How These Instagrammable Book Covers Are Tricking People Into Reading Romance

Not long into author Jasmine Guillory’s debut novel The Wedding Date, released in January 2018, Alexa Monroe and Drew Nichols strip down and leap into their hotel bed, marking the first of many steamy sessions to come in the book’s delightful 200-something pages. With that, The Wedding Date officially declares itself a true romance novel — though the book’s modern cover, with its artful silhouettes and bright red background, might seem more at home among comedies with eye-catching illustrations like Crazy Rich Asians or Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Amid the silken-haired Fabios and women in lush, low-cut gowns that typically populate romance novel covers, the artistically rendered artwork on The Wedding Date look like a different species. Placed together, though, the quintessential clinch cover depicting a couple embracing and this new, stylized cover form a kind of timeline: Where the genre has been, and where it’s going.
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Guillory’s novel is the first in a recent wave of romance novels that disguise their erotic contents behind eye-catching, hand-illustrated, and, admittedly, highly Instagrammable covers. On the cover of June’s The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, a book about a successful economist on the autism spectrum who takes an efficient approach to dating, a cartoon man and woman kiss while perched on a mathematical symbol. On the cover of September’s Intercepted by Alexa Martin, a book about NFL girlfriends, a woman in sunglasses gazes at the reader like she’s ready for game time. Forthcoming titles that fit the emerging sub-genre’s aesthetic are Fight or Flight by Samantha Young, The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli, and follow-up titles by Guillory (The Proposal) and Hoang (The Bride Test).
The books have three crucial elements in common. First, they’re novelized takes on cinematic rom-com, in which the lovers’ banter is just as memorable as their sex scenes. Second, they’re sold as trade paperbacks, which are physically wider and more expensive than mass market romance novels. Finally, they’re published by Berkley, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House. While Berkeley is not the imprint first to package a rom-com in a cover like this — The Hating Game by Sally Thorne was published in 2016 by William Morrow and has a similarly sleek cartoon cover — the imprint is committing to the trend wholeheartedly this year.
For the design team spearheading the aesthetic change at Berkley/Penguin Random House, these books offer the chance to break out the art supplies and get creative in a way that rarely happens with more conventional romance covers. “Romance covers can be very one-note. They’re about love or lust,” Emily Osborne, the associate art director at Penguin Random House who oversaw The Kiss Quotient’s cover design process, told Refinery29. “These covers are more complex and indicate a broad sense of what romance is. They’re complicated. The books aren’t just about the romance.”
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As Osborne indicates, only a specific subset of the billion-dollar romance fiction industry is getting this cartoon cover, hand-lettered treatment. Regency romances will still feature steely-eyed women in gowns. Paranormal romances will still be festooned with topless men who may or may not have fangs. But this class of books, which follow two people seeking to find equitable partnership in the modern day, are closer to rom-coms than to romances — and they needed covers that said so.
“We knew The Wedding Date was a contemporary romance that traditional romance readers would enjoy, but it also had qualities that we knew a reader who wouldn’t classify themselves or identify themselves as a romance reader enjoy, too. What do you do with that? You have to give it a cover that’s going to appeal to your core audience but will also say to women that wouldn’t pick up a clinch cover, this is for you, too,” said Erin Galloway, the associate director of publicity at Berkley Publishing Group, told Refinery29.
Simply put, it’s working. These light-hearted, steamy stories of dating across racial, culture, and ability lines are bringing new romance readers into the genre in droves. “We’re getting books into major entertainment and women’s magazines that hadn’t come calling since 2013 or 2014 in the kind of immediate aftermath Fifty Shades of Grey, when romance was in a boom time,” Galloway said, also adding that sales and social media figures reflect the rom-com sub-genre’s success.
Tellingly, Fifty Shades also spurred the last significant trend in romance book cover aesthetics: The object cover. After E.L. James’ escapade in S&M became a global phenomenon (and the fastest-selling paperback of all time), romance shelves were dominated by books with grayscale backgrounds and a single object, like a mask or a rose, playfully insinuating the book’s salacious contents. Galloway suspects a portion of the books’ appeal came in the mysterious covers. “If just have a cover with an innocuous image, no one will know that I’m reading a very, very sexy book,” she said. Just as 50 Shades set off a sweeping trend, so too are these rom-coms. Already, other imprints are cloaking their contemporary romances in visually appealing covers: Good Luck Charm by Helena Hunting, which was published by Forever in August, is a trade paperback with cartoon redhead gazing over her shoulder.
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For their strong heroines, their senses of humor, and their sex appeal, these rom-coms certainly have a broad appeal. But would they be as inviting to non-romance reader if they were sold in chunky, mass-market format with images of a man clutching a woman? Seemingly, the books’ wide-ranging success is inherently tied to the covers. The books contain the tantalizing components of a romance novel, but are sheathed in contemporary designs that make for embarrassment-proof and harassment-free public reading experiences.
Because as any regular romance reader can tell you, baring these novels in public is often a invitation for unwanted attention. “We’ve all heard the story of a friend who’s been approached in public and told you shouldn’t be reading that, kids can see,” said Galloway. And everyone really does have a story. Once, when she was reading a romance novel outside her home, writer Maureen Lee Lenker was advised she not read “pornography” in public.
“People are really uncomfortable with female desire. It’s not considered natural or expected the way the male gaze or male desire is — and it’s certainly not to be something to be discussed publicly,” theorized Lenker. “To be confronted with it in such a public space makes people uncomfortable to the degree where they have to tear it down or say something derogatory about it. It’s part of a broader societal problem about valuing women’s voices and the things that women enjoy and choose to engage with.” Notably, the vast majority of romance readers — 82% — are women, and these books explore women's desire particularly.
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No nosy stranger is going to look at a cover of The Kiss Quotient and assume it’s chock full of sex scenes — although it certainly is. These rom-com covers, then, contain built-in protection against external judgment. “While these book images weren’t designed with that thought in mind, it didn’t go unnoticed that we were creating images that no one would be fearful of displaying in public,” said Galloway. “It’s incredibly sad. But it’s good in the sense that it’s allowing more people to pick up the books, read them, and fall in love. If this is your gateway drug, magnificent.”
In addition to safeguarding against outside comments, these books also erode stubborn, internalized notions about the romance genre. The Wedding Date is like a door creaking open to a genre that many women have previously barred for its many undeserved stigmas: Romance is generic, it’s not well-written, it’s embarrassing, it’s not literary. All of this is ironic, considering, as Lenker says, romance is “the only genre that is completely about the agency of women and showing the inner lives of women.”
Still, most young romance readers have to overcome ingrained prejudice against the genre before embarking on a book. Lenker remembers her mother gazing at the stacks of romance novels on her grandmother’s table and dismissing them as trash. “I really internalized that. I said if I prize myself as an intellectual reader and someone who engages with fiction on an intelligent level, then I’m never going to read one of those,” Lenker said. It took a trip to L.A.’s romance-only bookstore the Ripped Bodice for Lenker to realize the genre could be a feminist, progressive space.
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The Wedding Date and its ilk are providing a similar awakening for non-romance readers. “The Kiss Quotient started me on a romance kick,” said Morgan Hoit, a 24-year-old assistant to a Broadway producer and an avid bookstagrammer. Since finishing Hoang’s book, Hoit has read three more romances (with conventional covers), and sent The Kiss Quotient to two friends. Emily Feldmesser, a 24-year-old living in D.C, agrees. After reading The Kiss Quotient, Feldmesser told Refinery29 she was excited to explore the genre more. "It's a nice way to escape from the world, and it's quite different from my usual reading choices," Feldmesser said.
“I think the packaging is helping people who normally wouldn’t pick up a romance novel pick one up,” Lenker said. “People want to be seen a certain way. We’re careful of how we are perceived. What we read is part of that.”
The gift of these rom-coms is more profound and long-lasting than the sheer enjoyment of following the characters’ travails towards each other, away from each other, and back again. The gift is showing us non-romance readers that when it comes to seeking out stories that place women’s romantic, sexual fulfillment at the center, we shouldn’t be ashamed.
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