James L. Sutter is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic, which Barnes & Noble ranked #3 on its list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as the co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Podcastle, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on twitter at @jameslsutter.
If you work in science fiction and fantasy publishing, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “Just put some breasts on the cover.”
This is certainly true in the gaming industry, where I work. There’s no question that RPGs have traditionally traded heavily on the Frazetta/Vallejo side of fantasy art, with curvaceous women wearing postage-stamp outfits and “armor” containing less metal than your average soup spoon. After all, we invented the chainmail bikini. This T&A approach to book covers is something everyone in the gaming industry–and publishing in general–should be more than familiar with at this point.
In recent years, however, there’s been a lot more debate about the practice. While most folks acknowledge that sex sells, a wide chunk of the audience finds the preponderance of scantily clad women on SF covers offensive. Discussions around these “cheesecake” covers often transition into morality, philosophy, and social dynamics. What does it say to your readers if the only women on your covers are soft-core porn stars (regardless of their actual personality within the book)? They become about gender bias and balance, equality, the male gaze, body image, and many other important social issues.
If you haven’t already determined that there are some major problems around gender in the SF&F publishing world, a quick Google search should yield a hundred authors better equipped to discuss the problem than I am. But even if you aren’t interested in such issues, you should know they’re out there, and that they’re both important and worth discussing.
Got it? Good. Because I’m going to ignore all that and talk economics instead. All too often in these discussions, I see people jump straight to the philosophical side of things and miss a key point:
Cheesecake covers can hurt sales.
Wait, what? How can I possibly say such a thing? After all, the only thing we all agreed on in the paragraphs above was that sex sells. It’s, like, a truism or something, right?
True–sex sells, at least in a sense. People like looking at attractive people. But I’m not talking about the fact that a character on a book is attractive, or wearing flattering clothing. I’m talking about the stereotypical, over-the-top objectification covers that editors and publishers are talking about it when they say, “Hey, can we get some more [choose one: boobs, breasts, tits, ass, hooters, knockers, skin] on this thing?”
Part of the reason this strategy is so prevalent is that, once upon a time, it worked great. Many of the folk who extol its virtues are influential industry old-timers whose opinions calcified in a previous era. For them–and those they teach–science fiction and fantasy are still “stories for boys,” and the “more boobs” strategy seems like common sense when combined with their own childhood memories of buying SF novels solely for the hot babes on the covers. (Perhaps afterward they snuck off to ogle their fathers’ Playboys, or a well-thumbed National Geographic or Sears catalogue.)
Contrast that with today’s teens. These days, every pubescent boy with an internet connection can live like the most depraved of Roman emperors. If he has a hankering to see some naked ladies, he can do a three-second image search and come up with hundreds of millions of them, in every size, shape, and color.
And you think you’re going to capture his attention with a girl in a chainmail swimsuit?
But okay, fine–let’s say that your targeted teenage boy looses reception long enough that he happens to look up from the high-definition lesbian orgy he’s watching on his iPhone, and his eyes chance to fasten on your book. He sees your bikini-warrior, and thinks, “What novelty! A semi-nude woman in an unnatural pose, with proportions rarely found in life! Perhaps the words inside are equally diverting!” He buys it. Congrats–you’ve targeted the horny teenage male market and won.
Now let’s see what markets you’re losing.
Remember women? Those things you were putting on the books in order to attract the boys? Well, it turns out they buy science fiction and fantasy, too! In fact, as studies have shown us over and over, women buy far more books than men do, and make up a huge portion of the SF-buying audience (especially in the fantasy markets most likely to employ chainmail bikinis). Even gaming, traditionally seen as the most male-dominated part of the SF industry, is losing that particular self-fulfilling definition–in video games, the audience is already close to gender parity.
I’ve talked to quite a few women about the cheesecake cover phenomenon, and the reactions inevitably run from head-shaking disapproval to angry rants. Even if the women don’t take such covers as a sign of everything that’s wrong with the industry and society in general, there’s nothing there for them. An image of a sex-toy woman doesn’t say “strong, confident female character”–which, incidentally, is what most of the female SF readers I know are looking for. Instead, the problem is that cheesecake covers are honest about what they are–they say “I was created specifically to appeal to the sexual appetites of teenage straight boys.” It’s a big No Girls Allowed sign on the side of the clubhouse. And more often than not, female readers are content to oblige, preferring to take their money elsewhere.
Note that this is not the same category as “women.” That’s because there are a lot of male feminists out there as well–guys who have strong opinions on gender and its interactions with SF&F, and who are likely to see such cheesecake covers as a regressive move that they aren’t interested in supporting.
Censors, Self- and Otherwise
Grandma and Grandpa are out shopping for books for little Timmy, who loves stories of heroes and derring-do. Which do you think they’re more likely to give him for Christmas: the one with the cool dragon on the cover, or the one where the focus is some lady’s exposed ta-tas? The same logic applies to churches, schools, libraries, folks who don’t want to be embarrassed by reading your book on the bus–all of these are folks who would otherwise have been happy to buy your book.
People who read a lot like to think of themselves as intelligent and cultured, and SF readers are no different. When they see a mostly naked lady on the cover of something (or at least something that’s not being sold as erotica), many of them presume that the book doesn’t hold a lot of intellectual merit. You’re clearly playing to the lowest common denominator and felt that you needed to use sex to sell the book, so obviously the story itself can’t have much to offer sophisticated readers like them–right?
These are the folks who hate the cheesecake covers because the outfits are impractical, anachronistic, or otherwise not consistent with the world the story has created. They value detail, logic, and suspension of disbelief above all other things. Their problem with that suit of armor having a boob window–the technical term for any gap in armor designed solely to show off cleavage–isn’t that it’s demeaning, it’s that it leaves them open to chest-stabbing! Especially in gaming, you’ll find a large number of people who despise cheesecake art for what they feel is a betrayal of the character and the story, even decoupled from any real-world ramifications.
Add together all the people who might fall into one of those categories. Those are the potential buyers you’re losing with a cheesecake cover. Regardless of how you feel about gender issues–even if you’re one of those unfortunate Rush Limbaugh fans who call any woman who speaks her mind a “feminazi”–it should still be clear that cheesecake covers may hurt your bottom line more than they help.
Lest you think this is all just theory, allow me to back up my conjecture with some rock-solid, totally anecdotal evidence!
I work on the creative team for Paizo Publishing, makers of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. All of us at the company spend a lot of time on the message boards, and one of the perennial thread topics that surfaces again and again is people being frustrated by the portrayal of women in fantasy art. It’s something that folks care deeply about–and which affects their purchasing decisions.
I’ll be the first to say that Paizo isn’t scared of using sex appeal in our art — if you want cheesecake, you can find it here. But the thing that makes me proud is the fact that we try to play to all crowds. There are scantily clad women — but also scantily clad men. There are also men and women with all their clothes on. There are women in corsets, but also women in armor. Women who primp, and women who would knock you down and steal your sword for suggesting they out to show some skin. Out of our three most famous female characters, Seoni has a traditional cheesecake outfit, Merisiel has a reasonable (if snug) adventuring outfit, and Kyra wears layers of thick robes that hide everything but her face. All three of them have devoted fan followings. By giving folk a range of choices, we broaden our appeal, earn goodwill, enhance the verisimilitude and variety of our products–and hedge our bets.
I’m not interested in taking sex out of media. Frankly, I have no problem with nudity, and find it bizarre that I can publish art of graphic beheadings without anyone blinking, but need to be careful about nipples. Even after all the points I’ve made above, I’ll still continue to push for a wide range of art in our books–some characters are meant to be sexy, as are some products. My point, however, is this: sex sells, but it’s not a panacea. Rather, it’s one tool among many. And if you’re blindly following the old-fashioned advice that a scantily clad lady can sell anything in science fiction and fantasy, you may want to reconsider how such “common sense” knowledge actually plays out with your audience–all of your audience.