Sex sells…but who’s buying?

Here’s a topic of conversation I had with Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (authors of the Liaden Series) whilst I was at their place. I was there on business — hanging artwork on their newly-painted walls — but I had scheduled it during my vacation because I knew we’d end up in social conversation and I’d forget to go back to work had I been on the clock.  So, as I sipped pumpkin spiced coffee and chatted with two authors whom I admire greatly, a large (I think it was roughly 24×30) painting of Val Con and Miri (one of the couples from their books) was produced from one of the offices. I stared at this gorgeous painting for a few minutes, as both a fan of the series and as an artist.

As I’m figuring out the best place for it, the other pieces come out, including four high-end art prints of the latest books published by Baen: Saltation, Mouse and Dragon, Ghost Ship, and the upcoming Dragon Ship. These, I’ve seen before, as they were framed at our shop. Mouse and Dragon, revolving around the events immediately after Scout’s Progress, is perhaps my favourite of their works, not only because if revolved around my favourite characters, Val Con’s parents Aelliana and Daav, but because of the cover itself. (Pictured here, without permission, for review purposes. Source: Amazon.com)

When Sharon and Steve brought in the art print (I don’t call them giclées, but that’s a different topic for a different blog) for Mouse and Dragon, I knew right off I wanted this book simply by its cover. There’s a feeling that Daav and Aelliana are in a place they don’t want to be, but they’re going to get out of there — together.  Boom. I’m sold.

This might also be the reason why I was drawn to the Liaden books, even before I knew Steve and Sharon. Del Ray, Ace, and Miesha Merlin were strong in composition, and, with the exception of Baen’s Theo Waitley books (excluding Dragon Ship), usually involve the two main protagonists. Agent of Change (Pictured here, without permission, for review purposes. Source: Amazon.com) was the first one I encountered (and during my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phase, of all times) in a used book store during a camping trip with my family back in the early nineties. (By the way, the acrylic painting of this is AMAZING up close and personal, but I digress.) It wasn’t until Sharon brought this little tidbit that I missed when observing the covers:

No cleavage, no flash of thigh, no exposed navels…no scantily-clad women.

Okay, Duainfey and Longeye are the exceptions, but even then, in Duainfey, Rebecca’s got a slight plunge of cleavage, and in Longeye, her dress is slit raggedly.

Now, here’s where our conversation took a turn. The Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs. Ever since I first saw the books at Barnes & Noble, I’ve been avoiding them. Mind you, I love pin-up art. I married a pin-up artist. I’ve done pin-up art myself. I have no problems whatsoever with pin-up art. But when I see pin-up art on a book cover, I usually ignore it. Why? Because if I wanted Anita Blake, I’d read Anita Blake. What I really want is  fighting and action and detective work and  supernatural, fantasy, and/or science fiction and yes, maybe some romance or a good roll in the hay, but only if there’s a good reason for the plot to advance. So looking at the Mercy Thompson books — Cambot, on monitor 3:

 Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I don’t think this is practical wear for a VW mechanic. (Pictured here, without permission, for review purposes. Source: Amazon.com) Like I said, I avoided these because I thought they were like every other supernatural bodice-rippin’ Anita Blake knockoff out there. Even the back cover described her torn love between two werewolves and possibly a vampire. Nope, sorry, had enough of Laurel K. Hamilton destroying her own characters.

But, here’s what’s interesting: Sharon, whom I believe both her and her husband have impeccable taste in books, recommended them.  She let me borrow the first four books: Moon Called, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed, and Bone Crossed. Seriously, the stories don’t match the covers. Mercy is depicted as a mechanic by day, streetwalker by night on the covers, but…she’s actually kind of prudish and slightly unsanitary, wearing yesterday’s jeans and the cleanest tee-shirt out of the laundry basket. (She gets better by book two, when she picks up a neat-freak roommate.) And while yes, there is the romantic tension between two and a half men, it’s all back-story for the main plot.

But even with a well-paced supernatural detective story, I’m not going to go out and buy these.

Which led into our next adventure.

Fast-forward to last Thursday. Jenny and I are doing publisher research at the library, searching for books that would be close to the closest genre to our manuscript. The first thing we learned quickly: most urban fantasy books tend to have “romance” tagged to the genre, as well as feature covers very similar to Miss Mercy up there. Sometimes there’s another person involved, usually a man with either a bare, hairless chest, or an open shirt revealing a bare, hairless chest.  And many times there’s no possible way these people are anatomically correct. (I’m still wondering how much duct tape was used to tape Mercy’s breasts in the above photo.) Between our critique of artwork and first-five-pages commentary (including one that revolved around the main character of one book referring to a large Starbucks coffee — the character’s choice of coffee shops, mind you — as a “jumbo” and not a “venti”, unless it’s an iced coffee, then it’s a “trento,” but I digress), we were getting a little concerned.

Is it really necessary to sex up a book cover just to sell it?

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