Question: When Will the Tramp-Stamp Urban Fantasy Novels Die?

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Anthony Stevens was kind enough to ask the following question my Google+ page:

When are the mass-market paperback publishers going to outgrow the cute-young-thing-with-the-tramp-stamp-and-a-sword/pistol/flaming-ball-of-plasma cover art? What comes next to catch our eye?

Technically, that’s two questions, but I don’t have a life to prevent me from answering them.

First, the “tramp stamp” urban fantasy cover trend is unlikely to go away anytime soon.  Why?  The simplest reason:  they’re selling.  The best way to change the way publishers package books is to change the way the public reacts to book covers.  Publishers aren’t stupid.  When they have a
tried-and-tested method for selling books, they’re unlikely or unwilling to give that up just to appease someone’s sense of taste.  “Tramp stamp” urban fantasy is just one set of tried-and-tested cover concepts.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  Publishers don’t really care about the outliers.  We’re not the primary market for their books (sad, I know).

Second, predicting trends is kind of impossible.  What will replace the “tramp stamp” cover?  No idea.  The interesting thing for me is how women are going to influence this decision.  The majority of readers are now women (depending on the study, five times more women read than men), though fantasy readers are evenly split among the sexes.  All these numbers really don’t mean, much, though, since demographics are impossible to develop accurately from readers, with the exception of those statistics referring to all fiction readers.  But if we take the 50/50 split seriously for a moment, then we can get a sense of how publishers have responded to the urban fantasy boom in light of traditional reading demographics.  In the past, men were the readers, and so the cover trends, particularly in genre, had leaned towards supposed male sensibilities (look at some of those science fiction covers from back in the day and you’ll see what I mean).  Genre has been one of the stubborn holdouts on the gender parity front — science fiction is the worst of the lot.  Fantasy, however, started shifting noticeably a few decades ago.  But the covers haven’t.  They still feature the “tramp stamp” in urban fantasy and scantily clad ladies and damsels-in-distress in other fantasy subgenres.

All of this is an attempt to get to my main point:  book covers in urban fantasy, and fantasy in general, are likely to trend towards the slow shift in readership.  Unless something major happens among men to convince them to become avid readers, it is likely that the trend in fiction overall will take hold in fantasy and, eventually, science fiction.  I think this will mean an artistic shift not to “girly” covers (whatever that means), but to covers which treat their subjects, particularly female characters, as individuals as opposed to stereotypes or stock imagery.  What will that look like?  Probably not unlike what you see elsewhere in genre, but maybe something else entirely.

Then again, I could be wrong.

What do you think will be the new trends in urban fantasy covers?  Or do you see the “tramp stamp” trend continuing indefinitely?


Note:  There are publishers who don’t fit the mold I’ve presented here.  Most, however, use covers primarily to sell product.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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