Tuesday, 12 January 2016


I don't get a say in my book covers, but I've been extremely lucky with them, thanks to the great choices made by my publishers and the skills of the artists they chose.

I say "I don't get a say." That's not strictly true. I'm canvassed for some ideas early on and hit up for descriptions of scenes/people for the artist. Then later I see the result. It's possible that if I didn't like the finished article and threw a temper tantrum something might change - the situation has never arisen, so I don't know. But by that point a lot of time and money would have been sunk and so change would be difficult.

The thing is that authors know writing. When it comes to art they (sometimes) know what they like - but that's not the same as knowing what the market likes and what cover will sell. So it's not unreasonable to put those decisions into the hands of people who are directly involved in that end of things with years of experience.

Anyway - let's play a game. Pretend I was in charge of the cover.

I was inspired/triggered into writing Red Sister by an image that Jane Johnson, my editor at Voyager, sent me in response to a blog post I wrote about the impact of an author's gender.

The picture was by Tomasz Jedruszek and I looked up some of his other work, some of which seemed to fit what I was writing.

So, all three of the images below have cover potential, capturing a moody, dark, challenging attitude. But I've also been paying attention to all the back and forth about representation of women on fantasy covers - including the 'men in females-on-covers poses' stuff that Jim C Hines blogged on a number of times, and the talk of sexualising women on covers. It happens in romance too where men are often presented as headless carriers of an eight pack...

Anyway. I discover that whilst with some chest/butt-thrusting images the line between exploitation/poor representation and just strong/attractive is clear ... in others it's blurred.

Consider these excellently drawn Jedruszek images:

There's a poll HERE where you can vote to register your opinion.

She's sitting like many men do, but is the pose with the sword and the spread and strapping a sexualised one? Would it put a woman (or man) off buying a book if it were a cover?

Again, another dark, bold, challenging protagonist. But nipples and fishnet stocking rather undermine the image if one were considering it for a cover?

And another striking image, hardly a square inch of flesh on display. But would you see a 'cover man' holding a sword like that. Is it just me or is there some phallic symbolism at work?

My suspicion is that all three of these might deter rather than invite some readers? Yes? No?

For ease of viewing: The Poll Results with 214 respondents.

The main difference is that in moving from image 1 (the most sexualised) to image 3 (the least sexualised) the male voters are always less concerned (i.e. don't think the images are 'too' sexualised) than the female ones and consider (by majority) two of the three 'fine', whereas the majority is always for 'too sexualised' among the female voters.

An interesting exercise is to google the phrase female fantasy warriors, click IMAGES, and see how many you have to count through to find one you feel would be acceptable on a cover (i.e. wouldn't put you off picking it up).

Some comments assembled from twitter etc:

(from a man) The first image could be great for a new book. The girl is mysterious and challenging. Must have a past I would like to read
(from a woman) Lose the nips on #2 and it's the best of the lot IMO.
(from a man) strong and lethal, my favourite is the second one.
(from a man) Number 1 looks like a movie poster for a bad porn movie, number 2 is compelling, but the nips and garter belt make it a bit more sexualized than you probably want. Number 3 seems like it was created as a reaction to the other two.
(from a woman) Hugging the sword is just silly. The center one is the strongest balance IMO.
(from a man) re Michelangelo's religious works: androgynous flat-chested thin hips: saints couldnt be sexual. Run w/ what works, screw em
(from a man) 1st looks bit too fetishy for me, 2nd is good, didn't notice tights cos face is so arresting, 3rd a bit meh all round
(from a woman) (are they strong or sexualized) Both. They aren't exclusive of each other. More sexual than your covers with men, but in a way that is subtle and empowering
(from a man) if they were male would it even be an issue (me) but if they were male would they be in those poses?
(from a woman) I agree with the comments about the 2nd one. With the adjustments, it fits what you've told us about Red Sister perfectly.
(from a woman) definitely prefer the middle one, would be much less inclined to pick up a book with the first cover.
(from a woman) why do women on covers have to be showing flesh or in skin tight/see through gear? Why not properly dressed for their role?
(from a woman) 2nd image would elicit the least eye-rolling from me (though I'd still snark about the nipples & fishnets.)
(from a woman) 3rd has better clothes but the pose with the sword just seems very lame. It's not a pole to dance on.
(from a woman) 1st- eww. 3rd, um, what exactly is she doing w. that ...? 2nd striking, determined, minor demerit for silly stockings.
(from a man) The 1st says: "I'm a badass. If you wanna fuck w/ me, literally or figuratively w/o my permission, you will lose your junk.
(from a woman) love the manspread one, it feels a little tongue in cheek. Less enamoured with the other two.
(from a man) Interesting, Mark. I find the first one to be most striking. I wish there was a way to combine the mystery and power in her gaze from 1 and the military acumen and less suggestive sexuality of 2. There's a way for her sexuality to be a part of her power in the image but that line is different for everyone so good luck with that.
(from a man) Why should there be comparisons to how a male would be depicted? Take each image in its own right without gender comparison. Some of the more malicious female characters can exploit sexuality for their own gain to achieve an agenda. So, would depicting female characters in such a perceived sexual manner be far from the character's traits? At the end of the day it should be the blurb on the back cover that influences purchases. The old adage applies - don't judge a book by its cover.
(from a man) I liked the second image more...if just because it (to me) implied the more practical way to hold a sword.
(from a woman) I prefer the first one specifically because it mimics a male pose, no more or less sexual. It's a powerful pose.

EDIT:     And here is the Red Sister US cover!


  1. They become more subtle as they go down, I think. The last one I probably wouldn't have noticed as suggestive on my own. The first one definitely elicits an eyeroll.

  2. In the first pic it does look like she's sitting men do, but she isn't. She appears to be leaning back and relaxing, but if you look closer you can see her back is stiff and her hips are jutting slightly forward. It's even possible her butt isn't touching the ground all the way. The effect is that she looks like she is about to thrust her body forward and, well, rub against the sword. Which in reality would be a bad idea, but in this case makes the position very sexual, which I believe is the intent.

    The second pic is all about the outfit. If her nipples weren't showing and she was wearing some sort of pants (trousers) or leggings that weren't made of fishnet it would be a very empowering pic.

    The third pic is much more artistic than the other two. Someone once said the difference to between porn and art is whether or not the woman is looking at you. I'm not sure how that holds up in practice, but I think in this case it fits. If she was staring down the audience like the two other women it would be a lot more sexual. But with her gazing off into the distance it's more ethereal and forlorn than sexual.

    As for a book cover for your series? I would go with something similar to number two, but with more clothes (even just a little more). Of the three it's the most eye catching. You're drawn immediately to the woman's face. Then the sword and the swampy background almost simultaneously. You don't really notice her lack of attire until last. The pose is also very confrontational and gives her a lot of agency. I think that would help make it a very eye catching cover.

    Sorry that got long. I love talking about fantasy art.

    Oh and I'm a woman, since you seen to be keeping track. :)

    1. I agree with everything here.

      General rule of thumb, if she's heading into battle or gearing for a fight, dress her appropriately.

  3. Second is the least silly but you're right about the fishnet and nipples, which I admit I didn't notice at first. The other two have her handling the sword in weirder ways (first looks like an erection, third looks painful). Do you describe her fighting gear in the books?

  4. I don't like people on covers, prefer graphic art.
    But if you have to, then if you give the second one proper clothing (trousers and a jumper hehe), then that's my favourite.

  5. I'd be put off by the first two of those covers, I'd prejudge that the book was going to be crap. Third one is a bit better. I like all Joe Abercrombie covers, including Best Served Cold, which features a woman. Anything with trailing hair, too 'fantasy', sexy or romantic is off-putting. But others seem to like them.

  6. For me as a 35 years reader of fantasy and a strong supporter of women's rights might I add, I find this argument about women on covers a bit misguided.For me, whether the person on the cover is male or female, it doesn't matter to me if they are looking sexual and tough if the character in the story is one who would portray themselves that way. If not, and it's for sales, then NO!

  7. I have no problem with any of them, and find them impressive. But that us true of most artwork just purely from a skill standpoint. However, I don't think I've ever considered a cover when buying a book. Maybe I consider the amount of photographs And quality of printing inside when buying historical nonfiction. That is the only exception I can think of. And I purchase probably close to 100 books a year.

  8. I dislike all of them. Three is the worst for me because I see a maturbatory connotation to it. Maybe that's just me? Sometimes it's hard to know where fantasy art ends and fetish art begins. They would colour my opinion of the person who sanctioned their use as a book cover. In the case of an established author I would consider it a poor lapse of taste; for a new author I would call it shameless attention seeking.

  9. One is gratuitous. Two is strong *and* sexy, which is not a bad thing and is probably your best bet for covering all bases. Three is slightly depressing as well as being a case of 'that's a weird way to hold a sword.'

  10. The lady has Claws13 January 2016 at 02:54

    As a lady who has fought with blades for 20+ years!!! Number 2 is it, and we all have nipples! So they're fine too! Number 1 is ok if you're expecting to go without some body parts!!, (what did you do to provoke this girl into alluring you so???) but number 3 is clueless !!unsure what she is holding, or what to do with it!!!

  11. This is very interesting to read. I agree with most people on the ridiculousness of the way these women are holding a sword hence the second is the best. I didn't really notice the nipples and clothing until I read further.

    I do confess to a bias towards white / light coloured backgrounds with a dark image in the foreground. Preferably with a person with a hood on.

    Why am I a Mark Lawrence fan? He got the prince of thorns cover image within my "I want to read that" criteria. It's a common enough theme; Mark Lawrence, Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Karen Miller, just to name the first few who came to mind.

  12. I have to say out of the three, the second is the one that catches my eye. I didn't notice the nipples but did notice the fishnets. I agree that if she were wearing pants, it would be the best cover. It is more eye catching

  13. I am female: One and Three look insipid due to how negligently the woman on the cover is treating the blade. No one who works with a sharp blade would hold them in such dangerous fashions. Yes, let me place a sharp blade close to my inner thigh. I don't like my leg where it is anyway. The third picture makes me think she's not entirely fond of her fingers. The second one is the best of the three. I don't find nipples particularly offensive since I've got at least two that I know of and we've had an alright time together. I probably wouldn't walk in a swap without pants on since I wouldn't be interested in catching "the fungus among us" or whatever bog water has got going on, but her hygiene is her business.

  14. Second is the best and safest choice as most people are saying. Her expression is intriguing and is complimented well by the rest of the image. My personal stance would be that the nipples objectify her while the fishnets merely hint at her own sexuality, which fits the character presented.

    That said I really like what the artist seems to have tried to pull off in the first, the image attempts to walk a twisted line between allure and ghoulish psychopath (look at the contrast between the shoulders, or between the face and legs, or the two possible implications of the sword). However the image doesn't quite capture it, leaning too heavily towards allure at first glance.

  15. Woman here. I actually really like the first cover, until you get down to the short skirt and her legs splayed. Maybe if you cut the picture off at her hips. I would be fine with her sitting in that position if she were wearing pants. That skirt makes it look like an erotica cover. In fact, just give her some pants. Who fights with a sword while wearing a skirt? Wouldn't it get caught in the fabric?

  16. First & third don't do anything for me. Both have a ridiculous way to hold a sword without losing body parts. The first just looks very uncomfortable, trying to be alluring and threatening at the same time, but just looking awkward instead. The third is just too bland to have any impact.

    Second is the best of the three, but could be better. We've all got nipples, but surely she have some kind of leather vest or armour at least. Fishnets are impractical and uncomfortable at the best of times. Heavy cloth or leather trousers there and you're on to a winner. Plus if she's faffing around in a swamp, surely she'd tie her hair out of the way, or cut it short. Practicality first.

  17. Non-binary here (assigned female): The first looks very sexy/sexualised. The pose and the outfit makes me feel more like she's alluring someone to get closer to ... *censored*.
    Second I like. She should probably put some pants on--or at least something that won't rip as she's fighting--as well as a shirt that's a bit more supportive. I don't care at all about the outline of nips, but when it's that seethrough a shirt I worry about her when she starts fighting.
    Third looks very dangerous. I worry for her hand clasping the blade.
    Would either of these dissuade me from reading your book? Yes, the first one. I wouldn't even turn to read the cover (but would buy it if I'd already been interested in the story). 2nd without any changes I'd probably roll my eyes over slightly, and the same with the 3rd.

  18. These all look ridiculous to me. If I came across them in a bookstore, I'd probably just roll my eyes and move on. Cover One is obviously designed to draw the eye to her crotch and thighs. Two seems no better - yes, we all have nipples, blah blah blah, but why on earth is she wandering around a swamp in a dress that thin if not for titillation? Put her in pants and a proper shirt, then it would be passable.

    Three is humping a sword.

  19. 1st pic is way too sexualized with the skimpy clothing and suggestive pose.
    2nd is fine, except the fishnet but I wouldn't say it's sexualized. It's all right. 3rd is awkward, no one holds a sword like that. Also the clothing looks like those silly catsuits from the star trek, emphasizing the curves. Practical armor would be far better.

  20. Ehhhh. Ok, cover 1: she's got her legs open and her skirt shadowing her sex, sort of "Basic Instinct"-esque. Primary sexual characteristic on offer. Body language means availability, sword protecting her sex means challenge: none shall pass unless she allows it. The smudges and dirt and shirt slipping off her shoulder, the direct gaze... It's inherently a very sexual image. Although her boobs aren't terribly realistic - I'm gonna call them lee press-on boobs, they look a bit like something stuck on as an afterthought.

    Cover 2: Again, direct gaze, but her pose is slightly less obvious than in 1: the only sexuality we get are the thighs and breasts, secondary sexual characteristics. Thighs: Fishnet stockings in a swamp, lol! I've been in swamps, there's probably an unromatic leech hanging off her ass right now, a couple dozen ticks on the back of her knee, mosquito bites everywhere and a crazy fungal infection settling into its new home for a bit of tea between her toes. The shoulders-back breasts bit, which the artist has kindly illustrated in detail (and which are definitely more realistic than in the first cover), show us she's probably a bit chilled in that wet clothing. Someone should help her out of it if they can persuade her to put down the sword.

    Cover 3: I can't help it. It looks like a stripper pole. I'd call it "The Sword Humper" cover. She's got that sword pressed up against her body like a sex toy, emphasizing both her breasts with the blade and her bum sticking just a teensy bit out behind her, just minimalist enough that you could say "No, no" unless you tried to stand that way yourself (preferably picturing a guy with a boner standing right behind you) and went "Um, maybe." She's wearing more clothing, but... why is her hair a different color? Huh. The feathers behind her blur the image and darken it a bit which might be intentional, since you need someplace for teh text to stand out from.

    The third one is more symbolic, less scenic. Of all of them I think the second one might be the best, artistically speaking - but that doesn't mean it's the best for a book cover.

    As to whether she looks strong - no, she looks little, damaged, waiflike, and sexual. Which is kind of the artist's intent here. It's a good way to get guys - and girls - feeling that "I shall make everything better for you" thing that we as people feel when we see broken birds.

  21. The pokies on the second one make it a bit much, but otherwise it looks like a great cover. If the nipples would be altered I don't think it would be too sexualized, now I'm on the fence.

  22. Female here. Lots of great insight on these comments. The only things I can add are - when I look at ridiculous poses I find myself mentally recreating them. The most notable thing about the first pose is that she is pushing her crotch forward and up so hard that she needs a hand behind her for leverage. At that point I don't even notice if the thing she is holding is a sword, staff, whatever, she is airing out her crotch. Also her mouth is bizarre looking.

    The third one, am I the only person totally distracted by what she is doing with her lower (right) hand? She is shoving that hilt hard against her, let alone how she is hugging it up higher.

    The second one looked a little over dramatic untilI got down on the floor and tried it myself. It is actually really stable and almost comfortable. With less arching for boob display, I might call it a natural position for trying to keep her butt from getting wet. The nips are gratuitous, the stockings need rationalization (did she run away from a party?) but I think I like it otherwise.

  23. Image 1: Blatantly obvious. Half undressed shoulder. Spread and exposed thighs with a sword pointing to the center.

    Image 2: Top half is good but fishnet stockings, exposed thighs and ass are not suitable for a swamp. Least sexualized of the lot.

    Image 3: Swords are not pole dancing.

    They are all sexualized.

  24. The second one is the only one that looks like she actually knows what to do with the sword. The first one is just appallingly sexist. The third one, she doesn't seem to have a clue what the sword is for.

    As others have stated, they're all sexualized, either because of the pose, the sword placement or the clothing. Which doesn't have to mean wrong. It wouldn't necessarily stop me from buying a book.