Over the holidays, I saw several posts on Facebook and Twitter with links to “Best Romance Novel Covers of 2012”, (such as the one on RTBookreviews.com) and also a few “Worst Romance Novel Covers” (such as the one on HeroesandHeartbreakers.com). The articles and various comments were entertaining and informative. As a writer who hopes to be deciding on cover art for a novel someday, it really got me thinking about the recent trends in cover art and what the future holds for this important aspect of the books we choose to read.
Romance novels are notorious for their cover art, more so than many genres. Part of this “reputation” came from the proliferation of mass-marketed paperbacks in the 1970’s and early 1980’s that featured a scantily-clad couple on the cover in a frantic passionate embrace, hair flowing and faces contorted in intense expressions (one commenter on a blog called it their “O-faces”). It was the first time a male book cover model became ridiculously famous, too- yes, I am talking about the illustrious Fabio. Thankfully, this was about the time the trend had reached its’ peak. Historical Romances were enormously popular then, so many covers featured the models in period costume, thus the derisive term “Bodice Rippers” began to be used to describe Romance novels in general, usually by people who did not read them.
It seemed that once the cheesy-couple-in-embrace trend subsided, covers became classier, with more prominent use of borders, lettering, landscapes, etc. There were still women or men or even couples on some covers, and these became more varied as the Romance genre began to branch into several different subgenres, such as Paranormal, Romantic Suspense, Sweet Romance, Inspirational, and so on. Cover art began to more closely resemble the stories themselves, with clues or symbolism that depicted the actual story. This trend has emerged to create the great variety we see today while browsing the bookshelves or online outlets for novels.
The trend of including elements of the story in the cover art has created an expectation among readers. I polled various friends and fellow writers on this subject, and also researched blogs and book review websites. Most readers find it adds to the story when they can look back at the cover and see the “hidden clues” the cover art held to the story. It’s as if the wrapping on the Birthday Gift held clues to the object inside! Conversely, it is a great source of irritation when the opposite happens, and the cover art has nothing to do with the story, or the hero has black hair in the story and he’s blond on the cover, for example. We have come to expect the package to depict the product, and it feels as though the publisher didn’t care about the story and just wanted a flashy cover. It feels like bait and switch, but by that time we have read the book, so it may be moot. Or is it?
The most obvious recent trend I have seen while browsing for Romance novels is what I call “The Hot Ab cover.” Thousands of naked male abs on cover after cover. No head, sometimes a bit below the belt, but mostly ABS. Hey, I love looking at a tight six pack! But there are so many of these now I find myself just breezing past them. Is anyone else becoming numb to these? And does it tell us anything about the story, other than, ‘hot guy takes his shirt off’ ?
Another trend has been sparked by the phenomenal success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James. It pertains more often to Erotic Romance or Erotica, and has been described as ‘minimalist’ or ‘stealth’ covers. Whatever you may think of “Fifty Shades of Grey’, that cover was evocative. Just the silk tie….in grey of course…looks innocent, right? But so much meaning behind it, that you only fully understood once you read the novel! (or some Spoiler explained it to you.) Still, it must have worked well because there are shelves and online sites full of novels with a single flower, a pair of cufflinks, or a belt…hint, hint, get it? Yes, we do.
The other benefit to these seemingly innocuous covers is you can sit on the subway or a park bench reading, and strangers (or your family) may not realize you are reading a Romance novel or Erotica. And the use of e-readers certainly allows for privacy, too. Which brought me to question whether cover art will soon be irrelevant, if everyone migrates to reading on devices instead of paper?
Now cover art has been reduced to the size of a postage stamp, when shopping online. But many say it is still important, and continues to drive their choices when shopping for books to read. So how do authors and publishers catch the shopper’s eye, intrigue them with hints about the story, but avoid becoming a clone of all the other covers out there?
It is a challenge to be sure. Perhaps these trends of men’s Hot Abs and/ or Just a Belt Buckle/Tie/Cufflink will seem as cheesy to us years from now as those book covers of yesteryear. Will today’s Hot Abs become tomorrow’s Bodice Rippers?
What would you like to see more of on covers? What do you never want to see again?