Headless Naked Torsos: A Note on Cover Art

by Tracey J. Pennington

I must say something about covers which feature the ubiquitous headless naked male torso. Please note–this is not a criticism of authors, who typically have no control over what gets put on the covers of their books.

I will state here that publishers of gay romances are generally coping with numerous costs and are trying to find a cheap way of dealing with expenses. Costumes and wigs are costly. A naked male torso, on the other hand, looks roughly the same in any era. Cut off the head, and you’ve removed any evidence of a hairstyle that might identify the time period in which this is taking place. In fact, you can use the headless naked torso over and over again, and no one will know the difference. I know that it is a cost issue, and I do sympathize.

(I cannot say that it is as much a cost issue for the larger publishers of mysteries, who seem to adore using headless women, or women turned away from the viewer, on their covers. But I digress.)

Despite my knowing that expense plays a large part in the use of such covers, a headless naked torso suggests a couple of things about the book before I even pick it up. First, the nakedness tells me–rightly or wrongly–that this is essentially a book about sex. Not about love or romance. Certainly not about characters or characterization, since the man on the cover has no face and therefore no individuality or identity.

Now, I’ve had enough friends write books that were published with headless naked torso cover art to know that the axiom “you can’t tell a book by its cover” is never more true than in the field of gay romance. Nevertheless, I do wish that more gay romance covers looked as if there was more to the book than “Woot, lots of sex!”

The second thing that pops into my mind when I see a headless naked torso cover–and I’m sure this isn’t typical of everyone–is murder. I don’t see a headless torso as a man I can visualize as anyone I like; I see the dead and mutilated victim of a serial killer. (It probably doesn’t help that when I was about seventeen, there was a case at a Travel Inn Motor Lodge involving two young women who had been tortured, sexually abused, mutilated and beheaded. And as recently as 2007, a serial killer was leaving headless torsos outside the New Delhi jail, and had been doing so for more than a year.)

I’m sure this is anything but intentional. But the image chills me just the same, and it does so whether the headless or faceless body on the cover is that of a man or a woman. And my repulsion for such covers does indeed affect whether or not I’ll buy the book. In fact, it’s a determining factor. I don’t want to buy a book whose cover disturbs me.

Which, again, is not fair to authors, who may have a wonderful story ensconced between horrible covers. But that’s how much of a selling point that headless naked torsos are for me…or rather, how much of a non-selling point.

And I suspect that I may not be alone.

Also, while I’m sure the use of naked torso pictures is mostly an economic choice, and an understandable one in this recession, I think that it’s vital to show pictures of gay lovers as individuals and as people. Running Press’s covers are superb in that respect, displaying men in historical garb and realistic settings which say mutely, “This could have happened to real people who loved each other. And maybe it did. Read. Read and see.”

I suspect that showing pictures of specific men wearing clothes does a lot to counteract the common misperception of non-fans (and often critics as well) that “gay romance = gay erotica.” The men’s faces and clothes indicate that “male/male romance” is not a polite term for “sex with any random man,” but about one particular person above all else. That same-sex romance, like the more heteronormative variety, is about love.

And honestly, if you’re selling love stories, then use the covers to sell the love…not just the sex.

29 Responses

  1. Very good points, Tracey. The headless torso has become so ubiquitous that I barely register them any more and usually move on to a more interesting cover – which is perhaps not the reaction a publisher intends in a potential reader.

    With so many stock photos reappearing over and over again on covers, I suppose decapitation seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago or whenever the trend first started. Personally I’d like to see more hand drawn covers – and not just for yaoi-type stories, and not just in the manga style. It wasn’t all that long ago that romances had painted covers. True, this is not going to be cost-effective in the long-term and it’s no doubt cheaper to use photoshopped images, but it would be nice to see something different for a change.

  2. Great post Tracey.

    I have blogged many times about cover art and its effect on book sales. As you said here, headless torsos send several messages about the book, all of which are negative. Unfortunately authors have no control over their book covers and the publicists and publishers always have the final say. I even have Ugly Covers contests every 3 or 4 months on my site to make the point that cover art is extremely important.

    Are you listening publishers?

  3. Hear hear – couldn’t agree more. There is a huge public misconception about gay love anyway – that it’s all about the sex and nothing but, and the covers do little to discourage that. You don’t seen entirely naked people on hetero covers–and lesbian romances definitely not – so why on earth do they do it on gay ones?

  4. I agree, completely. (Being one of the authors in one of the books you used as examples :) ). The covers that my co-writer makes will definitely NOT be about naked torsi/torsoi?

  5. I disagree with the statement that het romances don’t have naked people: several of mine do. I don’t find it suggests “only sex” — perhaps because I know what is between the covers, but there there will be some hotness with the romance. I much prefer that to hokey “dress-up” covers. They’re like Ren Faire fakes or American costume dramas, where everybody’s in brand new clothes and looks completely awkward too, as if they did not know how to walk in the clothes.

    That said, I think it has become a bit too ubiquitous and if about due for a change. If you look back over the history of book covers, they go in trends like this. It’s the marketing way: nobody wants to be the first to do something, but if it catches on, *everybody* copies it.

  6. While I agree with the sentiment for more detailed covers, it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve had/seen readers complain that the guys on the cover looked nothing like the characters, and it affected their reading enjoyment. The headless torso, naked or not, allows the reader’s imagination to work more freely in envisioning the characters. What’s attractive to one person is not necessarily to another. I’ve also seen readers pass on an otherwise excellent story because someone on the cover really turned them off.

    That being said, there is no denying the sameness that ends up as a result. It would be nice if there was more of a balance.

  7. @cmkempe: Well, I have to say that I haven’t seen any headless naked torsos of women adorning covers in my local bookstores; most of the covers with headless or faceless women that I’ve seen have featured women in tight or skimpy outfits and women in backless gowns.

    In any case, though, I don’t believe that a scantily-clad couple on the cover of a het romance is laboring under the same misconception as a scantily-clad couple on the cover of a male/male romance, because the majority of the public will automatically accept without a moment of hesitation that the male/female couple are deeply in love. Regrettably, there’s still a large proportion of the public that does not accept that two people of the same sex can genuinely love each other. Many people, unfortunately, still think that gay sex, by definition, has nothing to do with love.

    And, sadly, I think that the headless naked male torso on the cover of gay romances does little to convince a dubious member of the public that this is a story about love. I’m certain that two headless naked male torsos in a clinch do not.

    Gay romance is not gay erotica. It should not be packaged and marketed as if it were.

    Publishers need to take a tip from the het romances you mentioned. In those cases, the audience accepted going in that there would be love, so the cover emphasized that sex, too, was present. Well, since much of the public already thinks of “gay” in connection with “sex”…wouldn’t it make sense to stress the love?

  8. While I agree with the sentiment for more detailed covers, it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve had/seen readers complain that the guys on the cover looked nothing like the characters, and it affected their reading enjoyment. The headless torso, naked or not, allows the reader’s imagination to work more freely in envisioning the characters.

    Vivien said exactly what I was thinking.

    While I’m not a mega fan of “naked” covers I can live with them. And while the “headless torsos” tend to blur together at times it’s preferable to having characters who don’t “fit” the ones the author has portrayed, especially since attractiveness can be subjective. And some models’ “looks” can be a total turn off to potential readers.

    • @Vivien Dean and Barbara Sheridan:

      I confess I don’t understand how the guys on the cover looking or not looking like the characters would affect a reader’s enjoyment of the book. It might irk me as a reader that the cover artist turned the hero into a muscular blond when the text says that he’s a lithe redhead, but it wouldn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story; I would just figure that the cover artist goofed, that’s all.

      And as I said, headless torsos don’t do a thing to enhance my imagination. Maybe it works for some people, but it does not work for me.

      • A headless torso cover might not necessarily enhance, but it doesn’t impede, either, for a number of people. A reader’s first impression of a book is the cover, and if they automatically get a negative visceral reaction because of the way someone looks – like you and some others do with the headless torso – that lingers into their reading, if they opt to read it at all.

  9. @Kate Cotoner: I hadn’t thought of the covers being boring and easy to ignore because every publisher uses them, but you’re right. That’s another mark against the blasted things.

    I’d love to see other kinds of covers as well. Painted. Pen and ink sketches. Landscapes. There needs to be variety; after all, covers play a large part in catching the reader’s eye.

    ***

    @wave: I’ve seen your Ugly Cover Art posts, and laughed over while simultaneously pitying the poor authors. And I do wish that the publishers would listen.

    ***

    There is a huge public misconception about gay love anyway – that it’s all about the sex and nothing but, and the covers do little to discourage that. You don’t seen entirely naked people on hetero covers–and lesbian romances definitely not – so why on earth do they do it on gay ones?

    @Erastes: Honestly, I’m not sure why. I think that it might be a mixture of the aforementioned economics, cynicism (“The public already thinks it’s about sex, so let’s push the sex!”) and genuine confusion about gay romance. How many awards and contests have we seen where LGBT books, regardless of content, were automatically slotted into the erotica category? I can think of two or three right off the bat.

    ***

    @Aleksandr Voinov: Oh, dear. I’m very sorry. Which one is yours? And what would your ideal cover have looked like instead?

    • @TJ: “Forbidden Love” – my story “Deliverance” was published there. And for the record, while I’m not fond of the same old, same old headless torso, Noble Romance gave me one of the better ones I’ve seen. Even though my personal favourite element of the cover is the bundle of swords :)

  10. I’d love to see landscapes more. Something that establishes the mood of the story, not just pimp out the sex. For historicals, especially, I never think of hot men with six-pack abs as heroes of a Regency. I guess I’m more of a purist in that sense, but I’d rather see the ruins of an abbey on the cover of my historicals than a gymbot.

    Then again, I’m not a romance fan, either, so maybe I’m just being cynical. ^^;;;;

    BTW, I brought a paperback of an M/M book to work one time, one with two naked headless torsos on it. I had it covered in decorative paper to avoid embarrassment during my commute. One of my coworkers, who’s very liberal and who might (I thought) enjoy dipping into the M/M pool, asked me what the book was about, I unwrapped it while talking about the novel, and she fell over laughing for a long, long time. In the end, I couldn’t pimp out the genre if my life depended on it.

  11. I have the same reaction to nude torsos– not so much that they’re murder victims–the coloring’s usually far too healthy–but because it reduces a human being to a piece of meat. If a story’s supposed to be ROMANCE, that implies some connection beyond sex. My books don’t have enough shag-per-chapter to appeal to someone who picks up a book looking for nonstop sex.

    Running Press did an amazing job. But at one point my editor mentioned that the start-up cost for each of those books runs around $50K, and a fair chunk of that is the cover photo shoot–photographer, models, costumes…. For the average small-press publisher, the cost might might as well be measured in vital body organs. And original art…? I’ve known a few artists, and for the $50 or so that most small presses can pay, that would mean asking the artist to work for sub-minimum wage. A good artist deserves fair payment.

    What the cover art needs is a couple of enterprising, pretty guys who don’t mind kissing and embracing for a camera. There’s a guy who has gone into business for himself, selling cover art that he models. He’s done a lot of period stuff and m/f, but he doesn’t want to do gay pics… well, it’s his body, I can’t blame him for that. But it amazes me that there don’t seem to be any up-and-coming (g) young gay models who would be willing to become famous on a small scale, and make a few bucks at the same time.

    I do think there’s room for sexy covers. In fact, if there’s explicit sex in the story, I think it’s entirely appropriate, a good balance of hot to plot is an appealing combination.
    I love the cover Alex Beecroft did for Walking Wounded (after we both spent hours searching the stock photos) because it’s got a little bit of nudity, physical contact, and obscured faces without decapitation.

    Still… isn’t it great that there’s enough of a genre that we can grouse about the shortcomings of covers? Twenty years ago, the only place you’d find m/m romance was in fanzines.

  12. Well in my case I was given little choice. The title was a “quickie” which was based on the length of the story and they used only stock/already well-used images for quickies. The headless torso was the only image at the time that didn’t either have a male/female couple or a single man clearly dressed in modern attire (leather jacket and sunglasses).

    • Oh absolutely – i picked the images for the post, Shawn and there’s no disparagement to any of the books or authors intended. As TJP says, we know that usually, authors have little input or choice into their covers.

  13. Very true, Erastes. In fact, for a non-erotic het romance I did for an arm of that same publisher they did attempt to do historical clothes on the couple but got the neck gear all wrong for the man. When I pointed it out to the art department the response was pretty much tough you know what, you are lucky we tried that hard.

  14. I truly believe a lot has to do with the publisher. While I agree with the imbalance of naked male chests and headless or semi-headless torsos, I’ve seen a definite increase in trying to attempt to match the cover with the content. I think Liquid Silver Books, for instance, does a fairly good job of this and they do go in for quite a few portrait covers (heads only). For the three titles I have with them, two are part of a series and have a specific layout. None of these covers show naked torsos and my last one had bi and gay characters as main characters. The other title was a het erotic fantasy romance and also not a naked torso in sight.
    Frankly, I would prefer not to see inappropriate clothing if a publisher is unable to create the correct setting.
    Interesting topic. And love the diversity in the responses.

  15. Yes! I agree with you 100%. As an author of m/m erotica and romance, I couldn’t agree with you more. The headless torso is so overdone and cliche now it’s pathetic. I would love to have a cover that shows a little of what the story is about, not just that there are two male torsos somewhere in the book. Readers have got to be bored to tears with it as well.

    I do realize cutting costs is a big issue right now but if bored readers go somewhere else, looking for covers that inspire them to buy, something’s got to change.

    Great post!

    Hugs

  16. I’m with Vivien Dean and Barbara Sheridan above. Heck, I wish we could move away from covers with people on them entirely; it was such a pleasure that I could read the Iris Print edition of A Strong and Sudden Thaw and the PsyCop paperbacks during my commute without having to make a special cover for them! But if people must be on the cover, I’d prefer something more generic; to me the more detailed they are the more they irritate me for not matching up with my mental image of the characters (and I’d say they often look even *more* cheesy than the ubiquitous naked torso).

    Still, the naked male torso is awfully tired by now. There are plenty of ways to be creative on the cheap without using the same old formula.

  17. Though I may have written cinically about romance warping history in my Advent piece, I fully sympathise with the complaint that headless torso cover photos warp romance. Alex had a wonderful cover for one of her novels with two costumed guys in the recognizable after cabin of an eighteenth century ship. I was very pleased when my publisher accepted my suggestion for a nude (including head) in Rodin’s The Thinker pose sitting on a pile of books for Here, And always Have Been, because even though some of my stories are erotic, my hope was to stress the long continuous history of gay relationships.

    And I do agree that drawn or painted covers, while more expensive, are often more romantic.

  18. One more thought. Mark Probst’s authors are lucky in the fine evocative covers that Cheyenne Publications has acheived.

    • Three cheers for Alex Bee… I think her Ransom cover was as good a match to the story (or better) as the Tangled Web image.

      • Lee and Alex– somehow I missed it. It is gorgeous. Makes me want to go to sea–and I’m terrified of water. Our Ms. Beecroft is becoming quite diversified in her talent!

        Alex — Did you do the covers for Eye of the Storm and Winds of Change as well? I see Cheyenne published them. If so, are you the official cover artist for Cheyenne. What are the titles of the covers you’ve done in addition to Lee’s?

        Re: “covers with neddid men sell to heterosexual women” comment by Linden Bay’s artist… I guess the answer to that comment is: “Not always.”

      • I also can’t spell. In my comment I referred to the “neddid” men. While they may indeed be “neddid” (whatever that might be) I meant “nekkid.” Now I’ve started something. Publishers will be massing to decide what “neddid” men look like and for the next five years the covers will be filled with headless neddid men with … whatever neddid men have.

  19. A thought: the covers of torso sans head is a reflection of a good 75% of the photographs men post on dating sites and such. Most men when posting do not includ their heads in the shots, in the name of discretion. And might it be possible that this visual has somehow crossed over into the cover scene?

    • No, not really likely. I wrestled with the Linden Bay art director over this, many times, and her answer was always that she was angling for the statistical most-likely-to-buy customer.. It’s the numbers–covers with nekkid men sell to heterosexual women. Who’d’a thunk it?

  20. Some of my favorite covers are on Patricia Nell Warren’s books, especially The Wild Man, The Front Runner, and One is the Sun. You can see them on Amazon. Because Patricia has her own publishing company she can do the kinds of covers she believes say the most about each story. Above, Ken Craigside called attention to Mark Probst’s Cheyenne Publications, which also has very nice covers. And Steve Berman of Lethe let me, and probably other authors, have input into the covers. I don’t know how common that is, but probably not very.

    I almost didn’t read Captain’s Surrender (I didn’t know Alex at the time) because of the dopey cover that the first publisher put on it. On historical covers, gay or straight, Super Abs look downright anachronistic. Not even a blacksmith or a farmhand would have had six-packs unless he did 200 crunches and dozens of isolated muscle group reps in between walloping red-hot horseshoes on an anvil or doing chores. Arthur Jones didn’t invent the Nautilus Exercise Machine until around 1970. In the not-so-distant-past there wasn’t a gym on every corner, and I think the hard-working men (and women) of the past would have roflhao at the idea.

    The naked torsos work well for those books that are primarily erotica, apparently, though if it’s historical erotica I still wish they’d ditch the six-pack look. A strong man is just as strong and attractive if he actually looks real. But for regular historical romance, gay or otherwise … no Super-Abs. With or without a head. Please.

    Well, I’m just one person, speaking only for myself. Obviously a lot of readers like the covers or else don’t care. And if the covers work, publishers will continue to use them until they start to negatively affect sales, which just makes good business sense.

  21. I can only envy authors that have a publisher to take care of covers for them. I like looking at sculptural naked male torsos, but I do agree they’re a cliche and don’t show anything about the story. A cover ought to communicate something about the contents.

    Fortunately, I was able to purchase rights to a historical image of ships in combat for Pirates of the Narrow Seas, so those of you who are tired of the pretty torsos and badly done costumes will have something else to look at instead :)

    The first book should be in print and for sale in February. Meanwhile, you can read them for free online.

    ~K~

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