Imaginative Space: The role of the faceless model on fiction book covers

Self-employed in publishing

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There is a growing tradition in book publishing to use faceless models on book covers. Tried and tested, models whose faces are hidden are good at selling books. But what’s the psychological process behind this trend? What are the consequences of this marketing method for the reader and should we be keeping an eye on them?

Faceless models in advertising

Advertising is a 100 million dollar a year industry. On average, we are exposed to 2000 adverts a day. The use of faceless models in advertising is on the increase, however it can often objectify the body, in particular the female body.

The trend to use only parts of a models’ body, such as their legs or backs, and excluding their face or head, has become known as the ‘dismemberment of women in the media’. Images like these turn models into canvases for a product, and by excluding their heads or faces serve to dehumanize them. A famous example was the Lynx advert featuring a women’s torso in a bikini covered in dirt, with ‘wash me’ written across her stomach to equate her to a car.

Many movements have protested against these photographic practices, because they actively encourage the viewer not to see the model as human, leading to a storm of repercussions for those seeing these adverts. According to some studies, these include appearance anxiety, body shame and eating disorders, especially in young women.

Space for the imagination

However, in the Publishing industry, the role of the faceless model on book covers is quite different, especially regarding fiction, where faceless models are used most often. At its core, reading fiction is an empathetic activity: generally, the reader is put into somebody else’s shoes by the author. The brilliance of fiction books is that they make us feel something, and the front cover, in order to successfully sell the book, needs to be an extension of this.

The simple act of looking at a book cover begins the process of engaging the imagination that is inherent to reading, and a faceless image, a silhouette for example, is one that we can project our own imagined images on. As opposed to trying to sell the product by turning the body into an object and disassociate the model from their human emotions, faceless models on book covers actually encourage potential readers to imagine who the unseen model might be and what they might be feeling.

Far from discouraging empathy, which is the main problem with the objectification found above in other industries, the faceless model on a fiction book cover actually encourages it.

The practicalities

Yet, this is a positive side effect of a marketing method which may well have arisen from Publishers’ practical needs. It is much cheaper to use a faceless model, than to get clearance from the model, and rights for, an image with a face on it. Many stock photography sites have picked up on this, and account for it. Getty Images, for example, uses faceless models in its work both with traditionally- and self-published book covers.

Despite this happy coincidence, moving forward it is important that we do not lose the thread of why the faceless model is important to the reader; that buying a book has a different end to buying a pair of shoes, and therefore requires a different kind of marketing completely.

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  1. If the main purpose of a book’s cover is to make you open the book, what better technique than to spark curiosity? The faceless model can do just that. Who is he? Who is she? The hint of body language helps too.

  2. I dislike this trend and have done since it appeared in the ’90s. If the object is to get imagination flowing, then why not plane brown paper? If you’re using a person, at least have her head on (I don’t care if her back is to me or if she’s looking away. Just don’t behead her!)

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