Urban Fantasy Covers – Time to Move On?

I’m pretty sure I’m a sexist.

I’m totally unfamiliar with Devon Monk, and I knew absolutely nothing about the author until I finished Hell Bent. You know why I read this book in the first place? Because I mentally associated the name “Devon” with a male, and the lack of a midriff-showing woman welding some sword on the cover seemed to back up my hypothesis. I saw this book, and my mind said, “Hey, UF written by a man! I bet I’ll like it!” So I read it.

Yeah, I’m a pig.

I say this because I think sometimes it is important to admit when we are. You see, I have this thing about urban fantasy written by women. I tend to try to avoid it. However, when I really boil down my avoidance, I realize that it’s really not the author’s fault I avoid most of the genre. In fact, some of my favorite urban fantasy is written by women (Stina Leicht, anyone?).

It’s not the female author’s faults. Their covers are tramped up, and the tramping up of covers really turns me off to the genre in general. I can’t take them seriously because no one looks like that, and no one walks around in a tight leather outfit with a katana on a Friday night for the hell of it. No one. Not. One. Person. That being said, it’s interesting how different my mindset is about urban fantasy in general when I’m pretty sure a man has written it, or when the cover doesn’t include our midriff baring heroine.

The truth of the matter is, when I look past covers and read the books in the genre themselves, I find that I enjoy more of them than I like to admit. Urban fantasy is a fun, quick paced genre full of books that don’t break your door down when the mailman delivers them. It’s fun to read about fantasy in our reality. I enjoy the imagination it takes to create a new world out of our own. These books are often emotional and intense in a lighthearted sort of way. They aren’t bad, but they are different. I will always prefer meatier SFF, but UF has its place, and no matter how much I talk about how little I enjoy the genre, I really do like it more than I ever really think.

My experience with Hell Bent proved how incredibly off base all of my misconceptions regarding urban fantasy really are. When I really analyze it, I wonder if the issue really lies with marketing rather than my own personal distaste for scantily clad women holding weapons and looking like badasses. Yeah, those tropes bother me, but the fact of the matter is I’ve read more UF that has been fun and entertaining than UF that I’ve hated. Tropes aren’t just stuck in one genre. I get sick of pointy eared elves, and old guys with long beards that know all the answers to the universe but happen to talk in riddles and die at inconvenient moments, too. And before I continue, I realize that my own mental issues are just that, my own. I don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid, but sometimes I do, and I’m responsible for my own Kool-Aid drinking habits.

The thing about urban fantasy that almost always turns me off is the covers, and I can’t control cover art. After talking to numerous authors about this topic, it seems like most authors don’t control cover art, either. A few urban fantasy authors that I contacted covertly, and will keep anonymous, even told me that their scantily clad cover art was such an issue for them they were in tears when they saw it, but publishers refused to change it. Is this common? I don’t know. But I do think that a huge reason I don’t like to admit that I read urban fantasy, or the fact that I’m so surprised when I enjoy urban fantasy, is because these sexed up covers are remnants from a bygone era. They sell. If they didn’t sell, publishers wouldn’t put them on books, but the truth remains, they are a turn off to a large number of readers.

I’m not exactly sure why these covers are so popular. They must be easy to make. They are so plentiful, all artists really need to do is change up the model and the weapon and BAM – new cover. But I wonder how much these covers are affecting sales. They appeal to a small group of readers, namely women. I don’t really know of any male readers who voluntarily go to the bookstore or library and pick up many books with covers that I’m talking about.

On the flip side, most of the urban fantasy I’ve read has been recommended to me by men who read the genre, most of whom read urban fantasy on Kindles or at home. The problem is, these covers are turning a subgenre that is a lot of fun and has some powerhouse authors in it, into a tropey looking mess. Many of these urban fantasy books are absolutely fantastic, but a vast majority of people who would enjoy them will probably never pick them up because of the cover art. That’s not fair to the authors or the readers. I don’t really understand why, or when this subgenre became pigeonholed, but maybe it’s time to move past that and see if we can think of some cover art for the genre that doesn’t make people walk away really fast.

And how exactly do these covers paint women? I get the fact that we all like to read books about strong heroines and feel like we are the heroines. It is empowering. But most strong women I know aren’t scantily clad, and they don’t have lower back tattoos or walk around with huge swords. I don’t enjoy reading books with covers that make me feel like I need to pick up an eating disorder, too. You don’t have to wear size zero pants, have tattoos and know how to weld a sword to be strong. It’s fun to imagine, but most of the strongest women I know fit into every size of pants but zero, and they know how to weld a cell phone, pen, diaper bag, etc. rather than a sword. I don’t think I’ve ever met one person, male or female, who wears leather pants on a daily basis. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these covers make me a little uncomfortable with how women in the genre are being portrayed, and I’m even more disturbed by how these covers are eaten up by the market, but that’s a diatribe for another day.

The truth is that most of the books I read in this genre have characters that are far more down to earth and believable than what their covers portray. So why on earth are the covers so sexed up and off-putting, and just how dramatically do you think the readership in the genre would change if more covers were in the same vein as Hell Bent – down to earth with a realistic portrayal of a situation or scene and characters that look believable.

Getting excited about Hell Bent because I thought it was written by a man, largely due to the cover art, was not only disgusting, but absolutely wrong. Devon Monk is a woman. The common sexed up urban fantasy marketing, and the common covers only exacerbate tired stereotypes, and even helps stereotypes form. I am one of those victims who have fallen prey to the cover art (I drank the Kool-Aid, and that’s my own stupid problem). The genre is pumped full of goodness and plenty of books to explore, so why not get rid of these covers, expand our horizons a bit, and appeal to wider, more diverse, readership in the process?

Dear publishers: Isn’t it time to move on?