Worth A Thousand Words?

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  I think you could change that to dollars — and maybe thousands or hundreds of thousands – when you apply that to cover art.  

When I’ve talked to readers about what caused them to pick up a book of mine, many of them admitted that the cover was got them to read the back cover copy and then the first few lines (or chapter) of the novel.  But writers don’t often get much control over what goes on the cover.  I’ve had seven books published now, and, only recently, has my editor asked me for suggestions to take to the cover committee, and, I hate to admit it, but I’m often at a loss for what makes “a good cover.” 

I’ve heard tell that a face looking out at you, the reader, has been — in the past at least — a big “selling point.”  However,  my partner and I were talking about a new trend in chick-lit (though I’ve also seen this in science fiction and fantasy also) wherein the female main character is depicted on the cover and all we see of her is her back or her decapitated (as it were) body.  As a feminist, this kind of disturbs me, because the woman’s body is more often than not also fairly scantily clad, and, in SF/urban fantasy she’s also sometimes holding a weapon or something akin to handcuffs.  It’s highly sexualized, and yet deeply impersonal.

My publisher, thankfully, has esckewed this trend.  Even though Tate’s covers are in the cartoony, chick-lit style, Garnet, the main character, always a head and a face.  I’m wondering what this new trend is about.  Is it that we’d rather not have an artists interpret a popular character (say, like Kim Harrison’s) or what?  Any ideas?

Also, if you’re interested in taking a look at my new cover, I’ve got it proudly displayed on my website, where you can also read an excerpt of the first chapter. //shameless plug. 

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  1. 1. Amy Sisson

    Hmm, interesting point, and I’d noticed the same about all the decapitated torsos. I do think those covers are visually appealing, but I see why this bothers some folks.

    I looked at your latest cover, and while I don’t generally mind cartoony-chick-lit covers either (I’m guess I’m relatively easy to please in the cover department), the woman on the cover has the anatomically-impossible figure or a Barbie doll, or even worse than a Barbie doll, plus she has the added sexual-seeming feature of the fishnets, so I’m not sure that it’s any better just because she has a face. I don’t find if much more personal, in other words.

    What do you think of the covers for Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville books? At least we get a whole person with a realistic (if ideal) figure, plus a were-creature of some kind. It appears they keep using the same model, which is kind of cool.

  2. 2. lyda morehouse

    Oh, yes. If I hadn’t been writing this in a bit of a hurry, I would have made the same point. The character of “Garnet” on the cover is always FAR too skinny. Kind creepy in her own right, IMHO. Because not only is she built like a twig (or as one person told me “a cricket”), her eyes are always so darkly made-up that they look bruised. What’s that about?

  3. 3. Bran fan

    On agent Kristin Nelson’s blog a few months ago, she showed four of her authors’ new covers, and every single one of them was headless. Kristin didn’t even notice until numerous posts in the comment thread pointed it out! Yuck.

    A few months later, she posted yet another cover, and it was a very stunning face. The comment thread was all like, “A face! Hooray, a face!”

    So, at least one agent (who sells a lot of chick lit and romance) now realizes that this is a problem and maybe she’ll go to bat for her authors in this regard.

    One can always hope.

  4. 4. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Somehow I am reminded of the Criminal Minds episode last night calling a character a pipecleaner with eyes . . .

    The headless trend has been around awile and you also see it a lot in music videos and advertising and some have called it an objectification of body parts, or fetishisizing thereof, or even a reduction of women to certain parts (and more and more often men as well). I don’t know why it’s appealing, but it is or else they wouldn’t advertise and etc with it.

    But more creepy to me are all the dead body advertisements. Where models are shown looking pretty much dead and this is supposed to make people buy the clothes and etc. I simply don’t get it.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one bothered by the depersonalization and objectification seen in the headless body/facing away/T&A covers. It didn’t bother me too much at first, but they’ve become such a trend, it’s starting to drive me up the wall. But judging by the response to a post I recently made on the urban fantasy LJ community Fangs, Fur, and Fey, a lot of people still like them, and see those cover models as strong women. Me, I think it substitutes sexualization for strength. (i.e. the first post I made over here)

    The theory behind that kind of cover art is that, if you don’t see the face, you can more easily identify with or project your own conceptions (or yourself) onto the cover figure. Doesn’t really work for me, though; as I said over in the FFF discussion, in the long run it leaves me feeling like the characters are interchangeable nonentities, which is one short step from thinking the books are interchangeable nonentities.

    One interesting data point: Doppelganger has a cover where the top of the figure’s head is missing and her face is deeply shadowed. Warrior and Witch, its sequel, has a cover that’s all face, staring straight out at you. These books have apparently violated the rule that sequels don’t sell as well as first books in the series; I’m told W&W is outselling DG. The cover may well be the reason.

  6. 6. Amy Sisson

    I was reminded to come back to this post to read the comments because I just got a review copy of “The Devil Inside” by Jenna Black. The cover figure is not headlesss, but it’s from the back, and she has the obligatory lower back tattoo. It’s undeniable that the cover is meant to be sexual.

    Hmm… at the same time, dark fantasy often seems (to me) to be sexually charged in general.

    Anyhow, not drawing any conclusions yet, but thinking on the topic.

    By the way, to Marie Brennan, I have to admit, that cover of W&W is stunning!

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Thanks! I’m delighted to hear that when my publisher reissues those books next year, they’re going to give the first one a cover that matches W&W more closely.

    Definitely the kinds of covers we’re talking about advertise a certain kind of book — generally a little dark, generally a lot sexual — they’re successful covers in that they communicate effectively. But part of me is getting slightly vexed that “urban fantasy” has gone from meaning “fantasy set in the modern world” to mostly meaning “fantasy set in the modern world featuring a tough yet conflicted heroine falling (or nearly falling) into the sack with a variety of hot supernatural men.” Not that I don’t like me some hot supernatural men, nor tough yet conflicted heroines, but I think the mode is beginning to wear on me.

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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