Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mystery of the Decapitated Cover Models

I recently discovered Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels' Covers Gone Wild page (which is awesome and hilarious), and it inspired me to do some cover art naval gazing of my own.

There are certain trends in publishing that baffle me. For example, why have there been so many books published in the last few years with the word "daughter" in the title? (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Gravedigger's Daughter, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Hummingbird's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter etc.) And, even more intriguing, what's with all these covers that feature half of some girl's face? Seriously, these covers are everywhere, in every genre. You've already seen the Gossip Girl collection. Here are some more.

Literary / Historical Fiction

Mystery / Thriller

Science Fiction / Fantasy

Biographies and auto-biographies get full faces. History books get full faces. All in all, I'd venture to say that writing non-fiction increases your chance of getting a full face on your cover.

But then there are books like Mary, about Mary Todd Lincoln, by a first time author, which scored a full face, even though it's fiction. Isabelle Allende gets full faces. Authors like Jodi Picoult (My Sister's Keeper) and Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood) come perilously close to having uninterrupted faces on their covers. And A.M. Homes' new book - The Mistress's Daughter - gets a full frontal face! Something is afoot.

As I've hinted at in previous posts, Jane Eyre always gets a full face. Why? Who better to benefit from our current trend of decapitation than Jane Eyre?

I was having lunch last week with an editor, and she gave me a book I've been wanting to read. On the cover is a teenage boy wielding a sword. The boy has no head. The cover cuts off right at his neck. I couldn't help myself - I had to put it out there: what's up with all these headless models? The editor explained that B&N wants covers with live models (as opposed to scenery, or abstract painting, or an icon). Sometimes, the models aren't quite the right age (I'm guessing this is the case re: Gossip Girls), but if you cut off part of their face, voila! Youth. You can slice away the years. From the Gossip Girls we learn that we all look our youngest around the mouth.

Also, perhaps it's less expensive to use half a face than the whole face.

Please chime in. I'm a sucker for a good conspiracy theory.


Maya Reynolds said...

I think the fiction vs non-fiction bias suggests that publishers are encouraging the reader to fill in the face/features themselves. It keeps the fantasy alive.

Lyn LeJeune said...

Not conspiracy, I think it is the publishers using the same ideas over and over again to save money. I've seen many books displayed side-by-side that look the same. Double-take- oh, they are different books. The decapitated cover models may be some kind of subliminal desire of a cover artist cum serial decapitater.
Lyn LeJeune
The Beatitudes Network- Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans at

Sarah said...

I agree with Maya, but I think this issue happens in nonfiction, too. Health/Parenting books need a selection of people/kids from different races or ages, where applicable--or no faces at all. It's tough to get a book with a face on it through the cover process.

Stephanie said...

I was told that the chopped body/face thing was so that readers can imagine themselves as the fictional character (especially in chick lit), which is very odd, no? I mean, those people still have bodies. And I don't read fiction to imagine myself in the story. But that's the theory I was floated by a fellow author with more than one chopped body cover.

Writer, Rejected said...

Or maybe because fiction is such a losing proposition, publishers don't want to actually have to *pay* the models. So, they use artsy designs to cut off their faces and get by on the cheap.

riese said...

When they do that in ad copy, it offends me sort of, like just how fashion likes to de-humanize women.

But I think for Gossip Girl, it's like you don't even know who those girls are. Is it Blair? Is it Serena? Who knows?! But Baby Sitters Club and Sweet Valley always had faces. I think it's probably to save money, or to enable the women to imagine themselves or whomever they want to imagine. I mean, we're pretty used to imagining our bodies being different as it's plowed into us every day, but not our faces.

BookCannibal9 said...

Maya, Sarah: I would like to believe that publishers are encouraging readers' imaginations, but I have a lot of trouble picturing that meeting, where a bunch of people dressed in tasteful business casual clothes say, hey, let's make the cut right here, that'll keep 'em guessing! I mean, the gap between what happens in my head and what happens in real life is considerable, but does this really happen?

Also, my readerly imagination tends to steamroll over whatever face is on the cover anyhow. The last book I read with a full face on the cover was THE UPPER CLASS, which is sort of a cross between Gossip Girls and PREP. I didn't picture Nicki anything like the cover model - and I don't think the cover model really guided my imagination.

I wonder in some cases if shots from a single shoot could be used for multiple covers. As in, put her upper body on this book, and put her lower body on another book?

Stephanie: I agree with you that the whole "imagine yourself in the book" theory is too strange. I mean, it's one thing to empathize with a character, but again, I have trouble picturing that meeting, where the art department or publicity and marketing or whoever choose which shot will best allow the reader to "get hooked into the story." Literally.

Riese: Good point re: Gossip Girl - the cover models don't really correspond to any of the characters! Hot girls in the books = hot girls on the cover. End of story.

Thanks for all your feedback everyone!

Sarah said...

It really happens. Or at least it has in meetings I've been in. More often, though, it's "let's use this girl but blur her face so you can't see the features" or "let's use this one because she looks like she could be latina, or indian, or middle eastern, or blah blah blah." It's about trying to represent the most people so you don't alienate anyone. But again, that's not solely for fiction.

Charles said...

i don't know what the conspiracy is, but it's haruki murakami, not hiroshi, and the hummingbird's daughter is an amazing book, no matter what its title is.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps there is something darker going on. Maybe--just maybe, these women are actually held captive in some underground model slave trade--faces decapited on covers to conceal their identity from loved ones in search their missing daughters. Oh, the evil publishing world...

Anonymous said...

just another case of self-sabotage in an industry dominated by women that is now promoting the marginalization of women by presenting them as pieces rather than whole.

just like the pay discrepancies between male and female authors.

FaeEnsorcelled said...

"just another case of self-sabotage in an industry dominated by women that is now promoting the marginalization of women by presenting them as pieces rather than whole."

This sounds a little harsh, yet I was going to say something similar. If we ignore your (Cameron's) mention of the cover with a boy's head cut off, I would say perhaps it's just a reiteration of the social fact that woman are judged solely by their bodies, and their faces don't matter. In this instance, their faces matter SO LITTLE that they're actually removed from the scene.

And, to keep safe from scrutiny, publishers can easily pass off their motives as "allowing the reader to fill in the blank."

But as one commenter pointed out, wouldn't we want to imagine the women's bodies too? I mean, in the case of Gossip Girl, you show a bunch of thin, white girls with blondish hair and red lips . . . How much do we really have left to imagine?

BookCannibal9 said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Best/Most Outlandish Conspiracy Theory goes to Anon, and thanks to Charles for the spelling catch, (fixed it), as well as the book recommendation, if that's what that was. The Hummingbird's Daughter *does* look like a book I'd enjoy (I'm into magical realism).

Robin Lemke said...

In Ally Carter's blog, she mentions this - and says it's because if there's a sequel, they may not be able to get the same model for the sequel, but if they only show part of her, you can't really tell it's a different girl.

Caitlin said...

As a reader/writer/artist/feminist, I really do buy the argument that it allows readers to fill in the face for themselves. Of course it is much easier for an art directer to choose a cover model or illustration that approximates the correct age/body type/coloring/ethnicity of a character than it would be to match the facial features as the author describes them. Facial features are just too specific and it's almost impossible to come up with a face that would satisfy everyone. Whereas if a character is young, thin, brunette, and white, that's manageable enough, and gives the gist of an impression without stepping on the author's characterization.

Unknown said...

My theory is that half a face is less specific, and therefore more relatable, than a whole face.

Tara said...

Have you seen the books where they show the whole face? Cover models are, without exception, terrible actresses. Seeing the entire thing just reminds you how false the scene they've set for the cover photo is.

I haven't noticed graphic decapitation of men, but aren't silhouettes more of a thing for them? It's still the same concept.