 2014, <http://www.mhpbooks.com/let-books-be-books-uk-group-asks-childrens-publishers-to-stop-gender-marketing/>.
Let toys be toys 2014, ‘Time to let books be books’, 5 March, viewed 10 April 2014, <http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/time-to-let-books-be-books/>.
This article was first published as part of an assessable ePortfolio for a publishing course at USQ.