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Ingenue-Washing Book Covers is the Hot New Thing

The book publishing industry is notorious for white-washing book covers by replacing the minority main character with a white (and sometimes male) figure who might not even be in the book.

Now Tara Sparling brings a new scourge to our attention: ingenue-washing.

A surprising number of books are being published with a faceless 20-somthing girl on the front cover:

Sparling explains in her post that publishing has taken the lazy way out (my words) and settled on 20-something white chicks as the symbol of all femininity rather than design covers to suit the content.

She framed her post as an open letter to the models:

I know it isn’t technically your fault. You didn’t ask to be there.

One day you’re just a working model standing on a beach, a clifftop, a bridge, or under a lamppost; the next, you’re blazing across bookshelves and bookshop windows, the cover girl of a bestseller.

You are not the 52-year-old protagonist of the book I’m reading which deals with dementia; you are not the 38-year-old protagonist of the book which explores fertility and gender expectations.

You are not the 46-year-old narrator of a book about destructive obsession.

You are most certainly not the 67-year-old woman at the core of the story about two families at war over a whiskey empire.

Funnily enough, you are not even the 25-year-old woman entertaining me with wry tales of crushing disappointment.

So Who The Hell Are You Supposed To Be?

And yet, there you are, in all your youthful 20-year-old glory: you, The Faceless Representative Of All Femininity, who must carry the marketing message to us, the readers, a.k.a. Faceless Real Women Who Buy Books With The Express Purpose Of Reading Them.

I do not like you, 20-Year-Old Faceless Girl. For starters, you are nothing to do with the mahoosive array of protagonists in the books I read, none of whom are twenty years old and prone to clutching straw hats or granny bags.

Sparling is right; an unfortunate percentage of the book publishing industry is taking the easy way out by slapping an ingenue on the cover.

It has almost become a cliche, and it’s not the only time we’ve seen it. Even the reprint of The Bell Jar was afflicted by the same stereotyping. And so was Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, as well as other books.

And the problem gets worse when we move beyond the western world.

Is the book about Africa, set in Africa, or by an African?

Then it has to have a cover showing a single acacia tree with a sun setting in the background.

Is the book set in the Arab world, or was it written by an Arab?

Then obviously it needs a woman wearing a headscarf or niqab on the cover:

Recognizing the cliche book covers is the first step in getting people to stop using them.

The second step is to bookmark the articles I linked to and then email the articles to the next fool who wants to repeat the cliche.

Have you come across examples of these clichés? Or do you know of other subjects that always get the same designs?

You can share your examples in the comment section below.

thanks, Anne, for the tip!

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Olivier May 23, 2017 um 8:16 am

Hunky male pics are another gold mine of clichés, too, especially in the romance genre, even if — I gather — it is not particularly torrid. And you should see the covers of gay male romance books: shirtless hunks squared and cubed!

Harvey May 23, 2017 um 8:21 am

"Recognizing the cliche book covers is the first step in getting people to stop using them."

Arrrggghhh! This is among the more annoying statements I’ve read. C’mon, man. Neither I nor you have any right, obligation, etc. to "get people to stop" doing anything. Especially something as universally inconsequential as designing book covers.

This article is one more example of perception being given greater weight than intent in our bizarro world. You assume the covers above are not used for a specific purpose (your perception) but you have zero idea of the original intent of the author, cover designer or publisher.

Hey, with any luck, everybody will stop what they’re doing, send you their stories, and ask your advice re which photo to use for a book cover. Or at least whether the photo they were going to use meets with your acceptance.


Nate Hoffelder May 23, 2017 um 10:07 pm

For your next diktat, why don’t you ban people from engaging in literary criticism so that they can’t point out the cliches in the text? After all, that complaining about the covers is its equivalent.

Marilynn Byerly May 23, 2017 um 3:22 pm

Okay, Book Cover 101. The book cover is primarily used to get the person to pick up the book in the bookstore or to click on its thumbnail online. Its major job is for the colors and images to grab the eyes, then the larger images give the buyer a sense of the type of book it is.

Book cover images are iconographic of their genre and/or their subject matter. One glance should tell the reader whether it is the type of book they like to read. Romance covers are generally the same with a couple or a shirtless male model with the clothing telling whether it is historical or not. Beach chairs on a porch means that it is a mainstream woman’s novel.

I can glance at a novel and, if the cover is well-done, I can tell instantly what kind of book it is as well as the audience it is aimed at.

The iconography changes. The covers of the FIFTY SHADES erotica novels were so noticeable that the rose, etc., became the new iconography of erotic novels. Urban fantasy with female main characters went from a booted leg cover to the ones which now show a woman in leather in a dangerous looking place.

Once the images of the faceless ingenue or the Arab woman in a veil tell us this is the kind of book we like to read, we then look at the title for more confirmation on the type of book it is as well as the author’s name. If all of this still tells us we may have found an interesting book, we will turn it over to read the back cover copy or flip open the book to get more specific details.

So, no, it isn’t lack of imagination or laziness that creates the sameness of book covers. It is smart book marketing.

Nate Hoffelder May 23, 2017 um 10:04 pm

"Once the images of the faceless ingenue or the Arab woman in a veil tell us this is the kind of book we like to read, we then look at the title for more confirmation on the type of book it is as well as the author’s name. "

Except the cliche covers don’t tell you that. The veil doesn’t tell readers whether a book is a romance, memoir, SF, etc, just that the book is from an Arab culture. Rhe same goes for the ingenue and the acacia tree.

See, this is the problem. The cliche covers have no symbolism because the cliches are too widely used.

Irish Imbas Books May 26, 2017 um 5:31 pm

Repetitive covers can be a blunt instrument but of course they all need a primary to work from.
You’ve identified an interesting pattern, Nate but there might actually be a more interesting pattern behind that again in terms of how society (western) responds to stereotypical images. I’m sure someone must have a done a thesis on it!

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