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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT Ken MacLeod

Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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THE LASCAR’S DAGGERGlenda Larke

The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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The Chart of Fantasy Art, 2009

The Chart of Fantasy Art

Every year we ask our summer intern to do a survey of cover art elements for the top fantasy novels published in the previous year. This year, our wonderful intern Jennifer looked at covers from 2009, and compared them against 2008′s findings. Over the next few days we’ll be releasing a number of charts that show what she found. After the jump, some initial observations on the data. And join us in the comments to talk about the trends.

1) We have concrete evidence that the big three fantasy cover clichés (“castles”, “glowy magic”, and “swords”) are in decline. The 50% reduction in castles can only mean one thing.

2) The number of dragons on covers held steady this year. The dragon population seems to be in perfect balance – but we can’t tell if that’s because new dragons are being born to replace old ones, or if last year’s dragons are just really healthy.

3) This year we didn’t spot a single unicorn (though it’s possible a unicorn was hidden under one of the hoods.) To all unicorn-lovers out there, don’t lose heart. Unicorns are rare – like double rainbows — so a year without them will only make their inevitable reappearance that much more magical. In the meantime, there’s always this.

We also introduced a few new categories this year.

1) Hooded figures: Not as many hooded figures as you might imagine, but early indications suggest that this category might explode in 2010.

2) Smoke/fog/mist: Smoke and mist are sometimes mistaken for “glowy magic”, so to ensure that “glowy magic” is accurately tracked, we introduced this category to weed out non-magical atmospheric disturbances.

3) Non-distressed damsels: We added this category because we were finding that most of the damsels gracing fantasy covers didn’t seem particularly distressed at all, and we wanted to show that. But “damsel” is too old-fashioned a term to contain the multitude of women that dominate fantasy covers. So next year we expect to retire the whole “damsel” category and replace it with categories that reflect the rise of the urban fantasy heroines – who were so numerous, various, and bad-ass we had to give them their own chart (coming later this week.)

4) Zeppelins and Dirigibles: We added this category to track the rise of steampunk and Victorian fantasy. We briefly considered “brass-goggles” and “gears” but airships seemed to be the most reliable indicators of this trend. Plus, they can be spotted at a great distance.

It should go without saying that Orbit cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of data included in the Chart of Fantasy Art, so use at your own risk.

And we’d love to know what you think in the comments. What are the trends you’re seeing in fantasy cover art? What do you want to see more or less of? Let us know!

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  1. Tehani

    August 16, 2010
    at 10:20 am

    Reply

    Oh, you must have missed Horn, from Australian indie publisher Twelfth Planet Press! Best unicorn cover eva… :) http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/publications/horn

    I noticed the trend of hooded figures – Brett Weeks, Peter Brett, and this year, we’ve got shadowy figures & hooded ones with Rowena Cory Daniells’ King Rolen’s Kin!

    Am surprised there’s not more tattoos, though I suppose most of those are on paranormal romance novels, rather than straight fantasy :) Good fun to read this, look forward to more!!

  2. Alex Lencicki

    Alex Lencicki

    August 16, 2010
    at 10:35 am

    Reply

    Thanks for the link!

    We only looked at US book scan data, so we missed this one – and who knows, fossilized unicorns may need their own category next year as well.

  3. Rachel Aaron

    Rachel Aaron

    August 16, 2010
    at 11:19 am

    Reply

    So if a cover had multiple elements on it (say, a damsel fleeing into a castle on a unicorn from a dragon with a giant sword backed up by wizards on dirigibles), did you just count the dominant element or every element on the cover?

    More specifically, does my lovely cover (http://www.rachelaaron.net/books.php) count as a headshot or a headshot and a castle? Inquiring minds must know!

  4. Alex Lencicki

    Alex Lencicki

    August 16, 2010
    at 11:28 am

    Reply

    We count all the elements we can find, so THE SPIRIT THIEF will count as a headshot and a castle in next year’s reckoning.

  5. Woodge

    August 16, 2010
    at 11:41 am

    Reply

    The whole headless “torso only” cover has already been done ad nauseum.

  6. MonkeyHateClean

    August 16, 2010
    at 5:01 pm

    Reply

    >>1) We have concrete evidence that the big three fantasy cover clichés (“castles”, “glowy magic”, and “swords”) are in decline. The 50% reduction in castles can only mean one thing.<<

    Otherworldly aristocrats and nobility are not immune to the mortgage crisis?

  7. Pati Nagle

    August 16, 2010
    at 11:37 pm

    Reply

    So maybe “damsels” should become “babes.”

    Interesting that the dark cover of meaningless nothingness is holding steady.

    Thanks for doing this!

  8. NoBot

    August 17, 2010
    at 12:53 am

    Reply

    Are those raw counts or percentages of the total count? If they’re not percentages, could you say what the total number of covers was and/or convert to percentages to show that these are trends in art rather than trends in how many books were published?

    The joke’s more fun if it’s also slightly serious. :D

  9. Tim Holman

    Tim Holman

    August 17, 2010
    at 9:57 am

    Reply

    @NoBot: good to know that someone is taking this data seriously. We analyzed the same number of titles in 2009 as we did in 2008. The actual number of titles analyzed was determined by our secret research lab (codename “intern”), but I believe it was in the region of 380 – and these were the bestselling titles published in each year.

  10. Scott

    August 17, 2010
    at 11:49 am

    Reply

    Could you clarify whether/how the “damsels” category would differ from a putative “gratuitous T&A” category?

  11. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 17, 2010
    at 12:41 pm

    Reply

    Well when we first started counting last year the general “damsels in distress” category was the home of any woman on a cover who seemed slightly distressed by her surroundings. But it was obvious that most women on fantasy covers weren’t actually distressed, so we added “non-distressed” damsels to show that. Ladies from either of these categories, however, can also be included in “gratuitous T&A” or not, but then you get into the really murky depths of where to draw the line between a strong sexy woman and a woman who is just there to sell books with her sex appeal. This will definitely be considered in the 2010 cover survey, never you fear, but it seems like it might be worthy of a survey all on its own!

  12. Bill, not the galactic hero

    August 17, 2010
    at 4:14 pm

    Reply

    Don’t vampires get a slot in your chart, at least as “Urban fantasy”? Or do they belong on some other chart entirely, along with Cthuluey monsters, just as the space ships, planets, and ray guns are obviously on a different chart?
    Is there a correlation between stilettos and damsels, either all or just those not-in-distress?
    Does beefcake deserve a category, or is it assumed that if there’s a damsel in distress, there’s either beefcake, a dragon, or both?

    • Alex Lencicki

      Alex Lencicki

      August 17, 2010
      at 5:57 pm

      Reply

      @Bill, not the galactic hero – We considered it, but with so many shapeshifting creatures and incognito vampires it was too tricky to reliably identify them. If only vampires still wore red silk lined capes and showed their fangs…

  13. Ursula L

    August 17, 2010
    at 8:11 pm

    Reply

    I note you track several types of images of women, but have no categories for specifically male images. “Hooded figure” for example, can be a man or a woman, but would a hooded woman be a “hooded figure” or a “damsel, no distress” or a “damsel in distress” if she looked distressed?

    And what about distressed men, or men not in distress?

    If you’re going to do this, then I’d think that you’d need to track gender across all human and human-like categories, or else not track gender at all.

    It would be useful, for example, to know if they’re increasing the number of hot men on fantasy covers. Because hot men on fantasy covers is good.

  14. Ursula L

    August 17, 2010
    at 8:14 pm

    Reply

    Just to add, a count of “human-like figure, apparently male” “human-like figure, apparently female” and “human-like figure, gender-unclear” would be a nice dataset to have.

    With perhaps taking the “damsel” out of the “damsel” categories and have “human-like figure in distress” with breakdown of male/female/unclear gender, etc.

  15. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 18, 2010
    at 9:57 am

    Reply

    Ursula, although I very much appreciate your desire for a more scientific breakdown, we are talking clichés here, and thus find it appropriate (given that we are admittedly being highly unscientific in our research) to be terribly clichéd ourselves—for the sake of a few laughs at our own expense. That said, gender in cover art is a obviously hot issue and we will definitely be looking at in in greater depth in next year’s survey…if only to poke ever more fun at ourselves and the books we all love.

  16. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 18, 2010
    at 10:01 am

    Reply

    and as a fan myself, i agree, hot men on fantasy covers is good. I am all for equality of objectification! haha. You should check out the Brent Weeks books (Night Angel Trilogy and the about-to-be-released Black Prism)…i think those guys are pretty hot without resorting to being a giant beefcake mess of abs…

  17. Louis B. Shalako

    August 18, 2010
    at 11:42 am

    Reply

    I don’t see anything in there about snakes. Or spiders. This is a serious oversight, unless there simply weren’t any. I don’t like spiders and snakes.

  18. Rekoa Meton

    August 18, 2010
    at 12:43 pm

    Reply

    The hobbits/dwarves/ogres/goblins are growing and the elves are falling? That’s interesting.

    This chart is so awesome that I feel like printing and framing it.

  19. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    August 18, 2010
    at 4:08 pm

    Reply

    good idea! maybe at the end of the week i’ll make it available as a wallpaper and as a pdf suitable for printing…

  20. blodeuedd

    August 19, 2010
    at 3:53 pm

    Reply

    All my books seems to have hooded figures…but then i have read many assassin books ;)

  21. Cynthia Armistead

    August 20, 2010
    at 8:18 pm

    Reply

    This is one time when switching to e-books leaves me somewhat bereft. I cannot line up all of the books I’ve read this year and really get a good idea of where the art is going any more.

    However, my memories of Alex Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series indicate that the hooded figure category must be gaining quickly, after a few years where the tattooed women seemed to be ruling the shelves. Those were NOT anybody’s damsels. Bella, from Twilight? She’s a damsel, both distressed and distressing.

  22. John

    August 22, 2010
    at 11:04 am

    Reply

    “The 50% reduction in castles can only mean one thing.” What, the slump in the housing market has reached even here?

  23. Gerald Fnord

    August 24, 2010
    at 12:25 am

    Reply

    Back in the day, Joe-Bob Briggs, the Sage of Grapevine, Texas, did mighty well with just Breasts, Blood, and Beasts…

  24. zab

    August 25, 2010
    at 2:17 pm

    Reply

    Just wanted to let you know that I adore this poster series and that I showed it to all my friends.

  25. April

    August 25, 2010
    at 2:24 pm

    Reply

    Are the numbers on the chart raw numbers of books, or percentages? If they are raw numbers of books, what are the totals?

    A graph showing that there were (making up numbers)…
    If there were 32 out of 300 with dragons last year, and 32 out of 200 with dragons this year, would that actually show that they were just as popular this year, or more popular this year?

    I just have trouble with the fact that it seems that there were so many that went down, and wonder if that is because of popularity, or overall numbers.

  26. Lynn

    August 30, 2010
    at 4:16 am

    Reply

    Tolkienistas ask – where are the emus????

  27. SpaceB

    August 30, 2010
    at 5:17 pm

    Reply

    Must have missed it, but how many covers did you look at for each year?

  28. whocares

    August 30, 2010
    at 7:59 pm

    Reply

    where the hell are tits and nipples?
    americans are just boring death cult…

  29. Paula Lieberman

    August 31, 2010
    at 10:51 am

    Reply

    What about “little to no background, lots of human skin showing” which is overwhelmingly prevalent in romance fantasy & SF novels in the USA?

  30. Maurine Starkey

    August 31, 2010
    at 2:24 pm

    Reply

    I’m interested in tracking

    Fully rendered paintings, illustrations in some real life medium, watercolor, oil, acrylics or inks.

    Fully rendered E-painting, using software (photoshop, painter etc.) to create the image.

    Photo manipulated covers. This is usually a live model posed composition that is painted over using photoshop/painter etc.
    I’m seeing a ton of this sort of imagery on Romance covers.

    Photography, complete composition.

    Abstract graphic.

    I like your chart and as a visual artist, it’s valuable. As for the noted decline in some subjects, has there been an overall decline in published books? Could the decline in castles be related to or a reflection of the lousy economic downturn and housing market?

    Thanks
    Maurine

  31. Tomato Addict

    September 7, 2010
    at 6:36 pm

    Reply

    April has a point: Almost everything has gone down, and you don’t show what the numbers represent.
    My educated guess is these are the number of covers that contain each element (because that is about the only way one intern could do this). If so, then covers in 2009 are generally simpler (fewer elements) than in 2008. OR, maybe this intern was less generous than last year’s intern, in which case the relative percentages would be interesting.

    Yes, I am a statistician, why do you ask? ;-)

  32. Cyril Parfitt

    September 22, 2010
    at 3:52 am

    Reply

    How interesting. Dragons seem to been universally and enduring popular and At my age I am well qualified in this matter.

    Fantasy worlds don’t seem to feature much though and I wonder if my type of work might have a place somwhere?

  33. Rawshock design

    October 4, 2010
    at 9:34 am

    Reply

    I am actually designing a book cover called Demons and Dragons.
    1) Dragon……check
    2) Unicorn…..check (actually dragon is battling unicorn which possibly is a wee bit controversial?!?).
    3)I have added in some reflected ampersands which when placed correctly add a twist of celtic rune stylee to the jacket… These are to be seen as glowing lines (that’s where the magic comes in you see).
    4)One cool thing is the book is going to have two very clever Guinea pigs in it.
    5) I did a cover with the letter T as swords the other day…..not quite as naff as it sounds, but still naff.

  34. Duncan Long

    December 16, 2010
    at 7:33 pm

    Reply

    An extremely interesting analysis of the fantasy book cover illustration industry. Certainly I’ve done my part in some of these cliches over the last few years.

    Thanks for the work that went into this.

    –Duncan
    =====================
    Fantasy and science fiction book cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Fort Ross, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Moonstone Books, ISFiC Press, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors.

  35. www.orbitbooks.net

    June 16, 2011
    at 1:25 pm

    Reply

    The chart of fantasy art part one.. Great idea :)

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