In Defense Of Women’s Fiction Book Covers

May 5th, 2008 · 16 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

As a long-time romance novel reader — yes, Mom, I know, but I never warmed to the serial killers — I know that many of the books will never qualify as “great”. Still, there are a lot of talented writers telling incredible stories with amazing voice and creativity in the genre. This is so for all types of literature, so much chaff, so little quality wheat.

Ugly book covers are suffered by many male authors as well.

What I have hated most about reading romance, and I’m including the entire cowboys, babies, virgins, and daddies obsession, is reading a book in public that had one of those covers. Breasts falling out of dangerously low-cut gowns, well-muscled long-haired men in overly aggressive poses, cutesy, cuddly babies on gender-coded blankets. Romance novel covers, especially in days gone by, sent the wrong message about the quality and content of the novels.

Legend has it that the “bodice ripper” style of cover was geared toward the men who were buyers for bookstores, not the ultimate consumer. After all, women who read heterosexual-based romance aren’t generally choosing their books based on the cup size of the cover model. In fact, a lot of non-scientific studies have shown that more than a lot of women are uncomfortable reading romance novels in public…because of the covers.

With the advent of chick-lit and women’s fiction as a burgeoning business, book covers for fiction geared toward women suffered from similar, if less cringe-inducing, problems. Recall, for a moment, the overabundance of shoes on candy-colored backgrounds, the pastoral settings with weather-beaten houses, misty water colored memories of small town front porches. Just as there is a sameness in a new season’s television shows and designer clothing and wall paint, there is a sameness in book covers geared toward a particular genre.

This bothers ”’Philadelphia Inquirer”’ columnist Karen Heller, who finds this year’s trend toward “dismemberment” distasteful. She feels the books deserve better, though she doesn’t really offer suggestions about what sort of cover images might better represent the books and their content. She notes, incorrectly,

And it’s not fair to gifted designers who must groan when told to do the femmy-lit thing yet again. The beautiful book is an increasingly rare thing. Most times you see one, the author is male. What does this say? All women writers deserve generic treatment while all men are special in their own way?

If it will help Heller, I can point to a whole bunch o’ ugly covers for novels written by men and an equal number of beautiful covers for novels written by women.

Heller believes that covers with floaty dresses and curvy backs halve a book’s audience. Study after study shows that more women read fiction than men. I don’t think it’s the cover images holding men at bay. And the apparently more tasteful covers given to novels written by men aren’t doing much to increase male readership, are they?

People judge books by their covers. This, I know, offends a certain level of literary snob, but is clearly understood by publishers and readers. Book covers, necessarily, must send messages to potential readers. I know that a book with a smiling, probably gassy baby on the cover isn’t for me. Likewise a pregnant woman. But there are a lot of readers out there who see those images and believe the story inside will appeal to them far more than a cover with a handgun or Soviet-era image.

Cover images very often provide the first level of culling when it comes to find new books to read. When you walk into a bookstore, the sheer volume of product is overwhelming, even if you’re able to isolate your wanderings to just a single section. Browsers, as opposed to readers who are looking for very specific items, pull books off shelves because they look interesting. An image, a clever title, an author’s name, a blurb, intriguing cover copy. All of these elements serve one purpose: hooking the reader to buy and read a book.

I agree that gender bias is alive and thriving in the publishing industry. Just look at the silly criteria used to develop the main ”’New York Times”’ bestseller list. Only in the publishing industry would such paltry figures — relative to sales of non-bestsellers — constitute a “bestseller”. In any given month, an author of a romance published by Harlequin outsells the leader of the so-called bestseller list, but you don’t see that being acknowledged by the ”’NYT”’.

Book reviews continue to be male-dominated as well. I’ve seen a definite trend toward including more books and reviews written by women, but it’s still a Y-chromosome oriented business. Personally, I think this has been a key factor in the decline of newspaper book review sections — there’s a time and place for exclusivity, but not in a newspaper that purports to serve an entire community.

“Male” fiction is taken more seriously on many levels, and, yes, the stupid covers play a negative role in this. Women’s fiction suffers from the belief that domestic issues — home and family — are smaller and less important than big issues. This is a perception that predates the Victorian notions of “spheres”, with the feminine domestic sphere treated as less important the manly public sphere.

I have bypassed many novels because they have lousy covers (and held my snobbery at bay to read some because trusted friends have made it clear that the book inside is worth the time), but I cannot advocate making book covers more appealing to men in order to draw in a larger audience. It seems to me that the male authors need female readers and those covers should speak to the women who are buying the majority of books. Why should women have to make their books more “manly” to achieve male readers? Aren’t we talking about grown-ups here?

Book covers communicate to readers, and publishers are fully aware of the messages they’re sending. While Heller thinks publishers believe women are stupid (“The thinking, or so I imagine, is that readers will look at these women’s body parts or backs and identify. “Why that’s me!” or “That looks just like my old friend Susie!””), I think publishers know the importance of using imagery to reach the right audience for a book.

Because if you think today’s women are going to plunk down hard-earned dollars for a book because a cover model’s back looks like her old friend Susie, then you seriously underestimate female intelligence and savvy.

File Under: Square Pegs

16 responses so far ↓

  • Lori Devoti // May 5, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I am horribly guilty of buying books because I like the covers. And a little dismemberment doesn’t bother me at all–although the back thing has no appeal, I did like the headless bit that was going on for awhile, or just a sexy pair of high-heeled boots.
    I’ve heard the classic clutch covers were “back in the day” designed to appeal to male book buyers (at the bookstore level, not reader level) and not women–not sure if that’s true, but it’s an interesting theory…
    And, yes, every conference I go to with male authors present I hear about going after the female market. But just slapping (as in putting, not actually slapping) a woman on the cover isn’t quite enough to pull me in…

  • Tracy Cooper-Posey // May 6, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Personally, I’ve always been drawn to covers that tell you something about the story, that hint of drama or suspense, or give you a good idea about the nature of the characters.

    Romance novel covers rarely seem to do this, I’ve noticed. Some of the historical ones are really bad: the heroine looks like she belongs to the 21st century — full makeup, glossy lips, and modern haircut. Her dress has very little to do with the period the novel is set in. Often she looks disinterested, not passionate.

    One year I returned home from a romance conference with a “book cover cover” — a soft faux leather cover that you could slide over the book’s cover pages, that would allow you to read the book in public without drawing stares.

    I still have it.

    I say all this with the deepest respect for the people who design covers. They have a next to impossible job, and it’s so easy to get it wrong. I know, because my husband is (literally) a romance cover model.



  • Diana // May 6, 2008 at 8:51 am

    I don’t care how good the book is, I’m not going to buy a book with a cheesy cover on it. I love the idea of the book cover cover though! If I could use it to get through the checkout counter maybe I would consider buying something that looked like a bodice ripper. The the story better be well worth it.

  • Rae // May 7, 2008 at 5:15 am

    Has anyone read the new book out by Heather THomas (actress from 80’s Fall Guy etc.) “Trophies”?

    It doesn’t have what I’d consider to be a “cheesy” cover, but it is an excellent book that follows a group of Hollywood second wives (the ‘trophies’ of the title) who are all involved in charity causes and deal making & breaking.

    VERY well written book, I loved it and can’t recommend it enough. I saw a list of reviews for it up on a MySpace page, and there’s also a great review of it at Books and Chat–

  • Jane O // May 7, 2008 at 7:34 am

    When I was in graduate school in NYC (45 years ago) there were always women on the subway reading paperbacks in an opaque plastic cover. At the time I thought they were just protecting their books, but when I started reading Romance novels, I realized that they were just saving themselves embarrassment.
    There are still far too many embarrassing covers, which usually have little to do with the book inside the cover. And that is foolish. A cover that is nonembarrassing and also gives a clue to the kind of book inside might attract the readers who will like the book.

  • Jude Welch // May 7, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I don’t mind a little romance in a fiction Adult or Young Adult book. I prefer to read mysteries, fantasy (if done well) and LOVE a good series where you get to know the characters.

  • K.S.R. Kingworth // May 7, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    I really love this blog. I’d like to make a link to it from my blog at Do you mind?

  • M.L. Malcolm // May 7, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    My second novel, “Deceptive Intentions,” is coming out in June, and because I went with an independent press I had final approval on the cover. They ended up letting me choose between two vintage photographs: one with a shadowy man on the cover, the other with a couple who looked as if they had ducked into an alley to avoid being seen during a romantic interlude. I chose the latter image, because my informal focus groups (read: forty emails sent to friends and readers) picked that one, but not by a wide margin. In fact, more women than men were turned off by the couple cover because it looked “too much like a romance.” Guys seemed very into the potential sexual intrigue displayed on the couple cover, although many women commented that I’d “get more women readers” with the couple cover. Go figure.

  • romance novel covers // May 16, 2008 at 12:03 am

    […] especially in days gone by, sent the wrong message about the quality and content of the novels. … Bitches, Trashy Books Romance Novel Reviews Come for the …… will get books and a romance […]

  • Anonymous // Oct 17, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I was googling for hot Fabio shots and happened on this. Go figure.

    I’m in my mid-forties an have been reading romance novels on and off for thirty years.

    My understanding of it has always been that the cover often represents how graphic of a sex scene you would be presented. Historical, romance-fictions have always lent themselves to be bodice-ripping affairs, and if you weren’t totally convinced by the cover, there was always the sub-group category located on the spine of the book just too play it safe – like: The Darkest Embrace collection, or the Forbidden Passion collection. The spine gives you an idea how innocent or decadent the characters are going to behave. It’s pretty much industry practice.
    I have yet to be misled by a cover, yet. *wink-wink, nudge, nudge*

  • Joanna // Feb 1, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Can I ask a totally stupid question and not get too many shoes thrown at me?? I have just started reading romance novels after a hiatus (?)of 25 years. They got too boring and the pictures on the covers nade me so angry. I am not the least bit interested in what the woman looks like, as it’s me that I dream of seeing in that gorgeous to-die-for man’s arms. Why are the men almost so secondary on the covers? And why don’t the people on the covers look like the people that are in the stories?? This had ragged on me for years while I read the books. I want to see the handsome men that are built like beautiful hunks of manhood that are not available in my world. Thus I read the romance books to get them into my Lil’ world. And another thing that makes me sooooooo mad!!! I love hair on a man’s chest and almost none of them have any, even if they have it in the story!!
    It’s not on the front cover. So, now that the shoes have stopped flying, could someone give me a clue!?!

  • Lynn Hubbard // Nov 2, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I am in the process or writing a historical fiction book. I can’t afford a model for the cover sigh…..
    so i used a photo i took while in Vegas! Please let me know what you think!

    Run into the Wind

  • Kassia Krozser // Nov 2, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Lynn — It’s unclear why you think you need to hire a cover model at all. That’s the publisher’s job! You need to focus on the story.

  • Livia // Dec 3, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Some romance covers are good and some are really bad or stupid. I would never buy the book just reading a summary. I need to have a picture, which will tell me something about the story. That’s why I would never read some Historical or Harlequin Blaze romance. Their covers to unnatural and stupid. But I like covers with the kids and families. I also like Harlequin SupperRomance and American romance covers. They always have meaning and people on them look real. I like series covers and Special Edition covers. I learned long time ago, that the best books have the best covers. I don’t care how cheesy they are. I like cheesy, because I like an interesting story lines and I don’t care about sex and nake bodies on the covers. I also like a cowboy them books. Men on cowboy books covers always look good even if their bodies covered with cloves. On my opinion all nake bodies on the covers just ruin books. I can’t stand for example the Harlequin Presents covers. All female models their always wear some negligee and pose in such ridiculous poses, witch naturally no women would do in real life. They all look not like cover for romance novels, but like advertising for Victoria Secrets models.

  • Essa Adams // May 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I always loved covers with the houses, meadows, forest path. Never liked covers with a woman on the front. For the most part, I prefer to imagine and the silhouette or the headless just turns me off. When I designed my novel cover, my friend said, no not a bed! But I think a cover can represent all the subtitles the book would have. The Marriage Bed, The Dying Bed, The Broken Bed, The Healing Bed. The cover begins to tell the story. My new favorite covers, Olive Ketteridge and The Secret Life of Bees. Golden yellow is in for 2009/2010.

  • Anabell // Jun 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Joanna that’s exactly how I feel I hate to see an ugly guy on the cover it kind of Ruiens the whole story for me. I know that sounds shady but if he’s not attractive in the cover why make him seem he is in the actual story. If he is an ugly hero than I would be okay with the not very attractive photo.