Erotica Cover Watch: An Open Letter to the Erotica Publishing Industry
An Open Letter to the Erotica Publishing Industry: For Your Consideration
Watched by Mathilde Madden
One of the problems with starting a critical blog like this is that you get accused of saying a lot of things you simply didn’t say. Like:
You just want every book to be covered in man titty and that way all erotica publishers will go out of business!
Okay, maybe I’m paraphrasing – but just to be clear we don’t want that. We love smut. We want there to be an erotica publishing industry. And as writers we want to be part of that industry, meaning sometimes we have to swallow it (ahem) and accept that our fiction is going to be packaged in covers we dislike, otherwise we consign ourselves to self-publishing or silence.
And we understand that there have to be compromises. Not every cover can be a smouldering guy staring moodily out at the viewer. I get that. Fair shares would be nice but we know it’s not a matter of throwing a switch that turns off sexism.
So how do we get from here…
Our primary aim with this campaign wasn’t to impact on the problem of women-only covers on erotica books, it was merely to get it acknowledged. We just wanted to show people what was happening; demonstrate how the desires of straight women were being ignored; ask why no one was saying anything about this. Because sometimes we felt like a couple of freaks – keen to see man-muscle yet carving out our careers in a sphere intent on denying us any.
But we’ve done that now. We’ve got it acknowledged. It’s out there and the support for what we’re doing has grown and grown. Maybe now some impact might be nice. Things can and do change. And if you don’t ask you don’t get. So, Dear Mr Publisher (you are a ‘Mr’, aren’t you?) …
1. Consider Honesty: Be honest about the current situation with covers
Let’s talk about this. Let’s be open. Someone chooses the covers. Other people agree them. There needs to be some responsibility taken by those people for the cover images that arise from that process. Yes, concerns maybe financial, connected to marketing, part of book-buyer policy. But still, someone makes the choices to work within those parameters, to make certain concerns more important. If the real truth is ‘we have to appeal to straight men or our books won’t sell’ say so. Because maybe we can learn from statements like that how to move on.
2. Consider Romance: Learn from romance when it comes to books aimed at women.
The erotic romance boom has proved that there is a massive potential new market out there. Face it, romance trounces erotica when it comes to being clear about their product being for women (despite romance’s uncool image.) Erotica aimed at women has a different profile to erotic romance – because some women don’t want to read a romance; they want sex without romance’s obligatory happy ever after; they want sex without the complications of love and long term relationships. Sure, some women might enjoy a happy ending in their novel but sometimes women just want to enjoy sex in all its meaningless, casual glory. They want a hot, horny read which prioritises sexual adventures rather than the heartache and angst leading to the sunset. This new generation of women are your customers. Open your eyes. We exist.
Take a look at how women are now compared to ten -fifteen years ago. Female sexuality is increasingly taking its place in the mainstream. We have Sex and the City, we have sexy middle-shelf magazines talking directly to women, we have women being recognised as purchasers of sex toys and, oh wow, how vibrators have changed since they started marketing them to women. These women are the ideal readership for erotica but currently erotica only catches a few brave souls prepared to encroach on traditional male territory. Buying material designed to arouse is a big step for women. A new direction. But one they are willing to make right now if you just demonstrate that your products are for them too.
A lot of erotic books are female friendly and genuinely empowering. On the inside. Part of a book cover’s job is to help consumers find the material for them. Isn’t it time women stopped mistaking your output for the same, lame male-orientated wank-fodder it was in the eighties? Or to put it another way: Sell to women! There’s money in it!
3. Consider the Bigger Picture: There’s more to covers than the cover image
Often the problem isn’t just the image. It’s the colours, the framing (amputated body parts, anyone?), the tagline, the font. Time for a rethink. Xcite’s ice-cream pastels suggest female appeal – it’s a great start after erotica’s endless red and black and glistening. Combine something conventionally female-aimed with an image of a guy (conventionally gay or romantic) and you’re moving in a wonderful new direction. Give us hot images and a sans-serif font (because erotica is sans serif, romance is serif). Little nods here and there can start to break the stalemate of meaning.
4. Consider Being More Fair: You can’t please everyone – but how about sharing the pleasure/lack of pleasure around a bit more.
When we offer ‘couples’ as an alternative to the obligatory woman on her own, the only problem seems to be excluding non-straight sexualities. They are not represented. They are not addressed. (Okay, this non-straight gripe may get a bit farcical in situations where we know the book is entirely about straight sex but, um, farce seems to be alive and well in erotica). But the fact is most cover images exclude someone. Maybe there could be some kind of exclusion rota? Maybe, OMG, straight men could even be on it?
5. Consider Women’s Feelings: Don’t assume women don’t ‘see’ sexualised women.
Straight women are more depressed and excluded by this situation than I think you understand. There seems to be an idea that women are so surrounded by images of sexualised women that they don’t ‘see’ them, that they don’t care about the exclusion of their desires. It’s not true. Women do mind. A lot of people say that women won’t mind buying a book with a random headless PVC clad woman on the cover whereas men do mind seeing a sexy hunk on the cover of a book they might buy. The latter may be true (but also may not be), but the former is certainly false. Women are being put off buying erotica books in droves – because they think they are not for them. The images you use on covers have meaning for women. Women are not immune to the semiotics of sexay ladies. Take Lynn here, for example:
I went to eroticacoverwatch and was dumbfounded.
I’ve run across these “women’s erotica” books before. Mainly by seeing the covers. Hmm, I’d think. It says “women’s erotica” and it has a nekkid woman on the cover.
Conclusion? It’s erotica about women, for guys. And I always passed them up, because as a hetero woman, I obviously wasn’t the target demographic.
And come to find out…those books, with sexualized images of women on the cover, are full of stories for…women?
Knock me over with a feather.
From the comments thread here.
6. Consider What Real female Sexual Desire is: Female desire is not about narcissism.
Okay maybe some straight women do masturbate in front of mirrors and get off solely on looking at other pictures of hot women and thinking ‘us women, we sure are hot’. But I’m pretty certain it doesn’t happen as much as erotica publishing seems to want us to think.
Newsflash: Narcissus was a man. And actually I know more men who have masturbated looking at themselves in mirrors than women. (Although it could be I am more likely to ask guys about their wanking habits because, hey, I am into men!)
Anyway, these semi-mythical women who do love ‘getting hot in front of a mirror’, probably don’t need to buy any erotic books do they? They’ve got all the hot they need right there. Whereas those of us who like to look at hot men…
So come on. No more female narcissism just because that conveniently combines (made up) female desire with, oh, a hot woman looking hot. Can we have a short holiday from images of women holding their tits or with their hands down their knickers until we have sourced lots of hot images of men grasping their dicks to go alongside and keep them company?
7. Consider Men: Find ways to include straight male readers and use images of men.
Couples, montages, abstract images, fine art… it’s not hard to see how overcoming this problem might make erotica book covers better all round – flip them out of their unimaginative rut with this experiment. Include straight women’s desires on your covers without excluding (or imagining you are excluding) straight men.
It can be done. For example, we love these covers.
Try it. Just, you know, be better.
PS. If you have any more ideas for ways erotica could turn down the sexism, please add them. We’re ready for number 8