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Judging a Book by the Cover


They say men are stimulated visually. It’s not what they hear whispered in their ears – it’s what they see with their eyes that move them toward sex and romance. For the most part, I do think that men are wired that way. However, when it comes to reading steamy historical romance novels, women are not only moved by the story, but by the covers that give us a glimpse of the hero and heroine in a passionate embrace.

Historically, the genre bombarded readers with bare-chested, muscular males, with shirts falling off their backs, toned physiques, and six-pack abs. The heroines were women with unbuttoned or unlaced dresses in the back, overflowing breasts from low necklines, and lustful scenes of kissing in provocative poses. These scenes set the stage for the forthcoming sexual tension between the characters and build the reader’s anticipation of what is to come between the pages.

The old adage you can’t judge a book by its cover is really only a half-truth because I dare say historical romance covers set the scene, tempts us with what’s inside, and reveals the type of book we’re about to read, or at least it should.  Personally, I’m drawn to the covers either positively or negatively.

Over the years, the amount of steamy covers has diminished somewhat. I believe this is due partially to the strict guidelines set by some platforms such as Facebook where authors routinely advertise their books.  If the cover pose is too provocative, they will refuse to run the advertisement.  Even I have had a cover rejected because a female was on top of the hero who had an unbuttoned shirt!  She was fully clothed.  I ended up changing the cover because I couldn’t advertise the book.

Many covers nowadays have a sole character on the front, either the hero or heroine.  There is definitely a proliferation of women in flowing dresses as the norm.  Men can be either fully dressed or with open shirts.  You will notice a lot of similarities in covers with authors adopting stylistic features such as fonts as part of an author’s branding. Books in a series often carry the same thematic designs.

There are many talented graphic artists that produce fantastic covers in the industry. Large publishing houses can afford the best artists and highly paid models to grace their covers. One artist, in particular, is Jon Paul. You will recognize his work on many covers coming from traditional publishing houses. I have reposted one cover in the blog post created by Jon Paul with his permission.

Many indie authors and traditional publishers are also turning toward stock photography on sites such as Dreamstime, iStockPhoto, Getty Images, Shutterstock, and Adobe.  Some higher-end photography sites such as Fine Art America and Trevillion are used by publishers, but usage rights are extremely expensive. There are also romance cover sites, such as Period Images, which I highly recommend, as well as Romance Novel Covers. The prices are reasonable and licensing terms are fairly straightforward. Frankly, I’ve thought for many years that photographers have a goldmine of opportunity if they would focus more on historical era shots with men and women in the fashions of the time. I’m happy to see an increase in such photographs on the market.

However, just purchasing a photograph isn’t the end of the design process. The real artistry, of course, comes when a picture is chosen, as well as a background, and then it’s turned into a cover story that is unique. There are many graphic artists who design covers for authors.  Some independent authors, if they are savvy enough, do their own covers if they are professional in appearance.  Poor cover art does not sell books.  Authors are wise to learn the rules about license usage rights, model releases, and copyright law when dealing with photography. Better to be safe than sued for damages in a court of law for infringement.

Since Fabio’s earlier days of book cover shots, with his long hair, chiseled face, and body, it seems the standard for romance covers hasn’t changed very much until recently. We now have new models and artists on the scene and the advent of advanced design techniques not available in the past.

Last fall, however, quite a few books released by traditional publishing houses such as Berkley, Kensington, Hachette, and Zebra were bright-colored cartoon-type covers, which are not my favorite. I wondered if this was an attempt to save money during the Covid lock-down months.  They remind me of contemporary books along the line of cozy mysteries rather than steamy romance.  Here are the titles if you want to take a look.  A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore, Notorious by Minerva Spencer, Mr. Malcome’s List by Suzanne Allain, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem by Manda Collins, and A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby by Vanessa Riley.  Frankly, I hope this is a short-lived trend because the joy of historical romance covers is the gorgeous works of art that inspire readers.

In any event, a well-designed cover does the trick. It will either entice us to purchase or not. Frankly, I remember the days when I loved to buy novels with beautiful covers and keep them on my bookshelf like works of art. Now, we enjoy them on high definition digital readers. Wherever they meet our eyes, in print or on-screen, the cover should be an enticing introduction to the story we are about to read.

As a reader, do you judge a book by the cover?  Do you pass on books with poorly design covers, even though the story inside might be terrific?  I’m curious to know.

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