50 Shades of Cover Art

If you've seen books on a shelf in a store anywhere, like the newsstand at the airport or a kiosk at the grocery store, you've noticed that the success of 50 Shades of Grey has had quite an effect on cover art for contemporary erotic romances. It's shades of grey everywhere!

Here's the original three covers, in case you've been living in a van down the river and haven't seen these books anywhere:

50 Shades of Grey: a grey patterned tie on a grey background 50 Shades Darker: a grey mardi gras mask against a grey background 50 Shades Freed: silver handcuffs on... a grey background


Margot Sage-El, the owner of my local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, said to me a few months back that she thought one factor in the success of the book was that it didn't look like a romance novel. It sure doesn't. But get ready, because now many books look like 50 Shades. I hope the book buying public likes grey. 

First, there are all the parodies, which made any photographer of black and white stock images VERY happy. I mean, really, of anyone who is riding the gravy train of this book, the stock photo agencies are probably the most joyful. Have a look at the complete parodypalooza of wtfery unleashed upon the world:


Fifty Shades of Gravy - with a gravy boat. Of course.

A Black and white picture of an open banana peel, Fifty Shades of Garbage.

A sleep mask with argyle print, Fifty Shades Effed

Fifty Shades of Silver Hair and Socks - argyle socks

Fifty Shades of Steampunk: a tea kettle, grey on grey. Ho hum.


And this image, minus the extra nosy part, was the original cover image for “Bared to You:”


Fifty Shades of Lies


And of course there had to be political parodies! 

Fifty Shades of Romney - a red tie on a grey background. Sigh.


England and Ireland, you're not off the hook either. This book is described as “Belfast craic,” and has one enthusiastic review. Nevertheless, I feel like I need to apologize on its behalf, even though I had nothing to do with it:

Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue

The description of this one is just majestic in the amount of instant WHAT? I felt upon reading it:

“Maggie Muff meets Mr Red, White and Blue when she goes for a 'back to work' interview at the Bru in place of her best chum, big Sally-Ann, who's down with a dose of the clap that she got of Tommy Dick-fingers. ”


50 Shames of Earl Grey - a black/white image of a guy sipping a teabag in a cup with his fingers in the two in the pink, one in the stink position.

Fifty Shades of Twilight = a vampire mouth on top of an apple. SIGH.

Fifty Shades of Louisa May - a white bonnet on a grey background. This is just the suck, you guys.

Fifty Shades of Red Riding Hood

a grey hot water bottle on a grey background: Fifty Shades of Black and Blue


And this cover, which isn't so much a parody as it is everything plus the kitchen sink, the fridge, and the junk drawer:

Fifty Shades of Sparkling Vampires with Dragon Tattoos That Play Starvation Games



We can't forget the reference books which have arrived to help all the curious folks who want to do some of that in their own bedrooms (more power to them, I say):

Red cover with CHERRIES. WHAT could it MEAN?

CHERRIES?! What could THAT mean?!


50 Ways to Play: BDSM for nice people. A hand grabbing some dude's tie, in black and white .

50 Ways to Play: another book on erotic desire, with a close up of a satin rosette that looks kinda like a pucker of SOME SORT.


And then there are the erotic romances and erotic novels being released with two-color photography covers instead of full color man-chest covers. The Crossfire series covers are 50 Shades-esque:


Bared to You: a pair of yellow print cufflinks on a black/white background.

Reflected in You: a silver monogram keychain against a redgold background

I saw this one and said, out loud, “Oh, come ON now.”


Wild Card by Lora Leigh - dog tags against a grey background.


All of the covers for Beth Kery's serial novel have close up images on a single color background, quite 50-Shades-esque:

Part I: Because You are Mine: pearls in a martini galss.

A watch in a martini glass, this time against a red backgroun.

This woman's face is superimposed on a violin, and the cover is black, white and yellow.


And then there's this magical piece of magic, sent to me by Allie:


Book Cover

Allie says, “either the author has a mushroom fetish or a lively sense of humor (the reviews seem to suggest the latter!)”

And this has nothing to do with book covers but I couldn't NOT share this: FIFTY SHADES OF GRU

The pressing question from my perspective is, if we're going to have 50 Shades-esque cover images of Dude Stuff in black and white, let's get real here, shall we? The first 50 Shades cover was a picture of a tie, and has become pretty iconic. It focused on the dude, not the heroine, and there was nary a nipple in sight. Just a close up of some Dude Stuff. Keeping with that theme, here are some ideas that I think would make GREAT covers: 

Black and White Photo of Sock Garters

This is a POSTER, y'all. Don't tell me there's no demand for images of sock garters! 


Nosehair Trimmers!

Nosehair trimmers! Because you can tell a lot from the size  —  and grooming — of a man's nose



Gold Bond!

Bond. GOLD Bond.

Have you noticed any absurd 50 Shades esque cover imagery? What do you think of the still-life photograph vs man-chest cover imagery? Which do you prefer? 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    LG says:

    While I like the idea of not being embarrassed while picking up a new book at my local bookstore, too many of those still-life photographs, especially if they’re mostly black-and-white, gets really boring, really fast. Then again, so do too many covers of ladies in voluminous historical-esque dresses.

    Mostly, I’d just like covers that catch my eye and don’t make any one book look exactly like every other book out there. I know, I ask a lot.

  2. 2
    Ros Clarke says:

    I like covers that tell me something about the book inside. But yes, in general, I find the 50 style covers more interesting and much sexier than half naked man titty (or woman titty, for that matter).

  3. 3
    StarOpal says:

    At least the Twilight copy covers were more visually interesting. Too much grey is super boring. *sigh* I can actually feel the energy being sucked out of me.

  4. 4
    Sarah Wynde says:

    I did a presentation at GeekGirlCon a couple of weeks ago where I spent about ten minutes talking about cover design. I think we’re going to see a lot more covers like these, because they work so well in the thumbnail size. Many traditional designers still think in terms of covers that will catch attention in bookstores, but catching attention online at an inch wide is just as important now, maybe more so. If you look at titles like Debora Geary’s Modern Witch series, the covers are ugly, but the simple images, bright colors, and strong typography really work in a thumbnail, and the books seem to be selling remarkably well. If you look at something like the Twilight cover, a more traditional designer would probably have incorporated the handsome guy, the innocent girl, the forest setting, the sparkles—instead that picture of an apple just says “temptation” which sort of sums up the entire book. Text-only covers, like JK Rowling’s new book, or covers with just an impression of an image, like Catherine Coulter’s Backfire, are also likely to become more popular, again because they work so well as thumbnails. If the goal of the cover is simply to get the reader to click and look for more info, a thumbnail with clear words is going to work better than one with a complicated image.

  5. 5
    katherinelynn_04 says:

    I Lol’ed when I saw the sparkly-vampires book. I think that the Alice one looks amazing, and I sincerely hope that it is a comedy.

    I think these black and white macro shots of men’s items can be super boring. The first fifty shades book I would find intriguing (if I didn’t know what was inside) but the others just don’t do it for me. I agree with Star Opal, the Twilight covers are much more visually interesting due to that pop of color. I don’t even really need a photo for my covers. Most of my favorites are illustrations or play with combinations of color and font (see: The Night Circus. Possibly the best cover I’ve ever seen)

    Speaking of Twilight, have you seen FYA’s parody cover? They put out a calendar background every month and their first was Twilight inspired. Though instead of an apple she’s holding a Sofia Coppola can of champagne (the champagne you drink through a pink straw!), which is their official beverage. http://foreveryoungadult.com/2…

  6. 6
    Tamara Hogan says:

    I suspect the 50 Shades-esque covers might work for a limited period of time, but when everyone hops on the bandwagon, we quickly reach saturation point and the backlash starts. Such covers become one more thing our readers get burned out on.

  7. 7
    Jody Wallace says:

    One wonders what the next big thing will be. Hm.

  8. 8
    Carrie says:

    I agree with Tamara. The 50 Shades covers are a nice change, but will get boring quickly. My hope is that someone will take the idea and do something creative with it…as in, “What can we do to make romance covers interesting without resorting to **yawn** another male torso?”

  9. 9
    SB Sarah says:

    That is exactly my hope, Carrie – that there’s something that isn’t “Let’s Just Put Dinner Plate Sized Nipples On It.”

    Although that would make a great parody: “If it’s erotic, then you shoulda put some nipples on it.”

  10. 10
    BellaBetty says:

    The FSG is rippling out into the world. I work in fabric, and one vendor’s recent sale flyer was “Forty Shades of Grey”……..(even if few bolts were actually grey, and many had yellow in them…)

  11. 11
    Kate says:

    As a trend in cover design, I think Beth Kery’s Because You’re Mine covers are the best follow ups to the FSofG design. They aren’t complete rip-offs of the original (hello Bared to You and your cuff-links). But they do their job by evoking seduction and sensuality without a single bared chest or lurid color. It occurs to me that this latest trend focuses on the tactile to pique readers’ interest instead of a flush of visual images.

  12. 12
    Sveta says:

    When Twilight series were popular, everybody started going with Twilight like covers. I’m actually surprised that the classics aren’t bound in 50 shades covers, but who knows, there’s still time.


  13. 13
    Sarah Wynde says:

    The Alice book is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland as a graphic and very explicit sex story: the Caterpillar ties her up, spanks her, with oral sex and then vaginal; something similar with the White Rabbit; then the tea party is an orgy with anal; then the trial… and I had so lost interest by then that I can’t remember the trial at all, but I’m sure it wound up involving Alice and many, many sexual partners. I downloaded it for free because the cover image was so great, and it definitely has moments of humor, but it’s mostly just graphic sex with not a lot of plot. Your basic porn movie in book form, I’d guess.

  14. 14
    Jimthered says:

    Well, they re-released Annie Rice’s THE CLAIMING OF SLEEPING BEAUTY trilogy, removing the original classical nudes art cover and replacing it with mostly just the title, with a little something on the top right.  It’s not gray, but it’s less sex and more suggestive.

    And let’s see what happens when the Black Lace line of books (“erotic fiction written for women by women”) starts up again, hopefully before the end of the year.

  15. 15
    cleo says:

    I love the Lora Leigh cover for the sheer WFT-ery of the front quote:

    Leigh’s pages explode with a hot mixture of erotic pleasure’ – RT Book Reviews

    Wow.  I don’t know what to say, except, can I get a condom for my book, please? 

  16. 16
    Flo_over says:


    I tend to run screaming from covers that take their look from others.  Just for self preservation.

  17. 17
    Jbriggs60 says:

    I think you should have a book naming contest for your suggested covers. 

  18. 18
    dwndrgn says:

    Your comment totally reminded me of that video of the guy singing about steampunk “glue a gear on it and call it steampunk”  I am paraphrasing because I can’t remember it exactly and I won’t go look it up because I’ll be singing it all night.  I’ll let you do that…

  19. 19
    Nita says:

    Oh no, I can just see the classics being given these types of covers. *sigh* At least it’s not “girl in ball gown” like every other YA cover. Seriously, enough with the ball gowns!

  20. 20
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    The first Because You’re Mine cover reminds me of the HaBO the other day wherein the hero used a strand of pearls for an… unconventional purpose.

    Despite the Sylvia Day covers being a direct ripoff of the original 50SoG, I do think they’re pretty. I think the photography is just better quality, and the warmer tone is more visually stimulating (har). Part of this could be how shitty the physical quality of the 50SoG books are—I picked one up in a grocery store a few weeks ago and I was appalled by how chintzy it felt. But then, I’m big on the tactile pleasure of reading (God, I’m on a roll with these not-subtle yet completely unintentional innuendos).

    Finally, the Alice in Wonderland cover is gorgeous. I mean, the cockshroom is a bit weird, but the colors are perfect. I want to find out who designed it and hire him/her to design every book cover, ever.

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    I found an alternate cover for the Lora Leigh book (the one that “explodes with a hot mixture of erotic pleasure” – SNRK). See below.

    Which do you prefer? Man nipples and a bulge in his camo pants, or 50 Shades of Dog Tags?

  22. 22
    cleo says:

    Ugh, are those my only choices?  They’re both so derivative.  The 50 Shades one is classier looking, but boring.  At least the other cover has man-titty to provide interest – and the model looks like he might explode with a “hot mixture of erotic pleasure.”

  23. 23

    Anything that promotes 50 Shades I’m against.

    And the Alice erotica – not the first time that’s been done. There’s a musical porno movie from the 1970s that’s a retelling of Alice In Wonderland with loads of sex. A virgin librarian, Alice, realizes after a fight with her blue collar boyfriend about the fact she won’t have sex with him that she never really grew up. She follows a rabbit into a mirror and ends up in Wonderland where she learns about things like masturbation, oral, and loads of other things.

  24. 24
    Victoria says:

    Love your post! I almost spit a mouthful of my breakfast all over my keyboard when I saw that hilarious Alice cover! As far as the original Fifty cover, it’s simply a Dreamstime.com stock image. Since I had read that the publishing happened quite quickly, I suppose it was a very easy, fast (and conveniently inexpensive) way to provide the book with a decent cover. Funny that since it has exploded in popularity, what was probably a relatively quick decision has sparked something of a trend in book covers.

  25. 25
    Carol says:

    Considered independently of the 50sofg reference, I actually prefer the dog tags cover. Maybe I’m an outlier of some sort, but I really dislike almost all the mantitty covers. This one (Leigh’s) is by no means among the worst, but they never really appeal and some of them are nearly enough to put me off a book. The most recent case in point for me is the cover of Lori Foster’s Savor the Danger (sorry I don’t know how to embed a picture of it). It’s like they made a really special effort to make the guy look awful; the model can’t be that bad looking in real life. He looks like a not-too-bright psychopath with ripped arms and everything else going to pot. And the would-be tough-guy jewelry looks like a parody.

  26. 26

    I saw the Lora Leigh cover at BN Friday and said out loud to various strangers browsing around me, “Seriously?”

  27. 27

    I love the “two color” covers of the Sylvia Day and Beth Kery books.  They really “pop” and prove that less really can be so much more!

  28. 28
    cleo says:

    I just realized that Wild by Cheryl Strayed (the NYT bestselling memoir) also uses the same formula, in this case a photo of a hiking boot (and I really like that cover, I think it works).  I noticed it on my Nook – in the Shopping section they have thumbnails of the three NYT bestsellers and this morning they were 50 Shades of Gray, Wild, and 50 Shades Darker (or maybe it was 50 S Free – idk).  The hiking boot on white between the tie and mask on gray made me laugh.  It looked like it was ready to stomp on 50 Shades.


  29. 29
    Susan says:

    I’m late catching up since I can’t read SBTB at work anymore (it’s blocked—wahhh!), but—hello—FANNY MERKIN?!?!  Hahaha.

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