Laurie Toby Edison

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Bodies on Book Covers: A Secret, Complex, and Evolving Language

Lynne Murray says:

Sorry not to have posted in awhile. I’ve been wandering about the internet in an obsessive state contemplating book covers, what goes on them, and what works. I’m not even graphically gifted enough to understand a lot of the art on book covers, but as a reader I know they influence whether I decide to explore a book.

The language of book covers is constantly changing. Books marketed to males (“boy books”) and books marketed to females (“girl books”) have drastically different approaches to using the body on the cover, with the intent of attracting different audiences. You might think that most books are neither “boy books” or “girl books” and I would like you to be right, but publishers disagree.

In deconstructing book covers, I’m not just indulging my curiosity: I’m trying to figure out what will work best on my own books. What conclusions I’ve reached are at the end of this post. One of the main characters in the book I’m trying to figure out how to package is Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, who might have looked like this:

Sir John Falstaff

To go back to book covers for a moment, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books (a series of decades-old boy books) demonstrate what we might call “bad girl with cleavage on the cover” school of hardboiled mysteries, a school which is not dead, but has mutated to mimic movie posters. I don’t read too many of those books and that’s not the book I’ve written, so enough said about that.

Girl books, sometimes called “women’s novels” range from chick lit humor books, to multigenerational women’s saga books, or books about groups of women working out problems (these books may have a house or a landscape on the cover). Carol Irvin, discussing women’s fiction, romance fiction and mainstream fiction, calls this “[a] cover which vaguely pleases everyone while offending no one.”

Women are also the primary audience for the vastly popular genre of romance novels, which still often feature the couple in a clinch style of romance covers that made male model Fabio a household word.

A delightful internet phenomenon has grown up wherein fans award “Worst Covers Awards.”

Another site that reliably makes me smile while skewering covers is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books .

As a frequent reader of urban paranormal and paranormal romance I’ve noticed that rarely (never?) do we see a man on the cover. Usually the cover shows a woman whose attire might have been perceived as that of a dominatrix a decade or so ago (black leather, black ink tattoos, whip or sword or similar phallic instrument of doom in hand). The cover tells the reader that the book is about a powerful woman who solves her own problems whenever possible. She may or may not get involved with a partner but I can’t recall any of these books that ever ended up with the heroine getting rescued, or getting married.

This genre is a little closer to my upcoming book. Closer but not quite there. My book pits humans against vampires, ghosts and terrifying critters from another dimension, so it does have paranormal aspects. But it also has a crucial fat-friendly aspect.

Finding any positive available images of fat people is a challenge. When updating my web page recently my web diva told me she fell into a swamp of images labeled “fat and ugly” and the ever popular “headless fat people” images. We couldn’t find anything to use, but the exhaustive book cover quest is still in progress.

A recent post on Sociological Images made a good point about novels with plus-sized heroines that hide behind covers with smaller models. This post collected a minefield of interesting comments (a saddening number of which were from readers essentially saying, “I’m a size 14 and I do/don’t look like that”). The most relevant comment for my purposes came from a book designer who suggested that “not showing the face is one of the cardinal rules of book design.” Who knew?

Another commenter, Sarah, quoted Shulamith Firestone, who isn’t quoted every day. Firestone says: For a woman, “… her whole identity hangs in the balance of her love life. She is allowed to love herself only if a man finds her worthy of love.” Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

A January 10, 2010 post on Big Fat Blog considers considers whether it is possible or advisable to show a fat teen on the cover of a young adult novel. Author C. Leigh Purtill commented:

My YA novel, All About Vee, also had a plus-size heroine who weighed 217 lbs. The cover model looked possibly a size 10-12 and was made to look even smaller by the placement of the woman on the cover. Of course I had virtually no say in the matter and the editor told me that was the modeling industry version of plus-size. Not one young adult or woman I have heard from or spoken to has thought the cover model was large. They ALL thought she was average sized.”

As a small-press author, I have a lot more control over the cover of my books than I did when I was with a major publishing house. The trade-off is that the press has no budget to hire a professional artist, so we do what we can with what we can scrounge–a frustrating situation.

I have a very narrow definition of what works. Although I can get behind covers that preach to the choir–i.e., make a fat acceptance point to an audience ready to see it–as a novelist I selfishly want a book cover to cause as many people as possible to stop and investigate further even if they have never heard of or aren’t interested in fat acceptance. If I’m not a storyteller first, last and always, then I’m not doing my job as I see it.

So my main goal is how to show that a book has fat-friendly themes without alienating people who are not already sold on fat acceptance. Another goal, a little subtler, is to give the reader an idea what kind of reading experience she or he will have. That’s where the secret part of the language comes in.

My books all have both humor and some darkness. Over the past decade humorous women’s books (aka “chick lit”) have often shown a woman’s legs and feet (sometimes in killer high heels–eek!). A bright or pastel cover with a woman’s feet or legs sends the message that the story will be about a woman, and provide laughs. My theory is that legs and feet are the least likely body parts to cause anxiety and distract a would-be reader into a self-esteem crisis of measuring herself against the image on the cover. That crisis might keep her from picking up the book. (See Goal #1.)

So here I am with a book (The Falstaff Vampire Files) coming out this summer that once again bends genres and doesn’t fit into any reliable category, and I still don’t know what kind of cover to suggest to my publisher. Much as I love paranormal romance, this book isn’t quite that. It’s got some shivery horror in the middle of the vampire stuff and presence as a vampire amps up the humor level. What’s an author to do?

I could go on and on in true obsessive fashion, but I’ll stop. My publisher and I are throwing ideas back and forth. Perhaps inspiration will strike. Perhaps lightning will strike. Perhaps you will solve my problem in the comments section. Perhaps Karmageddon will ensue and the whole thing will be a moot point. I’ll keep you posted.

2 Responses to “Bodies on Book Covers: A Secret, Complex, and Evolving Language”

  1. Lynne Murray Says:

    Laurie, I wonder if this tech glitch might be somehow related to the way I formatted my post, because it looks like a mash-up of C. Leigh Purtill’s 1-10-10 comment on the Big Fat Blog, which I cut and pasted into the post (possibly bringing along some invisible format stuff?) and my theories on book covers with women’s feet or legs a few paragraphs later. Apologies if my formatting caused confusion. Lynne

  2. Laurie Says:

    Thanks Lynn I erased it.

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