Stock Photos and Diversity

Two babies hugging, one black and one white.

This is the closest I could find to a multicultural couple on

(Trigger warning for racism.)

One of the most fun (and sometimes frustrating) things about indie publishing is searching stock photo sites for book cover images. If all my characters were straight white people, this would be way more fun than frustration. There are thousands of images to choose from, for heat levels ranging from sweet to erotic.

But I also write gay and multicultural romance, and it’s like banging my head against a rock.

Clinch photos of gay men don’t exist. The men may be side by side, back to back, front to back, gazing at each other, holding hands, or kissing—but the traditional romance cover pose? No. Forget about it.

Also, it’s no secret that man chest and ripped abs sell romance novels. If you want a guy alone who’s got that going on, it’s no problem. But if you want two guys in a photo looking like they’re attracted to each other? They’re like, dude, what’s a gym? Or they’re well-muscled and over 40, while my characters are in the new adult range.

As annoying as all that is, the situation is even worse when it comes to multicultural couples. Stock photos of romantic couples featuring Asians of all ethnicities are scarce. And as you might expect, the number of photos of blacks is disproportionately lower than for whites.

In fairness, many of the photographers who contribute to stock photo sites are in Eastern Europe. So, if your photos feature mainly Caucasians, but you live in Caucasia, you get a pass. Otherwise, no.

As Courtney Milan wrote on her blog, even more shameful than the limited number of photos of blacks is the content. The black women in “romantic” stock photos are much more likely (on a percentage basis) to be nude or topless or wearing sheer fabric that leaves little to the imagination.

Also, black women in “romantic” poses are far  more likely than white women to be holding a gun on their partner. As in, among the handful of images of black women, there were several showing them holding a gun, but none among the thousands of images I’ve found of white women.

Saddest of all is how little any of this surprises me. I’ve lived long enough to expect this. I’ve also lived long enough to be running out of patience. This situation is unacceptable.

But it’s also a huge opportunity for photographers, especially those just starting out. If you know a photographer, spread the word. Indie authors need more images of gay men and people of color (and gay people of color).

People of all ethnicities read romance. They all deserve to see images of people who look like them on book covers. Fifteen years into the twenty-first century, this should not continue to be an issue. We can do better, and we should.

Have you noticed a lack of diversity on romance book covers? What do you think authors and readers can or should do about it? 

About AndreaJWenger

Andrea J. Wenger is an award-winning writer and editor in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in the fields of creative, technical, and freelance writing.

Posted on November 6, 2014, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I found this, too, Andrea, and I had a really hard time finding good stock photos for a recent book that features two gay male protagonists. Fortunately, my husband has some mad Photoshop skills and helped me craft together something workable. It would be great to have more options available.

    • Yay for husbands with Photoshop skills! Most book covers for gay romance either cobble together multiple images, like you and your husband did, or they feature a single male instead of a couple. Since I’m currently writing a series that includes both gay and straight couples, I’ve been trying to use clinch photos on all the covers. I won’t go that path again. Live and learn.

  2. Reblogged this on illegalwriting and commented:
    Busy week this week, but I came across this blog post that seems consistent with some of the publishing issues that I’ve been trying to document on my blog. It also reminds me of my trip to the airport bookstore, and the embarassing display of books under “women’s fiction,” “multicultural” and “latino”…

    • Thanks for reblogging! The post about your airport bookstore experience shows how far we have to go when it comes to educating the public about diversity in literature.

  3. I just clicked on a site this morning that had headings for multicultural shots and gay shots. I didn’t click on them, but I know they had some to choose from. Good luck. For the record, finding applicable stock images is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

    • Thanks for sharing, Christy! Some of those images look promising. And you’re right, searching for appropriate stock photos in general can be frustrating. Just finding good images of flowers for my women’s fiction series is challenging.

  4. You’ve pointed out a lot I had no idea about, and I see your frustration. We’ve come a long way as a society (still further yet to go), but apparently stock images are behind the times.

    And I’d never peg you for a writer of such racy stuff. Go, you! 😉

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