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?

13 Responses

  • You’ve hit on something I’ve been struggling with lately. I self-pubbed an urban fantasy in September, and specifically stayed away from the tramped up covers. The book’s having a difficult time getting noticed – far more difficult than my other genre fiction with genre covers. It’s getting plenty of store clicks, but no purchases.

    I’ve been wondering the past few weeks if I made a mistake in trying for “classy”. Admittedly I’ve even been thinking about changing up the cover to bare chests and tight leather. But I wrote the book for my NA daughter, and I hate to reinforce the ‘sex sells’ lesson.

    Marketing is difficult. 🙂

  • Not only do people not get tired of these clichéd covers, they appeal to a specific audience who actively DO NOT WANT to move on or do anything else. Attempts to break the marketing mold in genres where rigid rules have been set at the cash register typically meet with dismal failure. Julie Kenner told me of a romance imprint that was trying to expand its readership out the stereotypical suburban “bored housewife porn” demographic and released a series of books with Asian-American and other nonwhite models on the covers. They failed epically.

  • The problem with Urban Fantasy is that it for the most part is a very broad spectrum category that seems to have a very specific type of book that everybody associates the genre with. Urban Fantasy, at least as far as I know, is pretty much anything that involves fantasy in a modern day, real world setting. I listed my novel as Urban Fantasy for that exact same reason.

    I think you make very good points about the book covers and I think the majority of the sexed up covers are going to be from authors who have absolutely no control over the subject. It would definitely be interesting to see how it would change sales if they started doing covers that more adequately displayed what was going on in the book. It may lose a section of people that are drawn in by the current style of cover, but one can’t help but wonder if the losses would be supplanted by newer and more enthusiastic readers.

  • I once did a post on sci-fi covers. One of my points involved seeing a buff dude holding a large weopon and knowing that I was probably looking at a cheesy action book. I then had an authur point out that her newest, well received book, involved a cover like I was talking about.

    I think it falls into the same thing you are speaking of. The marketing teams will stick with one design untill it goes stale. UF seems to sell a whole lot of books with girls showing skin. They will grace covers until we as the public point them in another direction.

    And its hard, because I do judge books by the cover and skip a lot of UF with bad covers. And I know it is something I shouldn’t do because not only is it not a reflection on the book, it isn’t something most authors have any say in at all. So every so often I try one. But its almost like I have to force myself to do it, which isn’t how it should be.

  • I loved your article. I was struggling with this myself. I totally could have gone with a trashy cover. Instead I went with this:

    Do you approve?

  • Excellent article. i get that the gorgeous sex object female on the cover of the book is supposed to tell me “strong heroine! this book has ass kicking!”. uh huh, sure. apparently there is some contortionism happening in there too. of more than just the female character.

    it’s like everyone but the marketing peeps have figured out that Strength doesn’t have to be *physical*. no biceps or katana needed. Sometimes us ladies, we do weird stuff, and show our strength in ways other than muscular. weird, right? 😉 and the even newer trend with cover art, especially with urban fantasy romance is the super buff shirtless guy with his head cut off. to me, that screams “I’d have sex with that guy if you put a bag over his head”.

    You’ve read Stina Leicht’s stuff, right? If not, give it a try. I know you were lukewarm on Territory, but you might do better with Bull’s War for the Oaks.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I think a lot of the issue is the blurring of the lines between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. And since cheesy sexualized covers are par for the course in the romance genre it’s carried over to Urban Fantasy as whole. Cause if it works for one genre t’s gotta be good for everything remotely similar, right?

  • Liam

    I work at a library, so I definitely know where you’re coming from. The amount of “novels” (and I do use that term as loosely as the women on the covers appear) that are shelved in our paranormal romance/horror sections that I haven’t given a well-deserved mocking smirk can probably be counted on one hand.

  • Covers seem to change like an oil tanker changes direction. Slowly.

    A couple of years ago, the Hard Bitten cover would have had a “tramp stamp” on that bare back. Now those are passe.

    We still can do a hell of a lot better though. (Is she wearing spandex, or what?)

  • Agreed. So very much.

    it’s not just the covers that turn me away from the genre most of the time, though they’re a big part of the problem. When you’ve seen one gorgeous midrif-baring woman twisted at an uncomfortable angle on the cover of a book, you’ve seen them all, and very little actually stands out to me. (It doesn’t exactly help that “sexy with a sword” has gotten tangled up with the idea of strong women, to the point where it’s like that’s the only way some people think a woman can be strong; if she’s not attractive and can’t use a weapon, then obviously she’s not a good role model… or something.) Couple that with the fact that in most circumstances, “urban fantasy” has practically become synonymous with “paranormal romance,” and I have two pretty good reasons to stay away from the genre.

    Even just breaking past one of those reasons would probably do a lot to convince me that some books are worth reading. I know authors don’t always have a lot of say in the cover art and so what someone else thinks should be on the cover isn’t necessarily a reflection of the story inside, but those covers do give me my first impression of the book, and right now, most of those UF covers are turning me away.

    Really hoping that the trend gets bucked sometime soon.

    • You know, the thing that kills me about the Niall cover above is the character doesn’t even have a head. It’s like the publishers are saying, “Here’s a great body. That’s all that matters.” That kind of thing pisses me off. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.

  • You’ve expressed every reason why I don’t really read much UF. All the covers look the same as they objectify women with no regard to the content within the book. Now I just assume the cover has nothing to do with what’s inside. But then how do I distinguish a good UF book from a bad one? I can’t if I’m looking at the cover, so I feel like I’ve avoided them entirely. I’ve basically equated UF to romance, which does UF a huge disservice. But I don’t know how to change those notions without a good book reviewer pointing me in the direction.

  • SB

    Great article. UF is one of my favorite subgenres, but you’re totally right about a lot of the covers. I would also add that when so many of the covers look like this, it’s hard to tell the stories apart or remember which ones you liked and which you didn’t.

    I’ve recently decided to self-publish, and the ability to control my own cover art is one of the bigger reasons.

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