More on Gender Disparity and Book Covers

So delving further into the question Cora Buhlert left a long and interesting comment that I thought I’d quote in full here:

SFF is the last bastion of the custom illustrated cover in adult fiction. Most other genres have moved to photographic covers using stock photos. And even SFF is moving that way, partly due to the rise of self-publishing, since self-publishers often cannot afford custom illustration. But even trade publishers are relying more and more on stock art (and there are a few covers here I think are based on stock art), because stock photos and stock art are cheaper than commissioning an artist. e.g. You can find a lot of decent exploding spaceship type CGI images, if you browse the stock art sites. And with stock art, the image itself usually comes before the artist (though I know at least one excellent SF stock artist who’s female).

Now the question is, why are there so few female SFF artists, especially since the art directors at the publishing houses are often women, e.g. Lauren Panepinto or Irene Gallo. This raises a few additional questions: Are there fewer women commercial artists in general? Do women illustrators tend to work in other areas, e.g. children’s books, comics, greeting cards, fashion illustration, etc…? Are women pressured to work in those areas or do they work there willingly? Is there a conscious or subconscious bias against female artists at publishing houses?

Phantom is correct that publishers prefer to work with established artists, which is e.g. why Bob Eggleton or Larry Elmore or Michael Whelan (who doesn’t appear here) have been around for decades. The question is, are those established artists more likely to be men and if so, why? One possible explanation I can think of is that cover art was often supposed to appeal to men, so maybe male artists were believed to be more likely to produce art that appeals to men. Though pulp artist Margaret Brundage and her scantily clad damsels in distress would belie that idea.

For example, the ridiculous clinch covers featuring a half-naked man engaged in a torrid embrace with a woman about to fall out of a dress of dubious historical accuracy, that were common on romance novel covers into the 1990s, were never actually supposed to appeal to the overwhelmingly female readers, but to the overwhelmingly male truck drivers working at the distribution companies, who stacked paperback spinner racks at drugstores, gorcery stores, etc…. The distributors and their truck drivers are long gone, but their taste continues to influence book covers via established artists that have been around for a long time. Similarly, the tendency for YA novels to feature a girl in a ball gown on the cover, even if no ball gown ever features in the novels, was supposedly due to the (female) YA buyer at Barnes & Noble really liking those covers. Even Baen’s famously awful covers must appeal to someone. And interestingly, I see a lot of self-published science fiction authors attempting to imitate Baen’s covers rather than the IMO much better covers of Tor or Orbit or Roc or DAW.

Besides, there are several established and popular female SFF artists, e.g. Julie Dillon, Galen Dara, Cynthia Sheppard, Kinuko Kraft, Rowena Morrill, but for some reason none of their covers appear here.

The last point, in particular, raises an issue with having an award for book covers. If this was a serious award (e.g. if there was a Hugo for Best Cover rather than Best Artist), then by not looking at a body of work, the nominees are likely to skew more male – which wouldn’t be good. The Hugo awards “Best Professional Artist” and while I’ve found that an annoying category, it is possibly a better option than “Best Cover”.

Also, by way of comparison, I looked for some different kind of data here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/issue/best-of-2015/section/picture-books/?page=1

I looked at picture books primarily because illustrators are credited, often with equal billing as the author (or the artist is the author). As picture books are aimed at children, we might expect to find more women represented because of traditional gender roles and stereotypes (maybe).

I didn’t chase down the bios of these artists, and so just did a quick count using traditional female names. If in doubt, I counted the name as maybe not a woman.

Of the 62 names I counted, 28 had female names. The number of women artists listed is probably a bit higher. Either way, it looks like a very plausible 50/50 split.

That means we can throw away as implausible the idea that women just don’t pursue book illustration as a career or that women somehow can’t cope with the publishing industry or a whole bunch of other  nonsense. I’ve also been looking for data on numbers of art-directors at publishing houses that are women but without much success. I think many may be women but that is just an impression I’ve got from a few notable names.

Perhaps more plausibly, is whether SF/F art in general has skewed male. That sounds plausible but rests on stereotypes of fandom being inherently male that are dubious. Alternatively, slow turnover of artists into the field may have resulted in the artists publishers turn to being predominately male because of conditions that existed 20-30 years ago.

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23 comments

  1. thephantom182

    “That means we can throw away as implausible the idea that women just don’t pursue book illustration as a career or that women somehow can’t cope with the publishing industry or a whole bunch of other nonsense.”

    You forgot the possibility that there’s no money in SF art because the genre is slowly being strangled to death, so all the smart and productive people are out doing other things that pay. One need only view the Worldcon Hugo Awards show to know that SF Fandom SMOF-style skews really f-ing old and Super Lefty. And hefty. Very, very hefty.

    Institutional sexism is looking increasingly unlikely, old son. That horse is dead, it ain’t going to get up and pull yore little red wagon.

    My personal suspicion, based on my personal dealings with them, is that Big 5 publishers of SF/F are such a colossal pain in the ass to deal with that no one bothers. As a prospective author, book in hand mind you, I’ve been welcomed with all the joy and indulgence of a skunk at a lady’s garden party. Big 5 are going out of their way to make Indy a huge success. If you’re not In, you’re not getting In.

    And this is with all my awesome white male privilege, I hasten to add. It was intact and powerfully charged with awesome, last I checked. No red carpet, or offer of champagne and caviar while I wait, I was most put out.

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    • Cora

      Thanks for the highlight, Camestros.

      First of all, I don’t buy the “SF is dying” meme. You may not like much of the SF published these days, but plenty of people do like it. For example, I find a lot more SFF to enjoy nowadays than approx. 10 years ago. Besides, very traditional SF and old-fashioned crash boom bang space opera is still being published for those who like that sort of thing.

      Even if we assume that traditionally published science fiction is dying, I don’t see why this should affect SFF artists. Cover art is paid for upfront. It doesn’t matter how well the book does. And I own a bunch of books which – at least judging by the lack of sequels – didn’t do well in spite of obviously pricy cover art by expensive artists.

      Going indie makes a lot of sense for writers (and I’m doing it myself). It doesn’t make that much sense for artists, at least not for the top SFF artists, because not a whole lot of indie writers can pay the amount of money a top artist gets per cover. Julie Dillon and Stephan Martiniere sometimes do indie books (Julie Dillon does Andrea K. Höst’s covers and Stephan Martiniere has done one for Ted Cross), but I have never seen an indie book with a John Harris or Dan Dos Santos or Chris McGrath cover.

      That said, the growth of indie publishing and the need for covers offers new opportunities for up and coming artists of every gender,

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    • Aaron

      One need only view the Worldcon Hugo Awards show to know that SF Fandom SMOF-style skews really f-ing old and Super Lefty. And hefty. Very, very hefty.

      One would have had to be there to assess that. I was there. It was not “really fucking old”, or “hefty”, even if one only assesses the individuals who took the stage or won and ignores the audience entirely. Is Hao Jingfang “really f-ing old”? Is she “hefty”? How about Nnedi Okorafor? N.K. Jemisin? How about Naomi Kritzer? Are you going to claim she is really f-ing old or hefty? Lynne Thomas? Michael Damien Thomas? Do you even look at any evidence before you spew idiocy onto the internet?

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      • thephantom182

        “One would have had to be there to assess that.”

        One does get reports from the scene, you know. Also, the camera does scan the audience periodically Aaron. Which octogenarian scooter pilot were you?

        Compare and contrast with Comic Con. Kids cosplaying as Deadpool, Harley Quinn and the Joker, and looking good doing it.

        Somewhat different energy, you might say.

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      • Dr. Addison

        SF Fandom SMOF-style skews really f-ing old and Super Lefty. And hefty. Very, very hefty
        Which octogenarian scooter pilot were you?

        Ageism, sizeism, and ableism. Keep going, Phantom. It’s a good look for you.

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      • Aaron

        One does get reports from the scene, you know. Also, the camera does scan the audience periodically Aaron. Which octogenarian scooter pilot were you?

        Scanning a darkened theater does give an excellent view of the attendees, doesn’t it? I’m reasonably confident at this point that you actually haven’t made any kind of actual assessment, and are just running with a stereotype.

        I was in the first row of the second second, surrounded by many people of all ages, ranging from teenagers to older individuals. unlike you, I was actually there, and know from direct observation that your assessment of Worldcon attendees as “reall f-ing old” and “very hefty” is entirely off-base. You are, once again, talking completely out of your ass. Does it ever bother you to be shown to be completely wrong almost every time you open your mouth?

        Compare and contrast with Comic Con. Kids cosplaying as Deadpool, Harley Quinn and the Joker, and looking good doing it.

        If you had actually been at Worldcon, you would have seen many younger cosplayers in attendance. The fact that Worldcon has attendees whose ages is not a weakness of the convention. When those “kids cosplaying” grow up, where do you think they will be?

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      • thephantom182

        Dr. Addison said: “Ageism, sizeism, and ableism. Keep going, Phantom. It’s a good look for you.”

        Don’t forget racism. I’m sure I said something racist somewhere in there. If not, I apologize for the oversight.

        Aaron said: “Scanning a darkened theater does give an excellent view of the attendees, doesn’t it? I’m reasonably confident at this point that you actually haven’t made any kind of actual assessment, and are just running with a stereotype.”

        I’m reasonably confident at this point you’d call me a bigot for saying water is wet, Aaron. Bottom line here old son, I see no evidence to support a contention of “institutional sexism”, using those words as they are defined in the dictionary. As for Worldcon, I’ve seen two Hugo Award ceremonies televised. Reports from the field by The Puppy Ninja Brigade include news that the crows skews old, chubby and Lefty. You wouldn’t have seen them of course, they’re ninjas.

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      • Aaron

        I’m reasonably confident at this point you’d call me a bigot for saying water is wet

        I only say that when you say things that are bigoted. You might notice that I haven’t said that in this thread. I’ve merely pointed out how completely ignorant you are on the subject you are opining upon.

        Bottom line here old son, I see no evidence to support a contention of “institutional sexism”, using those words as they are defined in the dictionary.

        Given that your track record of observation includes not being able to actually read the articles you link to, I’m pretty unconvinced that you’d notice anything resembling institutional sexism if it hit you on the head with a crowbar.

        As for Worldcon, I’ve seen two Hugo Award ceremonies televised. Reports from the field by The Puppy Ninja Brigade include news that the crows skews old, chubby and Lefty.

        So you did see people like Hao Jingfang, Tananarive Due, Lynne Thomas, Naomi Krizter and the dozens of other people involved in the ceremonies whose presence effectively counters your claims about the Worldcon crowd. Here’s a hint: They don’t seem out of place at the convention. They fit right in appearance-wise.

        The Puppy Ninja Brigade appears to have just as astute observation skills as you do. I’ve actually been there. There are some old attendees, but claiming that the attendees are “really f-ing old” and “very hefty”, or even “super lefty” requires a filter of unreality that only an incredibly ideologically motivated Puppy can wear. As I pointed out, the specific examples of people who won awards and took to the stage at the Hugo ceremony in 2015 and 2016 disproves your claim in this regard. You’ve spent a lot of time making general statements and studiously avoiding responding to the actual evidence. But that’s pretty much par for the course for you – facts are too hard for you to deal in, so you resort to wild rhetoric instead. That’s why you have a track record of being wrong on every subject you opine upon.

        Going back to something you said in your original comment:

        As a prospective author, book in hand mind you, I’ve been welcomed with all the joy and indulgence of a skunk at a lady’s garden party.

        If your writing skills on display in comments and blog posts are any indication, you’re not getting a warm welcome because your book sucks. You might want to consider that your reception is the result of the fact that everything you write is so wildly ludicrous and poorly written that no one takes you seriously at the Big 5 because you simply have no talent for writing.

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      • thephantom182

        “If your writing skills on display in comments and blog posts are any indication, you’re not getting a warm welcome because your book sucks.”

        Thank you for that vote of confidence, Aaron. After all, if you hate it, sight unseen, then I’m probably on the right track for the mass of the audience I’m addressing. A cheering thought. ~:) Most kind of you.

        But the problem I’m finding is not that people are rejecting the book. The problem is no one replies at all. Agents, publishers, there is complete radio silence. It is reminiscent of trying to get a response from US Customs and Immigration. Communications and papers go in, nothing ever comes out. After a guy ignores five introduction letters, I’m not spending the time to send out the first 100 pages. I can’t imagine artists are getting a different reception.

        This is not the behavior of an industry that wants my business, or anyone’s. So it is no surprise that enterprising artists both male and female alike are applying their talents elsewhere. This certainly more than accounts for Camestros’s numerical anomaly. They have their stable of regulars, and they never go outside it.

        Incidentally, your effusive praise has convinced me that a pen name is very definitely the way to go. Another gift, and I thank you again.

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      • Aaron

        After all, if you hate it, sight unseen, then I’m probably on the right track for the mass of the audience I’m addressing.

        We’ve seen you write. Saying that your style is that of an ignorant fool would be an insult to ignorant fools. You’ve demonstrated time and again that you have no clue about anything, and are obnoxious when braying your ignorance to the world.

        The problem is no one replies at all. Agents, publishers, there is complete radio silence. It is reminiscent of trying to get a response from US Customs and Immigration. Communications and papers go in, nothing ever comes out. After a guy ignores five introduction letters, I’m not spending the time to send out the first 100 pages.

        Why should they care about an unpublished guy whose only public track record is being a loud and proud loon who doesn’t actually know anything? The fact that you jump from the fact that no one cares about you and your book to “the problem is the industry” and not “maybe my book isn’t that appealing” just reinforces the fact that you are a complete fool.

        This is not the behavior of an industry that wants my business, or anyone’s.

        Its an industry that doesn’t want to employ you to be sure. Somehow hundreds and even thousands of other writers are able to get their work published, but because you’ve been ignored, it is the industry that is a problem. Do you even hear yourself?

        Incidentally, your effusive praise has convinced me that a pen name is very definitely the way to go.

        Sure, that’s your problem. You’re not using a pen name.

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      • thephantom182

        “We’ve seen you write. Saying that your style is that of an ignorant fool would be an insult to ignorant fools. You’ve demonstrated time and again that you have no clue about anything, and are obnoxious when braying your ignorance to the world.”

        I am very definitely on the right track. Thanks, Aaron! You’re a mensch.

        “Why should they care about an unpublished guy whose only public track record is being a loud and proud loon who doesn’t actually know anything? The fact that you jump from the fact that no one cares about you and your book to “the problem is the industry” and not “maybe my book isn’t that appealing” just reinforces the fact that you are a complete fool.”

        Well Aaron, if it was just me saying this I’d agree with you. However this is becoming a common theme among new writers in SF and in many genres. Agents are not agenting, publishers are not publishing anybody new. The day of the rejection letter is over, now is the Black Hole of no response.

        That’s not the usual thing. You send a prospectus and a resume to the HR department of any Fortune 500 firm, you get at least a polite “we don’t want any” from all of them.

        In the publishing industry, you get bupkis. I hear this commonly in SF/F, mystery, all sorts of places. No returned emails, no phone calls, nothing. You send a letter, a manuscript, it vanishes. That’s not a good business practice, to put it mildly.

        That means something. It means these companies are under serious financial stress, and they don’t have people doing the stuff they normally would do. There is no ‘polite rejection letter’ minion manning the slush pile. There is no slush pile. They have a stable of people, and they don’t take on new ones.

        Or, you could believe what Camestros says, that these companies are all just fine, and they’re not employing women artists because SEXISM!!! and he knows because he counted names.

        But tell me again about the ignorant braying thing. That was fun. ~:) Did you whack the keyboard really hard when you typed it?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aaron

        Well Aaron, if it was just me saying this I’d agree with you. However this is becoming a common theme among new writers in SF and in many genres. Agents are not agenting, publishers are not publishing anybody new. The day of the rejection letter is over, now is the Black Hole of no response.

        And yet somehow, lots of new authors are being published on a regular basis. They aren’t publishing the kind of stories you seem to like, so you may have missed them, but there are new authors being published every year. In fact, there is a convention that has an award specifically for new genre fiction authors that has never had any trouble finding nominees. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Campbell Award?

        I have, within arm’s reach of where I am sitting at my desk, no fewer than seven books that were published in the last two years by authors publishing their first novel. Just a few steps away, I have about a dozen more books by authors who made had their first novel published within the last two to three years. Your whining about how you and the handful of people you know can’t get published isn’t evidence of anything except the fact that you and your buddies can’t get published. The actual evidence shows that new authors are published all the time.

        That’s not the usual thing. You send a prospectus and a resume to the HR department of any Fortune 500 firm, you get at least a polite “we don’t want any” from all of them.

        Actually, it is the usual thing. You send a prospectus and a resume to the HR department of a Fortune 500 company, and if they aren’t interested, you’ll likely never hear back from them. Your ignorance on this point isn’t surprising, but it is yet more evidence that you have no clue what you are talking about.

        But tell me again about the ignorant braying thing.

        Well, you just did it again in that comment.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Cora

        I still fail to see what the age and body shape of WorldCon attendants has to do with anything. In the photos I’ve seen, I see a mix of age ranges, And the Hugo winners of past years have mostly been in their 30s and 40s with a few outliers in both direction. Which isn’t that different from the age range of the outspoken sad and rabid puppies, who seem to be somewhere in their 30s to 50s.

        Never mind that the attendants we see in photos of WorldCon are not actually the whole Hugo electorate. There are also a lot of people who have supporting memberships.

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      • thephantom182

        “I still fail to see what the age and body shape of WorldCon attendants has to do with anything.”

        It doesn’t, I’m just taunting Aaron. Ssh, or he’ll figure it out. ~:D hee!

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      • Aaron

        It doesn’t, I’m just taunting Aaron.

        It is funny that you think me giving you plenty of rope to hang yourself is “taunting” me. You are so far inside your bubble of proud ignorance that you don’t even realize how ridiculous you look to most people.

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      • thephantom182

        Aaron said: ” have, within arm’s reach of where I am sitting at my desk, no fewer than seven books that were published in the last two years by authors publishing their first novel. Just a few steps away, I have about a dozen more books by authors who made had their first novel published within the last two to three years.”

        Wow, almost twenty books? That’s a bunch, Aaron. Last two or three years you say? Boy, you showed me, eh?

        And yet, didn’t there use to be -two- large bookstore chains in the USA and now there’s only one? Didn’t there use to be mom and pop bookstores all over the place and now there’s not? Isn’t your favorite hangout Pile 777 reporting multiple closings of legendary bookstores in California, New York, etc., another place every few months? Places that have been around two or three generations, suddenly cashing their chips and closing up?

        Isn’t the Indy space expanding very rapidly indeed, and putting monetary pressure on all those publishers and remaining retail outlets? Don’t I recall hearing that Amazon is dictating terms to large publishers, and they are getting all upset about it?

        And didn’t an Indy book win a Dragon this year?

        Gee, maybe I imagined all that. It’s hard to tell, inside my bubble of proud ignorance. So many people helping me out by yelling that I’m ridiculous, but this news of hardship in the publishing biz just keeps seeping in around the door seals, you know?

        It’s a bit puzzling, Aaron. But tell me about the ignorant braying thing again, that’ll cheer me up.

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    • Aaron

      Wow, almost twenty books? That’s a bunch, Aaron. Last two or three years you say? Boy, you showed me, eh?

      That’s almost literally within arm’s reach. By my count, I own 143 books published since the start of 2015, and of those about a third are by authors whose debut novel was in that time frame. That’s just my personal library. There are literally hundreds of new authors published every year. Your claim that book publishers aren’t publishing new authors is contradicted by easily available evidence.

      And yet, didn’t there use to be -two- large bookstore chains in the USA and now there’s only one?

      There are currently two. Do you not know the book market in the US well enough to know that?

      Didn’t there use to be mom and pop bookstores all over the place and now there’s not?

      There are still plenty of mom and pop bookstores. In fact they are experiencing a resurgence: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/independent-bookstores-add-a-new-chapter/2011/08/12/gIQAfMh9LJ_story.html and http://bigthink.com/age-of-engagement/a-rebirth-for-independent-book-stores

      And the largest internet business is primarily a bookseller, and that bookseller has started building brick and mortar bookstores as well. Your point?

      Don’t I recall hearing that Amazon is dictating terms to large publishers, and they are getting all upset about it?

      Wal-Mart does this to all of their suppliers. If every business line in the world in trouble?

      And didn’t an Indy book win a Dragon this year?

      An irrelevant point until the data regarding how many people voted for the award is released. And, of course, pretty much every other book category was won by traditionally published books.

      Gee, maybe I imagined all that. It’s hard to tell, inside my bubble of proud ignorance.

      You sure don’t seem to know much. Again. Perhaps if you bothered to do some minimal research before running your mouth, you wouldn’t end up looking so foolish all the time.

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      • thephantom182

        “Perhaps if you bothered to do some minimal research before running your mouth, you wouldn’t end up looking so foolish all the time.”

        Perhaps. But I think it more likely that if I contend water is wet, you will find “reasons” it is not, and rage on that I am a fool for saying so. Oh, and a racist too. That seems to be your pattern.

        Thus I go forth, a happy fool enclosed in my bubble of proud ignorance, to bray my folly. The glowing, radioactive wreckage of my life making a trail behind me, a warning to all.

        Quoth brave Aaron: “Shun ye the Phantom, lest his folly taint thy mind and send thee crashing down to perdition and despair!”

        But then he tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and face-planted in an ornamental cholla. Alas, poor Aaron. We knew he’d swell.

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  2. Cora

    I wouldn’t actually be surprised if SFF cover artists traditionally skewed male, because the SFF audience was believed to be overwhelmingly male. If you look at SFF art from past decades – any SFF art book will do; personally I use Taschen’s – you’ll find maybe 8 or 9 male names for every women and the woman in question is probably either Rowena Morrill or Margaret Brundage. If you look at the actual artwork, you’ll find a lot of “brawny barbarian rescues well-endowed, but scantily clad damsel from monster” type images. Now personally, I don’t mind such images, though I prefer sensibly dressed characters and more realistic body shapes. However, a lot of women, particularly in the US, are strongly turned off by such images, even if they are drawn by women such as Margaret Brundage or Rowena Morrill.

    I remember when the US army and allies invaded Iraq and took over Saddam Hussein’s many palaces, they found a couple of original Rowena Morrill paintings in some of them (apparently, Saddam Hussein was a fan). I clearly remember some pundit claiming that Saddam Hussein’s preference for what he called “sexualised S&M imagery” (really bog-standard 1970s SFF covers) showed that he was a sadistic monster. I also remember a particularly awful Law and Order episode, where the fact that a suspect collected pulp cover artwork (featuring artwork by classic pulp artists like Rudolph Belarski and Raphael de Soto) was used as evidence to prove that he was a sadistic necrophiliac murderer. Because clearly only necrophiliac suspects could like that sort of art. So there is also a lot of shame attached – particularly in the rather prudish US – to the mere act of liking older SFF art, which will probably put off many prispective artists as well. Because who wants to be called a necrophiliac sadist on TV?

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