The Girl on the Cover

This post is about cover art, and specifically the way characters are portrayed in it.

I want to say up front, I’m not being critical of my own covers. A cover is designed to make potential readers check out the book; once they do, it becomes the writer’s responsibility to keep them interested. It goes without saying that often the covers don’t depict the characters as the author sees them, and over time, even the publisher’s idea of what a character looks like can dramatically change:

The original rather slap-happy Conan…

…and the grim Conan we know now.

When I was writing Wake of the Bloody Angel, I introduced a new, major character, Jane Argo. She’s a sword jockey like Eddie, but she’s also a former pirate hunter, and before that, a pirate herself. Here’s how I describe her, in Eddie’s voice:

She was my height, busty and wide-hipped but with a wasp-narrow waist. Her broad shoulders were as muscular as a galley slave’s, and she wore a large ring on every finger. Her hair fell past her shoulders, and only the faint streaks of gray and slightly deeper smile lines indicated she was older than she sounded.

One day I stumbled across this picture of musician Ginger Doss,* and realized this was pretty much exactly how I saw Jane in my head.

The publisher, or rather artist Larry Rostant, who’s done my last three covers, saw her this way.


To be fair, Mr. Rostant may never have never read the book, which is not an essential part of his job description. And again, it’s a great cover illustration as far as its function goes, which is to induce someone to pick up the book: it has atmosphere, sexiness and style. On its own, it’s a beautiful image. But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this dichotomy represents. In professional publishing, the author has virtually no say-so in the cover. It’s decided by marketers, whose job it is to create an image that will attract attention. And certainly the slender redhead with the no-nonsense scowl does that (as several male readers have informed me).

But here’s the thing: one reason I wrote Jane as a physically big woman, with visible muscles and a hint of grey in her hair, was to break away from the idea of the “butt-kicking waif,” a trope that really annoys me. Much like the whole movie Sucker Punch, the BKW is a way to disguise male fantasy objects behind the mask of alleged female empowerment. Buffy is the prime example, maybe even the originator, but it’s become the default setting for SF and fantasy heroines by creators who want to court the Buffy demographic (and who miss the point behind Buffy entirely). So I wanted to react against that, to show a woman who is both as intelligent as the hero, but also maybe a little stronger, physically. And to have none of that make her any less attractive.

The reviews, thankfully, have noticed that. Almost all of them mention Jane, and my favorite comment so far is this one :

Jane’s an unusual character in that she’s the muscle of the operation. Bledsoe lets her be tough without ever questioning her ability to be so. There’s never a comment by another character that suggests she’s strong for a girl [emphasis in the original].

I have a hard time seeing the woman on the cover fitting that description. She’s beautiful, certainly. She’s got a great expression, too. She fully fits into the overall image. But as with Eddie, I wonder if a more visually accurate presentation would make any difference in sales. And if so…in which direction?

*Ms. Doss knows that she was my image of Jane Argo. Thankfully, she’s delighted.

8 Comments on “The Girl on the Cover”

  1. Good column, and a good question. It’d be nice if a cover accurately depicting your image of the character would be as effective as one with the less buff version. It would also be nice if publishers let the authors have some actual, respected input in the cover art.

    And now I’ll put on my pedant hat. Your phrase “professional publishing” jumped out at me. As someone who first took the traditional publishing path and decided to leave it, I’m now relaunching my books on my own. The writing is the same quality it was when I was at a big six publisher, the books are professionally edited, and the artwork and book design are not only high quality, they’re superior to what I got dealing with my original publisher. They’re certainly no less professional in any qualitative sense, only in the fact they’re not put out by a huge multinational conglomerate.

    And because I’m in complete creative control of my books, my characters look the way I want them to look.

    Calling traditional/corporate publishing “professional” seems to imply that authors doing things on their own are not professional. Not sure if that’s your intention, but I figured I’d point it out.

  2. Jane is not a practitioner of “waif-fu”, but she looks more like she should be on the cover than in the image in your mind.

    But would a bulkier, “GI Jane” look to Jane be a feature, or a bug. I don’t know. How do you run that experiment?

  3. I remember reading that description, flipping back to the cover, and saying, “Huh.” Because the girl on the cover (while very attractive) is too young, too tiny, and too cute to be Jane. Mind you, that didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book 🙂 But that’s one of my bug-a-boo’s, because whether or not the artist read the book, I’m sure that he or she was given a description of the character. Allowing the artist’s vision (or the publisher’s or whoever) to supersede the author’s seems like hubris–and not fair to the reader.

    On the other hand, considering the cover for your first Eddie book…this one is not bad 🙂

  4. You know, I agree with you about Jane on the cover. When I saw Tor’s catalogue, I first thought that this was going to be a romance novel, based entirely on the cover!! The cover had that vibe to it. Thankfully, I did take the plunge anyway, and found the book to be supremely delightful. My thanks for the experience, Alex!

  5. I agree. Ginger is a much better example of Jane than the other. Of course, Ginger is just Sex on a Stick hot too. So I may be biased!

  6. I’m not even a big reader but I would definitely buy a book with Ginger on the cover and read it with her in my imagination. I already have her in my imagination so why not? I agree with Jo-Rita. She is sex on a stick.

  7. Ginger is definitely closer to the Jane you wrote than the book cover. To me the recent covers are too romantic. I think your books have a far wider appeal than the covers suggest. They’re pretty, but not targeted to the right audience.

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