Thursday, October 21, 2010

Covering the Covers

Kanye West is making waves again. The cover of his upcoming album My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy has his label pushing for a different cover since Wal-Mart has indicated they are unwilling to sell the sexually graphic current cover in their stores. The controversy prompted Billboard to feature "20 Banned Album Covers" this week. I was interested to see that in most cases the new cover was just a covering up of parts of the original. One famous example of that is the nude shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono covered with brown paper. Viewing the slide show of the banned album covers made me think of book covers.  It wasn’t much of a jump because several things had worked together to put book covers on
my mind.

First, I recently looked at a couple of collections of book covers. Abe Books posted an exhibit of 25 Iconic Book Covers in their online Rare Book Room. Looking at those covers, I realized that about half of them were so distinctive and so familiar that I would have known the books even if the titles had been omitted from the covers. I have only to look at my own bookshelves to see some of these, such as The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I also viewed another collection of covers. AIGA, the professional association for design, selected 100 examples of outstanding book and book cover design produced in 2009. Most of these books I’d never heard of, and only one, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn, had I read. Frankly, it was only one of a handful that I would have found interesting enough to stop and check the book in a bookstore or library.

The third item that has me focused on book covers is that a few weeks ago I bought a supply of stretchy fabric book covers to hide the covers of my romance novels. I bought mine locally, but they are readily available. The one pictured is from Hide-a-Book on Etsy. I have never been a fan of clinch covers, but hiding the covers always seemed like surrendering to the critics of romance fiction. I had one cover I used for my purse book, whatever it happened to be at any given time, since I pulled it out everywhere from a jury room to a church committee meeting. But lately the questions about my romance covers from the Grands have persuaded me that the time has come to cover the covers.

When I first started reading my mother’s romance novels, the covers might have been dismissed by critics as silly and trite, but they didn’t need to be hidden from the eyes of children. I thought the covers were wonderfully romantic. Clinches, when they existed were strictly G rated. What I remember are the beautiful people and the glamorous settings. I was not a fan of the bodice rippers of the 1970s, although the covers of the two most influential, which I did read, were certainly inoffensive. The books I was reading during that period were Gothic romances, Clare Darcy’s Regencies, and categories by writers such as Essie Summers, Mary Burchell, and Sara Seale. The covers of the subgenres were distinctive from one another, but none of them would have embarrassed their readers.


When I think of what some have called the Golden Age of romance fiction, the 1980s, I think of the writers I was discovering during that time, writers like Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Nora Roberts, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. Most of their books from that time are still on my keeper shelves, and while some may be labeled “clinch covers,” none makes me want to hide it from view. Even the cover of Seidel’s All Through the Years, the sexiest of the covers in this sample, seems mild to eyes accustomed to 21st-century covers.


Was it in the 90s that the shift began? I’m not sure. This is a rambling recollection of my experience with romance covers, not an academic study. I do know that it’s easy to see the forerunners of today’s sizzling covers in Loretta Chase’s acclaimed Lord of Scoundrels and in Lisa Kleypas’s popular Then Came You. On the other hand, some books that definitely merited the “Hot” warning such as Christina Dodd’s A Well-Pleasured Lady and Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty have quite subtle covers, the kind I can still leave on a table or chair, careless of who may see them. 

That pattern can be seen in recent covers as well. Two of the books that prompted the Grands’s questions were Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed an Earl and Anne Mallory’s Seven Secrets of Seduction. Yet Toni Blake’s Sugar Creek, which has a higher sensuality level than the Long and the Mallory books, has a cover that I feel no need to hide.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating banning covers. Since they are so ubiquitous, I will concede that many readers must like the clinch covers and the experts insist they sell. Borders romance buyer Sue Grimshaw was quoted in a 2008 Publishers Weekly article saying, “A tastefully done clinch is a must-have for debut authors.” And in that same article, Carrie Ferron declared, “We're pro-clinch at Avon.” So I’m in a minority here not banning, just covering romance covers—some of them—and thinking nostalgically of the day when I could just leave my romances uncovered for all eyes to see and dream of a day when the covers of romance novel will be both distinctive and appealing to readers.

How do you vote on clinch covers—yea or nay? Have you ever used book covers on romance novels? What kind of covers do you prefer on the books you read?


Anonymous said...

Janga, that's a great retrospective of covers!

I generally read at home, so I haven't had to hear any comments from anyone about the covers or my choice of reading material. LOL I do enjoy the clinch covers, and the naked male chest ones. :) But I spend my time reading the story, not gazing at the cover. LOL


Anusha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nushienush said...

Janga, my favorite thing about my ebook reader is that no one has any idea what I'm reading! no embarrassing covers, no awkward moments of explaining your choice of reading material to strangers, etc.
So if I were still reading paperbacks, I'd definitely go for the covers--not because I'm ashamed of reading what I read, but because of some of the (vulgar) covers.

Manda Collins said...

Great cover retrospective, Janga! I still have some of those on my keeper shelf as well.

I'm of two minds on the clinch covers. When I first started reading romance, I was not a fan of the clinch. Mostly because my family are not readers anyway and they had the usual prejudices against romance. So reading a romance with a super sexy clinch in front of my grandparents, for instance, was not quite comfortable. And like many readers I thought the covers were misleading. I once opined that the tamest books always had the sexiest covers. And the sexiest books had the mildest covers. (Which holds true for your Toni Blake example--not sure I'd call the JAL or the Anne Mallory mild though;)

As I've gotten older, and bolder, I am less worried about the covers. And I've slowly gotten to like the sexy covers. I think the cover for I Kissed an Earl is gorgeous. But I can definitely see why you wouldn't want the grands questioning you about that one.

As a pre-pub author, I have to say that I want a sexy cover for my book if that means it will be more likely to sell. Which might be mercenary of me, but there it is. Mostly, though I want a cover that accurately reflects the book. I won't say more, lest I anger the cover gods....

Great blog, as usual.

quantum said...

I'm with Nushienush. No worries when you use electronic books!

I do store all my books on a PC though, and my Grand is starting to play with the machine, focusing mainly on some games at the moment. I am now wondering whether I should hide any 'hot' ones in an encrypted area to avoid her stumbling on something embarrassing.

But yesterday she startled me, telling me about stuff that the school 'naughty boy' had been telling her and I'm the one who felt embarrassed! I'm really not sure about this one .... will have to ponder on it. But I'll probably play safe.

Manda, I think the most enticing covers are the one's that hint at some sexy content without being blatant. I remember Toni Blake's 'One reckless summer' showed an empty deck chair with a bikini top hanging from it. Sizzlingly irresistible. Both cover and content!

Janga said...

Thanks, Donna. So you are among the clinch fans? You have a lot of vocal company. :)

Funnily enough, it's the home reading that's giving me the most concern about covers. That's where the eyes and questioning minds of the little ones are. :)

Janga said...

Nishienush, thanks for stopping by. I really want an ereader. Maybe I'll get one for Christmas. But I'm not sure one will completely solve my problem because, as I have discovered with the ebooks I've read on my computer, I'll still want paper copies of my keepers.

Janga said...

Manda, I can certainly understand your point of view. Here's hoping you get a gorgeous, sexy cover that will attract multitudes of reader!

I think the JAL cover was magnetic on the shelves, and since she's a favorite author that I love to see sell well, I'm happy for her. But I did put a cover on that one until I shelve it with my other JAL books. The 11-year-old is old enough to have questions about connections between the cover and the content. I was reading my mother's romance novels when I was her age, but there's a world of difference between what I read now and what my mother was reading then.

Janga said...

Q, I have even more concerns about what they find on the computer than I do about romance covers. We have strict rules with the oldest about YouTube, for example, and we're just as strict with the boys about online games. The eight-year-old and I had a long discussion two weeks ago about why a game that involves killing with a bow and arrow is a violent game.

quantum said...

Janga, My Grand is only allowed on the off-line computer, where I store my books.

She is forbidden to use the on-line machine on pain of death, or more precisely, no more choc ices, ever!

Your on-line worries are well justified though.
For the on-line machine,I am thinking of writing a script which will run on start up and display a banner stating 'NAUGHTY! GRANDPA IS WATCHING YOU'

As a second line of defense, I also use a broad band modem that requires a password to go on-line. If she breaks through that I will be very impressed! *grin*

I reckon on-line protection is the parents worry. I have enough problems!