Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Girl In the Gown Phenomenon - young adult paranormal romance

(This article was first published in Newswrite Magazine July 2013)

 
 

The girl in the gown seems to have encapsulated what many of today’s young adult paranormal romance books are all about, and she’s so popular it’s a wonder the darling in the dress hasn’t yet been given her own separate genre. But is she worth the hype?

The girl in the dress phenomenon kicked into gear when Lauren Kate released her second novel Fallen. When Fallen hit the shelves, readers everywhere went crazy over the cover. Lauren Kate says, “Fans have told me they respond to the darkly evocative mystery of the Fallen covers.” It’s interesting that on Lauren’s website, her first novel, The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove, a contemporary young adult novel, has been reimaged with the girl in the dress cover. Obviously Lauren’s publishers realise that a cover alone can be enough to grab a reader’s interest in a book. And once a reader picks up a book, the battle is half won.

Some might call this new wave of mass-produced covers laziness. Others might call it giving the customers what they want. And then there are those who consider this type of cover to be saturation overload. Amna, an active reviewer on Goodreads operating under the name Story Lover X, created the ‘Best Girl in a Dress Cover of 2012’ list originally because she wanted to know how many of these types of covers were out there.

“I was horrified by the number,” says Amna. On this list are 308 books, and it’s likely that hundreds more books featuring the girl in dress on the front cover were released in 2012. Amna now says she doesn’t like these kinds of covers anymore because when she sees them she’s convinced it's a marketing trick to get her to buy the book.

Marketing trick or not, the majority of young readers are fine with the ‘know what you’re getting’ method adopted by many publishers. In fact, this ‘know what you’re getting’ approach often plays a pivotal part in the decision making process. One reader’s review of The Selection by Keira Cass states, “Gorgeous, gorgeous cover! Despite negative reviews I took a risk and purchased this book with my fingers crossed. Boy was I glad I did!”

It makes sense that authors and publishers are keen to showcase the most enticing cover possible, and Marta Acosta, author of Dark Companion, thinks this phenomenon is popular because girls simply want to wear dresses. “Most teen readers love the girls-with-beautiful-dresses theme because the dress represents stepping into womanhood. These are not little girls' clothes, but glamorous garments made from luxurious fabrics, designed to show off the woman's best attributes for possible suitors.”

Yet, as Marta also points out, authors don't have any say about their covers. She actually wanted an image of a girl in a dark, old-fashioned science classroom, because important scenes take place in the physics lab. What’s more of a let down for Marta is that the photo on her cover, by Yolande de Korb, was also used on the cover of Crave in Australia and Incubus in the UK. This interchangeable approach to book covers has the potential to cause confusion in an audience, or more dangerously, it can leave an audience feeling as if they’ve been deceived. The cover for my young adult novel The Bird with The Broken Wing screams paranormal romance and it simply isn’t – it’s dark YA fantasy. Despite this, one local bookstore continues to position this book in the paranormal romance section and it continues to sell from there.

Intentionally placed in the wrong section or not, bookstores rely on covers to sell books, so if a book looks better on one shelf there’s a strong chance this is where it will be positioned. And with genres so heavily criss-crossed these days, the cover has become the bookstore’s only guide to positioning. According to a study conducted by Self Publishing Resources, seventy-five percent of 300 booksellers surveyed (half from independent bookstores and half from chains) identified the look and design of the book cover as the most important component. They agreed that the cover was prime real estate for promoting a book.

Readers, too, identify strongly with a book cover. During a recent survey, when asked what it was they loved about the girl in the dress on book covers, the response was unanimous – all the surveyed readers wished they lived in a world where they wore dresses every day.

Readers like the romantic imagery these books provide. They like the backdrops of enchanted forests, a Parisian skyline, Gothic cathedrals. They like the faraway wistful expressions on the girls (although in most cases you can’t see the heroine’s face but they like that too). They like the billowing gowns and everything that comes with it; parasol, gloves, corset, tiara. They don’t even really know why they like these covers, they just do.

So yes, it’s possible that publishers are relying on stunning covers to get print books into the hands of the buyers, and yes it’s acceptable that readers can expect a novel titled Etiqutte and Espionage to feature a girl in a gown on the cover, however the line may be becoming blurred when books, like Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter, portray a girl in the gown on the cover and they’re clearly not even paranormal romance.

One reviewer was not impressed with the cover. Beckie Voigts says in her review, “The cover is very deceiving. I thought that the book would be a dark retelling of Alice in Wonderland with zombies in the mix. Sadly no. Yes, there is a girl named Alice and yes she does fight zombies in the book but the only thing that does represent that ‘Alice in Wonderland feel’ is a cloud in the sky shaped like a rabbit. This was somewhat of a let down.” Beckie does go on to say that she ended up loving the book, so it seems as if the cover has worked its magic once again.

Whether it’s cover designers or publishers blurring the lines of what is considered a typical young adult cover, Stephenie Meyer has proven that having the atypical cover on a book doesn’t spell disaster. The Twilight saga is the most successful young adult series ever, having sold over 116 million copies worldwide and translated into 37 languages, all without the help of our darling damsel. Still, Twilight was first published in 2006, four years before Lauren Kate’s dark image of a girl in a gown sent readers into frenzy-mode. Perhaps if Twilight was released today the cover might feature Bella Swan in any number of dresses – shift, bouffant, evening, wedding, prom, ruffled, lacy, flouncy.

The end of this phenomenon might be nearing with the release of Lauren Kate’s next series Teardrop. Lauren says of her new covers, “While the Teardrop covers will adopt their own style, fans of the Fallen covers can look forward to falling in love with them.” Lauren revealed a sneak peak at her cover to Teardrop, to be released in October 2013, on her website in February. “It almost brings tears of joy to my eyes to be able to share the astonishing Teardrop cover with you,” Lauren says on her website. Anyone thinking the publisher might move away from the girl in the gown would be wrong. The cover features a girl in a gown made of water.

If there is a move away from the damsel in a dress, there’s no guarantee the rest of the publishing industry will be in a hurry to ditch her when it’s clear that millions of readers are still eager to get their hands on books with beautiful covers. They’d be biting the hands that feed them, and the publishing world has enough on its plate dealing with the decline in print sales and the increase in free books offered by self-published authors.

So despite the handful of artists, authors, and readers who are sick of the interchangeable girl in the gown, this phenomenon appears to be a good thing for the publishing world. What these few cynics might not realise is that this little darling plays an important role in modern literature because it’s evident she inspires (mostly) female teenagers to fall in love with the cover, and thus to fall in love with the book. And because of her prominent position on bookshelves she is largely responsible for keeping the written language alive and assisting millions of young adult readers to grow up to become millions of adult readers. Still, it will be interesting to see in a few years who or what the girl in the gown is replaced with. 
 

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