I started thinking about illustrated covers last year, when a) everyone was all in a tizzy about the new wave of romances with illustrated covers hitting the shelves and b) I read The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory.
My initial take boiled down to: I don’t really love illustrated covers. Give me a good clinch any day! I am not ashamed about my smut reading habits!
However, I acknowledge that there are good reasons for using them. Representation is the big one – with an illustrated cover, you can create that perfect image of your characters, which may not exist in stock photography if you’re writing about queer people or people of color or disabled people or fat people. Plus, it turns out that you can illustrate anything, even a good clinch.
That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about marketing, and how some types of illustrated covers work in combination with other marketing tactics in ways that are not awesome. I finally decided that my take on illustrated covers and marketing was needed after reading a review of Get a Life Chloe Brown by Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. She makes some good points about how Chloe was portrayed, and some arguments about the focus on the hero that I frankly disagree with, but my main takeaway from the review is that she felt lied to by the marketing.
In short: Get a Life Chloe Brown looks like a rom com (or perhaps chick lit), but it is actually quite sexually explicit. Because I am knee deep in Romancelandia, talk of throbbing penis veins and dirty talk about vaginas doesn’t faze me – and it didn’t faze Erin either, who absolutely loved the book in all it’s smuttastic glory. But! If you’re looking for a basic rom-com focused on the heroine’s journey with nary a penis insight, well… that’s not what you’re going to get.
Thinking that Chloe Brown is somewhat tamer than it actually is is not an unreasonable assumption to make. Part of the reason I don’t like illustrated covers for romance novels is precisely because my reference point is a very specific subgenre of comedic chick lit that was popular in the early 2000s. The Shopaholic books are the quintessential example: quirky heroine who has a nice little growth arc, situational humor, mysterious but romantic love interest, sex tidily off screen.
So point #1 in romance marketing tactics: Illustrated covers carry specific associations for readers outside of genre romance.
For point #2, I want to return to The Proposal (which, by the way, I thought was…ok). Guillory’s books are consistently marketed as Cool Girl Romances – they are Not Like Other Romances, they are for People Who Don’t Read Romances Because Ugh Bodice Rippers. And it really shows in the advance praise: from Entertainment Weekly, Nylon, and Roxane Gay.
Let’s break this down further about marketing and who they are targeting as their audience. I’ll focus on Roxane Gay because I’ve read her stuff and I think she’s amazing. She’s a cultural critic. She writes a lot about “low” culture, so getting her to write advance praise for a romance novel makes a brilliant kind of sense. But who are the kinds of people who would be persuaded by seeing her name on a cover? Not people who already read the genre – her reach is more Woke Twitter and academics and cultural critics. Who writes advance praise for romances published by Avon? Other romance novelists. You know you’ve made it in the Avon Historical world if Lisa Kleypas says something nice about your book.
The combination of these two factors means that a certain subgenre of romances are being heavily marketed to non-romance readers as light rom-coms or perhaps “smarter than average” romances. In some ways, this is awesome – more people reading romance means more recognition for the genre! And this marketing strategy has clearly been successful. Take as proof the books chosen for the Goodreads awards for Best Romance Books in 2019 and 2018, especially when compared to 2017. There is not only a huge increase in total number of votes in the category – meaning more people reading romances! – , but books with illustrated covers (and a certain kind of marketing plan) increasingly come to dominate the field. I had a friend recommend Red, White and Royal Blue, the 2019 winner by a landslide, to me – with the caveat that it wasn’t a romance novel. (We reviewed it here. I’m pretty sure Erin thought it was a romance novel.)
(Sidenote, looking at these lists makes me think I should write a whole piece about this award, because I have some thoughts, foremost among them being “Who is this Colleen Hoover and should I read her books?” I’ll save that for another day.)
However, this marketing strategy also does the genre a disservice, by promising the reader one type of reading experience, and then delivering another. That’s how you get readers who feel lied to. At The Smut Report, we are all about bringing new readers to the genre, but we also firmly believe that recommendations need to be tailored to the reader. (Ask me about the time our blog convinced someone who had never read a romance to read Priest. Gina, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)
But more insidiously, marketing some romances as “not like those other romances” furthers divisions about how people see the genre. There’s “good romance” and then there’s Fabio. There’s “smart romance” and then there are those books with abs on the cover. We will take romance published by Berkley seriously, but definitely not the ones published by Harlequin. Never mind that editors at Harlequin might be more familiar with the tropes and pitfalls within the genre, and that books with abs on the cover frequently feature nuanced discussions of consent and desire (and even grief and trauma).
I don’t have a pithy summation or even a solution, so I’m not sure how to wrap this up besides with a promise. That I (and Erin and Ingrid) will continue to try and be as open and honest and detailed in our reviews as we can, so that each new smut reader can find the perfect book for you.