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From chiseled abs to discrete illustrations: How romance covers have changed over time

A rose in the pages of a book. (Getty Images)
A rose in the pages of a book. (Getty Images)

Imagine the cover of a romance novel; what comes to mind? Long-haired, open-shirted Fabio? Or maybe two half-naked people clinging to one another and staring hungrily into each other’s eyes?

The latter is an iconic pose known as “the clinch.” It’s graced romance covers for decades, but not as frequently lately.

Today’s romance covers tend to feature illustrated cartoons with bright colors and fonts, straying from the Fabio look-alikes popular in the late 20th century.

A new story from digital publication The Pudding takes a look at more than 1,400 romance novels featured in Publisher’s Weekly from 2011 to 2023.

The piece examines each cover for raciness, art design and diversity to see how things have shifted over time. Alice Liang, a freelance writer and data analyst, is the brain behind the article.

“If you walk into a bookstore these days, what you’ll see is that bright poppy visual color,” Liang says. “Our article is really thinking about how to get from that Fabio look to where we are now.”

4 questions with Alice Liang

You say that romance covers in the 20th century reflected a change in women’s place in society. Can you explain that? 

“I think that time when the Fabio model was very popular, it was following a  period of women’s liberation movement and openness for a woman’s desire in the public image. And even before that, there were a lot of nurse-doctor covers, secretary-boss covers. As you know, women were increasingly part of the workplace.”

You evaluated romance covers from 2011 to 2023 for the level of raunchiness. What kind of changes were there in that particular category?

“If you really look at the covers from the beginning of the period, I’d say almost a third of them in the data have some kind of level of undress in the clinch style.

“But from 2011 later into the decade, barely any covers except those that are in subgenres like historical romance [or] paranormal romance have any kind of raunchiness left. There’s a gradual decline towards that period.”

What’s behind the publishing industry’s shift from raunchy romance covers to illustrated discrete ones? 

“I do think that part of it is about the change in society overall. And if you look in general fiction, covers are also becoming more colorful and less abstract.

“I think that reflects a change in the way that we perceive romance: Highlighting something like playfulness, highlighting something about the plot and the way that the characters are navigating life, rather than focusing on sexual appeal as the seller of the book.”

In recent years we’ve seen publishing put out more romance novels by authors of color and featuring characters of color. Is that diversity reflected in romance covers too? 

“Definitely. So to tie back to what we were saying about the illustration style becoming more popular, Helen Huang, a romance writer, said that for her book, ‘The Kiss Quotient,’ illustration was a way for her to slip past unconscious bias to readers who might otherwise come across a book with an Asian character on the cover and not purchase the book.

“In the data we looked at, there was a lot of stark change. There was almost no racial diversity in the covers in the early 2010s to all of a sudden the big jump in 2020. And of course, you know, we all remember what happened in 2020: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about racial bias and racial representation that were in our daily lives.

“The whole point of the romance novel is the happily ever after. I’m happy to see people from all backgrounds being represented in that and for more people to be reading romance novels.”

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Julia Corcoran. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.