GUEST BLOGPOST: Real Women Have Heads

As many of you know, I collaborate with a kiwi. When Philippa Ballantine and I get together, silliness and trouble usually ensue. Whether it is podcasting or The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, people tend to really grok what Pip and I produce.

But this time, the rant is 100% New Zealand made.

Celebrating the upcoming release of her solo title and mass market paperback debut Geist, Pip brings her own gripes and grumbles to my desk. The rant she’s got delivers a swift kick to the jimmies to that age-old saying “Never judge a book by its cover…” and I got to say that she is spot on. She is certainly not alone in this stance, and perhaps with Pip’s cover (featured here) and the as-yet-to-be-released-but-oh-so-hawt Ministry cover, the tide could be turning in her argument. Still, after reading this post, you will not be able to refrain from giggling when you visit a bookstore.

I mean, the kiwi — she’s got a point.



Perhaps in the podosphere and blogosphere I am not know for my rants—and New Zealanders are generally stoic, get-on-with-it types, but when Tee offered up his blog, I knew this was the perfect location for me to let loose on a subject that has been bothering me of late.

Covers. Yep, in the last year with three books coming out shortly, they have been top of mind. Luckily all of mine so far have passed my expectations (Dear LORD have they passed my expectations…); but in the course of checking out bookstore after bookstore, I have been driven a little batty. You know what they say: You can’t judge a book by their covers.

Well I do. Often.

And so does everyone else. A rotten cover can destroy any chance the author has to snare a reader.

I am a long time reader of fantasy and science fiction. I remember working my way quickly through the books on my father’s shelves as a teenager. Now at the risk of sounding like an old codger shaking my fist at the world, I am still going to say it: Back then covers were real covers!

You looked at them and they were works of art—and better than that, they often reflected a scene in the book itself.

They were also different from each other.

One of the things I hate is the samey-ness of book covers. (Urban fantasy, I am looking at you!) When I look at a cover and all I see is a hot chick with a gun/knife/machete I have no idea what is on the inside. It gives the impression that every heroine is interchangeable, and the stories are all the same too. I want me stories to be unique and different, and the perception that they aren’t keeps me from picking them up. The read-them-once-read-them-all syndrome.

The worst to me, however, are the half-chick covers. Now I am sure there is some marketing strategy here (probably something about women being able to insert themselves into the place of the main character) but I tell you now, I will never buy a book with a half-chick cover.

Maybe it is because I feel it is reducing women to boobs, a butt or a pair of rock hard abs. Maybe it is because if I see another ‘tramp stamp’ teamed with a gun/knife I will scream. Maybe it is if I see another moon rising over a woman’s rear end I will lose all respect for the night sky. Maybe I would just like to have a cover that is in daylight.

Maybe it is all of those.

Oh yes, and the back shot of a woman is second on my list. I like to have an idea what my heroine looks like.

Heck, I would even like to have a looky-loo at the hero too. Too much to ask? Even in erotica mostly who you get to see is the woman. (As if they haven’t realized that women *shock-horror* like to look at men!)

Now I should say I have seen some beautiful covers, with wonderful art, but they seem the exception rather than the rule. And I am not against a bit of sexy on a cover, but can we please, please have different kinds of sexy?

Think I am making a mountain out of a back tattoo? Then check out the Book Smuggler’s Survey. When asked what they thought of the state of genre covers right now, 19% thought they were terrible. And if you’ve never heard of the author a bad cover can stop people from picking up a book—that’s in the stats as well.

Orbit’s ‘Trends in Fantasy covers’ is worth checking out too. (It made me chuckle that Geist’s cover features a ‘hooded figure’—but honestly in the book she does wear a cloak.)

So the theory is that some people look for familiarity in a cover… but personally I look for difference, something unique, something that reflects the tone, action and characters in the book.

Does that make me the only one?

Philippa Ballantine is a fantasy writer hailing from Wellington, New Zealand. In the coming year she will have three books hitting the real and virtual shelves. The first of which a supernatural fantasy, Geist that will available in late October 2010—just in time for Halloween. Find out more at and


  1. I don’t think you’re the only one. I hate a book cover (or DVD, or Movie poster or trailer) that depicts a scene that isn’t in the book. It makes me feel like I’ve been lied to, and that someone thought that the only way they could get me to look at their product was to lie to me.

    I still hate the movie Event Horizon because of this. They cut the trailers of the movie to make it look like it was a Science Fiction Adventure/thriller, when the movie was actually a gory horror movie set in space.

    I think this is a particular problem in the book industry when a publisher wants to get a book on shelves as quickly as possible. They don’t have time to get an artist to read the book and come up with a suitable cover. And the book is being edited and revised at the same time that the artist needs to be creating a cover anyway. So the publishers commission a bunch of stock covers and then tries to match the cover to the book at the last minute. Sometimes they get lucky. Sometimes they don’t try very hard. Pip, I’d say that you were mind numbingly lucky that your publisher didn’t go this route, and managed to find an excellent artist who was able to pull important elements out of your book. I hope this is a new trend in publishing.

    And I still need to order a print of the cover for my wall… darn finances…



  2. You said it, Pip.

    If I didn’t know you, I would pick up Geist in an instant if I saw that cover in a bookstore.

    Book covers have so many genderrific problems—along with advertising in general. There’s a documentary called Killing Us Softly that goes into a lot of the ways that women’s agency is symbolically removed, blocked, or ignored in advertising images and copy. Not showing a woman’s head, focusing on her breasts, having her hands cover her mouth or her eyes looking down…

    There are also plenty of problems with ethnicity and race. White people don’t want to read a book with a person of color on the cover, right? So we get whitewashed or abstract covers for books that focus on characters of color; the only genre I’ve seen where this isn’t pervasive is African-American romance.

    I bet the “hooded figure” trend has something to do with the apparent rise of assassin fiction (can I PLEASE abbreviate that AssFi?).


  3. @Doc Yeah, I have heard people say you can look at a book and work out how much the publishing company cares about it. If it looks like that didn’t give a fig newton, then what they find inside might be disappointing too.

    @DDog Yeah, I fell on my feet with Geist- which has a lot to do with my editor Danielle- she made sure the artist had everything just right. When the cover for Spectyr comes down the pike I plan on making sure that Merrick is portrayed properly–because he most certainly is not white–and I think it is paramount that fact is not misrepresented.
    And Ass-Fi? Well I would be worried how that would be taken all sorts of ways by art directors!


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