Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

The Love/Hate Relationship with Romance Covers

The RomanceLandia Twittersphere has been awash with conversations related to this article that appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times: Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance E-Books Thrive. Jessica over at Read, React Review was irritated by the article’s comparison of romance readers to “insatiable carp” while others felt that the article largely put a positive spin on the romance genre and readers.

I have to admit, the insatiable carp thing didn’t bother me all that much. I have always been a pretty insatiable reader in every genre, so the fact that it was applied to romance didn’t stick out at me. What did stick out for me was the emphasis the article placed on the fact that ereaders allow romance devotees to read their books in public without everyone else knowing what they were reading by the cover. This quote, in particular, rubbed me the wrong way:

“It’s easier to check out some naughty little title online than in a brick-and-mortar store where your pastor could step up in line behind you,” said Barb Perfetti, the chief financial officer of All Romance. “We’ve had lots of customers write to us and say, ‘Now I don’t always have to show my husband what I’m reading.’ ”

Several things about this bothered me. I’m the first to admit that romance titles and covers can often be over-the-top in emphasizing the sexiness (aka naughtiness) of the content, but I’m bothered by the implication that readers have something to be ashamed of in choosing books that might have sex in them. More importantly, the fact that so many women apparently feel that they have to hide their romance reading habits from their husbands just…made me throw up a little in my mouth. Aside from anything it says about people’s perceptions of the romance genre, I guess it explains to me why so many married women READ it–they apparently don’t have much romance in their day-to-day lives with men like that as husbands!

Anyway, when I mentioned this on Twitter, I got sucked into a long and very difficult to maintain conversation on the subject of romance covers, primarily with redrobinreader, GrowlyCub, and jodywallace. After a while, it became pretty clear that I couldn’t entirely express my conflicting feelings about the “romance novel cover code” in 140 characters…hence this point.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that I used to be among those who hated the “clinch” covers and was embarrassed to be seen in public with any book that “looked like” a romance novel. I was afraid that people seeing me would judge ME by the cover of my book. They would look at that embracing, half-undressed couple and think, “Oh, it’s one of THOSE books.” And by “those,” I mean books with–gasp!–sex in them. It wasn’t the cover art, per se, that embarrassed me. I was, in my heart of hearts, embarrassed to bee seen reading romance novels with–gasp!–sex in them.

Now that I’m an author (albeit an exceedingly small-time one) and have had so much more opportunity to interact with other romance writers and readers, I’ve changed my opinion somewhat. When I first saw the cover art for Behind the Red Door, I was thrilled with it. I thought the colors were eye-catching and beautiful, the models attractive and reasonably historical in appearance, and their pose both romantic and sexy. The cover, in other words, signaled that the book was a romance and a steamy one at that. From a perspective of ensuring that readers who like hot historical romances would be able to identify it as a book they might like, it was perfect. In other words, it had all the right elements of the “code” for a romance novel cover.

But the question is, does the code give an incorrect impression of the romance genre? Do people deride romance as “soft-core porn” or “trashy bodice-rippers” because they infer that content from the cover art? And if so, would changing the romance cover art code improve the romance genre’s standing and lead it to be more respected/less derided?

There are other questions as well. Do romance readers respond to (i.e., buy) romances with sexy cover art because that’s the only choice do they have? If the covers of most romance novels were more like the covers shown below (all of which were suggested during our Twitter conversation as potential “models” for changing the code), would readers be able to distinguish their romances from other genres?

Now, these are all beautiful covers, but I have to admit, I’m fully dependent on the established code, for better or worse, and here’s what these covers say to me:

  • Shadowheart: Probably a romance, but could be a mystery of some kind (that falcon and the ruby); unless I’m familiary with the author, I’ll probably skip over it in favor of something more clearly romance.
  • The Slightest Provocation: Austenesque historical fiction (it is, in fact, erotic historical romance)
  • Warprize: Fantasy with a “kick-ass heroine” and possibly a romantic element but maybe not an HEA (it is apparently a romance with an HEA)

In other words, if I’m looking for a steamy historical romance (which is the type of book I prefer), none of these covers would immediately strike me as what I was looking for, including the one that actually provide is. Now, here are some covers that I think are equally as beautiful from an aesthetic point of view as those above, but involve the apparently much-dreaded clinch:

The cover for Seven Nights to Forever is obviously the “sexiest” of the three, but I think it’s really lovely. I like the other two especially for the way the heroine’s are looking into “the camera” with such self-awareness. They’re women I want to know more about.To me, none of these covers says “trashy” or “prurient” or “soft-core porn.” They’re beautiful depictions of couples in various embraces, and since these are romances about a COUPLE falling in love, I think that’s perfectly logical.

So it’s not, IMO, about romance novel covers being ugly/unattractive (although some certainly are!), but about the fact that they say to everyone in the world, “Hello, I’m a romance novel.” And…so what? I think if you’re embarrassed that the cover of your book tells people it’s a romance, you’re embarrassed to be “caught” reading a romance because, on some level, you feel there’s something “wrong” with them. Lest you think I point the finger at others, I turn it and point it squarely at myself. I used to be one of those readers.

But now I’m happy to say, loudly and proudly, that I read and write romance–books about people who fall in love, with or without sex on the page, and live happily ever after. I’m not going to apologize for that. And I don’t need publishers to revamp the cover art code I’ve come to depend on and even appreciate merely to “hide” my romance habit.


  • Meankitty December 10, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Hm. I wonder what people thought of romance before the covers were so skintastic? Did they think the books were soft-core porn or merely a pulpy waste of space?

  • Zoe Winters December 10, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    It’s never been the sex part of romance covers that bothered me. It was more because most people assume romance novels are poorly written with very thin plots and very formulaic. This is true for some romance novels, but not for all romance novels. My issue was with being perceived as “unintelligent” for reading it… or like I couldn’t tell “good writing” from “bad writing”. But the sex was the absolute least of it. I’ve read some wonderfully written erotica that bordered on being literary. And even though there is some VERY bad erotica out there, I guess since my first exposure to it was of the more literary variety, I see the genre differently from romance (since my first exposure to romance wasn’t positive, lol.)

    And I think YOUR book, Behind the Red Door is VERY well-written. And the sex in it was wonderful!

    Unfortunately we have a lot of bad writing in the genre which I think stereotypes it to many. So I’m not sure everyone who reacts against romance is reacting against the sex part. Because if you say you read erotica many of the same people who turned their nose up at romance, don’t have the same reaction.

    Now, granted there is a whole group of prudes out there who DO have a problem with the sex part. But me having so little problem with the sex part and so little care if someone else thinks I *gasp* like sex, that isn’t the part I’ve focused in on.

  • Ericka Scott December 14, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    I think the cover “code” is very important for the consumer. I’ll snatch up a book with a spooky looking house on the cover (as I love, love, love ghost stories in almost any genre). I’m beginning to devour Urban Fantasy titles, and need that kick-ass heroine and tattooed hunk on the cover to identify them.

    The plain covers, well, honestly, I might just skip over them as I’ve not had good luck with “those” books…sometimes you get a good book and sometimes you get something unexpected (and not in a good way — like sagas or really intense women’s fiction — might be good for some, I’d rather paper my birdcage with the pages than read them).

    I love clinch covers…especially when the colors are appealing and the models are attractive.

    As for caring what I read…I’m just proud to announce that I DO read! LOL

  • Lindsay December 27, 2010 at 5:01 am

    I noticed this post and wanted to add another view. I grew up in a very small very conservative town and romance covers were a problem for me because in really small towns it isn’t just about you, it wasn’t just about me but about my family and everyone else. It was one of those everyone knows everyone else kind of places. Romance novels and anything about sex was practially stripped from the area or shuned by locals.

    The assumption that people came to when they saw what I read was that my mother didn’t raise her daughter right. Once I got married a guy told my husband that he wasn’t very good at controlling his wife, it was only partly a joke. There was a real reason to not want outsiders to know that I read romance. My close friends, my husband, they all knew that I just got a kick out of them. But the ‘others’ would actually go behind my back and talk to my family about getting me to stop. My experience was a bit on the extreme side, but I can see why others would have similar worries. Now I live in a more liberal city. I can walk into a shop, go straight to the romance section and not blush, but it took awhile. I also now love the sexy covers.


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