More Thoughts On Covers

A little editorial bird told me that the origin of the clinch cover is rooted, as with anything involving boobs hanging out of tight corsets, with men. Seems men were the buyers at stores selling romance novels, and they bought more of the clinch covers, so that’s what was sold. I don’t know how true that is, but it doesn’t seem too far fetched. I mean, there’s no doubt that when I leave the buxom clinch covers around the house, Hubby tends to pick them up and take a closer look. The hetero male mind comes to complete synaptic arrest at the sight of boobs.

Whether or not the story of the Origin of the Clinch Cover is true, the fact remains that they seem to sell even now. Floral-drenched landscapes, close ups of women’s shoes, and headless torsos haven’t really made the marketing impact that the clinch has – go to the bookstore and there’s plenty of that classic clinch image on sale in the book rack: buxom mantitty grasping at half-naked women.

So I ask myself: which came first, the romance or the clinch cover? Are readers of romance trained to head for the clinch cover when shopping for reading material because so much of romance is and has been housed in that image? Or is that image preferred by enough readers of romance that the clinch continues as a iconic image of romance that will sell copies of whatever book it adorns?

In the discussion of the “Ravished” cover on the Seattle Weekly issue last week, iffygenia made a very apt comment:

I’m equally insulted by the hideous covers and *their* use of “ignorant, easy shorthand that plays into insulting stereotypes”…. It’s true, many people have a negative image of the genre.  Not surprising, given the genre actively works to put that image out there.

In the cover survey yesterday, a lot of commenters echoed that sentiment – that the clinch covers don’t really do it for them. Chicklet, for example, said she preferred covers that “don’t depict people, either in paintings or in photographs” and that she “abhor(s) clinch covers.”

Tracy said, “I don’t think we need half naked people or people practically having sex on the covers for people to know what’s inside. I don’t like covers that scream ‘there be sex in here’” and given that I’m often reading on my lunch break while I eat, I agree with her. There’s a certain amount of professional image that one loses in a glance if there’s Fabio and a nameless model humperating on the cover of one’s lunchtime reading material. I admit: I get a little thrill reading paper-bound ARCs because they are often entirely without art, and therefore completely genre-neutral.

Teddy Pig pointed out that the older Coulter and Lindsey covers, on the other hand, “gave those books a specific character,” and he does have a point. The lurid image was a sign of the times – and may be part of what trained me as a reader to look for the clinch when it comes to shopping for romance, especially if I’m shopping for romance quickly, such as when I finished a book on a flight and grabbed something fast while I changed planes. I ended up buying a book featuring two empty beach chairs, and man oh man was it not a romance. I loved it, I thought it was beautiful, and it was marvelously well-written, but it was sad and definitely not a romance. It was in the mini-bookstore’s collection of romance mixed in with ‘women’s fiction,’ and it occurred to me that if I’d gone for a clinch cover, I would have ended up with a romance. Maybe not a GOOD one, but definitely a romance.

Perhaps that’s why clinches sell. It’s the Marketing Image of Romance Novels, and if you’re shopping without a specific title or author in mind, it’s the cover image that most likely guarantees a romance novel inside. Perhaps we are like the buxom woman on the cover: stuck in the clinch.

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  1. 1
    Lorelie says:

    Teddy Pig pointed out that the older Coulter and Lindsey covers, on the other hand, “gave those books a specific character,” and he does have a point. The lurid image was a sign of the times . . .

    I think he’s exactly right – which is why I tend to avoid them.  Right or wrong, the clinch cover tells me there will not only be Romance inside, there will be angsty, drama-heavy Romance with a hero I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley and a heroine I will likely want to smack upside her head.  I’m sure I’m kind of bigoted in these thoughts but isn’t that what the marketing of clinch covers is?  A brand label, of a specific type of Romance?  Whether it actually fits that label or not is another topic.

  2. 2
    TracyS says:

    Holy Crap!! I was quoted in a post on Smart Bitches!! woohoo.

    Okay, now that my 15 seconds of fame are over. . . . (LOL)

    “I mean, there’s no doubt that when I leave the buxom clinch covers around the house, Hubby tends to pick them up and take a closer look. The hetero male mind comes to complete synaptic arrest at the sight of boobs.” heh. My hubby too.  Although, as long as he knows it’s a romance I’ll find him flipping through it. And he ain’t looking for the scene when the hero tells the heroine how much he loves her! *wink*

  3. 3
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Perhaps that’s why clinches sell. It’s the Marketing Image of Romance Novels, and if you’re shopping without a specific title or author in mind, it’s the cover image that most likely guarantees a romance novel inside.

    My take on it is that there is no evidence to back up the assertion that clenches sell, as the theory has never been tested. Everyone I know—without exception!—buys clenches because there is NO OTHER OPTION. It’s not as if the book comes out with multiple covers and I can choose the one I like. If I want to read Author X’s latest release (esp if she writes for Avon) I’m going to have to suck up the horrible clench cover.

    Pretty much the only way to “prove” that clenches are the bee’s knees to romance readers would be to create multiple covers for one of the big-name writers and FLOOD the market with both covers, assuring that no matter where the reader shopped she’d have a choice. That’s never going to happen.

    It’s like what’s going on with those horrible “upsize” mass market books. Publishers say readers love them. Booksellers and readers say they hate them. WTF? The publisher’s argument is the same as the one being made for clench covers: They sell. But the argument has the same Achilles’ heel: It’s the only format you can buy Big Name Author’s Latest Release in. *shrug*

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, baby.

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    I was just thinking about that this morning, Kalen – it’s really close to impossible to accurately quantify whether clinches sell vs. other types of cover designs, because you don’t know if someone is looking for a specific author’s work and has no choice in the cover, or what other factors may play into a buying decision.

    I suppose the sales figures could be tracked for clinch covers from the 80’s vs. redesigned landscapes or floral motifs from re-releases (e.g. Catherine Coulter’s Magic trilogy) but even then it’s hard to determine whether the purchase was made due to cover art or due to name recognition, etc.

    Certainly the cost involved in crafting a book with two covers would be profoundly ridiculous just to be used for sales figure research purposes.

    About the only way I could see making an attempt at researching the question would be to craft mockups of the same book and show clinch vs. other art, and do a survey online.

  5. 5
    KCfla says:

    Kalen- WORD!

    I’m at an age/point in my life where I really am not all that embarassed by clinch covers. If the book is good- I’m going to read it. However,there are many good authors out there whose books don’t go that route ( Nora comes to mind here!)

    I agree with Kalen- have one famous/best selling author’s book come out with 2 covers- one “clinch”, one not- and see where the sales come down. I would really love to see the results.

    And Tracy? I only wish my hubby would pick up one of my books. Perhaps he could pick up some very good ideas

    But he avoids them like they carry the plague. *sigh*

  6. 6
    Chicklet says:

    I’m intrigued by the idea of a Clinch vs. Other deathmatch; I can think of two (non-romance) books recently published in paperback that were released with different color covers, but the exact same art otherwise:

    The Rule of Four, which was released with (I think) four different covers: red background, blue background, silvery background, and cream background. (I bought the silvery one.)

    Everything is Illuminated, which had versions available in turquoise, yellow, and (I think) bright pink. (I haven’t purchased this book yet, but when I do, I think I’ll go for the movie tie-in, because none of the colors appeal to me—too bright!)

    I’m not sure why these books were released with these different covers, unless it was intended for display purposes (displaying a big bunch of books together in a window or on a table and varying the colors or something). I have no idea whether the publisher tracked sales for each color.

    But to get back to the original discussion, I’m with LorelieLong: I don’t buy clinch covers in part because I associate them with outdated generic mores to which I am allergic.

    And I might not have made it clear here, but I mentioned in Tracie’s survey that most of the reason I don’t like covers with paintings or pictures of people on them is that it interferes with my ability to imagine the characters’ appearance based on the descriptions within the book. (This is true only for novels; with non-fiction books, I want as many photos or paintings as possible, so I know what everyone looks like.)

  7. 7
    iffygenia says:

    Right or wrong, the clinch cover tells me there will not only be Romance inside, there will be angsty, drama-heavy Romance with a hero I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley and a heroine I will likely want to smack upside her head.

    That’s part of the impression I get, too.  It’s not the implied sex that mortifies me.  It’s the implication that the contents are equally cheesy… and the completely crap taste.  The clinch looks terribly dated both visually and culturally—it’s like a 1970s kitsch porn aesthetic combined with an I-hope-that-era-never-existed take on male/female relationships.

    I sorta suspect publishers laugh their tits off every time they put out another cover straight out of Barbarella.  I mean, srsly, they might as well slap on a sticker saying “Warning: camp!”

    there is no evidence to back up the assertion that clenches sell, as the theory has never been tested. Everyone I know—without exception!—buys clenches because there is NO OTHER OPTION.

    Yep!

  8. 8
    Jackie L. says:

    I don’t think making 2 covers for a book would be prohibitive for a lot of the books I read.  I mean, looking back on your cover snark, do you really think the publishers are paying tons and tons of money for these crappy covers? 

    So Regency Air Head with tasteful (not pink) fan on cover and Regency Air Head w/ half of said air head cut off at the top of the book and a dress cut down to the butt crack. . .  Give a person a choice. 

    So that those of us who are subject to public humiliation because of our taste in reading material would only get nailed by people who recognized the author.

    If the idea is to sell books, maybe giving folks what they want would be helpful?

  9. 9
    Teddy Pig says:

    I do not rule out that I was inundated with the clinch cover and my first Romance reading had the clinch cover so I have a bias.

    I notice the clinch cover and sure even in the 80s it made me cringe but I now associate it with old style romance.

    Just like I associate the new more erotic romance with the naked photorealistic mantitty covers we all know so well.

    When I see naked mantitty photo of single man in kilt I immediately think here be explicit sex scenes and possible buttsecks.

    When I see two naked mantitties with woman in state of undress on the cover I expect major buttsecks and possible man on man action.

  10. 10
    Romance Reader says:

    I am with pretty much everyone on here…hate the clinch covers!  Hate them, hate them, hate them.

    In fact, I only buy romance books online for this very reason. And I only read romance in my bedroom with the door closed. Those books never make it out onto the couch in my living room. And when I am done with the books they go in a drawer b/c heaven forbid my schoolage children should find them.

    It really is not all about being embarrassed of the art…it is really people assuming (family included) that it is a worthless book with sex only and horrid writing.

    One neighbor friend saw an historical romance on my bookshelf, and then proceeded to tell me all the ‘wonderful’ authors she needed to recommend to me. Clearly implying that I was missing out on much better fare or just completely ignorant that any good books existed. It was insulting. And directly due to the clinch covers that give people the assumption that the content within is pure drivel.

  11. 11

    Every editor and former editor I’ve talked to has said one thing: Clinch covers sell. Always along the lines of “We don’t like clinch covers either, and we tried, we really TRIED more tasteful covers. Did. Not. Work.” Now bestselling names will sell bestselling names. But my name won’t sell squat. My name interwoven with pretty flowers won’t sell squat. My name printed in small type above a naked man? That’s what I’m talking about.

    NY pubs aren’t in the business of keeping women in their place. They’re in the business of selling as many books as they can. Think about it. If they could sell more books with less embarrassing covers, do you think they wouldn’t do it??? Do you think they wouldn’t have already tried? Personally, I distinctly remember the surge of flowery covers (early 90’s?). I liked it, myself. Too bad.

  12. 12
    Romance Reader says:

    But how do they know this didn’t work? They don’t really do any surveying of their reading audience, so I just don’t buy it.

    Also, this was in the 90s, before Amazon, before online reviews, before all sorts of info was available. All readers had was the bookshelf in B. Dalton books. Now, it is extremely easy to find information on new authors, new books, etc.

    I would even prefer the double cover…with the bland flower or bird on the outside, with the clinch on the inside cover. That gives both types of readers something….

  13. 13

    But how do they know this didn’t work? They don’t really do any surveying of their reading audience, so I just don’t buy it.

    There is no survey. There is just sales!

    I like your point about how things have changed these days. But you can’t say that every single historical cover out there right now is a clinch cover. Not true. All editors have to do is compare book A to book B, assuming they are smart enough to use good info about name recognition and previous sales, etc.. I think tasteful covers work for some types of historical romances, and some names, because those covers are being used.

    But again, I ask, if they think they could make more money, do you think they wouldn’t try it?
    Makes no sense.

    People are busy. They don’t spend hours at the bookstore, picking out just the perfect book for next weekend. They don’t research every purchase online before heading for the store. (And online sales don’t even come CLOSE to in store sales.) They want to grab the 3 or 4 books they’ll read that week before their kids start screaming that they’re bored. Clinch covers ARE shorthand, and life is only moving faster!

  14. 14
    Kassiana says:

    I don’t mind clinch covers. They can be well done and very sexy. Of course I mind badly done clinch covers, but I mind when ANYTHING is badly done.

  15. 15
    Victoria Dahl says:

    There is no survey. There is just sales!

    Or I could’ve said “There are only sales!” if I wanted to sound smart. Or I could just change the first part to “There ain’t no surveys!” to make it all match up! Ding, dang, ya’ll!

  16. 16
    fiveandfour says:

    I think Teddy Pig addresses a good point in that I believe there is a kind of “code” to covers that publishers somehow settled on.  There’s more to it than just semi-naked people.  Whether there’s one person or more, how the models are dressed and posed and several other little things all add up to giving a pretty specific impression of what one can expect to find inside the cover.

    That “code” works for and against books in other genres, too.

    I think it would be very interesting were someone to approach designing covers for the various sub-types of romance in the same way that covers for “literature” are designed.  What would happen if an artist were banned from using hearts, flowers, ribbons, people ‘dressed’ in leather/vinyl, kilts or period gowns?

    Are publishers really saying that books like Bet Me don’t sell?  Or that until a writer can sell as much as someone like Crusie (or Roberts or Graham or the few others writing romances who aren’t sold with clinch covers) that they’re not willing to give up the code and take a chance with something else?

  17. 17

    Are publishers really saying that books like Bet Me don’t sell?

    But Bet Me isn’t an historical romance. In fact, the Bet Me cover is clear code for women’s fiction/romantic comedy. I expect that when my funny contemps come out, they will have a similar cover. Also, Crusie’s name is it’s own code.

  18. 18

    it’s

    Or “its”. Okay, i’ll stop. But please tell me I am not the only writer with a serious hang up about making these kinds of mistakes in front of others. *shudder* My books have clinch covers. I have to be vigilant!

  19. 19
    Brandi says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if creative use of stepback covers (discreet outside, fun/raunchy clench imagery inside) would be the best of both worlds… (How much do stepbacks add to the cost of books, anyway?)

    Also, Kalen: by “‘upsize’ mass market books” do you mean the trade paperback format? I actually do like those. (I thought at first you might be referring to the tendency in modern fantasy fiction to put out brick-sized volumes.)

  20. 20
    liz says:

    I hate trade paperback – but that said – clinch covers aren’t new to romance. Steinbeck and Hemingway (before they were enshrined) had plenty of their own pulpy covers because they were marketed as pulp novels. The LOOK! READ ME!! I’M NOT LITERATURE!! cover has a much longer tradition than the rise in romance circa 1970.

    Even if some of it does turn out to be literature.

    I don’t care for the covers either, but it does say “I am Fun To Read, this is not about Dead Children and Deep Junk” I wonder if in the future people will pay crazy money to collect Fabio covers (as they do 40’s pulp novels) with art books, magnets and other retrospectives issued. I hope it’s AFTER I’m dead.

  21. 21

    I think Kalen’s point about the big ol’ paperback books (are you talking NOT trade, but the oversized, tall mass markets?) is actually an argument that pubs will try anything if they think it will make more money. Meaning they are trying those tall paperbacks. They can try to pull one over on the readers, I suppose, but if it’s really not working and making them MORE money, they will stop eventually.

    IMHO, this is what they tried with flowery historicals in the 90’s. They tried it. Did. Not. Work. Except for bestselling, established authors, which is why they still use it for them.

    I’m not saying pubs are infallible. Not at all. Look at that Forbidden Shores cover. They broke the code. The author wasn’t happy and readers were pissed.

  22. 22

    “So I ask myself: which came first, the romance or the clinch cover?”

    I’m fairly sure that romance came first, and that the clinch cover only came in with a particular style of romance.

    Twentieth-century gothic romances had their own particular style of cover (usually a lone heroine in an isolated spot with a mysterious/sinister-looking building behind her, like this and this). The old-looking Heyer covers (on individual pages linked to from here) don’t have clinches. Barbara Cartland’s novels tended to have covers where the lovers are embracing, but both are fully dressed and the heroine is drawn with absolutely massive eyes.

    And the clinches do seem to be mostly a single-title phenomenon, because as far as I can tell, there haven’t been as many on Harlequin covers. There are also national variations, because the covers often change when the novel is published in a different market. So, for example here’s Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful with its American cover and here’s the cover of the UK edition.

  23. 23
    fiveandfour says:

    Victoria, that’s kinda’ my point: why can’t historicals be given a shot at covers that aren’t what we see all the time?  Because it falls outside the code. 

    Publishers say books without the clinch covers don’t sell, but I find it hard to believe.  It seems just plain idiotic if they’re really saying they can’t make money using tasteful covers for romance books because they won’t sell otherwise.  Are they seriously suggesting that the 50%+ share of all books sold is going to be significantly reduced were people actually unembarrassed to be seen in public reading them?  It seems to me that people are actually buying 50% of all books sold DESPITE the covers, not because of them.

    Would the kind of thinking that produced a cover like Bet Me‘s really be that out of place on an historical?  I’m not speaking here of the color or content of Bet Me‘s cover, more the philosophy behind its creation: the cover gives a clue about the content, but in a way that someone who hasn’t read it wouldn’t understand.  The person who hasn’t read it understands the genre thanks to the colors employed, the use of shoes, etc. (as you said, the code for that genre).  So in all it works on more than one level: first to draw people in and give that all-important first impression that dictates so many of a person’s reactions to something, then later it adds something subtle to the mix to help make the book a little greater than the sum of its parts.  Has there ever been an historical romance cover that’s provided the same service for the story inside?  Given the behemoth that the romance genre is in the world of publishing, it’s a little astonishing to me that I can’t think of one.

    And finally, I’d really love to know the names of the books that were published without the stereotypical covers that enjoyed such disappointing sales that its meant the perpetuation of the sterotypes for so many years.

  24. 24
    Teddy Pig says:

    fiveandfour,

    I think it’s an issue that when you have name recognition and a large following the more tasteful fonts and objects covers work because the sale is made based on the name.

    I think the clinch covers and the mantitty covers are made to sell based on, as you so aptly clarified it, “the code”.

    The more likely unknown writer gets sold with the clearly defined Romance cover.

  25. 25

    Yes, Teddy Pig. It’s all about the code. And the code won’t work unless the messages are distinct. They tried cartoon covers on historicals. It didn’t work well, for obvious reasons.

    Now I can get behind the idea that the code should be changed, but I’m not entirely sure the publishers would be willing to sacrifice a couple years’ profits on that experiment.

  26. 26
    Teddy Pig says:

    Well the historicals are getting more erotic and the photo mantitty is coming with them so I do think the code changes.

  27. 27

    I meant should it be changed to something more tasteful. *g*

    At this point, I’m happy to see the code has expanded (for historicals) to include backs of dresses, etc. It seems to me as if pubs ARE trying out new types of covers and pushing the code. (Look at Pam Rosenthal’s covers. Lovely.) Some of the arguments here seem to assume that if they would just TRY, they would see the light. They try out new covers all the time. But the numbers make clear, regardless of what us smart bitches feel, that clinches sell, so they won’t be dropped.

  28. 28
    Brandi says:

    (are you talking NOT trade, but the oversized, tall mass markets?)

    I was under the impression that the ~5-6” W x ~8” H size *was* called a trade paperback, and that the smaller size was called a mass market paperback.

    Ah, the terminology gets so confusing!

    Anyway, I thought Kalen was referring to the larger format used on things like the Raymond Chandler reissues.

  29. 29
    Poohba says:

    A British publisher tried putting out new editions of Jane Austen with “chick lit covers” last year.

    See story here.

    I haven’t heard whether the venture was successful or not, though.  Does anyone know?

  30. 30
    Robin says:

    To me this boils down to a question of whether clinch covers sell because readers like them or because they are code for Romance.  I’ve long believed it’s because of the code, although I know some readers do like them, as well.  I even like some of them, although I didn’t feel that way until I became a reader of the genre and could see them from inside the paradigm, so to speak.

    If clinch covers sell because they’re code for Romance, a publisher or two “experimenting” with other covers will yield a predictable short term failure.  If every publisher got rid of clinch covers tomorrow, though, the code would change because there would be no clinch covers to announce themselves as Romance on the shelves next to covers with flowers or beach chairs or abstract figures. 

    As it stands, though, I will defend the content of the genre, but those clinch covers (or similarly the shirtless duke in the middle of winter type covers) make me more than understand why those who see nothing but these covers believe that Romance isn’t a genre to take seriously.  I know that’s harsh, but I find it incredibly difficult to defend those covers to the casual observer, especially when, IMO, they are the most prominent public image of the genre.

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