Something doesn’t add up. When the subject of reading romance novels arises, most folks turn up their noses, clearly too good for that sort of fluffy nonsense. But the numbers don’t lie – at least some of the snooty literati must be secretly swooning behind closed doors, because romance sells like hotcakes. Just ask the accountants at Harlequin or Mills & Boon. Demand is great, the turnover is high, and the arena of love is an area where the used book market thrives – these books have typically short print runs, but thanks to secondhand shops and websites, the out-of-print steamy affairs can be discovered and enjoyed by new readers again and again.
And why not? It’s fun to fantasize, and escapism is surely one of the foremost reasons to read. If I spend my days squinting at a computer, hunched over a keyboard and typing my fingers to bloody nubs (hypothetically), then far be it from anyone to judge me if I want to escape into a world where I might be the farmer’s adult daughter, tending the ranch ever since Pa’s accident, and happen to catch the eye of Hunter, the fence-building cowpoke who just can’t be tamed. I’m good with a lasso, and his heart is my next target.
The day after I could become a wealthy, bored and slightly spoiled heiress in a villa in Tuscany, shocked by the audacity and smoldering gazes of the rude mechanic who knows I need to be taken down a peg. Perhaps if we have a battle of wits, we can make up a few times afterward, then sun ourselves by the pool and sip Pinot Grigio.
Or what of this young man in the hospital bed, who drove his car off the road, to end it all? As a nurse, I naturally maintain a brisk detachment and professional efficiency, but this patient is different. Perhaps I can learn the dark secret that torments him, and teach him to walk again. And maybe....just maybe... to love again.
Whatever your pleasure, no doubt there is a romance plot calling your name (in a husky whisper), whose pages you can slip into like your silkiest negligee (or most beloved terry-cloth robe, as the case may be). Nothing wrong with guilty pleasure. But romance readers, much like the devotees of some science fiction out there, have long been teased for their indulgences, and it shouldn’t be the case. If you ask me, we should read what we enjoy, unabashedly.
And romance novels, again like their science fiction counterparts, have been done zero favors by designers of cover artwork. Just like your favorite sci-fi novel will often be adorned with outdated fonts, blinding color schemes, multi-headed monsters and embarrassingly scantily-clad space-vixens, you’ll similarly rarely find a subtle romance cover. No tasteful muted tones, no small, understated title, not even a plain cover, here. Instead, the covers are generally dripping with flowery, serif-heavy lettering, loudly announcing that the book you’re reading alone in a coffee shop is called “ANIMAL MAGNETISM” or “UNTAMED PANTS” or “FORBIDDEN EMBRACES” and the like. The illustrations (or even photographs, sometimes), leap off the cover with their swarthy, smoldering men, swooning, passion-addled heroines and the like, in any one of a seemingly limitless number of interchangeable scenarios.
In short, these books are not doing anything to detract attention from themselves and let the reader peacefully enjoy them over a croissant without having to endure the sniggers of nearby patrons, clutching the latest Dave Eggers or Ian McEwan and feeling superior.
As someone who spends much time scouring the book world, I began to notice repeated trends in the cover art of romance novels, and decided to categorize the ones most commonly seen. Whether Harlequin Romance, Mills & Boon or another publisher, there are common elements. For the purposes of this list, I’ve stuck to the older, more traditional and vintage covers – the modern ones certainly are much steamier(!).
The list is tongue-in-cheek, with no offense meant – just a gentle bit of fun-poking. In fact, I challenge you, lovers of love, readers of romance, devourers of devotion – to take back the romance novel. Stand proud in line at the bank, paperback clutched in hand. Read boldly on the bus, not caring who sees. Make waiting rooms your reading rooms, with no apologies. After all, what better to do with romance…than embrace it?
So, without further ado, here are five common themes of romance novel covers.
...And a treat at the bottom, where the AbeBooks staff have tried our own hand at romance.
Why? Why are there huge disembodied heads? Why are they floating in space, over other people, a mountain, a lake, a horse? Is it romantic? I think it's scary.
The Iron Man
by Kay Thorpe
Nurse Mary’s Engagement
by Essie Summers
Wife to Sim
by Joyce Dingwell
House of Conflict
by Mary Burchell
by Gene Harvey
by Valerie Nelson
Click images to view larger