Saturday, May 12, 2012

Romance covers ... what's wrong with them

This is what I hate about Romance covers ... even covers that are well done.

Look at this:


I picked these up at random from four genres.  First thing we notice is these covers are, like, different from one another.  The covers have something to do with what's inside the book.
Look at the titles --
The Gunslinger
The Shoemaker's Wife
Clockwork angel
Mockingjay
Iron Daughter
In Sunlight and in Shadow
Tigers in Red Weather
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Outlaw Album
The titles relate to what's in the book.  They're different from one another, and memorable.
There's no sense that the reader has to be hand-led to these books by having the covers and titles shout across the store -- "Generic YA!" or "Generic Mystery!"  
These distinct and memorable covers are picked from a couple of 'best of' lists: Here are six historical fiction covers.  Here's a round dozen YA covers.  Now we got a whole hundred of SF&;F covers. And here's a pack of ten mystery / suspense books.  
EDITED TO ADD:
Some of those covers above are, admittedly, best seller types.  Are bestsellers the only books to get good, distinctive covers?
Not so much.  Look at what they do with covers in a very small, very specific genre.  Cozy mystery shows us that a small genre doesn't have to mean cookie cutter titles and covers.  Here.  Cozy mystery are midlist books with individual, story-directed covers.   Publishers can afford to do this.
 

All three covers are recognizably cozy mysteries.  All show different aspects of the cozy mystery genre.  You aren't going to mistake one cover for the other or one title for the other. 
How about another niche genre where the books are midlist books, not national bestsellers.  Wanna see some Inspirational Romance covers?


I won't argue these are great art.  I won't say these are thrillingly original.  But see how the covers are talking to the reader?  They're saying there's an individual story inside this book and it matters.
 Now let us look at Historical Romance, 32 romance books, shall we? These are all well-regarded popular books.  Picking out some random covers.

And we have a passel of women with their clothes falling off. Sometimes, men with their clothes falling off. Sometimes both.
Forgettable covers. Essentially these are the same cover decked out in different colors.
Don't get me started on the trite, interchangeable, forgettable titles.
To Desire a Wicked Duke
After Dark with a Scoundrel
One Night is Never Enough
To Tempt a Rake
The Perfect Mistress
Seducing the Governess
Unveiled
Scandal of the Year
The Countess
Eight out of nine, perfectly forgettable titles.

What does this say to the world about Historical Romance?
It says, "One Romance book is like another."  It says, "No story inside this book, Ma'm. Just pick one at random."
This is so much lack of respect.
I hate this.

47 comments:

  1. I see your point on both the covers and the titles. I don't know how many times I've bought the same book in duplicate because they are difficult to distinguish between even when authored by the same person. That isn't to say I don't appreciate the covers - I'm one of those people who enjoy looking through a catalog of pretty things more than actually owning them. But I remember reading a book last year that had a beautiful cover, nice paper, and a great blurb and it was a thoroughly disappointing read. Still Romance has such a large market, I'm wondering if the uniform nature is designed to give the impression that one favorite author is interchangeable with another just as long as readers keep buying.

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  3. Jo,

    I completely agree. I've read so many (YOURS) incredible romance books, but the covers are almost embarrassing. Or maybe there's no "almost" about it. Why is this the trend? Hope you and yours are doing well, btw. :)

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  4. Anonymous8:05 PM

    I hate to say it, but based on how and why romance novels are consumed, the romance genre is largely considered interchangeable by the industry and its general readership. There's a reason why HQN and its category romance lines exist and do quite well, as well as why romance readers are likely to ask for "more books like X" (revenge plots, plain heroines, vampire brothers, etc) after reading one particular book with X element. Not to insult the genre or its readership, since I belong to it, but the history of the modern romance genre has been shaped by types of books (and their accompanying code via cover, title, and blurb) rather than particular authors.

    ~ Gigi

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  5. This is so true. My latest cover (which I have yet to post anywhere) has very little to do with the story inside. Well, except that the guy has the hots for the girl, but that's a given with romance.

    But I have to say that except for a few authors whose works I love, I do find many, many romances to be much the same. I don't know whether to blame the authors or the publishers or both. Or whether to blame anyone at all, really. It's hard to tell where an author's voice has been stomped on or never allowed to emerge (often by the author herself), or where her voice is just similar to many others -- not a problem, really, just a fact. We're all unique and yet pretty much the same. Most of us. Sort of.

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  6. Hi Gigi --

    I would argue that single title Romances (I'm not wandering into category territory here because I'm ignorant as a squid in this field,) are as different from one another as cozy mysteries.

    Cozy mysteries get individual covers. Why not single title Romance.

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  7. Well, I tend to agree with that. A lot of cozy mystery covers are similarly cutesy, but at least they usually relate to elements of the individual stories.

    Maybe romance covers are so similar because what the readers are looking for (or what the publishers think they are looking for) are the love and sex, not all the other cool stuff...?

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  8. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Cozy mysteries get individual covers. Why not single title Romance.

    Cozy mysteries are branded by whatever plot device unites the series (knitting mystery, baking mystery, etc), the cutesy titles say "cozy mystery" as opposed to gritty Sue Grafton-esque mystery, and the blurbs are warm and tongue-in-cheek. It doesn't seem too different from clinch covers, alliterative titles, and sexed-up blurbs that proclaim "historical romance".

    If you visit the website for the Prime Crime imprint, while the author's particular brand of mystery-cozy or otherwise--is marked clearly on the cover, they make it just as easy for someone looking for cozy cat mysteries to grab every title without looking at the author, as it is to grab "One Night is Never Enough" or "To Tempt a Rake" (sexy Regency romances) without looking at the author. The only issue here is that historical romance is not broken down into various subsets like historical romance - society novel, historical romance - suspense, et al, with appropriate covers for each set.

    I completely agree with your frustration over the covers and titles given to historical romance. I frequently sigh with longing over the covers granted to inspirational historicals and Harlequin Historical titles, but as long as romance readers gravitate to generically sexy and historical titles and covers over more unique ones, I don't see anything changing (unless some "Fifty Shades" type phenomenon happens, where mainstream readers unwittingly gobble up a historical romance with a nontraditional cover and title).

    ~ Gigi

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  9. The covers of romance novels have maddened me for years -- it's not a pet peeve so much as road rage. Not only do the covers serve to lump all types of romance into one category, but they also trivialize the content. As a reader of both mysteries and romance, I believe they have a similar appeal for the reader. If the author plays fair, the killer will be caught and the couple will get together. We read to enjoy how the author arrives at the resolution. Both genres have conventions, but good writers make those conventions feel new. If the writer is good, this involves character development and enough attention to accuracy that police detectives aren't going to roll their eyes when they read a police procedural. But the covers of romance novels play into the hands of people who dismiss the genre as soft core porn for frustrated housewives. It's an insult to authors and their readers. E-readers have been a boon to folks who don't want to be caught reading a romance novel in public, but what this means is that some of us feel guilty that we're ashamed to have people know what we read. I hate that I am sometimes reluctant to admit that I read romance novels, because of the assumptions many people make about the authors (talentless hacks) and readers (stupid fantasists who don't have the attention span for good writing). I find myself defending romance novels all the time -- no one asks me why I read Anne Perry. The covers don't help.

    Gigi, I may not understand the point you're making, but with respect to romance readers gravitating toward generically sexy and historical titles and covers, I don't see what choice we have. If I decided to boycott romance novels with generic covers, I would have to skip Black Hawk.

    The UK covers of Julia Quinn novels are charming and convey the type of romance she tends to write -- traditional Regencies with a good bit of humor. We know not to expect Gothic plots or intrigue. I doubt these covers adversely affect her sales in Britain. US marketing departments should take note.

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  10. Yes, which is why I get comments like "are there bosoms in it?" and "why don't you just write a few, sell them, and make money?" when I mention I write romance. I end up stressing the historical aspect, and all the research, I guess hoping that infusing scholarly aspects will make it seem less as though I'm writing formula. Grrr.

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  11. I'm of two minds. First, I'm glad when I have a cover where the models are human beings with facial expressions, not just pecs, abs, cleavage and--oh, be still my thumpin' heart--chins. Second, I want on my books the cover that will get that book into the hands of the greatest number of appreciative readers (appreciative being a euphemism for the people who like my books). Maybe they are already sporting those covers...?
    What cheeses ME off is the assumption--without any data exploring the territory you're rampaging through. Jo--that these clinches and cleavages are the covers that will do that.
    Me want data, and it wouldn't be that hard to gather. Fifty Shades isn't sporting any clinches, now is it?

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    1. Grace,

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but your assumption is incorrect. I spent 10 years as a market research analyst for an F500 computer manufacturer. In order to figure out if romance readers, particularly historical readers, would like different covers, the publishers would have to come up with potential cover concepts and hire a market research firm to first conduct focus groups (minimum cost for two groups would be estimated at $50K in US only). Then, in order to ensure the data pertains to the specific target markets (and remember the covers differ per subgenre), the publisher would have to conduct surveys across the various targeted segments (paranormal, contemporary, etc). I estimate minimum cost for a US-only quantitative study at $100K. I doubt that's going to happen.

      Vicky Dreiling

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    2. And yet, Vicky, they manage to come up with YA covers, women's covers, etc that are SPECIFIC to the book without doing anything but designing the covers. The publishers ALREADY have data that says the most powerful meta data creates resonance between title, story, brand and image. We know this, we know this, we already know this... but for romance, we don't DO IT.

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  12. There's a great chapter on precisely this subject in Beyond Heaving Bosoms (offshoot of the Smart Bitches blog). If I remember rightly, it says that the book buyers all used to be blokes and thus believed that heaving bosoms is what sold. Now they've become so identified with the genre that the readers, even whilst disliking them, use them to orientate around in book stores - instantly findable. I'm as guilty of that as anyone.

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  13. Anonymous7:01 PM

    @Annie

    The point I'm making is that covers--and titles--don't change without reader feedback and/or purchasing dollars. The best publisher to look at is Avon, who is practically synonymous with (Regency) Historical Romance. Over the past three or four years, most of their covers have shifted from mantitty and traditional clinch to heroine-centric. Why would this happen, if not readers responding more positively to covers featuring female models in flowing gowns.

    Back in the day, it was the norm for authors who'd "made it" to have element covers (a flower, a shoe, etc) that were sometimes paired with a discreet step-back. Those authors didn't need pectorals and clinches and half-naked women to draw the eye to their books--their name emblazoned on the cover did the trick. So while the sexy covers and over-the-top titles do create a generic quality to historical romance, if the average romance reader responds to them over more discreet covers, there they will stay.

    As for Fifty Shades trilogy, the elegant covers persuade non-romance readers to pick up the book, but I bet that if the book had been released with that cover by an erotic romance imprint like Ellora's Cave, it would have needed strong word-of-mouth to attract romance readers to the books. Like it or not, romance novel covers are a "code" for romance readers seeking a particular type of book or sub-genre. Black Hawk is an amazing novel, no doubt, but being shelved in the romance section of a bookstore without a clinch cover or anything "coded" as historical romance would not have attracted historical romance readers.

    ~ Gigi

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  14. You are preaching to the choir. For a while there I though the industry was getting away from all the half-clothed torsos, but alas, they seem to be back as strong as ever. Sigh.

    Thanks for a well-reasoned, and well-illustrated demonstration.

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  15. It is truly annoying when neither the cover nor the title nor the blurb give you much indication of the contents of the book. I have on occasion picked up what I thought was a new-to-me book, brought it home, settled down for a pleasant evening, and realized halfway through the first chapter that I had read this book before, and didn't even much like it.

    At least if it had been a book I liked I could in good conscience have given it to a friend.

    Jo, you're completely right. Those covers and titles are insulting.

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  16. Christine11:17 AM

    I find it interesting in surveys that romance titles are listed as the number one choice of reading matter for people who own Kindles, e-readers etc. and the reason is because the cheesy and often embarrassing covers aren't seen so the reader feels free to read in public without people judging their reading matter.

    I'm not going to lie- I've read some outstanding romance novels that were nuanced and thoughtful but cringed slapping the paperback down on the counter to be rung up because the cover was cheesy and silly looking. And let's be honest there are some very "judgy" book store clerks as well. I've had some chuckle or make snarky comments over my choice of novels.

    "My Lord And Spymaster" is one of my favorite novels but I have to tell people I recommend it to - the hero is neither a "Lord" nor technically a "Spymaster". One woman wittily replied "what is he then? A haberdasher?" LOL

    And how many people thought the original cover of "The Spymaster's Lady" with the man baring his chest in his ruffled shirt in any way resembled austere Grey?

    Not to get on a feminist rant, but I firmly believe the lack of respect the Romance genre receives is tied in to the idea it is for "women" or as so many people claim "bored housewives." The majority of mm paperbacks sold are romance- yet the romance sections of the bookstores are often relegated to the back corners of the store. I simply cannot imagine another genre that generates such revenue and was overwhelmingly purchased by men would receive similar treatment. End rant ;)

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  17. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Tbh one of the big reasons I even ventured the Historical Romance genre was when I saw a book with a cover I could bring anywhere (especially my conservative christian school) and it happened to be Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series. I was grateful for that because I began to love the genre and discovered amazing books that made me stick to it. The sexy covers would never have made me buy the books and people say it's like, women's porn when the strong characters and well-written stories represent more than that.

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  18. Hi Grace --

    My best guess is, they rounded up 200 or 300 or whatever women who 'read Historical Romance' and asked them to select their favorite covers from a lineup.
    Then they put that cover on every book.

    This assumes the women who read Romance are pretty homogeneous.
    It assumes all Romance books are basically the same.

    Like ... ouch.

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  19. Christine, I've met those snarky clerks. I'm annoyed that I sometimes feel defensive when they roll their eyes at me. Re: your “feminist rant,” I know people who defend nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century sentimental fiction, which was overwhelmingly written and read by women. As a consequence, it's a genre that has only recently begun to gain respect. And yet, some of the same folks fail to see the parallels between sentimental fiction and romance novels, in terms of generic prejudice.

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  20. I have believed for years that romance novels are packaged, and thus marketed, more like food than fiction. The covers "tell" us immediately what the book will be about. High-waisted dress? Regency. High-waisted dress with the back undone, corset-style? Regency with sex. And so forth.

    And then I checked the reviews on a friend's recent release. Her cover says Hi, I'm a cute contemporary romance...with a dog!. Only my friend's book is better than that. It's got some Actual Real Life events in it, like cancer. Still charming and still very romantic. But not so frothy as the cover would suggest.

    The cover -- which was not something my friend could control -- was meant to trigger the readers of a more famous author whose books are delightfully frothy. And so, not surprisingly, some of the reviews on Amazon were rather unkind: "Not as funny as I expected." That sort of thing.

    Well, guess what, fair reader: that's not the author's fault. Her publisher didn't trust you to know whether you'd want to read it, so they cloned another author's cover format. It's disingenuous, borderline deceptive, and it insults pretty much all of us: readers, writers, and cover artists.

    With regard to the Regency with sex category, I'm afraid I now associate the loosened back with a certain sort of book I'm pretty sure I won't want to read. I know I'm missing some great new-to-me authors that way, but it's rather what NY publishers have programmed me to do.

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  21. I have always hated it. I just seldom see it mentioned anywhere. Good for you for saying something.

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  22. One thing that does puzzle me. Honestly puzzles me --

    Why do the several publishers of Historical Romance use the same sort of covers? The nine HR titles up there are by HQN, Avon (4), Zebra, Forever/Hachette, St. Martin's Press, and Ballantine.

    I can see publishers maybe making all their books look alike so readers who enjoy one will glom onto the others. The cozy mystery lines are like this, I guess.

    Why do single-title HR publishers make their books look like every OTHER publisher's book?

    When St. Martins or Ballantine publish a great HR, why do they put it in a cover that doesn't say 'Ballantine' or 'St. Martins' but instead send their reader off to pick up an Avon book?

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    1. "When St. Martins or Ballantine publish a great HR, why do they put it in a cover that doesn't say 'Ballantine' or 'St. Martins' but instead send their reader off to pick up an Avon book?"

      Please, yes! Look at books by Lisa Kleypas and then come and buy MINE, bwahahaha.

      Seriously, I have no doubt that a huge amount of marketing savvy goes into the design of covers and making sure that each one attracts the maximum number of readers (even though the same cover may repel as many potential readers as it attracts.) I'd love to see an experiment by which a book is put out with more than one cover. For example, a Joanna Bourne could have an edition with a six-packed hottie, code for "historical romance" for thousands of readers. But it would also be issued with an interesting cover reflecting the plot and setting that would appeal to those who enjoy a sophisticated historical adventure. (And BTW I believe there is much overlap between these groups.) With the increasing dominance of ebooks, such marketing tricks should be possible.

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  23. Oooh. You said e-book. So much possibility for great covers in e-book. Or, as you say, a choice of covers.

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  24. One of the reasons I love e-book readers is that no one can see your cover! I agree most HR covers are not memorable. Which is one of the reasons I love Goodreads so much. I can at least check to see if I have read a book before I purchase it. One of my favorite covers is: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1289487285666&set=a.1289486405644.2037151.1484747649&type=3&theater And on a different subject please add The Black Hawk with your other books on the right. I didn't know it was available. (I just purchased it) Can't wait to read it.

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  25. You're right. For some reason I forgot to put Black Hawk up. Thanks for telling me. I'll get my act together and do that when I have a free minute to scratch.

    Cover Cafe -- http://www.covercafe.com/ -- has the most beautiful Romance covers. You can nominate your 2012 favorites, btw. I think the 2011 voting may be over.

    Eye-opening, really, what readers praise. Look at the HR winners. Not the ones that reveal the most flesh. So many of the top HR covers tell story. Fr'instance, the top four for 2010 -- full of story..

    http://www.covercafe.com/contest/2010/HST-res10.html

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  26. The marketing department must have some research backing up their cover and title choices. That's probably why there's so little originality. The marketing department makes all their decisions based on editor's feedback and past sales. If a book fails to sell, they probably apportion part of the blame to the cover.

    I remember reading somewhere that having duke in the title helped with the sales of an historical romance book, so again, every publisher has a variation of the same words.

    Finally, I tend to like bright colors on a cover, so I find the Mockingjay cover rather boring. It's a bestseller, so is that because it's a good story or many other readers love the cover?

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  27. Hi Kim --

    But I wonder why the marketing surveys would show that readers of Cozy Mysteries or SF&F want individual, memorable covers that talk about what's inside the book,
    while readers of HR want identical covers showing skin.

    And yet it's the same readers, most of the time. At least, I know folks who read my books are quite frequently reading mysteries and SF too.

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  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  29. There's much variation among publishers, of course, but in general, the book trade has traditionally been a risk-averse business. This is much more the case now that Amazon and other large on-line retailers drive the industry, and there are fewer and fewer small publishers that can carve out their own niche. If something seems to be working, and romance novels are hugely successful, there's not going to be a lot of support for marketing departments to try something new, even if the readers surveyed beg for covers they can take to the cash register without blushing. However we got to this place, we're here now. It's going to take a gutsy marketing director to mess with a genre that sells as well as HR, even if she can get her publisher to go for it, which she probably can't.

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  30. Hi Annie --

    I do see midlist HR as a reliable seller with loyal, even voracious, readership. Ironically, this puts HR in low priority when it comes to spending money on cover design and marketing. I just wish publishers accorded HR the minimal attention they give SF or Mystery.

    Don't publishers give any thought to growing the Rom -- especially HR -- market? (See me use 'grow' as a transitive verb? I am so modern.) There's such good stuff here. But I look at the covers and, man, if I didn't read these books myself, I'd assume they were about sex.

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  31. Katie7:59 AM

    Hi Jo

    I am glad I didn't take too much notice of the cover on SML when I picked it up in the library, the cover by no way indicated the book that was inside, which I loved from the first few lines. With SML, MLS and BH your publisher for some reason has gone for the old fashioned bodice ripping cover, and I really don't know why. Its a shame they didn't think the story inside deserved a little more consideration, or that they didn't research the time period and decided to include a picture of the eiffel tower on the step back even though it had not been built yet, but it won't stop me reading your books. Some publishers seem to take a bit more care in picking a cover, but they probably aren't too concerned as they know the books are going to sell anyway, and they are only trying to catch the eye of a new reader with flashy covers.
    Can't wait for your next book, regardless of the cover :)

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  32. Because Historical Romance covers ARE so similar, I think publishers hate to step outside expectation. They're afraid an even slightly 'off' cover will look out of genre.

    It's like, when everybody is wearing black (New York, I'm looking at you,) wearing brown tweed says, "I'm from out of town.

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  33. Anonymous5:00 PM

    What intrigues me are the people who like these covers. Who collect the covers, for example. Why? They clearly work for some readers.
    Since I tend to ignore covers (although titles will get me every time), this completely baffles me. But I am grateful for my ereader....
    DLS

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  34. I'm commenting on this post because I just became frustrated searching on Amazon for my next HR read and I remembered you posting about covers and titles here.

    They are all the same! And as a reader, I find this incredibly irritating. I have no idea how to choose which new-to-me author to try out. The covers and titles tell me nothing about the book. I want something that has a strong heroine, real danger, and a great romance, but I'm going to have to read the descriptions - which can be a tedious process - to get an impression of what the story is about. If the covers and/or titles were more reflective of the books, I could quickly narrow down my choices THEN read the summaries. *sigh*

    I don't suppose you have any rec's for HR's that fit what I'm looking for, do you? I checked your website and didn't see a rec list. Really, I think I'm just looking for another Joanna Bourne book. Know of anyone who writes like you? ;-)

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  35. Hi DLS --

    I've heard people say that the e-reader saves them some discomfort when the book they're reader has an explicit cover.

    *sigh*

    But yes. There are people who love the sexy covers.

    I ... I like sexy pictures as well as any woman. I can enjoy looking at them. But I do not especially want sexy images as the wrapping on my bar soap or my diet soda or my historical Romances.

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  36. Hi Sandy --

    There's this thing called 'predator confusion'. Herd animals protect themselves by all looking alike. Schools of fish, herds of deer, flocks of birds.

    The predator can't tell them apart and pick on to pursue so he loses them all.

    Which is a very long-winded way to say the publishers should be helping out the wolf-consumer in this case, not giving him predator confusion.

    All that said in tedious verbiage ...

    For great Historical Romance Adventure reads ... Look at Grace Burrowes, Zoe Archer, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran,

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  37. *It's like, when everybody is wearing black (New York, I'm looking at you,) wearing brown tweed says, "I'm from out of town.*

    This is a terrific analogy. I go to a lot of conferences, and herd animals that we are, most of us wear black, gray or brown--if we're brave, maybe we wear a brightly colored shirt instead of white. When someone breaks tradition (I know one woman who wears gorgeous vintage clothes.), we all ooh and ahhh. But the rest of us stay in our black, gray and brown.

    Re: adventure reads: I don't know quite how she would be characterized, but I recently discovered Marsha Canham and have enjoyed her novels. Her work would perhaps be categorized as "historical novel with strong romantic elements."

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  38. Hi Annie --

    Marsha Canham. Yes! I'd send folks to CS Harris as well, though that's historical mystery.

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    1. Sandra4:17 PM

      But she also publishes very good HR as Candace Proctor, several of which are set in Australia, where she lived for some time.

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  39. Yes indeed. See here at

    http://www.amazon.com/Candice-Proctor/e/B001IZX3GO/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

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  40. Deniz pointed me this way - glad she did and glad to meet you. I'm going to be doing a post on romance covers in the next week or two. I'm definitely going to link over to your post here - great points! :)

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  41. Thank ye kindly. I'll be interested to see your posting.

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  42. I agree. It actually drives me crazy. When you buy a book you buy the package. If covers did not matter they would just be blank. And titles that play on a contemporary book or movie tell me the author, agent or publisher couldn't put the effort in.
    Or how about one book I will disguise here, "Sleeping Reflections" of "A certain flower": "A Certain Flower" is not in the book (not even grown in Europe at the time) and a Victorian gate on the cover (book has a Medieval setting). The author told me her agent picked the title and cover out.
    It's disrespectful of readers.
    And, when the dress style is wrong it is really aggravating. Women of the Regency were not wearing prom or bridesmaids' gowns.

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  43. Hi Steph --

    In this case, it's pretty disrespectful of the author as well.

    What you got here is an author who needs to have a little talk with her agent that begins, "When the publisher asks for cover suggestions, you forward that message directly to me ..."

    A writer may not have much power over the cover and title, but the agent should not usurp what bitty little influence the writer does have.

    The writer should get 'cover consultation' added to her next contract.

    I go a little crazy over inaccurate clothing. It's as if the Art Department can't be bothered to keep a stock of historical costume. How expensive can that be?

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