Big Boobs and Book Covers: A Critique of Fantasy Art

When I began soliciting artists interesting in creating the covers for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree, I asked the artists for a rendering of Mhari, an elfe (politically correct term for female elf in Odessiya) who would become the first teacher of my protagonist, Seanchai.

I explained that she was old but vibrant, tough but wise, and I waited for the examples. Every one of the four artists produced sexy, buxom female warriors. I realize that sex sells ­– I considered moving to T-Mobile because of the woman in the advert not her motorbike, helicopter or the beautiful color purple (okay I am partial to motorbikes and purple, but lets stay on topic…) ­­– but these are YA books.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

Apparently, the use of beautiful women on covers of YA Fantasy and Sci Fi are nothing new. This article follows the noble battle by author, Jim Hines.

Hines produced a series of great photos in which he poses in similar positions to scantily-clad women on book covers. Mr. Hines wasn’t against showing some skin himself.

_65356744_scifi“The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it,” Hines says. “I think posing has made people see it again – you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it.”

Hines began posting his poses at the beginning of 2012 and they quickly became the most visited. This gave him the idea to create a series to raise money for research to help fight Aicardi Syndrome, a genetic disorder, and he has raised over $15,000 to date.


The issue of depicting women in fantasy art in a sexual way is nothing new and, in fact, quite rampant in role playing games like D&D. Tracey Hurley, co-founder of Prismatic Art Collection, has commented: “Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover, … Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women’s sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It’s constraining for both men and women.”

I find this really depressing. I guess I expected something different from a genre free of stereotypical constraints because it creates its own reality. This is all the more disappointing when dealing with Young Adult literature because of the target audience. I wonder whether a scantily-dressed, thin, and cleavage-heavy woman might also be a turn-off for young women, conscious of their own body-type. Add to this that most of the women portrayed are white and I am left wondering if this explains why less teenage women read fantasy. I also think it explains the success of The Hunger Games, though the promo photos for the movie also follow the concept.

imgresIt is not enough to just thrust a sword in her hand or dress her in a chain mail bikini to project strong images of women, nor is the cover of the book enough to reinforce strong, positive female values.

While my protagonist is a male, I made sure to add strong female characters, who are indispensable to his quest. I believe I showed them as more than equal warriors, each with her own special character. I needed prodding with this, I admit, and even changed Seanchai’s teacher from a man to a woman. Interestingly, it opened up a number of exciting avenues.

Authors are powerful influencers in the community, and even more so when writing for a Young Adult market. But power comes with responsibility and we have a role to play in shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators.

Even though many of us write about different worlds and kingdoms, let’s help make this world a better place.


Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of GalbriethThe First Decree is due out in March 2013.

8 comments on “Big Boobs and Book Covers: A Critique of Fantasy Art

  1. lisafender says:

    I love the last picture, it’s awesome! I like the look of the woods feel instead of the others. They are too WOW. Who ever did the art for Katness is a great artist!

  2. Evelyne says:

    When perusing the book shelves in a book store, there are several factors that can catch my attention with a first glance : the author’s name, the title and the cover. If one of those three attract me in some way, I pick up the book to read the back to see if the story is something for me.
    Of these three factors, there is only one that can make me put the book back before I even get to read the summary. You can probably guess the answer: it’s the cover.
    When I see one of those scantily-clad women with a big bosom on the cover, it goes right back to the shelf.
    This because such covers usually star on only two types of books:
    1. the type meant for men only
    2. the kind of one in a dozen stories. You know: a strong female character has to save the world from evil while being torn by her passionat love for a (or two if she’s lucky) hot super-masculine man. Not necessarily a bad story, but after reading the same concept with vampires, werewolves (or hybrids) and mages, etc it gets kinda boring.

    So if the opinion of one 25-year old woman matters: yes such covers are a turn-off.

  3. Genevieve says:

    Hello to all of you!
    I would like to say that I disagree with you Evelyne. I am a woman of 32 years and I don’t think these types of covers are a turn off.
    First of all, isn’t that “judging a book by its cover” if you dismiss it just because the girl on top has big boobs?
    For me, I look at the drawing, how well it was rendered, how pretty it is, how detailed. These are the things that get my imagination started.
    And, isn’t fantasy supposed to be epic, and extraordinary, exagerated even, looking like nothing you’ve ever seen? I want to read about powerful, strong and good looking heroes and voluptuous, sexy, hard headed smart woman! Because reading fantasy makes you leave your life, escape, lets you reinvent yourself and dream that you could be that amazing woman with these fabulous powers. (including the power to seduce men!!!)
    Anyways, that’s what I think!
    Cheers!! 🙂

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thank you, Geneviene, for your thoughtful comment. Sexy and heroic are not contradictions. I hear you.

    • Evelyne says:

      Hey Genevieve,

      I don’t completely disagree with what you’re saying. Some of those drawings do look pretty good and I can appreciate them as an artist, but I have read a lot of stories with such covers and in the end only a few could use the same elements and still make me escape reality as you so nicely put it 🙂 Most became predictable: if you can guess the plot turners and the ending before you have even read half the book, you can say it’s not an page turner anymore. Basically I got an overdose of those type of stories and I’m moving on. Which doesn’t mean I don’t realize other people still very much enjoy those same stories, but it just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. And like I mentioned: (most) books with that kind of cover are focused on a female lead and her love interest, so yes, I put them back without ever reading the back. So for me, personally, they are a turn off.
      (I do still enjoy some books with strong female characters and their love interest, but only when the focus is on the story. (Kelley Armstrong for example))

      Returning to your comment about sexy voluptous women on the cover: some can be rather tasteful and pretty to look at, but others made me roll my eyes. Yes, it’s a fantasy book, but when I see a woman with a body type that could hide behind a lantern pole except for her huge breasts … well that just looks out of proportion. And then perhaps I’m a bit to practical for my own good: can you imagine having to fight with that weight on your chest? They’d just get in the way … except to stop bullets.

      So to conclude: I don’t necessarily mind big boobs as long as it’s in proportion with the body type and when the woman is, like you put it, voluptuous but when this drawing of the sexy female lead pictures her as thin as a leaf with big boobs, I just wonder, what’s so sexy about that? In my eyes it just looks like she had a boob job. But that’s my personal preference.

      Also I believe on a cover for a YA book, drawings of thin, sexy women with big breast gives the same message to teenagers like photoshopped pictures in a fashion magazine: the wrong one.
      As an adult we can separate reality and fantasy and just enjoy a story (and the cover) and imagine that we are the heroine, I’m just not sure the audience of the young adult books can. Perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit.


  4. Unfortunately most authors have zero say in the cover. That’s usually the decision of someone at a publishing house, right? I tend to ignore covers altogether and go right to back blurb to see if I think the story will interest me, because I assume the author wrote a book and the publisher called an artist and said “we want a woman with big boobs on it” and the artist said “well, OK,” and delivered the work and got a paycheck.

    From my understanding it’s reasonably rare for there to be collaboration between writer and artist, and you can’t really expect the cover to have anything to do with the book at all, unless the writer is famous enough for people to spend time getting it right. Maybe it’s more common these days than it was 10-15 years ago?

    For those of us who self publish, we have a lot more control over what goes on our covers… but we also have a lot less money. So it’s usually pictures of trees.

    • Elf Writer says:

      Thank you, Christopher. When Adam Mansbach wrote The End Of The Jews – a multi-generational family in America saga – his publisher put a train leaving a station on the cover – a reference that many of us took for the Holocaust that was totally different from what the story was about.

      I am lucky to be published by small publishers. They have less money than the big houses but have so far been very inclusive.

      Loved the picture of trees finish – LOL-ed. Thank you for your comment.

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