Laurie's News & Views

July 15, 1997 - Issue #29

The Cover Controversy:

A Personal View -

In preparation for our discussion about covers, I walked around my house, looking for those places where my non-romance books can be found. See, most readers think the typical romance clinch cover doesn't do much to dispel the stereotypes faced by lovers of the genre, and while many authors agree, many authors believe the clinch is what sells their books.

I started first with my hardbacks, both of best-selling novels and non-fiction. These are the covers that I enjoy best; they are either designs or scenes where people, if they are depicted at all, are part of the entire picture, not the entire picture.

Then it was time to look at non-romance paperbacks. For the most part, the same as the hardbacks. Then I looked at my romance hardbacks - not a clinch in site.

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Next I moved into my study, where all my romance paperbacks are stored. What a difference! There were Harlequin Historicals' muted covers filled with depictions of the lead characters and scenes from the period - nothing lurid, but clearly romance. There were the category contemporaries with photographs or near-photographic images that, sorry to say, this reviewer finds reminiscent of Young Adult books, Leisure's lushly over-the-top (hey, if you're going to do it, do it up big, right?) clinch covers, and then the covers by other publishers, which, depending on the status of the author, are either designs, depictions of an element from the story, a painting of the hero, a step-back incorporating elements and a clinch, or a plain-old clinch.

Which ones do I like and why? My preference is for designed covers, or those which feature an element from the story. Anne Stuart's Lord of Danger, for instance, features a medieval sword on a foiled cover, giving about equal prominence to it, the title, and the author's name. This is clearly a classy cover and I give kudos to Kensington for it.

Other covers I enjoy are of the Amanda Quick and Julie Garwood variety - although my copies of their books are mostly paperbacks, these are hard-cover-type covers filled with elements from the stories amidst either a jewel-colored background or a pristine white one.

My least favorite ones are both the holographic ones Kensington is using on some of its almost-lead authors. These bother me because of the expense; I'd rather that money was going elsewhere, preferably to the author. The other cover I least favor is the basic clinch, with manly men without any body hair, breasts (of both characters) bountiful and in abundent display, and women (mostly) in position of supplication.

Do I like the step-back covers? For me it's a take-em-or-leave-em proposition. It's nice to be able to take a book in public and not be embarrassed, but, again, I wish the expense had gone elsewhere. Too, I use my imagination when I read, and Fabio, John deSalvo, and the few other major male cover models do not accurately describe every single hero.

The cover model has gotten way too much press as far as I'm concerned. Less than a month ago, I read in my local paper, The Dallas Morning News, a feature article in the Metro section, entitled Meet Mr. Romance. This was a lengthy feature, including a color picture on the front page of that section, about Romantic Times' new cover model of the year. This is not the type of press I like to see about the genre, but it is all too likely that a mainstream media piece will be like this.

I don't know that we can blame the media; after all, this was a Romantic Times event. And, when the covers offered as are they are, the publishers are just asking for it. Unfortunately, I think the reader and author suffers, although many authors would die for a great clinch or step-back cover.

Focus on Elaine Duillo:

Some real reporting now. Since covers are such a big part of our genre, I decided to do a little snooping around. I discovered that, depending on the artist, a cover can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000, with most falling in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. I discovered that, for artist Elaine Duillo, the first major woman cover artist who, when she started her career, had to work behind her agent because publishers wouldn't hire a woman, she has, at least on one occasion, been paid more for her cover than the first-time author was for the book.

Even though I have never bought a book for its cover, even though I am not a fan of the clinch or heavily-peopled cover, I found my discussion with Elaine fascinating. Here is a woman, a professional illustrator, who started her career in the the late 1950s, and received $150 for her first job. She had trained at Pratt in commercial art, and when she got into the cover business, paperback books were thirty five cents. For a woman, she could get an entry- level job doing covers, often pretending she was a man.

Romance did not exist as a recognized genre then, so Elaine did a variety of covers, including mysteries and gothics. When the actual genre of romance developed, she was the first woman to paint their covers, working, at that time, for male art directors who wanted cleavage. Although she was doing half a dozen covers a month at the height of her career (she's trying to retire now, at the age of 68, slowing down to a couple a month for he last ten years), she has never felt like a factory.

The Queen of the Covers now does lead authors only, and her most recognizeable covers are those of Johanna Lindsey and Bertrice Small (Bertrice, by the way, buys her covers as art and has filled her house with them). She is glad that computer-generated covers are being used for mid-list authors because it will allow her to retire.

Art directors are not just men any more, and with more women involved at higher levels in that end of the industry, the number of male character covers has grown. (Whether this is an improvement is up to debate!). Elaine herself is proud of her part in the final product, sharing with me which books (and her covers) have gone to number one on the bestseller's list.

At a photo shoot, she directs the photographer in a scene she has created after reading the author's manuscript (not all illustrators, she says, pay such attention to detail, resulting in the wrong hair color, eye color, etc.) After the shoot, she works from photographs in acrylic, shying away from body hair which she believes copies like dirt (what she'd have to say about the cover of Alice Duncan's latest, of a man with a gloriously hair-covered chest, I don't know).

She told me the titles of some of the covers she's done, and we went through them together. She pointed out how she changed the chin and nose of Fabio on a particular Lindsey cover (an improvement, I might add!), and she added that the male models generally shave all their arm, under-arm, and chest hair (if they had any), and how odd it is to look at a man without hair on his arms.

While our discussion didn't change my opinion of the value of covers, I came away with great admiration for Elaine, who is shown in galleries of important illustrators. I also went back and looked at some of the covers I generally overlook - those Avons and Leisures that are recognizeable to me from half a room away, and decided that, for what they are, some of them are beautiful. In other words, I found myself admiring them as an art form, if not as an appropriate means of selling a book.

We're Talking Apples, They're Talking Melons:

So, how important are covers? In a bit of synergistic publishing, the current Write Byte is also on covers, by Stef Ann Holm, who shares with us her author's perspective. Many authors believe readers buy, or at least look first at, a beautiful character cover. For those of us who buy based on reviews or recommendations, the first time we see a book might be when we go pick up our monthly order from our favorite romance-friendly bookstore. If we shop in bookstores, where most books are stacked spine to spine, we see titles and author's names before we see covers. I know that when I browse like this, I pick up a book based on its title or author, then look at the back cover, having taught myself to ignore the front altogether.

But do I represent the basic buyer who shops at Target or her local supermarket where books are not shelved spine to spine, but given a full-frontal view? Does the typical buyer of books feel compelled to pick up a book with a clinch cover or is she embarassed to be seen with such a book? If the cover lets her know it's a romance and she likes romances, I suppose the publishers have proven their point.

Whenever I ask readers for their comments on covers, I hear from those who have read other genres, namely science fiction, and indicate that until covers of sci-fi moved away from the lurid to the more mainstream, that sub-genre suffered as an unwelcome step-child just as romance does these days.

It seems impossible to me to separate the stereotypes from the covers, but I truly believe the publishers don't see it that way. Many of us worry that the stereotype of romance as women's porn is furthered by heaving, half-naked breasts, but apparently, for every letter a publisher receives decrying the clinch, there is another defending it. I think, then, that lovers of the genre who worry about this see things from a completely different world view than those who think a cover that stands out from half a room away is performing its function well.

For those of us, who have never bought a book for its cover, we don't want to have to defend the content of a book to those smirking at a clinch, feeling the need to shout, "Don't judge a book by its cover!" The publishers, who realize romance brings in huge revenues (nearly half of the dollars generated by paperback sales comes from romance), may not worry about the image of the genre, and don't necessarily care that some readers are incensed when characters on the cover look nothing like their depictions the author had in mind. Romance sells, it sells well, and those covers are working just fine, thank you very much.

We've talked about covers before, in Issue #5, Issue #6, and Issue #22 of this column. I've been collecting comments on covers for quite awhile now, and thought now would be a good time to share what's on reader's minds again.

Hearing from Readers:

Ann McGuire, who has been a long-time Laurie's News & Views reader, and who is now a cherished colleague at The Romance Reader, sent me this awhile back, and I think her wry humor just hits the spot:

I just had to comment on the cover controversy. Here's a problem that I run into, and maybe other readers do as well. I read the reviews, jot down the titles and authors, stick the paper in my wallet and by the time I actually get to Barnes and Noble -- I can't find anything that's on my list. So then I start at the Z's and work my way backward looking for something interesting. Usually I'll check to see if any of my favorite authors have anything new. If not, I go by the covers. I automatically pass by anything that has a hologram on it. I'm tired of turning back covers so I don't go for the Naked People either. Three lines of the synopsis on the back of the book and I'll pretty much know if its going to be coming home with me or not.

True story: recently on my lunch hour, I hit the bookstore with a friend of mine. She's not into romances, so I sort of had to move quickly. I walked up and down the aisle glancing at spines, barely picking anything up. Anna decided to help.

"How 'bout this one: woman gets captured by handsome pirate?"
"I hate pirate books."

"How about this one about the sheik and the princess?"

"Hate sheik books."

"What about. . ." before she got it out of her mouth I finished my list, "No vampires, no vikings, no loincloths, no prehistoric males, no otherworldly men from outer space."

The employee stacking books behind me piped in, "That doesn't leave a whole lot, does it?"

And I suddenly realized how picky I was. Anna, however, did pick one out for me, The Promise of Jenny Jones, which I really liked. How did she pick it? She liked the cover.

So there you go.

In contrast to Ann's e-mail, I received a very intriguing note from reader Inez, who asks, "Is it just me or can the back cover blurb turn you off even more than the front cover? Either it has nothing to do with the book, my biggest complaint, or it is just so poorly written that I sometimes wonder if they intended it to be as funny as it is.

"I don't think the authors are writing the back cover blurbs, except for the ones that are obviously letters from either the author or the editor. So again, we're back to the publishing companies and what they think will sell more books.

"I'm beyond the point of letting a bad front or back cover stop me from buying my favorite authors, but I must admit that it can influence me on new purchases, especially if I'm pressed for time.

"If I'm at leisure, and something about a new author's book intrigued me, despite an unappealing cover (front and/or back), I will read a few pages and base my purchase on the author's ability to draw me in, rather than the packaging of the book.

"I probably miss more new good authors because of the back cover than the front."

Having just read Jaclyn Reding's latest, White Heather, where the blurb on the back refers to a "great and tempestuous love to guide them", I know just what Inez means. A reader expecting tempestuous love does not get that in this story, which is about a great love told in subtle terms. I think the author was done a disservice in this case - her subtle love story might sell better if readers who enjoy subtlety knew it was there.

For some interesting reader comments, please click here to access The Cover Controversy.

After you've read what some of our cyber space community has had to say, please e-mail me here about my comments above and/or their comments. Devoting so much space to a particular issue is something I rarely do, and I hope you won't mind the departure I've made by spending some time sharing with Elaine Duillo, whom I found too fascinating to limit her comments to how much she makes for creating covers. I am especially interested in hearing your views about the back covers, since this is the cover that can cause me to buy a book or put it back on the shelf.

Rising Stars & Buried Treasure:

After having shared with you last time those authors who are rising stars such as Dara Joy and Jennifer Cruisie (is she the first author to go from category romance direct to hardcover?), and mentioning authors such as Catherine Archer and Deborah Simmons, who are buried treasures, I couldn't wait to see which names readers would send in. Reader Anne so eloquently praised Susan Spencer Paul, I decided to actively seek out her medieval trilogy for Harlequin Historicals, the last of which is a current release.

Another reader, Grace, wrote that being online gives her a "false sense of intelligence regarding romance. I had to think of authors I really like whose books are not found in non-book venues. I came up with a few: Jennifer Horseman, Elizabeth Stuart, Mandalyn Kaye, Betina Krahn, and Denee Cody. . .Elizabeth Elliott seems to have been successful overnight."

Grace, I agree with you about many of you on your list, but Betina Krahn is a lead author whose books I find readily available. I have heard that Denee Cody's books can be hard to find, and, Elizabeth Elliott truly is another overnight sensation - she won a RITA for best first historical and all three of her books were praised by reviewers, includiing The Romance Reader.

Reader Rebecca wrote in recommending Regency author Rita Boucher and Soozie wanted to share her passion for the writing of Miranda Jarrett, who, until recently, wrote strictly for Harlequin Historicals. She is now published as well by Pocket. About those HH's, Soozie wrote:

"Her books are very distinctive historicals. Not only does she set all her books in colonial times in America (at least the ones I've read, though I haven't been able to find them all), but she writes about very real people with real problems instead of more lords and ladies (which is my biggest problem with all the regency-era books. Not everyone in the world is born a duke!). Her stories always have very believable romances that are poignant and full of adventure yet also have some humor in them. Plus she really does her research, much like Diana Galbadon. You read her books and you really feel as if you're 'back then'. Ms. Jarrett's books are all about one family, too, which I also enjoy since you can check in from book to book and see how the last hero and heroine are doing, how many children they had, and so on. (That's getting a bit into your HEA discussion, too, isn't it?)

"Anyway, I have heard that Ms. Jarrett's books are now being published by Pocket Books, though I haven't been able to find any yet. Is this considered good for her? Harlequin Historicals seems to be publishing more and more medievals lately so I wonder if it means that not enough people want to read books set in other times like Ms. Jarrett's. I liked that comment from Mary Jo Putney about publishers thinking that readers didn't want to be educated about different times and places, and your comment about publishers underestimating readers. I think this is very true! Historical readers especially want to learn and experience something different than modern life when they read. Sometimes when I stand in the romance section of a bookstore I think that all the publishers want to give us is westerns, medievals, and regencies. Does anyone else feel this way, too?

"Well, I've gotten sidetracked here, but mainly what I wanted to say was that I hope that Miranda Jarrett is one of those authors who is going to be on your "rocket" and not one that is being stifled by lazy publishers. IMHO, she is one of the best historical writers right now, and I highly reccommend her to you and other readers. (So you know who else I like to see if our taste is the same, I also like Loretta Chase, Mary Jo Putney, and Laura Kinsale probably best of all. )"

Reader Nancy is a fan of Curtiss Ann Matlock, as is The Romance Reader's contributor Cathy Sova, for her writing of "down to earth people in down to earth situations".

In agreement with me on the talent of Catherine Archer is reader Karen. Authors that are well known to the online community but haven't achieved publisher success as yet include, for her, JoAnn Power, Mary Spencer, and Carla Kelly, who is admired among the community of Regency readers. She considers "Carla Kelly the best Regency writer today. I don't want her to stop writing Regencies, but I wish she could get some recognition for what she does best, instead of being lumped in with all the other underpromoted and badly distributed Signet Regencies."

I think these readers have made some pretty good recommendations of authors worth seeking out. What do you think? Are you fans of some of these buried treasures or would you rather they were buried under a rock? And, which other authors would you recommend to readers that they may not have discovered for themselves? Please e-mail me here with your responses.

Pending Items:

Purple Prose:

Our Purple Prose Parody is coming along slowly but surely, with some new snippets going online quite recently. Marsha Canham submitted a brilliant snippet and I hope you will send me your contribution so that we can put all the snippets up for a vote soon.

Readers continue to send in words, phrases, and short snippets they've come across in their reading, which I'll provide for your reading enjoyment soon. To tempt your taste buds, here's a particularly hilarious morsel I came across while reading the purple prose-laden Dream Lover (which I awarded a one-heart rating recently): "You've the sauciest round bottom I've seen in many a year, and the outline of your up-thrust breasts shows through the cambric shirt with impudence." Virginia, do you really think Irish men speak like that or were you being funny apurpose?

The HEA ending:

Although there are two stand-alone pages (hea.html and hea2.html) at The Archives devoted to this topic, and we spent a great deal of time and space talking about this in the last issue of this column, a reader has made an impassioned statement about this that I want to share with you next time.

Endings & Epilogues:

I've received some input, although not nearly enough, about endings and epilogues you've loved or hated. I want to talk some more about this soon, so please e-mail here with your comments, titles, authors, and samples.

Copyright Infringement?

After first issuing a general statement about comparatively similar passages appearing in Janet Dailey's 1996 release, Notorious and Nora Roberts' 1989 release, Sweet Revenge, Nora Roberts released the following statement, effectively accusing Ms. Dailey of plagarism: "After careful consideration, it has been determined that several passages and scenes from Notorious were copied from my book Sweet Revenge."

In order to allow Harper the time to investigate and respond, I will not be following up with their Director of Communications until I begin work on my next column. Stay tuned.

Of course, these are not the only subjects I'm working on right now, and I hope you will check back for my next column, as well as all subsequent ones. I've continued working with authors on some terrific Topics of Discussion that I hope you'll read, and, now that the Dara Joy article is online, I will be turning my attention to a detailed interview with Kathryn Lynn Davis.

My newest project is the Historical Cheat Sheet, to which my colleague Jean Mason, as well as authors such as Jo Beverley, Jaclyn Reding, Melinda McRae, and Rebecca Sinclair, and knowledgeable readers, are contributing. This page is both for those of us who haven't formally studied history in some time, and for those who want to add some slice of life knowledge to their already strong groundings in history. I'm still looking for those in the know to take on several segments in history, so please check the page both to learn and to see what you can contribute, then e-mail me here with your comments, suggestions, and contributions.

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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