Tag Archives: publishing

Boobs, Bodies, and Book Covers

Debbie says:

Lidia Yuknavitch has a marvelous post on The Rumpus on the decision she and her female publisher made to put a woman’s breast on the cover of her new book, The Chronology of Water.

book cover featuring breast with nipple

(cover photograph by Andy Mingo)

It’s a boob.

With full frontal nip.

What happened next of course is that the book went into design and production. We all understood we were making a cover that was at the very least atypical. Possibly controversial. Absolutely, as it turned out, problematic for some in terms of visually showcasing the cover. For example, Facebook does not “like” naked boobs.

Yuknavitch goes on to talk about the gender issue that arises when a book cover like this is chosen, designed, and supported by women, and is considered “unacceptable” by a system that is predominantly male. (Her publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, has created a wrapper that covers the tit, so in effect the book has a boob cover and a no-boob cover.)

When it comes to representation, it is not entirely OK for women to insist upon the representation of their own bodies in their own terms. And by OK, I mean culturally sanctioned, commercially viable, literarily or intellectually respected. And when I say in their own terms, I mean with a specific representational validity and aim, and without apology. You are just going to have to trust me with this next statement when I say, virtually NO agents or mainstream or commercial presses would touch this cover. Few literary presses would.

You don’t have to trust her with that statement; you can trust me instead. I’ve worked in book publishing on and off since 1988, and I do it now. Nipples are taboo in publishing. Laurie and I know exactly which Women En Large photographs we can send to newspapers and magazines, because the nipples are either not in the picture or not very visible. On book covers, nipples and pubic hair can’t even be discussed in the cover conference. Yuknavitch is also right that women’s bodies, which are used to sell everything else under the sun, are not common on “literary” book covers, perhaps because they are used to sell everything else under the sun, and literary books perceive themselves as different. The nipple rule is decades old. In the 1990s, when we discussed revisiting it at the publisher where I was working, we were told that it was not open to discussion.

In her discussion of people’s reaction to holding the book, Yuknavitch says:

… people would be embarrassed to be seen with a boob book in their hands. Though it’s true enough that LOTS of other people would be downright skippy and proud to hold one in public and wave it around – I have a boob book! HA! – she also meant, at least implicitly, you can’t have a nude woman on the cover of your book if you intend to be taken seriously by the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry.

I think she misses one point here: books are things that we hold. Advertisements are things that we look at, and either turn the page or keep driving. I expect people who understand most or all of Yuknavitch’s arguments about the body (we’re getting to those) might still feel a little uneasy holding that naked boob in their hand for the hours it takes to read the book, especially (but not only) in public.

She goes on to discuss the philosophy behind her choices. By philosophy, I mean an extremely appealing mixture of Plain Talk and references to famous philosophers.

Let me tell you why I became insistent about the cover. My memoir is, at its heart, about how I survived the life I was dealt, kind of like we all do. The central and enduring metaphor that holds the story together is swimming. And the central site of meaning in this story I have told about making a self from the ruins of a life is a body. A real body.

An eating, fucking, shitting, peeing, sweating, bleeding, body.

… Part of the dire problem is that it is quite difficult to make the assertion that one owns ones mode of representation and ones mode of production and the meaning making operations of ones body as a woman.

Yes, I mean that in the Marxist sense.

As it turns out, those ideas – commodity, labor, production, distribution, epistemology and ontology – seem unequivocally reserved for the realms of philosophic discourse, on the one hand – and in particular, whether we want it to be true or not, a rather patriarchal philosophical discourse, and on the other hand, market driven rules and regulations, another patriarchal bastion which does not include women owning the signification modes.

One of the things I kept thinking as I was reading was, “Well, yes, but the reader can’t tell that the cover was chosen and designed by women. From a purchaser’s, or advertiser’s, or even store bookbuyer’s point of view, what’s the difference? Yuknavitch answered me quite neatly by the end of her post:

That body ain’t no airbrushed hot model’s body. That boob is not “man-made.” That nip isn’t quite right – and what’s not quite right about it is that it’s a real nipple. It sits how it sits, is sags a bit, there are imperfections all around it. Also, I have it on good authority that it’s the boob and nip of a woman closing in on fifty years old.

… this is what happens when you put the mode of representation, production and distribution in the hands of, well, smarty women. There is no silicone or push-up bra or tantalizing sexualization, fetishization, or ironic stance. There are freckles and saggages and discolorations.

The cover is showing you something about an ordinary woman’s body. Inside, the text is saying something about how an ordinary woman found a self by and through her own body. Between seeing and saying, a dialogic exists.

Now she’s speaking Body Impolitic’s language: images of real bodies are the truly radical images of these times. The wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry may shy away from all nipples, whether sagging and aging or perky and young, but the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the wider world love every image they can find of young women’s bodies (or at least Photoshopped young women’s bodies). No one but a few smarty women are smarty enough to love images of all bodies … and to be aware of just how transgressive it is to not just show, but showcase, the otherwise invisible ones.

As she makes all of these clear points, Yuknavitch references Kristeva, and Cixous, and Bakhtin, and Zizek, and Jhally, and more, all with links for those who don’t know their work.

Now I want to read the book.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.

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.