Book Covers, Backsides and Body Parts

11/30/2011 11:05 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012
  • Holly Robinson Author, "Chance Harbor, "Haven Lake," "Beach Plum Island," "The Wishing Hill," "The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter"

In the book world, you can easily spot novels designed to attract women by the body parts and backsides on their covers.

Don't believe me? Go to Amazon and browse the postage stamp images for anything that falls into the category of women's contemporary fiction, and you'll see what I mean.

Here are a few examples of covers graced with body parts, all featuring legs: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, Falling Home by Karen White, and Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer.

Even more popular for novels destined to be pitched to women's book clubs (the Great Last Hope of the publishing world) is the human backside. The humans are generally women -- always slender, usually blonde, typically with their hair in disarray and in a style that shows off a slender neck. They might also be back views of children, usually in motion, and often with flowers around them or held in their sticky little hands. Contemporary examples of what I call BBC's (Backside Book Covers) include Julie Buxbaum's After You, Elin Hilderbrand's Silver Girl, Juliette Fay's Shelter Me, Wendy Wax's Ten Beach Road, and Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark.

I suppose that, in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that my own first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, also shows the back view of a little girl running through an orchard of flowering trees. When my editor at Broadway Books first showed the design to me, I was appalled -- this design was for the paperback, and I'd become enamored of the hardcover, which showed gerbils peering out of a pair of rubber boots. What did a little girl running through an orchard have to do with gerbils? Who was that child, and what the heck was she wearing?

Anyway, that was in 2010, and now I've been through another cover design process, this time for my novel, Sleeping Tigers (due out in December 2011). God help me, I have a body part on the cover.

Let me explain. When the designers sent me a form asking for my ideas, I wrote up a little synopsis of the novel: Jordan O'Malley has everything she ever wanted: a job she loves, a beautiful home, and a dependable boyfriend. When her life unravels after a breast cancer scare, Jordan decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, Cam, who harbors secrets of his own.

When Cam suddenly flees the country, Jordan follows, determined to bring him home. Her journey takes her to the farthest reaches of majestic Nepal, where she encounters tests -- and truths -- about love and family that she never could have imagined.

Funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful, Sleeping Tigers reminds us all that sometimes it's better to follow your heart instead of a plan.

For cover images, I suggested that the designer look for something representing the title -- the "sleeping tiger" within is breast cancer, as my main character, Jordan, sees it, because it can awaken and sharpen its claws at any moment. (Yes, it does sound like an obvious, hit-your-thumb-with-a-hammer image when I sum it up this way, but I'm trying to write a blog post.)

The other images I suggested to the designer were anything that represented Nepal, because I had traveled to Nepal and loved that country so much that I had set a good part of my novel there. I wanted this to be a sort of fictional little sister to the massively successful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (which, by the way, has neither backsides nor body parts on the original cover).

The result: two completely different cover images. One showed a very literal (if reversed) image representing the title, with a woman sleeping and a faint drawing of a tiger in the background. The other was a gorgeous shot of a Nepali temple with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Neither worked. The sleeping woman was intriguing, but looked very Jersey Shore, with her mass of teased blonde hair, pouting lips, and obviously fake eyelashes. That cover might have worked for, say, a paranormal thriller about a woman who morphs into a tiger when she's ticked off, especially when men do her wrong. The other cover, while beautiful, and while certainly in Nepal, was more like the cover of a travel book -- maybe one of those Lonely Planet guides, telling you where to buy a coffee for thirty cents in Kathmandu.

What to do? I went back and forth with the designer several times, looked at countless photographs online, and checked out other book covers. It dawned on me, as I made my study over a couple of weeks, that the reason you so rarely see an actual face on a book cover is because then it's harder to imagine the story in a way that lets it surround you completely.

If you don't have a face on a book cover, then you're left with household objects, typically set against a blue background (check out Deep Down True, by Juliette Fay, and Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos), or backsides and body parts that give you the emotional feel of the book -- happy, sad, searching, longing, scary, or whatever.

That realization gave me a new idea for the book cover. I asked the designer if she could try just one more thing: show me Nepali images with women in them. She promptly sent me several more possibilities. All of them had Nepalese temples (she must have read Eat, Pray, Love, too), but these included women in the photographs. Most didn't work. The women in the photographs were almost always too young (my character is in her thirties), or too touristy (taking pictures of the temples or standing in line to go into them).

There was one image, however, that I loved: an ancient Nepalese prayer wheel in gorgeous colors, with a woman's hand tentatively reaching out to turn it. But did I really want to contribute yet another book cover with body parts to the genre?

The more I looked at that picture, the more I loved it. The image captured the book completely. There was hope and longing in the touch of those fingertips on the prayer wheel, and the colors were exotic enough to suggest a woman on an adventure.

The woman turning that prayer wheel on the cover of Sleeping Tigers isn't just traveling. She is on an emotional and spiritual journey, like my main character -- and like all of us who read because we love being transported to other worlds and other lives. It was perfect.

Yes, my new book cover has a body part. But at least it's a hand and an arm -- no legs in sight.