In her article “As Illustrated Covers Trend in Romance, What is Being Said About Women’s Interests?” fellow Rioter Kelly Jensen argues that romance’s new cartoon covers and their similarity to common YA trends is infantilizing and sexist towards romance readers. While she makes some other good points about romance and its marketing machine, I find myself questioning her thesis. Certainly, women as readers are occasionally looked down upon in the book world, and romance readers are looked down upon in the whole world. But the optics are changing, and while we appreciate the work of romance allies, arguing that something is inherently sexist treads a fine line when it comes to work done in the romance community, whether it is marketing or anything else.
Let’s talk about some of Kelly’s arguments, some of which have their points and some that could be improved:
Sales of trade paperback books with cartoon covers and higher price points have helped increase numbers in romance.
No denying that. While the average mass market paperback romance novel hits a price point of $3.99–7.99, popular releases like The Bride Test and The Wedding Party go for $14.99–17.99. The cashflow alone of these books were one of a few elements that caused Barnes and Noble to report a 31% increase in romance sales last month over the same month the year before. But we’ve also got to take into account that romance readership has been increasing over the past few years, as more mainstream romances by authors from marginalized and underrepresented groups have hit the bestseller list.
Kelly mentions that some of the covers are indistinguishable from YA covers due to their fun, cartoony nature, and that it’s causing some confusion. Sure, Red, White & Royal Blue has fallen to that misnomer. People have categorized it as YA because the cover is cute, and it’s often an honest mistake by people who haven’t seen m/m romance come through a Big Five publisher in the adult romance category.
If you take that into account alongside the YA-to-Romance Pipeline, in which publishers hope YA readers will either graduate or expand into adult romance, then it’s no surprise there would be similarity between the cover imagery that is being presented to potential readers.
The other arm to this is the newness of cartoon covers. We saw with the outline design of The Wedding Date and then the cute drawings in The Kiss Quotient and The Hating Game (which came out in 2016, by the way), which continued to evolve to the much more cartoony images we see today in The Right Swipe and the fully painted covers of Intercepted and Fumbled. But they aren’t new for marginalized authors, especially those publishing digitally. When authors couldn’t find or create stock covers with the people they wanted, they resorted to drawings.
And we have some amazing covers for books featuring marginalized and “unlikely” pairs thanks to the same concept. Sure, the bigger books with less shame-inducing covers have drawn new readers to the genre, but why knock that? Even if it might have been publishing’s reasoning, it’s had quite the helpful side effect:
Romance can be more representative of all its readers.
Kelly argues that because the genre is written by women for a female readership, anything that allows for frequent and blatant miscategorization takes away the agency that romance provides. Of course, we know that people across the gender spectrum both write and read romance, and while authors don’t have control over their final covers, most have been pretty happy with the results. Look at the upcoming Get A Life, Chloe Brown, which features a fat black heroine and a tall redheaded white guy. At the black/Samoan couple on the cover of The Right Swipe. Not everyone can pull off the cover magic that is Can’t Escape Love, and so we rely on the next best thing. This is how we’ll have covers that represent us more, without relying on stock photography—which, let’s face it, is never quite right. This is how we’ll have more covers with people of all complexions, and people with disabilities. How we’ll have more covers featuring non-white interracial combinations. How we’ll have queer rep and trans rep and nonbinary rep. Because those people read romance and write them, too.
Beyond that, we have to consider that…
Illustrated covers aren’t a new thing.
Sure, this cartoony thing feels new because The Bride Test and The Wedding Party felt like the first non-clinch covers in our faces for a while, but they’re just the newest of many ways romance imprints have worked to draw readers into romance. While we know that the most dedicated, steadfast romance reader might not particularly care if they’re seen in public reading a book with a half-naked man tightly embracing a scantily clad woman (or some other combination), this is America we’re primarily talking about. The land established on puritan values. Sex might sell in some places, but people of all genders are wary about being considered less-than based on their desire to read books about sex. (Even if romance doesn’t inherently include sex in the first place.)
In the ’90s, mass-market paperbacks featuring the steamiest sex (well, sometimes with some dubcon issues) were covered in flowers and domino masks, or paintings of castles. The decade prior was filled with Jude Deveraux and Johanna Lindsey novels covered in photos made to look like paintings. In the 2000s, “chick-lit” that was marketed towards romance readers had drawings of single shoes, or a shopping bag. Fifty Shades of Grey inspired its own alternative cover style that itself was inspired by the Twilight covers (since, you know, adult romance fan fiction based on YA novel from 20 years ago). Trends are there for a reason: to try to sell more books. If the wildly female editorial and marketing teams at Berkley, Gallery, Avon, Kensington, and even Harlequin see potential in trying something new—and then see how well it does for them—then there’s really no reason to vilify it.
Cartoon covers aren’t taking over; they’re merely a fraction of romance.
The Marketing Machines at the aforementioned companies put their money behind certain titles, but between traditional publishing and indie (which, if we recall, were the first to show up in trade paperback size thanks to the POD model), ten to thirty romance novels are released every week. In Barnes and Noble’s list of top ten books of the summer, the top two were Debbie Macomber’s Window on the Bay and Nora Roberts’s Under Currents. Neither of these are cartoon cover books; in fact of the top ten, the only one with a cartoon cover is The Wedding Party, which is last on the list. To be fair, neither author has used a clinch cover in decades, but that’s part of why they sell. Nobody has been talking about watercolors and abstract contrast imagery, or the dark covers of romantic suspense thrillers drawing CJ Box readers. Right now, what we really have to worry about is where the tops of all those poor torsos’ heads are, because Helena Hunting and Jaci Burton aren’t the only ones putting out books with the sexy version of a Washington Irving story on the cover. (Oh, man, where’s the romance based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that doesn’t feature Johnny Depp? I need that now.)
All of this to say, yes. Kelly has sound points about how romance covers are shifting, and even about who they might be marketed to. I don’t agree, however, that it’s indicative of a problem. Her conclusion, in particular, strikes a dissonant chord for me:
“So when we equate romance to YA, when romance tries to mimic what it sees in YA to gain new readers, how can women not also see their worth and value equated to that of someone who isn’t yet an adult?
The problem is much bigger and much more insidious than an illustrated book cover. It’s the beliefs underpinning the need to turn romance into something other than what it is that trip the industry and hold the genre back from reaching the potential readers who it can truly reach—and truly impact.”
As long as there’s a central love story and an HEA, the foundations of romance will remain the same—and any changes in who is being represented and who picks them up only makes it a greater experience for the whole romance community.