Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: An Open Letter to the Erotica Publishing Industry

with 12 comments

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…

To here…

Ugh. Enough depressingly samey covers. Here's some of that smoulder I mentioned

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.

The Man in the Mirror

The Man in the Mirror

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.

Mat x

PS. If you have any more ideas for ways erotica could turn down the sexism, please add them. We’re ready for number 8


Written by mat

December 4, 2008 at 9:36 am

12 Responses

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  1. Okay, since BICEPS starts with “Banish Inequality…” how about this for an idea; what about some cover models who aren’t white? Since when have white people had a monopoly on beauty or sexiness?

    Or would black/asian/latin models on a cover look too much like exploitation for the titilation of white male consumers? – unlike all those pictures of women …Ha Ha Ha.

    Janine Ashbless

    December 4, 2008 at 1:31 pm

  2. Consider market dynamics

    The argument that something “wouldn’t” sell or “won’t” sell is disingenuous. Market forces are not a dialogue: the marketer sets the agenda; the marketee only has a blanket “yes” or “no” option available. There’s no way to communicate subtle messages like, “I’m buying this despite the cover” or “I cut up gay men’s magazines and make new covers for my erotica books when I get home”.

    We can’t buy something before it exists.

    People who really know something about marketing and understand the dynamics talk about things like “market research” and “testing the market”. Saying “It sells so it must be what the market wants” would get anyone kicked out of marketing school. Until market research has been done and the market has been tested, the “marketing” argument is invalid. It might even turn out to be right, but as yet there’s no proof either way.

    Olivia Knight

    December 4, 2008 at 1:31 pm

  3. Great letter. So, have you had any responses at all?

    I agree I don’t need the woman effaced, but I do want more on the cover than just a woman. I think the direction of the covers you posted is great. But my favorite is still the man standing over the woman from that last post.

    When I buy erotica, I’m consuming a situation more than an individual. I think women approach sexuality in general from a contextual, situational standpoint, which is why you have such a good point.

    Carolyn Jean

    December 4, 2008 at 8:05 pm

  4. Hear, hear!

    I think that sums it all up quite nicely, actually. Awesome post ladies!



    December 4, 2008 at 8:26 pm

  5. Did you notice Olivia and I posted at the EXACT same moment?

    Twins, I tell you.

    Janine Ashbless

    December 5, 2008 at 9:19 am

  6. 1.31! Spooky!

    Another great post. I find it astonishing that publishers aren’t exploiting women as a readership, aren’t actively targetting them. It seems so dumb. Xcite books are about the closest we’ve come to an erotica imprint aimed at women but, oh dear, they keep getting it very badly wrong.


    December 5, 2008 at 12:55 pm

  7. You know, there really aren’t all that many *erotica* publishers left. If you consider Virgin as erotic romance, then you’ve got Cleis (run by two women), Pretty Things Press (run by me), Xcite (run by Hazel)… Dirty Girls was brought out by Seal, which was for 30 years, I believe, was a feminist press. I know they were bought recently, so I don’t know who is currently in charge.

    I think Blue Moon is defunct. I heard Orion and Neon were gone. Mainstream houses, like Chronicle, seem to be dipping their toes in the water, but they’re not strictly erotica.

    My belief is that erotica is being swallowed by erotic romance. That the line between the two genres is blending. I mean, if you search “erotica,” on Amazon, there is no distinction at all. About 95% of the books in their top 100 erotic titles are actually erotic romance.

    This is good news for you, because erotic romance (as you’ve shown) has no problem putting men on the covers.


    alison tyler

    December 5, 2008 at 1:52 pm

  8. Um, but that’s a bit like saying, ‘Great news! A gay bookstore has just opened in town and there are lots of men on those covers.’

    We want men on erotica covers, on the stuff we read and write. We don’t want it to be ‘erotic romance or nothing’ and take offence at the idea that women are only allowed to read about sex if it’s justified by a love narrative. In our experience, erotic romance is when your editor censors explicit language and starts talking about sensual handcuffs and compulsory happy endings. No thanks.

    The fact that so many erotica imprints have gone to the wall suggests they’re doing something wrong. Hmmm, now what might that be?


    December 7, 2008 at 7:45 pm

  9. No, it’s not like saying, *Hooray, there’s a gay book store in town with men on the covers.* Or if you think that’s what I was saying, then I wasn’t being clear.

    Look, I could be wrong, but I believe the two genres are merging. There’s no longer a clear distinction between erotica and erotic romance. The two are on the verge of becoming one.

    This means that more men will have to get comfortable buying books with men on the cover. And this also means that erotic romance readers will have to get used to stories that don’t always have a traditional HEA.

    In my mind, it’s simply an evolution.

    I could be totally wrong. That’s just what seems to be happening.

    alison tyler

    December 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm

  10. P.S. I have no beef about you wanting more beef cake! I just think the playing field is changing. And my thought is that you’re already on the score board with all the boys on the ER covers.

    But if you’re serious about putting men on strictly erotica covers, I really do think you would succeed with your own BICEPS imprint. You’ve got followers already who would snap you up (I mean, snap up your products).

    alison tyler

    December 7, 2008 at 10:20 pm

  11. Thanks, AT. I see where you’re coming from now – erotic romance expands to include erotica, and so erotica’s covers change. I agree, that does sound positive. I guess the difficulty is in the way we, as writers, have experienced it so far – erotica has had to tone down and get loved up in order to fit in with erotic romance. Because the last thing we want is to have to compromise our voices to get beefcake.

    So maybe the market is in transition now and real erotica will eventually flourish within ER. But it’s hard to imagine that happening in the UK anytime soon because ‘romance’ is such a dirty word. It’s the pink and gold-embossed section at the back of the bookshop where old ladies hang out smelling of lavender. Contemporary romance (aka ‘chick lit’) is front of house and very popular. It usually takes its place within general fiction.

    Maybe what is sold as ER in the US will get sold as erotica in the UK, and we get man candy covers among the dirty macs. I know Black Lace have struggled when they’ve tried to target both the US and UK market. Every now and then, in my local Borders, I would move copies of Asking for Trouble from the lavender scented section of the shop to the dirty mac section (and you don’t want to know what that smells like).

    And, of course, Amazon etc mixes it all up even more, and I imagine most women buy smut online. It’s interesting to think that what might actually be changing here, according to your reading of the industry, is the meaning of ‘romance’. I’d like to think that would have a knock-on effect of changing the meanings of men’s and women’s bodies, at least within our genres. Which, of course, would necessitate lots more men buying erotic romance, otherwise we’re still stuck with the same divide. It’s quite radical.


    December 8, 2008 at 11:28 am

  12. Right now, you two are reactive. Next step, proactive. Begin your own publishing house specializing in erotica for women. Seriously. Raise some capital. Take the bull by the horns. Publish the books you want to see on the market represented by covers you find absent of bias & misrepresentation.

    Would I know how to do this? Fudge, no. But I don’t care about this nearly as much as the two of you do. I care about proving as a woman I can write empathetic and convincing gay fiction. And I’ve made some head way. Next step, novel!

    Yeah, I have my work cut out for me too.



    December 11, 2008 at 2:49 am

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