Romance Novel Covers: A Rant

coverThey’re like bad relatives.  You can’t avoid sleazy Uncle Bob or foul-mouthed Cousin Betty, because Uncle Bob married to Aunt Emily (the loveliest auntie in the world), and Cousin Betty is sister to Cousin Mark (who’s like a brother).  But you’d really, really prefer not to have to see them.  Ever.

Give a romance detractor a romance novel, and I’ll bet that nine times out of ten, they’ll look at the cover and grimace.  Hell, give a romance reader the same book, and you’ll probably get the same reaction.  So much for not judging books by their covers, but really – really, can you blame them?

Creamy bosoms and hairless tanned chests.  Serifs gone mad.  Florid colors.  And the clinches – oh, the clinches.  Shudder.

Let’s ignore the fact that they’re totally generic.  Hey, romance is a genre book, and all genre books, to a certain degree, are generic.  That’s the point, so that readers can spot them from a mile away, and go, “Oh, a romance/sci-fi/fantasy/mystery novel!”

And let’s also ignore the fact that there can be serious discrepancies between the cover models and the characters.  How many plus-sized, curvy heroines are depicted like Nicole Kidman?  Or the blonde heroes, drawn with black hair?  We’re told that black hair and thin women sell; I’d argue, but there are worse crimes, so I’ll leave it there.

No, my biggest gripe is this.  Let’s pretend an alien came down to earth and landed at a bookstore in the middle of genre fiction – what would they see?  They might see a gray cover with a bloody knife, and they’d assume a dark story with murder.  Well, they’re probably right.

Or they might see a group wearing leather, bearing weapons, and a magic halo around their heads; the aliens might assume a tale involving magic and fighting in a world without technology.  And the aliens would probably be right.

But let me abandon the aliens and ask you this: Who looks at a dark-covered mystery and says, “Oh, yet another crappy whodunnit?”  And who looks at the leather-clad fighters and says, “Great, yet another Lord of the Rings ripoff?”  Few people, that’s how many.  Because the assumption is that those books might be the next George R. R. Martin or P. D. James.  And the result is they don’t assume – they just read the damn book.

But romance – nooooo, we get the crap.  Non-romance readers look at the lurid covers and assume that the book is about sex.  And they probably wouldn’t be able to make similar assumptions, even if they wanted to, that it’s the next Loretta Chase or Mary Balogh, because they’ve probably never even heard of those authors.  And how wrong is that?

As always, I blame the publishers (and I so wish one of them was reading right now).  How they can maintain a standard that promulgates romance’s bad reputation is completely beyond my understanding.  Dammit, we’re fighting for our credibility here, readers, authors and reviewers, and every clinch sets us back four steps.

I’m glad for things like the Cover Cafe Contest, which celebrates the best of romance novel covers, and there are good ones (or at least, half-decent ones).  Few books stuck out in this year’s contest (which ended yesterday), but there was one that struck me very positively.  Head in the Clouds features a girl reading a book, twirling her hair, and about to step off a porch, presumably to land on her face.  Maybe it also symbolizes her stepping into unknown territory – who knows?  Head in the Clouds fits the title, intrigues me, and now I want to read it.  That, in my opinion, is an example of a cover done right.

But honestly, I think those are few and far between.

What do you hate most about romance novel covers?  Which ones did it right, in your opinion?

- Jean AAR

This entry was posted in Books, Historicals, Jean AAR, Romance and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to Romance Novel Covers: A Rant

  1. Bombona says:

    I love Julia Quinn cover books, the UK covers are the best. Great Job

  2. Tee says:

    Of course, we all have to agree with you, Jean. For the most part, romance fiction covers are horrible. But not all of them are; there have been a few along the way that I felt were appealing. I think the one that totally stays in my mind is Ruth Ryan Langan’s “Duchess of Fifth Avenue.” It caught my attention when it first came out and continues to do so even today. I’ve attached it a couple of times in different threads and I’ll do it again today. It’s clean, playful and makes me want to pick it up and read it. And, BTW, it was a good story, too.


  3. I love them. It’s partly because I’m not ashamed of what I read, and I have a sense of humour, I suppose.
    Pecs and abs? Bring ‘em on. Naked people? Go for it. If you catch anyone staring at you on the Metro/Tube/bus/train, stare back, smile, tell them it’s a great book. I can’t be the only romance reader, surely, who enjoys a handsome, well built man?
    If they say “Do you read that trash?” don’t get all defensive, just say, “It’s not trash and I love it.” That’s how you beat the naysayers. Hold your head up and be proud. Laugh with them, say “Yes, well, it’s better than boring.” Anything’s better than boring.
    Even when the cover shows a woman in a bridesmaid’s dress.

  4. DabneyAAR says:

    I hate them and I think, most of the time, they misrepresent the tale. My duaghter is forever picking up my review books and saying, “Really, Mom?”

    For me, it’s one more reason I love my Kindle.

  5. Jane O says:

    Most of the time that shirtless guy on the cover looks depressingly as if he OD’d on steroids. NOT attractive.

  6. Judy says:

    I find the book covers are deceptive and its only purpose is to lure you to purchase the book.
    Rarely do I buy a book based on the cover, I go to the back cover to read the synopsis of the story.
    Which book got the cover right, I think Toni BLake’s “Whisper Falls”. The cover shows a pair of mens boots and ladies flip flops on a wood deck with daisys on either side and in the background was a waterfall, every item was pertinent to the characters in the story.

  7. Susan says:

    I really didn’t regularly read romance until I bought my first Kindle. Then I jumped into the genre with both feet. I am not ashamed of what I’m reading, but I don’t want ot have to explain myself, either. (takes away reading time!).

    The worst thing about the covers is how generic they are. How many covers with women in what looks like a prom dress (not a Regency gown) with it slipping half off her back are out right now? You just can’t much tell the books apart. Add that generic title and you know the publishers don’t take this genre seriously.

    The historical cover artists don’t know Regency from Georgian from Victorian, either. Sigh.

    And all the men with naked chests and no face? I personally don’t object to them (they’re quite nice in fact) but again, generic. And it’s something I don’t want to explain to the folks in the lunchroom.

  8. L A Wheeler says:

    I have to agree with Lynne Connolly. “Anything’s better than boring.” Absolutely! Hell, if you’re reading a book ABOUT people LIKE those on the cover, are you ashamed of it? No one’s ashamed to be reading about gory murders with a blood-drenched axe on the cover. Hey, it is what it is.

    What ticks me off are the bland covers that say nothing about the contents, nothing about the people. Romances are, after all, “people” stories, so why shouldn’t they have people on the covers? I remember when Johanna Lindsey had her first “naked man” cover and when “Prince of Midnight” had just the hero, no heroine. Covers matter.

    What about all the books that got crappy covers, for whatever reeasons, covers no one noticed, no one talked about? Yes, boring covers. No one ever read them, the authors faded from memory, and the books might have been absolutely wonderful.

    That’s one of the reasons why I applaud, to the point of a standing ovation, those authors who are self-publishing in order to have control over their books’ destinies. They are like the heroines of their novels, not willing to sit back and let life — or publishing — just happen. Whether they have a lurid clinch cover or glittering jewels or a romantic castle or whatever, they get to choose. Brava!

  9. dick says:

    You’re right; they’re unmistakeable. Usually, I pay no attention to them, or to titles, which are equally unmistakeable. But, you know, I often wonder how readers would react if the publishers suddenly switched to plain brown covers with simple titles. I think readership might drop, myself.

  10. xina says:

    I hate most of the covers featuring the half naked lovey dovey couple, or the crazy muscle bound hero…headless or not, on contemporary or historical covers. I think they are silly and unnecessary. Oh for all covers to be as tasteful as Julia Ross novels. I’d be a happy camper if that were so. One of the reasons I love reading digitally is that I don’t have to hide the cover when I am reading in public. Yeah, I’m one of those people and not ashamed to admit it. However, I do think there are many romance readers who love those covers, and I think the reason they are still around is that those covers sell the book to those who love those covers. I have observed many browsers in bookstores who are absolutely drawn to those covers. Me…not so much.

  11. RobinB says:

    I’m among those who cringe at the current trend in covers of romance novels–it’s a popular topic both here and at the AAR message boards.

    I use the term “current” because when authors’ books are re-released with new covers these days, the obligatory half-dressed people are on the covers. For example, a number of Mary Jo Putney’s older novels have been reissued in the past few months, and while it’s nice to have these books available again, the covers–well, allow me to offer a bit of evidence. “One Perfect Rose”, the last novel in the Fallen Angels series (and a favorite of mine) was reissued last year. The original cover had a lovely painting of a rose, and of course, on the back, there was a brief summary of the plot. The reissue has a cover with the generic couple-in-a-clinch and is definitely less interesting than the original’s cover!

    Don’t get me wrong–like others who have commented here, I like my romance novels on the spicy side (i.e. “warm” or above! :)). But like Susan, who bought her Kindle so she could read her romance novels without a whole lot of “‘splainin’”, that’s why I bought my Nook!

  12. donna ann says:

    I’m another who doesn’t have any real issue with the covers of the books I read. There are good ones & bad ones. Personally Sci-Fi books hold limited appeal and the fantasy ones (including Tolken) hold very little as well. And some of those covers — what were they thinking? My only real complaint is when the people (or era or location) on the cover don’t match what’s inside it. That to me is annoying. Also, it doesn’t seem to me that the clinch covers are as much a percentage of covers or as, well lurid is the word that comes to mind, as when i started reading in the 80′s. Nor do I have any issue with enjoying the sight of a handsome man (and the proof of his attributes) wether he’s real or just a on a book cover. If someone has issue with what I read, that’s their issue. I’m enjoying a good book that appeals to me, I’m not forcing them to read it after all.

  13. Evelyn M says:

    I cannot stand the covers either. They are terrible, for the most part.

    When I am forced to buy a paperback and cannot get an ebook of the title, I sometimes tear off the cover and tell my husband and two sons in their 20s “It came that way, its a used book!” because the covers are so bad.

    What a shame. In fact, I won’t even do that anymore. If I can’t get it in eformat, I don’t bother buying the book due to the cover.

  14. Terri says:

    The covers make me cringe at times. But to add to donna ann’s comment about the cover matching the content – one of my favourite recent examples is Courtney Milan’s most excellent Trial by Desire. I’m sure that somewhere in the novel the hero, Ned, is described as having ‘liquid’ brown eyes while the eyes of the man on the cover are definitely Aegean blue. Hmm! Was Kate trying to lose that bet after all?
    One would think that HQN would be paying attention to details like that. Don’t they read their own books? Check the continuity or whatever it’s called?

  15. Jane AAR says:

    I just lent my old copy of Silk and Secrets by Mary Jo Putney to a friend, and since the book was published in 1992 it had the typical early-90s ridiculousness. White horse with flowing mane, shiny embossed lettering, a stepback with a half-naked hero and the heroine in a bellydancing costume. And yet it’s one of the most interesting and unique romance novels I’ve ever read.

    It is convenient to be able to pick a romance novel out of a shelf quickly, but one would think they could make them distinctive without being embarrassing.

  16. Ell says:

    Oh Jean, I couldn’t agree with you more. And Dabney, my kids give me grief over them too. I have three daughters, and not one of them reads romance, and those cheesy covers are 99% of the reason they won’t give the genre a try.

  17. Nifty says:

    I’m so over the man-titty. Gah. Give it a rest.

  18. willaful says:

    I’m pretty sure I voted for Head in the Clouds. I loved seeing a woman reading on a cover!

    So a question — there is certainly benefit to “branding” romance, as with any genre book. It helps us to be able to find our genre. How can we brand in a way that isn’t offensive/boring?

    (I disagree with you on science fiction/fantasy books, btw — I’m just as turned off by generic covers there too, and generic sounding blurbs, and tend to think “Oh, another Tolkein rip-off.”)

  19. Danielle says:

    The longer I read romance (about nine years now) the more sensitive I seem to grow where covers are concerned. Although I mostly manage to ignore clinch and beefcake covers, there have been instances when I rebelled. Two of Courtney Milan’s romances spring to mind (Trial By Desire and Proof By Seduction). You can tell me how magnificent the stories are until you are blue in the face, and point out that the cover decision lies with the marketing department, not the unfortunate author; I won’t budge. I adhere to print books and so have to live with the whole package, not simply the story itself. The intellectual and emotional reactions those covers evoke in me disturb me to the point of tainting any reading experience I would have with the story.

    I often look with longing on the covers of inspirational romance, a subgenre to which I don’t otherwise relate well. Some are saccharine, true, but there is so much loveliness, too. On the other hand, Tessa Dare and Kate Noble, for example, have had covers that enticed me enough to take a closer look at, and in a few cases buy, books that I otherwise would have skipped (English-set regencies). I see, though, that with her latest Dare, too, has joined the stereotypical clinch cover set.

  20. Terese says:

    I think some of the epub houses like Samahin and Liquid Silver Books have better covers than New York, myself.

  21. Marion says:

    I am British and have noticed that when there are unique UK covers they are often more “tasteful” or at least to my taste than the US ones, good examples are the Julia Quinn ones mentioned above, but also many others. Althougth the trend of the headless woman/couple in vaguely regency dress has beome ubiqutous- see all laurens uk covers e.g. and Eloisa James Also works for paranormal – much prefer Nalini Singh UK covers –

  22. Jean Wan says:

    (Sorry it took so long to respond – I totally forgot that eye exams mean blurry vision for a looooong time.)

    There definitely are more innocuous, non-clinchy-y covers without the excessive skin exposure. Bombona mentioned the UK covers for Julia Quinn – I think the UK covers, in general, are much more discreet than the American ones, and less likely to feature naked people – or even people, come to think of that. (I’m thinking of Eloisa James’ recent fairy tale releases.)

    I know covers are hit and miss. It just seems as if romance editorial spends LESS time than other genres in putting thought into the covers.

    @Lynne Connelly – Your confidence is awesome to read about. My main problem with covers, however, is that they’re more misrepresentative (is that a word?) of the genre than others.

    @L A Wheeler – Exactly. Romance novels are “people” stories, not “sex” stories. And the clinch covers sell the latter, not the former.

    @RobinB – There are authors’ books who go in the opposite direction. Julia Quinn, for example, has had her earliest books (Splendid trilogy) reprinted with totally tasteful, clinch-less covers. But then, that’s JQ.

    @Danielle – FYI, if you didn’t already know, Tessa Dare’s cover change coincides with a publisher change, when she moved from Ballantine to Avon.

  23. Victoria S says:

    Covers can be done right with a little effort. Way back when, Bantam put out all of Rex Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” books. Each slim paperback had a cover that actually depicted an element of the story on the front, and a fictionalized portrait of “Nero Wolfe” on the back holding an orchid. Around the same time Fawcett put out John D. MacDonald’s “Travis McGee” books. All the books have a color in the title. Not once did Fawcett print the wrong color on the books! Someone took the time to match the titles to the book covers.

    There are too many beautiful things in this world for publishers to fall back on using cheesy clinch pictured to depict romance novels. It’s lazy. it’s unimaginative, and it’s sort of insulting to us as readers. I agree with Danielle, we do have to live with the total package when buying books, and they should be better.
    One of my biggest pet peeves was “A Wallflower Christmas”. There were three women in “Christmas colored” dresses on the front,only problem is there are four wallflowers. I mean, really, somebody at the publishing house couldn’t have got that one right?

    I’m sorry, but once again, with the myriad number of beautiful images in the world, and the invention of computers romance novels should have some of the most beautiful (the envy of all other genres) covers in the world, not some of the most embarrassing. Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Mary Jo Putney, Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, Lisa Kleypas, Laura Lee Guhrke, Meridith Duran etal al, give us the best they’ve got with each story…their book covers should also depict the best publishing houses have got. Show some respect for the writers craft, they deserve it, and so do I.

  24. amers says:

    I get such grief from my husband and friends for the covers! And, unfortunately, it’s hard to say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” because the outer shell basically leaves you with no room to make a case(and to think I am one who will skim sex scenes more often than read them).
    My latest icky-cover is Nalini Singh’s intro to hardcover, Kiss of Snow. WHY must it have the Sperminator with a howling wolf? The back cover is gorgeous, but the front leaves much to be desired (such as a head on the male!).
    I think it’s a conspiracy by ereaders to get more converts. :D

  25. amers says:

    PS: I agreed with so many of the previous posts. Where’s the like button?? :)

  26. Fran says:

    Boy, I can’t say it any better than you, Victoria S. AMEN SISTA!!

    Maybe if the publishers would get the message that the young up and coming generation ISN’T buying them because of the cheesy covers and thinking the stories are 3rd. rate as well, they’ll change things. Speaking of beautiful covers, we all know Nora Roberts gets respectful covers because she’s a No. 1 seller but then there is Lauren Willig who has received fantastic ones. And there are others. Do they insist or do their publishing houses just have more respect for their authors? We can’t have respect for what we’re reading, coverwise, if the publishers don’t.

  27. L A Wheeler says:

    And then when the same cover is used for not one, not two, but THREE, count ‘em. THREE different books?!

    Talk about lack of respect. . . . .

    Again, I have no problem with clinch covers, with half-clothed people covers, etc., but this kind of suggests HH/M&B has no respect for its authors or its readers.

  28. Chris says:

    I do a weekly blog feature called the Misadventures in Stock Photography in which I collect a bunch of romance covers that have the same cover model(s) on them and use the covers to tell a little story. I’ve been running it for 76 weeks and am in no danger of running out of material.

  29. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Back in the 1930s through the 1950s, mystery covers were just as lurid, tacky, and stereotyped as romance covers are now. So, pretty much, were sf covers.

  30. xina says:

    Love it!

  31. Rosemarie says:

    @chris the stock photography photos are hiliarious, and it is amazing how many times the same pictures are used over and over again

  32. Chris says:

    @Rosemarie: I really had no idea when I started the whole thing. I’d seen one or two reused… but once I started looking, I saw them everywhere. I couldn’t unsee! ;)

  33. I think the covers that do the most damage to an author are the ones that give the reader the impression that it’s about X when it’s really Y.

    For instance, “Lucien’s Gamble” a novella by Sylvia Day. The ebook cover by Kensington is a cartoon of two fish with some hearts. Does that say Regency to you???

  34. Wendy says:

    What I despised most, until they stopped using it, was the publisher’s logo for Topaz. You not only had to hide the front cover, but you had to hide the spine and back, too, because of that stupid looking guy with the long black hair. Remember he had his shirt falling off one shoulder and his moob was hanging out? Mortifying.

  35. Jean Wan says:

    @Chris – Wow. I knew stock images were used, but that’s just scary.

    @Wendy – That’s one thing I hate – HATE HATE HATE – about my old copies of Mary Jo Putney and Mary Balogh: The Topaz Man. Geez.

  36. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Should I whisper a really naughty word about those stock photos?



    Try a study of re-use of 16th and 17th century woodcuts and engravings in printed books some time.

  37. willaful says:

    Oh, that barf-making Topaz man! Yeech! I was so thrilled when they reissued Mary Jo Putney.

  38. blah says:

    nitpicky correction: blond heroes and blonde heroines

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  40. AARPatH says:

    I don’t mind naked chests or oversized pecs. Just make the cover realistic–that’s all I ask. A cowboy story about a half naked guy on a horse? Yeah, getting bit to pieces by the insects. Not so good looking then. A “Regency” miss in non-period, prom queen clothing walking down the street? Let’s see her contemporaries laughing at her dress. Body parts? Just make the background realistic. Is it too much to ask?

  41. Patricia patterson says:

    I read all the time. Some books have the more salacious images on the inside. I would rather not expose young grandchildren to images inappropriate for their ages.
    Pictures that do not represent the characters are
    downright irritating.


  42. Thank you for your post, Jean. I’m a big fan of romance cover art, but I don’t care for some current trends.

    The worst is figures with part or all of their heads chopped of at the top edge. Almost as bad are figures with their faces obscured by shadows, or hidden by props, positioning, or accessories such as masks, hats, or veils. If we can’t see their faces, especially their eyes, how can we read their emotions?

    And the shirtless guy with perfect pecs and six-pac abs is getting pretty old. It implies readers are interested in romance heroes, and romances in general, for just sex. If you’re reading this blog, you know that’s not true.

    Lately I’ve noticed a tendency for some publishers, especially in the historical romance subgenre, to use one or two large fields of bold, bright colors on a front cover. This attracts the eye of a potential bookbuyer even when the cover is viewed only as a thumbnail, as is usually the case on the Internet.

    But though this makes sense in commercial terms, it’s questionable in artistic terms. And it’s even worse if we’re considering historical authenticity.

    A Regency belle in a gown of ruby red, emerald green, daffodil yellow, or bubble-gum pink is an anachronism. Such colors became possible only once aniline dyes were invented in the mid-nineteenth century. Before that, all dyes came from natural sources, and tended to result in softer colors.

    Having said all this, I must note that there are still great romance covers beings produced nowadays. But that’s a subject for another post. And I wouldn’t pay attention to what detractors of the genre think about romance covers. Their real reasons for putting it down have nothing to do with that!

  43. Aden Olukemi says:

    As a rule, I don’t touch books that have any of those silly pictures (or names, for that matter) if one goes to the trouble of putting a picture on a book, then go all the way and make it worthwhile. Half dressed Halle Berry look-alikes holding on to Hugh Jackmans don’t cut it for me, and quite a lot of people, goin by responses on this article. UK books hav it down to an art, I don’t know Julia Quinn, but I knoww Jill Mansell and I always look out for the picture on the cover. In fast friends, for instance, a display of various feet. In “Nadia knows best”, the family parrot and a watering can, wwhich refers to Nadia’s career, gardening. What’s worse, these books with “erotic” cover pictures hav the worst sex scenes!

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