I think I figured something out

July 29, 2009

Wow.  Thanks so much for the huge response to my highly unscientific questionnaire.  That was awesome.  What’s more, you all gave me just about the entire range of possible responses, which makes generalizing impossible.  This is a good thing.  This has helped.  My rant looks different today than it did two days ago, and better, I think.  I also think publishers’ art and marketing departments should bookmark yesterday’s discussion and study it in great detail.

Where this all started:  Over the last week or so, I’ve encountered a couple of familiar rants along the lines of “You won’t catch me reading that trashy urban fantasy crap.  I mean, just look at those covers.”  This is after years of hearing, “I don’t normally read books like yours — I mean, just look at those covers.”  A couple of days ago, this all coalesced for me into a concise summary:

You know, urban fantasy would get a lot more respect if it didn’t dress like a slut.

To which my immediate and visceral response was, “Bite me.”  (This is the point at which I almost posted the first time.  Instead, I e-mailed an urban fantasy author friend of mine and bitched.)

See, the above statement is rhetorically parallel to the one that goes, “Well, she wouldn’t have gotten harassed if she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt.”  Oh, how my feminist fury burns.  And then I thought, is it Puritanical backlash?  Is that where the rage against these covers comes from?

But wait.  There’s a couple of different kinds of rage.  There are the people who love urban fantasy but are getting sick of the cookie-cutter nature of the covers, especially when they have nothing to do with the content.  That, I understand and sympathize with.  But then there’s the “You won’t catch me reading that trashy crap” crowd.  And the two groups are actually a Venn diagram with some overlap in the middle.  Like I said, generalizations really aren’t possible or helpful.  (But I do think the people who say things like “Urban fantasy would get more respect if it didn’t dress like a slut,” are letting blind prejudice stand in the way of their reading experiences.)

The art/marketing people know what they’re doing.  These covers proliferate because they’re a powerful, unmistakable cue for a certain kind of story/character/reading experience.  Both groups, the UF readers and the UF haters, are responding to the same cue — a perception of the what the book’s content is — in different ways.  No matter what my own emotional response is, I find it a really interesting case study in marketing strategy.   This is why I wanted to get actual responses from actual readers, to see just how much variety there is.  Again, I thank you.

One generalization I will make:  Pretty much no one who commented is buying these books just because of the covers.  They’re reading reviews, looking for favorite authors, and listening to recommendations.  The covers identify the books, but they’re ultimately not selling the books.  I think this is important to note.

Another observation:  The most successful covers seem to fit the template while including details that are fresh and original.  One of the comments yesterday brought up the handcuffs on the cover of Kim Harrison’s first book, Dead Witch Walking.  And that’s such an interesting detail because it can be read in a couple of different ways:  as a sexually-charged symbol hinting at bondage; or, as the commentator mentioned, a symbol that this woman has authority in the realm of law enforcement.

So.  A group of people looks at these hot leather-clad women and sees empowerment.  Another group looks at them and sees (either positively or negatively) blatant sex symbols.  And you know what?  Both groups are right.

And that’s why I have to say the best of these covers might actually be full of pure genius.  They’re overdetermined.  Like the urban fantasy genre itself, they allow many interpretations, mean different (and even opposing) things to different people, and thereby attract a very wide audience.  For example, though urban fantasy is often characterized as being primarily by and for women, my own audience (based on e-mails, blog comments, and meeting people at events) is about 50/50 women and men.  That’s so cool.

Let the haters hate.  I for one feel a lot better now.

30 Responses to “I think I figured something out”

  1. C.E. Petit Says:

    Respectfully, I think your Venn diagram is missing a few dimensions, because the covers are not really intended for the actual buyers of the books: They’re intended for the people who make decisions on what to stock in bookstores. The first bullet point in the website link discusses this a bit, in a slightly different (but equally “disreputable”) context.

    And with that in mind, maybe what we’re really saying is that bookstore/chain buyers are looking for sluts… or at least perceived as looking for sluts. (BTW, Kitty’s own tattoo would be much more tasteful than the one on her book covers, and despite her normal casual attire she does know how to tuck in her t-shirt.)

  2. Jenn Says:

    Glad you’re feeling better about the genre you’re best-known for at the moment.

    “One of the comments yesterday brought up the handcuffs on the cover of Kim Harrison’s first book, Dead Witch Walking. And that’s such an interesting detail because it can be read in a couple of different ways: as a sexually-charged symbol hinting at bondage; or, as the commentator mentioned, a symbol that this woman has authority in the realm of law enforcement.”

    That just makes me laugh because it would never have occurred to me to think bondage. At the time I was desperately hoping it would fill the void left by Anita Blake’s descent into the pit of multipartner sex and no plot. I would likely have never touched another similar book if I’d encountered bondage. I would have gone away depressed and disappointed that the only modern fantasies they make for women involved being a slut and particularly upset that no one seemed to know how to make a good, logical mystery that exploited fantasy elements.

    “You know, urban fantasy would get a lot more respect if it didn’t dress like a slut.”

    Eh…it would likely get a lot more respect if it didn’t act like a slut.

    LKH was the most prolific writer at the beginning and you’ve seen/heard what’s happened with her novels. She’s the one the mainstream sees (NY Times Bestseller and all), and for about 5 years (between Tanya Huff ending the Blood Books and the beginning of the boom) she was the only one publishing the kickass style books.

    And now we have True Blood on screen. I really enjoy the Southern Vampire Mysteries and think that Sookie is no slut. But the HBO TV series episodes that I saw all had at least one graphic sex scene. And this is the other series that non-readers have contact with.

    So, if your two older sisters have a reputation as sluts in high school because not only do they regluarly flash their undies, but everyone has actually seen them up against the cafeteria wall having drug-addicted, S&M sex with a corpse and a wolf, you’re going to end up with people attributing their reputation to you.

    The genre would get more respect if it could paint more pictures of empowerment than just flaunting female sexuality. Sure that’s one way to power. But does the genre have anything new? The covers reconfirm the old status quo that a woman’s power comes from her attractiveness. Oh, and death via weapons.

    “For example, though urban fantasy is often characterized as being primarily by and for women, my own audience (based on e-mails, blog comments, and meeting people at events) is about 50/50 women and men. That’s so cool.”

    Since this interests you from a marketing perspective, here’s some info from a friend who runs a used bookstore: Men read Thrillers. Women read Romantic Suspense and more mainstream Thrillers. If you put the shelves with Thrillers next to the shelves with Romantic Suspense, men will read Romantic Suspense either because they don’t realize it’s a different genre (didn’t notice the signs for section changed) or because if anyone sees them, they look like they’re perusing Tom Clancy, so their manhood is intact. Women will read slightly more Thrillers, but it’s not a significant change.

    I think the problem is that men don’t get enough credit for liking stories that involve complex relationships between characters (romantic or otherwise) and enjoying moments of sentiment, and women in the past weren’t given enough credit for liking action without romance being the only driving goal. Mainstream seems to be accepting that women now like action heroines, but that seems to be as far as it goes.

  3. carriev Says:

    I’m not sure I’m as concerned with who the covers are actually intended for as much as I am with the reactions of the actual, ultimate consumers of the covers. There’s a middleman filter, sure. But the people I’m dealing with are the readers who tend to have pretty strong emotional reactions to them beyond the sales points.

    BTW, the book buyers, esp. for the chains, end up having a ton of influence over how covers look. One of these days I’ll post before and after versions of the cover for Midnight Hour.

  4. carriev Says:

    Jenn, you’re right, of course. There’s another dimension as well: Hamilton and Harris are the bestest of the best selling authors of this particular subgenre. They’ve got lots of sex. Therefore, sex sells, therefore more writers put in lots of and lots of sex. And the critics get even more dismissive. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

    I’m just really sick of saying, “Look, would you just read the damn book?”

  5. deety Says:

    Thankfully once someone really gets into an author or series, cover art often fades into an identifying feature more than anything else.

    And now that there are more and more urban fantasies to choose from, I think that fans of the genre are relying more heavily on reviews and personal recommendations. If a book has good reviews from a blogger that I enjoy or one of my GR friends, then the cheesiest (or should that be cheesecakiest?) cover art in the world won’t put me off.

    My problem with the super sexy cover art is more because it’s become a boring trend than because I have a problem with the idea of tough women showing skin. Then again, I was raised on fantasy novels, and my favorite covers were the ones Michael Whelan did for ERB’s John Carter books. Anyone giving Thuvia shit over what she was (and wasn’t) wearing would have that lion-monster to deal with.

  6. Ulrike Says:

    I missed the poll, but I find this very interesting. Especially because the covers don’t come over slutty to me. I also do occasionally buy books just because I like the cover. Sometimes the books will disappoint, sure, but at other times I discovered books from authors I didn’t know I’m really glad I read.
    I also might have a different view on this, being an illustrator myself. When I look at a cover I don’t look at it like I might look on a person walking down the street – I look at it as a work of art.
    So to me all these “tattoos are so slutty and I’d never go out wearing those jeans” comments make little sense. I actually enjoy it a lot that urban fantasy does have characters on the cover most of the time – as opposed to most other genres.

  7. Shara Says:

    I will say that I don’t mind sexy covers when it actually applies to the character in the book. I think my comments yesterday indicated otherwise, but a good example of covers I like that are definitely of the sexy variety are Jeaniene Frost’s NIGHT HUNTRESS series. The heroine often uses her sexuality to do what she needs to, so the covers are totally appropriate. 🙂 I just dislike the covers that don’t fit.

    As a general rule, outside of UF, I tend to prefer more abstract or landscape covers anyway. I’m not fond of covers with people on them, though I don’t mind if the art is done well.

  8. Jenn L Says:

    This is a really interesting discussion, Carrie. Speaking of covers, Brenda Novak was a guest blogger over at Pub Rants yesterday (Agent Kristin’s blog) where she discussed the last-minute problems with the cover of one of her newest books. I just find it interesting that so many parties in the writing/publishing blogosphere seem to be discussing covers for the past week or so (Agent Kristin, Editorial Anonymous, yourself…). 🙂

  9. Antonio Rich Says:

    Wow. I missed the poll/discussion, but am catching up. You know, i used to love going to the bookstores to shop, but i tend to research and buy books online now. It’s cheaper and more convenient for me. I rarely even notice the covers anymore. I wonder if anybody has brought this up or thought about it…I do have to admit, that when i try to lend out my books to others, i do get a reaction to the covers that can make me defensive and/or a little embarassed.

  10. Lear Says:

    Amusingly enough this topic was sorta touched on at the Evolution of Fantasy Panel* at this years comic-con. There were some good points made about the nature of urban fantasy, but on the subject of covers was pretty fierce. Even the one who admitted his book was urban fantasy pointed out that the 3/4 profile hot chick with the sword… is only in the book for 10 minutes. All of them expressed dissatisfaction at the miss-representation of the cover, including in one case where the black teenage protagonist was made white

    * In attendance: Jacqueline Carey (Naamah’s Kiss), Lynn Flewelling (Shadows Return), Patrick Rothfuss (The Name Of The Wind), Thomas Sniegoski (The Fallen), Greg Van Eekhout (Norse Code), and Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix : Beyond the Kingdom of Xia) answer questions posed by moderator Lev Grossman (The Magicians)

  11. Brandy P Says:

    Obviously people never learned to not judge a book by its cover 😀

    I’ve read romances that are way more “trashy” and sexually explicit that some of the urban fantasy I’ve read, yet no one seems to think twice about the little old lady reading that in the park.

  12. Jenn Says:

    “They’ve got lots of sex. Therefore, sex sells, therefore more writers put in lots of and lots of sex. And the critics get even more dismissive. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

    No argument on the cycle. And some of the just released authors seem to be engaged in a dash to mediocrity that simply repeats the formula. I was looking at books last month and read actual excerpts for three of them. They all looked the same. They also sounded exactly the same. I was confused for a minute if I didn’t have just one book with three different covers since they all used the same type of scene (goon attack defeated by single woman while the villain taunts her). I put them back on the shelves and went looking for something else.

    “I’m just really sick of saying, “Look, would you just read the damn book?””

    Nope. 😛 I do sympathize. And I think the upcoming anthology with PN Elrod will help you stand out based on your talent rather than your cover artist’s.

  13. carriev Says:

    I’ve had so much positive feedback from the short stories I’ve had appear in various high-profile anthologies. I’ve got more coming up so it should only get better.

    I credit word-of-mouth promotion as the single biggest impact on my books’ success. People talk about them, and that’s the best I can ask for.

    🙂 🙂 🙂

  14. Jakk Says:

    Lear hit for me my biggest gripe right on the head:
    Misleading covers. I honestly could care less if the cover had a “sexy chick with sword/etc…” on it, as long as the cover is actually IN the story. Worse, if the cover is misleading or just out and out wrong, it tells me the artist could not of been bothered to read the source material for which he/she was asked to create. That just makes me both angry and frustrated, as someone down the chain made a mistake that ended up on the artists doorstep(i am also saying it may of been a comunication issue as well, this is not a “blame the cover artist” hunt).

    But i will say this: ultimately the book, and the book ALONE, is what drives my recollections of a book. I talked about a book yesterday (Vicious Circle by Linda Robertson) and have since finished the book(and two others btw…on vacation and doing massive reading catch-up) and despite some of the misleading elements on the cover, the book was extremely good, and i remember ending the book wanting MORE. THAT, more than the cover elements, will get me to buy another book. I will always take a first chance, but i rarely give second ones.

    PS: I DO just read the damn book. 😉

  15. carriev Says:

    This is what I’m finding interesting — urban fantasy covers are actually training urban fantasy readers not to pay any attention to covers…

  16. Kristian Says:

    First, I love Kim Harrison’s covers (okay, and her books, too). The DWW is one of the finest, though. It captures a LOT of Rachel Morgan in one picture.

    Second, the Sookie Stackhouse covers stand out, if only because they don’t show the protagonist ass.

    Third, John Scalzi has a lot of posts where he critiques foreign covers to his books. Some of them are pretty funny, but he does say he differs to the publishers both for the cover AND the title in the other countries because they know what will sell to the appropriate audience.

    I know that was one of your points, but the cover is the MAIN form of advertising for >90% of all books. And I know the publishers don’t just pull those things out of their butts. Do some cover not appeal to some people? Of course. No commercial for any product appeals to 100% of the possible customers. The advertisers do try to get the biggest chunk. Some times that means ignoring / offending some small part of the potential customers. They are trying to maximize sales. Such is life.

  17. Brandy P Says:

    When people ask me for recommendations you’re the first author I give them 😀

  18. The romance genre has been struggling with this issue for years. Some readers won’t buy them (or admit to buying them, or read them in public) because they assume certain (usually wrong) things about the stories based on the covers.

    But then the publishing houses try different covers and sales go down, because romance readers don’t instantly recognize the books as romance. So the readers are always complaining about the covers… but then buy fewer if the covers change.

    And re the middleman issue? I actually heard (might be an urban myth) that the original clinch covers (bare chested man holding a back-bending bare cleavaged woman) started because Harlequin (pioneers of the genre in North America) figured out that the teamsters who picked up the boxes of books from the warehouses to ship to non-bookstore retailers, picked up more of the boxes with racier covers. So, the cliche romance cover was actually started for some crazy ass reasons… Who knows if that’s true.

  19. Markysan Says:

    Wouldn’t the “cover issue” apply mostly to new authors? I buy Carrie Vaughn books faithfully, (not monogomously, but faithfully). When my friends ask for recommendations, I reccomend Carrie’s books to them.

    If it has Carrie’s name on it, I’ll buy it… and so do all of you. I’m man enough to buy it even if it has the classic Harelquin cover… or if it’s in the YA section…

  20. Hi Carrie,

    Thanks for sharing, and I only have one big problem…

    When the heroine on the cover is EXTREMELY fit and lean, but the main character does NOT like exercise and eats donuts all day and chocolate at night (as I’ve read in some books, not referring to yours of course) I have to scream “Bull CRAP!!”

    Of course, that’s just me and my background. 😉

  21. C.E. Petit Says:

    Kristian said:
    “And I know the publishers don’t just pull those things out of their butts.”

    I wish. Having sat in waaaaaay too many cover meetings myself, back when I was on the dark side of the editorial desk, many cover decisions would be better if they did… because, too often, publishers are busy pulling things out of corpses’ butts from the 1960s. And authors can’t do anything about it.

    Titles, the publishers tend to (but not always) do a better job. But covers are uneducated guesses and WAGs.

  22. carriev Says:

    Sandra, I think that’s part of the fantasy, that we could all eat donuts and still look like an urban fantasy book cover… 😉

  23. David Bowles Says:

    Just a quick comment about the quote:

    You know, urban fantasy would get a lot more respect if it didn’t dress like a slut.

    I for one don’t like the term “slut” at all. Given that this implies a woman who likes sex, this means the the male equivalent to this is a “stud”. “Stud” has a definite positive connotation, whereas “slut” has negative connotation.

    I’m sure the whole “women around allowed to play the field thing” grows from primogeniture from the Middle Ages, but this is the 21st century. This double standard should have died with the feudal system.

    I personally find a woman who is not afraid to have a good time to be quite attractive, and sexual experience to be not a negative feature at all.

    Just my 2 cents.

  24. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Jeeze, Carrie. You’re not going to start a decent flame war if you get all reasonable about emotional topics. *g*

  25. Robert Says:

    +5 Geek points for using Venn Diagram in your rant

    Tough girl urban fantasy is the new hot category and everyone wants in. It sells books so publishers are actively recruiting authors who can produce that way.

    This is good because it nurtures a cool and until the 90’s largely unexplored genre. It is bad because so much trashy stuff is pushed into the mold and makes the great authors harder to find in the sea of mediocrity.

    As an author it is your duty to yourself to exploit the system and use the sexy covers to sell books but at the same time keeping the covers true to the story. I don’t think it is that hard a line to walk. You have already got the hardest part nailed. You are putting out some great stories not just cookie-cutter novels. Stories where you can transport us into your world and care about the characters.

  26. carriev Says:



  27. I for one love the covers and it’s one of the reason like to read Kitty. She’s an image in my mind. I also know that unless you are marketing your own books you don’t have much to say about the covers. The marketing dept of the publisher handles that. Was that your case Ms. Vaughn?

  28. carriev Says:

    Yes, the publisher does the covers. I’ve occasionally had input, but only on details.

  29. Jakk Says:

    I would like to point out one thing i didn’t say yesterday that i wanted to say.

    I did not buy Kitty and the Midnight Hour for the cover. I bought it for the discription of the story on the back. I love radio, and i have several friends who are or were professional djs for either radio stations and dance clubs and have worked with them in the past. So when i read the discription and said “NEAT!”, that is what made me want to buy the book.
    (I have since noticed two other authors who write about paranormal radio, Stacia Kane and Jeri Smith-Ready. I fully recommend these authors as well.)

    I would also want to tell you that you have easily become of my favorite authors, and will buy anything you write or contributed to on sight. Thank you for all the long hours and headaches that go into this. They were appreciated.

  30. marley Says:

    despite the unfairness of “urban fantasy would get alot more respect if it didn’t dress like a slut,” it is true. so would romance. but it’s not we who choose the covers and i’ll just end up doomed, along with the rest of us who enjoy urban fantasy to be thought a slut MYSELF, just because i read books with partially dressed women on the front. i don’t care if anyone says i have bad taste in books because i know that i do read bad books, slutty books, pulp fiction books. i don’t care. they’re fun and i don’t loose any money (libraries!), and i read fast enough that i an still find time for all the good stuff along with it. but i object to being called a slut because i have a book with what looks like a slut on the cover. just because i read crud doesn’t mean i’m crud; it just means that like many other people, i enjoy reading books that are not exactly children’s stories, may they be, or may they not also be very good. i don’t think that made sense. who cares:)

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