As long as I have read romance novels, I’ve been interested in their covers. They are bright and often lurid and embarrassing. Who wants to sit on a bus, or at a coffee shop, reading a book with the characters practically having sex on the cover? The marketing strategy is something I find fascinating and counter-intuitive, but it obviously works. A lot of casual readers do not know much about many authors or sub-genres or trends within the industry. They just pick up what looks interesting in the grocery store aisle.

In looking at many, many covers, I’ve found that many of them have similar characteristics, and similar styles. While there are, of course, exceptions, most cover styles fall into one of five categories: The Cute Animal, The Cute Couple, The Faceless Couple, The Solo Star, and the Sexy/”Clinch” Cover.

The Cute Animal (or Object) cover doesn’t have any people on it. The focus is just a puppy, or kitten, or some inanimate object, like a table with a candle on it, that is tangential to the plot and makes it look like a children’s book or a decorating catalogue. The original cover of Catch of the Day would be an example of this type of cover.

The Cute Couple features a pair of models doing something those cutesy couples that are prone to PDA do, like laying in the grass or sharing a bottle of wine on a terrace or cuddling on a couch. It’s the sort of thing that might make one squirm when done in public, but telegraphs that this book is obviously a romance.

The Faceless Couple, such as that shown on About That Night is one I don’t quite understand, where the models’ faces are totally or partially cut off from the picture. Why no faces? It’s not like the people on the covers ever look like the characters — or, if they fit the basic description, who is to say they don’t? They are usually doing something that falls somewhere between the cutesy and the sexual, like wrapping their arms around each other or the woman pulling the tie of the man.

The Solo Star can be one of several options, in which only one model is featured. For men, it’s usually a ridiculously cut guy without a shirt, or a brooder in a thematic setting. For women, it’s more of the pouty model-esque pose that Tyra would say were “editorial,” not “commercial.” Meredith Duran’s books have had both types:

The Sexy/”Clinch” Cover is pretty self-explanatory. It is the stereotypical cover of a romance novel, quite popular in the ‘90s but has been re-configured for the modern cover. Mostly, this means the women have better hair. It has a woman whose bodice is falling off and a man whose shirt is undone, while they’re tangled in occasionally physically impossible positions. They’re clearly in the middle of foreplay. Or, as on this cover, are already there.

Each cover comes with a different connotation, whether it is conscious or not. A “subtle” book would usually not have a half-naked couple on the cover, nor would a light contemporary have a dark or moody cover. Often, the meaning behind the cover, the marketing strategy, is more subtle than that.

My question is this: If you had to pick up a book in a rush, without knowing the plot or author, which would you choose?

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