(NOTE: This post is not meant as a criticism of anyone in specific, or anyone at all. It was written with the intention of starting a conversation.)
This is getting ridiculous, y'all.
(Disclaimer: I am white.)
(Other disclaimer: I am not a cover designer, nor do I even pretend to be.)
So, I was asked/I volunteered as a tribute to help the lovely Christina over at Reader of Fictions by picking my favorite cover from last week's Cover Snark. While scrolling through the covers, I was overwhelmed with white people almost kissing. Or kissing. Or smiling sexily at the camera. Or abs, because obviously all we need from a guy is neck down. No need to bother with things like faces and brains when there are abs and other things we can gawk at. I picked a favorite cover (Brutal Youth), and emailed back Christina with a little rant about all the PDA.
An the more I thought about it, the more prevalent the trend seemed to be- the amount of WP(A)K (as I'm shortening it to now) that I've been seeing recently is just short of overwhelming. But a lot of times, we think things are SUPER HUGE deals, and are all over the place and yada yada yada, and in reality, it's all just in our head. So I decided to do a little research- was I actually just overreacting? Were there really not that many, and I just thought there were? Was I blowing this whole thing entirely out of proportion?
Well, in general, the WP(A)K cover issue occurs in books shelved as romance. Which makes sense, because if your book is about the evolution of magma, having people making out on the cover is going to be false advertising. So off I headed to Amazon to check some bestseller lists. I find that bestseller lists help you get a good idea of what is available in the current market. Now, granted, these were the numbers for when I did research, and they could have changed.
The top 100 bestselling romance novels had 44 covers that either featured shirtless men or white people who were kissing or almost kissing. That's a little less than half, which is a LOT, but not nearly as big of a thing as it seemed to me. And so I decided to take a little visit to the New Adult & College section, and see what was going on over there.
Y'all. I could not make up these numbers if I tried. Out of the top 100 best selling books in the New Adult & College section (which is an entirely different conversation), EIGHTY SEVEN had shirtless men or WP(A)K. Eighty. Freaking. Seven. That means that there were 13 that didn't feature abs or people making out.
Honestly, I don't even know what to do about this. It bothers me on so many different levels, and nothing I can think of makes any of this better.
Okay, I know that not all New Adult books written are romance novels. But that seems to be predominantly the genre that they are written in. And yes, they don't ALL have lots and lots of sex, but that seems to be what is selling the most, as seen by bestselling lists.
So, if we're taking bestselling lists into account, here's what seems to be the formula for a NA bestseller:
Troubled Girl + Troubled Bad Boy + Lots of Sex (that seems to solve said troubled pasts) + Sexy WP(A)K/White Boy Abs Cover.
(Y'all. I've ranted about this before, and I'm kind of frustrated that I have to do it again. For a lot of people in the "New Adult" age category, that is not real life. It's not. Do a lot of us have stuff we have to deal with left over from childhood? Yup. Is there sex/romantic involvement with someone else involved? Not always. Does having sex with someone SOLVE YOUR CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS?
But that's not even the point here. Sorry. It was just a little side rant.)
As we were saying. Book covers.
If we're going to go with the research that I've done (and no, it is not as extensive as it could be), it seems to be that the way to get readers to pick up your New Adult book is if there are White People (Almost) Kissing, or A Sexy Shirtless White Man (or his abs) on the cover. Even if your book is not a book that has lots of white people kissing or a sexy white man who walks around shirtless a lot.
I didn't really understand what was going on- was this trying to get regular romance readers to read NA books? I meandered my way over to the Top Romance Novels Of All Time list on Goodreads, figuring that would be a good snapshot of romance novel covers. There are a lot less WP(A)K covers than I expected to see, which now makes sense. (As opposed to the New Adult lists, which all feature significantly more WP(A)K on the covers.) Like lots of other things, romance novel covers go through fads. While the grand tradition of romance novels is to have a nice couple making out (or if historical fiction, to have some bodice ripping action), many covers have moved past that and a lot of them feature landscapes now. So where is the current WP(A)K/Shirtless Ab thing coming from?
I headed back to Amazon, and found the bestselling list for erotica.
Seventy nine out of the top 100 bestselling erotica books featured WP(A)K and/or Shirtless Abs.
Can we discuss this for a minute? There are more WP(A)K/Shirtless Ab covers on the New Adult bestselling list than there are on the Erotica bestseller list.
I can not even begin to tell you how frustrated and upset this bit of information made me. As a New Adult writer who hears the whole "New Adult is just Young Adult with more sex" a LOT, having that bit of information backed up by covers that look like they're right off the Erotica bestseller list is not helping anything.
One of the issues New Adult is having as a category is breaking out of the rut of contemporary college romance that it's fallen into. Now, I can't blame anyone in specific for that- firstly, there are a lot of people from the ages of 18 to 26 that are enrolled in some institution for higher education. Secondly, lots of them have romantic relationships during these years. But with the vast majority of NA currently published follows the same basic story line, it's becoming harder and harder for people outside the NA community to take it seriously. At some point, the market will reach saturation, and then we're all going to be in a lot of trouble.
I do understand that one of the reasons that a lot of NA covers are the way they are is because a lot of the original New Adult covers were bought from cover artists who worked with erotic novels. I understand that it's easier to make a cover with a picture of two people kissing because it's less work for the rest of the cover. I also understand that since there's this misconception that Fifty Shades Of Gray is NA, there's going to be a crossover of readers who tend to read erotica.
The issue is that the readers of New Adult are not only people who read a lot of erotic novels, and while they are a vocal group, and quite enthusiastic readers, they are not the only ones reading NA. Granted, there are people who read across all genres and categories who read both erotic novels and New Adult.
There are a heck of a lot of people who are between the ages of 18 and 26. And one of the reasons the category of New Adult began was to give these people voices. To give their experiences voices, and to validate the fact that there is an in-between stage that's not teenager and not adult. They are not all white. They are not all in college. They are not all actively having lots of sex. They are not all white, for the love of God. They are not all straight.
And they deserve to be depicted as such, both on the inside and outside of books.
It's not like that information is shocking to most of us. The question is, though so many people want nothing more for the NA category to grow beyond contemporary romance, and to have covers that accurately portray the stories written within, why are there still abs and white people making out all over the place?
Listen, y'all. If writers just wrote and published for funsies, this would all be a different story. If money didn't play a role in the publishing of books, every part of books would be entirely selfish. An author wanted a WP(A)K cover? Sure! An author wanted to make the cover out of construction paper and glitter? Pfft. Go ahead. Don't let me stop you, yo.
But the bottom line is, people who write books, for the most part, expect to make some amount of money on their work. And in order to do so, they need to sell copies of their books.
As we've seen, books with sexy covers sell. And the only way to really prove that we want diversity on the outside of our NA books and on the inside of NA books is to say something.
To put our money where our mouths are, and buy the kinds of books we want to read. To promote the things we love. To have covers that (dare I say it?) don't have WP(A)K. That may have different people (almost) kissing. Two boys. Two girls. Guys that are fully clothed, or maybe even covers without anyone on them. There are infinite possibilities when it comes to book covers, and we shouldn't limit ourselves to what has been done before.
I love New Adult fiction. New Adult non-fiction, and memoirs and mysteries and thrillers and romance and comedy and science fiction and everything. I am saying this all out of the immense love and respect I have for the authors and readers of New Adult.
There is more to being 18 to 26 than making out with someone else. There is more to being 18-26 than the abs of a gym monkey. There is more to being 18-26 than sex. There are people who are 18 to 26 who are not white straight cisgendered folk. There are people who are 18 to 26 who are waiting to see themselves represented accurately in literature, both inside the book and on the covers. And as an emerging category, New Adult has the potential of finally being the place that diversity is accepted and encouraged.
There is more that we can put on covers than White People (Almost) Kissing. There is more we can put inside our books than just White People (Almost) Kissing. The world is a wonderful and diverse place, and our stories should reflect that.