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  • Zahra Mir

Let’s Judge Books by Their Covers: Romance Edition

By Zahra Mir

The romance genre is diverse and contains a community filled with wonderful readers and their preferences. If there is one aspect of the publishing industry a lot of readers find themselves disliking, it’s shirtless men on the front-cover of a book.

Whether it be a male model staring directly at you or a naked torso, this can cause a sense of uneasiness. It seems publishers wish to create an alluring look for their novels but many, including myself, seem to miss the old-fashioned, bodice-ripper covers that capture the essence of romantic storylines between the two protagonists.

However, the choice for illustrated novel covers has decreased. Instead, there has been an increase of shirtless men appearing on book covers, so much that readers are turning to purchasing these books on Kindle or Kobo to avoid embarrassment.

So, what makes publishers want to plaster a naked body onto a book?

Perhaps they believe it will entice us romance enthusiasts, offering a visual insight into what the narrative holds.

Most readers - including myself - dislike this. One argument is that it takes away the reader’s creativity with imagining their hero but a more common thought is that it can cause anxious feelings for in-public reading.

One Instagram user and fellow romance reader said: ‘I don’t like the look of them and I feel if I was going to read one in public I’d be judged!’ and many followed, describing the embarrassment they would feel in front of their parents or stating they don’t want strangers making immediate assumptions.

A very recent example of this ongoing trend would be Ana Huang’s Twisted Hate, the cover of the enemies-to-lover novel stars model Simonas Pham leaning against something not visible in the shot. A domineering look in his eyes, wistful gaze and edited in black and white. The title ‘Twisted Hate’ is a stark contrast with the juxtaposition of white and red. As though readers can be assured the line between honesty and lust will be crossed.

However, Twisted Hate for example deals with a multitude of topics that do not reflect the sexual tone of the cover. Asking whether the cover diminishes the heavy topics within the plot or do they draw out romance as a remedy? Love will conquer all?

Some readers could find it empowering. Another user said: ‘If I’m looking for a raunchy kind of book I don’t think I’d be as interested if it didn’t look NSFW.’

As with the evolution of how sexuality is perceived in the media, these covers liken themselves to erotic posters that promote other forms of media such as First Kill (2022), 365 Dni (2020) and even paying homage to films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) or Basic Instinct (1991).

It seems authors and publishers are beginning to realise that these covers can cause anger rather than excitement. Instead of appealing to the female gaze most of the time, readers beg for tamer covers.

Thus, discreet covers are helpful alternatives to those who wish to have their favourite book boyfriends on their shelves rather than behind the screen of their Kindles.

Reflecting the example from earlier, Ana Huang’s Twisted series has alternative discreet covers which perhaps show the romance side rather than the NSFW moments.

One writer, Willow Winters, has re-designed the nature of discreet books for all of her novels and TikTok viewers love it. Offering her readers a choice to choose from ‘The Sexy Series’ and ‘The Discreet Series’. The latter truly offers a discreet branding, as Winters describes the colour theme of her series is based upon the themes within the stories, ‘the darkness levels of the books have also been considered and are reflected in the color of the covers. The darker you go, the darker you go.’

You can find Winters’ website below:


Personally, I am in favour of offering readers the choice between explicit and non-explicit covers. Despite this, romance enthusiasts are still unagreed on which covers are better for aesthetics and sexual politics.

Is it diminishing or is it an embodiment of power? For now, it seems readers are divided.

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