Sunday, April 6, 2014

Should We Put a Shirt on It?

Are Readers Growing Disenchanted With Shirtless Heroes on SFR Book Covers?

It's long been the norm in Romance genres. That strapping duke baring his rippling abs on the cover of a Regency Romance. Mancake abounds in Western Romances about cowboys or sheriffs or rodeo heroes. Paranormal Romance offers its share of topless vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters and demons.

And erotica of any flavor?...fahgettaboutit! Often more than just the male leads' chest is bared.

Contemporary Romance probably accounts for the least amount of muscle-bound chests, because, well...hmmm. Why? Maybe because it's the closest romance we have to our own reality? A professional businessman or FBI agent or SEAL operative is not likely to be cavorting around shirtless while on the job.

And therein lies my question. Does half-naked imagery work for SFR? We've been debating this over on the SFR Brigade discussion group. The big question is: What really works for SFR?

Let's look at a few SFR cultural icons.

Han Solo is super sexy in those gamble-striped pants and utilitarian un-uniform shirt. Does he need to bare skin to render females into a state of awe? Heh. It appears not.

Captain Mal Reynolds often strode about the decks of Serenity in his space western gear covered in a full length brown duster (hence the nick, "Browncoat"). Female fans ate up his full-dressed, wise-cracking swagger. But what about his totally nude scene in the episode where the camera zooms in on a naked Mal seated on a rock muttering, "Yep....that went well." "Trash" is arguably one of the most popular Firefly episodes.

Let's go back to what many consider the root of SFR fans everywhere. We got an occasional glimpse of Captain James T. Kirk's manly manchest in some of the episodes of Star Trek: TOS but what image most often comes to mind when we hear the name? Is it him in his iconic gold uniform with the Starfleet emblem emblazoned on the chest, or shirtless and sweaty after a rough-and-tumble brawl on some nameless rock?

Captain Jean Luc Picard? Commander Will Riker? Worf? Do we ever picture them in our heads sans their uniform (or half of it, at least) or is the image we summon of the officers in full uniform?

And it doesn't always have to be a uniform, does it?

There are many occupations in the SFR universe--space pirate, transport fleet manager, interstellar corporate manager, asteroid miner, independent pilot, genius scientist, used spaceship salesmen--that doesn't require a uniform. Maybe they wear business attire. An environment suit. Jeans and polo shirt, or the futuristic equivalent. Do such heroes look unprofessional when pictured in locker room mode?

Let's put it to a vote!

Choose your favorite group of SFR/SF covers from the two groups below. Which do you think BEST represents the SFR genre? Do you prefer "THIS" Cover Group or "THAT" Cover Group for your SFR imagery? I'm not going to make this easy for you. These are some great covers! Be totally honest. There is no right or wrong answer. We're being scientific here.




  1. Even though my Keir cover is a naked torso (publishers choice not mine) I'm not a fan of a shirtless chest particularly. Or I feel they should be on erotica or hot romance to indicate the heat level rather than on just any romance cover. I've just sent in cover art forms for a SciFi romance novella where I specified no naked torsos - will be interesting to see if I get it.

  2. Good luck with that, Pippa! I know my SFR first proposed cover was exactly that-- a naked man's torso....and the whole point of the story was that my hero was a shapeshifter of the REPTILE kind. Why would I want a man on the cover??? Oy... (fortunately, my editor also went to bat for me, and we ended up with a dressed woman on the front instead)

  3. My last publisher used a corset shot for Steamrolled. I got a comment at an event about the reader being glad to see some "erotic steampunk." The girl had a corset on and that was all! And my books was totally not erotic. So obviously the book sent a message to that reader that was bound to be disappointed. I hoped that if they bought the book, they'd like it anyway, but who knows?

    When I went indie, I went back to covers w/o people. (wry grin)

  4. I think the nekkid chest covers should indicate a level of sexual heat. After decades of scantily dress women, often with clothes ripped in an 'interesting' fashion, the nude male torso (with or without tattoo) seems to be trying to send a 'turnabout is fair play' message. When it's on cover after cover after cover the impact lessens.

  5. Interesting debate. I agree the cover should indicate the level of heat in the book, whether sci fi or other genre (of romance).

    Since my books are hot sci fi romance, my heroes will no doubt continue to appear missing part of their clothing. It's a signal to readers to expect another CC romance, an adventure yes, but with heat.

    I must admit if I see a sci fi book with no people on the cover, I will pass it over UNLESS I know the author, because I assume there is little or no romance. I love sci fi, but I want the romance too.

    I enjoy covers with both men and women on them--I like the way the artist plays the couple (or more) off of each other and the setting.

  6. An important question. I have a strong objection to decapitated male torso, the ones with the man's head cropped out. I view it as objectification of men. I suppose turn about is fair play, but I'd rather read about interesting characters than male mannequins.
    Topless is fine if the story has a lot of sexual content but I prefer some tenderness between the characters, not sale of beefcake.

  7. Bare bodies are a trite carry over from Regency romances. I think SFR is better than that. Our stories are about SF, not just R.

  8. I would LOVE to be able to use pictures of men in uniform on my covers. But stock photo sites just don't have them. I've resorted to male torsos (not headless) to signal there is some romance in them, but I'm trending away from that. I don't read much erotica, and I prefer my SFR with lots of SF. The early cover of Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command comes to mind as one I loved.

  9. Have you seen the new cover for Linnea's Down Home Zombie blues? She got her rights back and the cover was done by Kim Killion.

  10. I really love the original cover of Games of Command. And yes, Brandon is in uniform, but the cover is dynamic in so many ways.

    I thought about using the new cover for The Down Home Zombie Blues at one of my "This" group, but then decided to try to steer away from Brigaders covers, for the most part. I do love that cover too--looks very modern and techy, which is a great fit for the story.

    Of the covers pictured above I think the first one and in the THIS group the Zoe Archer cover are my favorites.

    Greta makes a good point about men in uniform being very difficult to find on the stock photo sites. I wonder why that is when military men are so popular as heroes.

  11. >I wonder why that is

    Probably because the photographers would have to pay for renting/making costumes. Even if they did, the financial risk is probably fairly high. No guarantee of return on the investment.

    I do love a heroine or hero in uniform, but frankly we've done well advocating for covers that represent SFR *at all.* Our efforts have definitely paid off.

    A good cover designer can probably find ways to work with the limits of available images. The skilled ones are worth their weight in gold.

    And whenever possible, consider having custom, digitally illustrated covers done. I realize it's a long shot for most, but it might be worth budgeting for certain books.

  12. >The early cover of Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command comes to mind as one I loved.

    I once saw a romance reader comment (at Smart Bitches...somewhere) that she liked Games of Command, but if she had encountered the original cover first, she never would have picked it up. Despite the couple it seemed too much like non-romantic SF to her.

    Very anecdotal, but something to consider.

  13. Totally fun, Laurie! Sorry for brevity, book tour insanity...

  14. Interesting timing on your question/poll as I recently regained my rights to my THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES and my agent was emphatic we return to the more SF-y covers (and less romance-y covers) because the move to the latter hurt my sales when Bantam did the switch (little did we know...)., :-)

  15. I think it's interesting that the best covers of both groups featured couples--either dressed or semi-dressed. One of the salient features of great SFR is the balance between hero and heroine, and I think the cover should reflect that. When my agent/publisher asked me if I had any ideas about the cover for my upcoming release of UNCHAINED MEMORY, the first thing I answered was that I wanted a couple and no naked male (headless) torso, please.

    As for heat level, yes, I do want some indication of that in the way the couple is portrayed. I don't want them looking away from each other, not touching, completely separate, as some of these covers show. My H/H are as close emotionally and sexually as it's possible to be, so the cover should reflect that. If that means we have to hire models as some cost, then so be it.

    And, lol, Laurie, I ALWAYS preferred Kirk with his shirt OFF!

  16. I do think whoever posted on the FB page that readers have their own preferences, was very right.

    We won't please all the readers all the time.

    As for not having stock photos, this is true and it used to be that authors were so poor, they couldn't pay for shoots and such. But I'm seeing a real shift in that. Someone recently started a stock photo site for historical photos.

    There are authors with money now that self publishing is an option. And yes, let's connect with digital artists.

    It's not like there aren't costumes out there. I see them at the cons. Now we need someone with vision and a camera to set up shop...

  17. This is such a fun topic. I don't care which kind of cover is on an SFR, I'll read it! I did think for a moment though, about all those half-naked leather-clad female superheroes and think turn-about was fair play.:-)

  18. A really good post and I think that the fact I liked certain covers from each group really reflects that it's more than just the image itself - there is a whole image, color, font thing going on for me when I look at covers.

  19. I like the last "this" cover the most, dislike the middle "this" cover, strongly sthe first two "that" covers, slightly like the third that cover, slightly like the fourth that cover, and slightly dislike the fifth that cover 9he's showing more skin than she is...)

    As for why--I like illustrative cover, which tell me about the -story- and the setting in time and space and culture. Nude bodies don't tell me about the setting and the story, they tell me that there are bodies with clothes off perhaps about to commence docking moves--which is NOT something characteristic to the particular story as opposed to any other time/space locus where people might take clothes off to have sex..

    I don't like the Gini Koch cober because i don't like the pose/positioning of the characters ofn the coer 9then again, I looked at the book, and it's not my cup of of tea, so maybe the cover is accurate for the book and appeals to the market for it)

    The cover for The Starlight Right is actually a classica SF cover pose, I;m blanking on the books, but there were some from the 1960s or even 1950s, with that style of cover, believe it or not--it's a human potential/power cover, not sex objectification cover (cnosider the Michaelangelo or is it daVinci drawing)

  20. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in with your comments, thoughts and likes or dislikes. This has been a very lively and fun discussion.

    Our current poll results show the THIS group (in uniform) was most popular, but your opinions on the various aspects of what goes into a cover esd very valuable information to consider when selecting, designing or giving input on a cover.

    Poll Results (in order of most votes)
    37 / 59.68% THIS cover group (in uniform)
    16 / 26.00% Particular covers from both groups
    7 / 11.29% THAT cover group (out of uniform)
    2 / 3.23% Don't have a preference

    The poll will be active for a few more days if you'd still like to cast a vote. We'll give a final tally next Monday. Thank you!


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