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Illustrated Romance Novel Covers: Are they good or bad?

Let’s talk about Romance novel covers! In case you missed it, about two weeks ago, Romance Twitter exploded over cover art.

What happened? A Romance podcast had published a discussion on why they viewed illustrated Romance novel covers (or as they called them: “cartoon covers”) as something that fueled the negative public perception of our most beloved book genre. They said it was just a cheap cop-out to hide Romance between Women’s Fiction books and that these images destroy the “cover language” that tells Romance readers whether a book has explicit bedroom scenes or not.

Then, among others, author Penny Reid replied to this with her reasons why illustrated covers might actually be good for Romance! From there, the discussion expanded further and Romance Twitter went into much more detail on why this type of book cover is important for many authors, especially those who write diverse stories with LGBTQ+ characters and people of color, disabled characters and those with different body types.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: It’s everyone’s good right to not like illustrated covers because it’s just not their taste! However, it’s an entirely different thing to claim all kinds of far-reaching reasons why illustrated Romance novel covers would be “bad” for the genre as a whole.

How I Fell in Love with Illustrated Covers

A few months ago, I started seeing more and more illustrated Contemporary Romance novel covers pop up. Initially, I was a bit unsure what that was about because they did indeed remind me of Women’s Fiction. Nevertheless, I picked up books with these types of covers and you can find some of them on my list of Favorites of 2019. In the last two weeks (and for some time to come), I’ve specifically bought only diverse Romance audiobooks with illustrated covers because I wanted to dive further into this. And what I found were fresh and beautifully written stories that made me feel even stronger about this unfounded bashing of illustrated covers.

If you’ve missed the discussion on Twitter and have been unsure about this cover trend, there are two major aspects I want you to consider.

  1. As Kwana Jackson explained in the Tweet above, illustrated covers give all authors the opportunity to get high-quality, exclusive covers that really match their book. This is a very big deal! The stock photo market doesn’t work well for diverse Romance, and photoshop can only get you so far. Exclusive photos require a hefty budget for models and a professional photo shoot. This is out of reach for most books. Illustrated covers can help make Romance more diverse!
  2. The fact in itself that illustrated covers aren’t actually new to Romance makes me wonder why they even incite this level of hostility. While they are a new trend for Contemporary Romance, they’ve been around in Fantasy Romance, Paranormal, and Historical for a long time. The range of illustrated covers is as wide as that of photos and can reach from cutesy to sizzling. At the same time, they can give the reader more information on what the main characters look like while leaving a lot of room for our imagination!

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Cover Art in Romance Subgenres

There are many different subgenres in Romance. But photo covers have only been the status quo in Contemporary Romances. Unlike stock photography, illustrated covers offer a wide variety of styles and artistic freedom that either might not be achievable in photo shoots at all, or only at a huge expense.

Paranormal and Fantasy Romance has long been using illustrated covers.

Personally, I’ve never been that much of a fan of naked-guy-chests for Contemporary Romance novel covers. But I often enjoyed the book behind the chest. And I think it’s like that for most readers. Sometimes you love the cover but hate the book. Sometimes it’s the other way around. And sometimes everything works for you!

I’ve read a few times now that Romance supposedly has a specific code in book covers that give back which heat level the story has, whether bedroom scenes are explicit, fade-to-black, or not mentioned at all. And while some books seem to adhere to this scale, I have read many, many Romance novels over the years that didn’t. And I honestly don’t feel that this is the basis on which cover art should be chosen.

I have argued a lot for sex positivity in Romance (e.g. in What I don’t want to read in Romance anymore and in The Manw**re and the Virgin – Reversed Edition). But Romance shouldn’t only be about sex either. And that means the heat level can’t be the deciding factor for all cover art!

Many readers have specific preferences for heat levels. That’s why I would like to always see the level of explicitness as part of the book description. Book covers seem to be an unreliable indicator of that, not only for visually impaired readers. It’s just not a cover’s job!

What is a Cover’s Job?

I’m a cover snob. I’ve picked up many, many books solely because I loved the cover image. And even more have been ignored because the cover didn’t do anything for me (although I did pick some of them up later on because the book was recommended to me). But I feel like a beautiful illustration can give back so much more of the story than a stock photo of a naked man.

And that right there is a cover’s job. It’s usually the first thing that catches a potential reader’s eye before the blurb or the audio sample seal the deal. The cover should be appealing and give indications what the story is about. And while abs are great, they just don’t do that great of a job for this.

It’s not my intention to bash cover models here. But if illustrated covers are pitched against the status quo, we do have to talk about the pros and cons of the status quo, too, which seem to be guy chests.

I love these guys and recommend all of these books wholeheartedly! But naked male chests – while amazing – are not amazing enough to be the gold standard for all of Romance.

For me and my feminist view on the world, a naked man on the cover simply can’t be the gold standard for male/female Contemporary Romance. It’s a simple question: Where is the heroine?

Considering these books usually have a dual point of view, I want to regularly see heroines on covers. Not always! Just like I don’t always need to see the hero on the cover. But in my opinion, there should be a balance.

Illustrated Covers aren’t new, but are being reinvented!

These are just a few of the wonderful and diverse Romance novels with illustrated covers that I’ve been reading lately.

A big topic on Twitter was the cost of “cartoon covers” versus stock photos. Or rather, the cost of an illustrated cover that gives back the diverse characters in the book versus either taking a stock photo that doesn’t actually match or investing sums into a photoshoot that most authors simply aren’t able to afford. In that sense, I view the trend towards illustrated covers as an absolute blessing for indie-published Romance and am loving the beautiful art I’ve seen lately!

As for traditionally published books, there are two things I would just like to throw out there and you can do with them whatever you want. Firstly, these days, authors who get a publishing contract with a big house didn’t “make it”. Many of them get a contract for one book, often it’s only an ebook and not even a print or audiobook edition. From my understanding, these authors aren’t in a much more privileged situation than indie authors.

Secondly, I would like to point you towards one of the most controversial, but also most expensive book purchases of recent times, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Millions of dollars were invested by the publishing house to purchase the rights and promote this book. And yet, it has a “cheap” illustrated cover. Of course, it’s not Romance. But it makes me wonder whether illustrated covers deserve to be seen as an inferior choice, even for traditionally published books. They work for so many genres. And readers obviously enjoy them. Maybe we should look at it this way and, instead of feeling like they’re forced on us, think that now Contemporary Romance can finally put their own twist on illustrated covers, too!

Look at the variety! If these covers don’t make you look forward to these upcoming releases! … well, then I guess their blurbs will 😉

Again, if you don’t like illustrated Romance novel covers, no smart argument in the world will – or should – change that. To each their own! But illustrated covers aren’t out there to get you and destroy the genre. Quite the opposite. They’re the next step in making Romance more inclusive for all authors. They’re a chance for indie authors to adorn their work with high-quality, exclusive covers. And they’re great for fans because better-selling books mean MORE BOOKS FOR ALL OF US!

I hope we will continue to see a wide variety of covers and cover styles, both photos and illustrations, that give back the amazing range of the Romance genre. Without looking down on one or the other!

Discussion / ,

6 thoughts on “Illustrated Romance Novel Covers: Are they good or bad?”

  1. Ooh, that was a very interesting post.

    Personally I’m more likely to pick up an illustrated cover over a cover with some guys chest on it mainly because I’d get embarrassed if people saw me reading it (especially since I read a lot when commuting). And plus, I like the fact that illustrated covers show the heroine and not just the love interest!

    1. Thank you 🙂

      Yeah, I hear that from a lot of readers, too, that they’re uncomfortable reading print books with a naked dude on the cover in public. Understandable! And the guy chest covers say so very little about the actual story. In a way, they’re really kind of underselling the complexity of good Romance novels. I really hope we’ll see more variety in Romance now!

  2. I love that these new covers are breathing new life into the genre and I think that they will allow authors to reach new readers that may have never picked up a romance novel otherwise. There are always going to be those who know and appreciate the more traditional covers. However, to reach new audiences, expand the fan base and keep up with the changing times, we have to be willing to change and adapt. If these covers allow the genre to continue to grow and expand, that’s a total win in my eyes!

    1. That’s a very good point! I have to admit, 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have touched a Romance novel. It had this huge stigma for me. But when I actually stumbled into it by way of starting to read ebooks, it was a total gamechanger. It was literally everything I had always wished for in books! And if the new covers help other readers have this same revelation I had, all the better!

  3. I don’t mind illustrated covers but I do have a problem with them coming out in trade paperbacks. I hate the idea of paying twice the price for my romance stories. These books just feel like they are trying to be trendy, edgy and relevant. Whatever will get non-readers to the buy books. But non-readers aren’t the ones that have kept this genre alive. Its not really fair for us to be priced out of our own genre, just to appeal to people that don’t seem to be able to appreciate romance novels for what they have to offer. Its just frustrating. I am scared that soon enough all romance novels are going to follow this trend and make it hard for me to continue buying them. The $7.99 price tag was good enough. $16 for stories that are often average at best is just laughable.

    1. I’m not so up-to-date on print prices but what you’re describing would really suck! I mostly buy pre-loved when I buy a paperback of a book I enjoyed.

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