Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cover Art

Here's another call for papers which got me thinking, though possibly at a tangent from what the conference organisers are hoping to discuss at the conference:
Image and the Imagination in the Visual and Verbal Arts

A program of the Society for Critical Exchange in conjunction with the M/MLA conference in Cleveland, OH, November 8-11, 2007

This working conference aims to examine the image—broadly conceived as pictorial, textual, and digital representations—and its relations to the collective imagination. We invite papers that explore how images are adopted, adapted, and translated in a variety of media (textual,visual, or digital), across borders, and among cultures. We invite papers from all disciplines, including but not limited to art history,literature, the history of the book, anthropology, law, library and information sciences, and the cognitive sciences.

Potential rubrics include:

Literature: How can illustrations, cartoons, and photographs affect the way that literature is interpreted?
The full call for papers can be found here, and the deadline for submissions is 15 March 2007.

This reminded me that we haven't had a discussion on this blog about the cover art on romance novels, and I think it's about time for one. Snarky comments on romance covers abound, of course. They've been parodied mercilessly here, and scrutinised in great detail by the inimitable Smart Bitches. They've discussed foreign covers too, including some of the Russian and Czech covers for J. D. Robb's In Death series and it's clear that there are national differences in cover art. There have been some interesting and rather more serious discussions about this topic on the Word Wenches' blog. Mary Jo Putney, for example, linked to a very interesting article by Carol Pinchefsky about the differences between US and UK cover art (though it wasn't specifically about the cover-art for romance novels):
Culture influences design, and as America and the United Kingdom are two vast nations separated by a common language, cover art obviously reflects this.

Because art is so fluid, because the market changes from decade to decade, and because there are no hard and fast rules, it is all but impossible to summarize the difference between the two. Or is it?

Rita Frangie, an assistant art director at Penguin Books, says she does not want to generalize. However, "Here [in the United States] we tend to want to use every inch, to fill [the cover] up with color, and to get it to do as much as it can do. Everything here is bigger, more commercial, more targeted to sell and to advertise. In Europe, the covers are geared to look more like the way they dress: very simple. Their use of negative space goes along with the theory of less is more."
In the comments section of another blog post on the topic of cover art at the Word Wenches site, one UK poster, AgTigress, said that she preferred covers which are:
free of the intense fussiness and busy-ness that tends to characterise American cover-art, which so often falls victim to too many colours, too many motifs, too many fonts, too much everything!
I'm not the most visual of people myself, but when I took a quick look at the examples under discussion I did tend to prefer the British covers. It's a bit difficult to compare UK and US romance cover art because most of the romance sold in the UK comes from Harlequin Mills & Boon, and their various divisions share and reuse cover art. All the same, even when you have the same photos on the covers, there can be interesting differences. Take these covers for Ally Blake's Meant-To-Be Mother, for example. Here are the Australian, the US and then the UK versions: [Apologies for the way the pictures are all over the place. I'm new to posting pictures and I haven't quite got the hang of it yet. The Australian one (with the blue section) is from Ally's website, the American one is from Amazon.com and the UK one (with the intense pink section) is from Amazon.co.uk.]

These covers would seem to back up some of the assertions made in Carol Pinchefsky's article, namely that American's prefer a close connection with the characters. The American version of Meant-To-Be Mother has a close-up of the couple, whereas the UK and Australian versions give more space to details of the location. As for what AgTigress said about fussiness and use of multiple fonts, it's also demonstrated here. The Australian edition has 4 labels, one above the other, telling the reader that (a) this is a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel (b) that it's in the 'Sweet' line (c) that the book is by an Australian author (UK and US editions never mention when the author is a UK or US national) and (b) that this particular book is a 'Heart to Heart' novel, i.e. that it's a more emotional read. That particular piece of information is on the back cover of the UK version. The American version has fewer labels, but it does have that rather large, frilly heart (this was on all the US books in this line issued in February). The difference between the US focus on the central characters and the UK and Australian covers is even more marked in this example from the 'Sexy'/'Presents'/'Modern' line. It's Anne McAllister's The Santorini Bride, again with the Australian version first (red section), followed by the US (pendant design) and UK (blue section) covers: [Those are taken from the Australian Harlequin site, the US Harlequin site and Amazon.co.uk.]

You can compare the covers of some of Jenny Crusie's foreign editions with her US covers. She doesn't have any of the traditional clinch covers on any of her books though. I hadn't seen any romances with that sort of cover until I was introduced to them via reading US single-title historicals and the Smart Bitches' cover snark, and I was somewhat amazed by them. Candice Hern points out that there are now alternative types of design for historical romances:
For the first decade or two of the modern historical romance, covers were primarily what we now call clinch covers: a couple in various stages of disarray or undress with limbs entined and hair flowing in the wind. These are the covers that made Fabio a star. And helped give birth to the term "bodice ripper." Thankfully, not too many books are still being published with that style of cover.
Jennifer McKnight-Trontz has written about romance novel cover art in her 2002 The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), which demonstrates that a variety of other styles existed prior to the explosion of the 'clinch cover':
The romance cover of the 1940s had very glamorous illustrations of couples going out on the town, McKnight-Trontz says. The 1950s covers were more about women and their careers. "You would see the women in a nice suit, looking out a window contemplating, should they have a career or a man?" [...] By the 1960s, nurse romances were in vogue. "The middle class women these books were intended for could relate to a nurse," the author says. [...] The 1970s romance covers reflected the rise of women's liberation, and the bodice ripper: female heroines in period costumes being ravished by tall, tanned, long-haired and often bare-chested men. But McKnight-Trontz says those books couldn't be judged by their covers. The illustrations showed passion -- a tease really -- rather than what the books were really about. (NPR report)
Cover art is often not considered real 'art', though there's a trend for historical romance covers at the moment to use portraits or other artwork from the past. Candice Hern's Just One of Those Flings, for example, features 'a detail from the portrait of Madame Récamier by Francois Gérard, painted in 1805. It is an actual detail of the painting and not a re-painted or re-imagined version' (you can compare the original with the cover on her website). Other covers are original artworks created specifically for a particular novel and the work of cover artist Franco Accornero in particular was described at AAR by an appreciative Carol Irvin (links to other cover-related items on AAR can be found here). James Griffin, another cover artist, explains how he creates some of them in this interview with Michelle Hauf. He posts some of the original pictures on his blog. Here's the artwork for a Harlequin Historical by Gail Ranstrom, The Courtesan's Courtship. The artwork, as published on the cover of the novel, has been cropped considerably, with part of the hero's face, and much of the setting no longer visible. Here's another piece of artwork by James Griffin, which will be the basis for the cover of P. C. Cast's forthcoming Divine by Blood. P.C. Cast herself is delighted with it and with previous covers Griffin created for her and mentions that 'There has been some talk of releasing the art to these three covers as limited edition prints'. Some readers also enjoyed the 'clinch covers' and consider them to be art, as well as something which enhances the reading experience:
you can relive the beauty of a good book with its wonderful characters, through its cover art—again and again. I love reading romance novels, and escaping to a world of fantasy, mystery, and adventure on occasion. I’ve even taken up collecting Romance Cover Art on a large scale (from the Romance Book Covers website)
So, if you were familiar with the 'clinch covers' are you pleased or disappointed that there are now many alternatives? What sort of impression did the clinch covers give of the genre? What do you think about national differences when it comes to preferences in cover art? Would you consider some covers to be art, and if so, which ones? Do you think that cover-art influences your buying choices? And can a good or bad cover affect your reading experience?


  1. One curious thing is that to me as an American (or perhaps as someone with the visual memory of a chinchilla), the American covers above all look less cluttered than their UK and Aussie counterparts.

    As for the clinch covers, I've noticed a lot of romances which have them but hide them a bit. So the actual cover art is a frilly font, or a picture of a flower, but then you open the cover up and there's the half-naked clinch. Many of these are designed such that the cover is only about 3/4 size horizontally so that the clench pokes through at the edge. Perhaps these publishers want the best of both worlds here.

  2. I think perhaps the US covers are less cluttered if by that you mean that there's a central bit focussed on the main character(s) but if you're thinking about the cover and how it's made up in terms of white space, blocks of colour, labels and different fonts, then they maybe look more cluttered (though that Ally Blake Australian cover has a really, really high number of labels). I wonder if Americans are more likely to perceive background behind the characters as 'clutter', whereas non-Americans might see the scene (including location and characters) as one whole, and therefore lacking in clutter?

  3. As an American reader, I find the UK and Aus editions much more pleasing. The setting is part of the draw and the US edition removes the sense of place.

    Clinch covers make me cringe. I much prefer designs such as Susan Carrol's St. Leger series (2005 and 2006 editions), or the Johanna Lindsey recent redesigns. I have declined to purchase books in stores--even books I want to read--because of the lurid cover art, and have chosen to buy online instead.

    Some publishers put the image on the back in lieu of descriptive copy, and others tip in an insert under the main cover. Of these options, I prefer the tip-in over the back cover art. Loosing descriptive copy looses this reader when it's an author who's new to me.

    I won't read a romance novel with a clinch cover anywhere in public. Not on a plane, at work, in the park. A woman panting over a strong man, who presumably will protect and care for her, isn't an image I want associated with me--especially at work. Not only are books judged by their covers, so are their readers.

  4. I believe the two-stage covers with flowers/ribbons on the front and the clinch painting on the inside are called "step-back" covers. All About Romance actually includes this as a separate category in their cover competition.

    One thing that's interesting about the US Harlequin versus the UK/Aus covers is that the US ones use serif and script fonts with lots of swashes and the others use sans serif fonts almost exclusively. Sans serifs are much more popular in general in Europe than they are in the States, but I'm guessing that this actually reflects different marketing priorities. Possibly, the US Harlequins are being marketed towards older women, whereas in the UK and Aus they are aiming younger. The UK cover also claims to be a "Modern" romance, which is interesting.

    Overall the US Harlequin cover feels more old-fashioned and restrained -- lots of white space, small image (in direct contradiction, I should point out, to the quote about how in the US "we tend to want to use every inch," and "fill up" the cover with color). Or maybe, because we're a jumped-up, uncouth, consumerist culture, ugly diamond jewelry speaks louder than yachts. :-)

    As a professional designer, I find the US covers to be much tighter and better designed than the others.

    As a postscript, I would add that you can't talk about covers these days without mentioning the so-called "man titty" covers. I find these more homoerotic than heteroerotic (is that a word?) since they inevitably feature impossibly muscled, hairless, headless torsos and not much else. I've always wondered if they weren't a subtle way to raise the male readership of romances...

  5. Thanks Laura, another interesting topic.
    The only time I notice the cover is when it is pointed out to me. I look for the author's name and then read the back blurb. To test myself on this I tried to visualise the covers of my books and came up with only two much read books from the mid eighties.
    Oh, and another, the re-issue of Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl last year had a raised pattern on the cover which my fingers couldn't resist. Mind, until Mr Wendy pointed it out, I was unaware that what the fingers were caressing were pearls.

  6. There was a discussion about distribution in one of the sf blogs somewhere about the US mass market paperback distribution system and how it led to the classic "bodice-ripper" cover, which alas I am failing to Google up right now. The gist of it was that those covers with the woman swooning into the man's arms and out of her bodice were not intended to appeal to the *readers*. They were intended to appeal to the guys in the distribution chain, to entice them to stock that particular book, all the way down the chain from buying for the wholesaler to how many copies went into the drugstore spinner racks.

  7. Susan, I've not come across many stepbacks but I have seen a couple, so I know what you're talking about.

    I had a quick Google for the St. Ledger's and came up with The Bride Finder, The Night Drifter and Midnight Bride. Are those the ones you mean? For some reason there are two rather different images for The Night Drifter in the little thumbnails you can click on, under the main image. Is one of those the stepback cover?

    Kimber, I can see you know what you're talking about, unlike me. I still prefer the UK covers though, and if other UK readers have similar tastes to mine, that would tend to suggest that the designers of the UK covers are getting them right for that market.

    The UK 'Presents' line switched over to being called 'Modern' about six and a half years ago. I'd assumed that this was because readers had been getting confused about whether 'Presents' meant 'introduces', 'gifts' or 'contemporaries', but I could well be wrong. I love the way the Australian titles are so direct - 'Sweet' and 'Sexy'.

    Wendy, that pearl cover does sound very clever. I suppose it could well have an effect on sales if customers end up fondling the book and can't put it down! ;-)

    Jules, it's rather annoying to think that's the reason for those covers. Obviously publishers do have to take the buyers' views into account. I know Walmart has sometimes vetoed certain books because of their covers: Laurie Gold at AAR wrote a while ago that 'WalMart refuses to carry [some] books because of their covers'. All the same, it doesn't seem fair to the readers if most of them don't like clinch covers (though clearly there are some readers who love them).

  8. This was a discussion of where the clinch covers originally came from some decades ago, and I'm not sure if it's a major reason now. But of course, once you've got that style of cover, it then becomes part of the branding. Whether you like them or not, when you see one of those covers you know it's a romance. So they'll keep getting used, even if the original reason for them is no longer important.

  9. Laura,
    Thank you for posting the three versions of my Santorini Bride cover.

    To be honest I was quite surprised to see the original art with the couple on the boat as I have been told countless times that "boats don't sell." So I was not particularly surprised to see the art cropped for the US Presents cover.

    It could be that marketing studies have shown that "boats don't sell" in North America and are not death to sales in UK or Australia/NZ.

    But I think you have to consider that in every case it is not simply a matter of different countries or cultures liking different types of covers, but of marketing's very detailed analyses (rightly or wrongly) of what they perceive will work in a given market whether we as authors agree or not.

    And, as an author who had four palm trees in a row on her UK covers, I frankly find the people on this one something of a relief! I had begun to think I was writing tropical botany texts.

    Just my two cents.

  10. in every case it is not simply a matter of different countries or cultures liking different types of covers, but of marketing's very detailed analyses (rightly or wrongly) of what they perceive will work in a given market

    Yes, I'm sure market research plays an important role, and sometimes marketing maybe 'plays safe', as Jules mentioned, because 'once you've got that style of cover, it then becomes part of the branding'.

    I have been told countless times that "boats don't sell." So I was not particularly surprised to see the art cropped for the US Presents cover.

    Yours is even more closely cropped than any of the other covers in the same line for that month. In yours the couple's faces are considerably larger and there's almost no background at all. In others in the line although the couple are clearly the focus there is often a little bit more of the background behind them or at very least more of their bodies are shown. Presumably the marketing department really, really didn't want to show even a hint of a boat ;-)

  11. One thing I thought I'd add is how different (to a romance newbie like me) the male is on the Ally Blake covers as compared to the normal stereotypes - the Fabios, the homoerotic manflesh that Kimber refers to, etc. That guy looks pretty much like a normal but rather handsome man. Perhaps this is typical in the "sweet" genre, but I'm used to seeing the long mane of hair and the He-Man muscles on almost all men in romance cover art. As a guy, I love seeing a realistic male as an object of affection / desire on a cover. It's nice to think one can be desirable without 4 hours a day at the gym and a double shot of steroids.

    And I hope this doesn't come off wrong, but the heroine on the cover of the Sweet book is also particularly realistic in one specific area - size of chest. Most clinch cover heroines could get a side job at Hooters, but this Sweet heroine again looks like a very attractive version of real women as opposed to a myth on the clinch. I assume that the hotter/spicier the romance gets, the larger the bra cup gets?

  12. As far as I know both Harlequin and Harlequin Mills & Boon covers generally don't feature Fabio-like models, or women with particularly big busts. Even for the historicals the models are usually fully clothed, unlike in the clinch covers, and the men generally only have long hair if it's right for the period (no long-haired Regency lords, for example). The women don't tend to have their hair loose all over the place either and I haven't spotted any who look like they've got their own personal gust of air ensuring that their locks are flowing and rippling in the breeze. Like I said, I was quite surprised by clinch covers when I saw them for the first time, because I'd never seen anything like that before on a romance.

    It's true that there are more nake/semi-naked people on the 'Modern'/'Presents' and 'Blaze' covers, so any muscles are going to be more apparent, but they still don't reach the proportions of Fabio's. On the whole I'd say that the models used by Harlequin/Mills & Boon look pretty similar, regardless of which line it is, and the main difference is probably in the clothes, pose, expression and setting.

    That's just my impression, though, and I could well be wrong. I'm not an expert in assessing bust-sizes or muscle-mass.

  13. Here's another blog post about cover art, by Jennifer Crusie. It's about bad covers, and one author's response to his.