Cover Awe: Minimalism

[NB: Amanda collected a few minimalist covers, and it turned into a whole conversation with Sarah about how each responds to cover art, and what the different artistic elements signal in terms of genre.]

Amanda: Admittedly, I’m playing a bit fast and loose with “minimalism” in that I’m just going with a singular central image on a cover. I’d love to see more minimalist covers in romance over clinch covers because the former really piques my interest in terms of how the central image reflects what’s inside the book.

Sarah: Oh, that’s really interesting. I think that if you’re advocating for minimalist covers in romance, you’re also advocating a larger shift in marketing shorthand.

Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh. A soft pink cover with an intricate gold skull wearing a jeweled crown.

Amanda: I love the royal element to the skull. Everything is gold or bejeweled. And the skull gives an otherwise pretty cover a sense of foreboding.

Sarah: Is this a romance?

Amanda: It’s a YA fantasy.

Sarah: Exactly what I thought! I see single items of power (crown, weapon, etc) and think, oh, that is YA probably fantasy. I don’t think it’s a romance.

The minimalist imagery on YA fantasy could likely be traced back to Twilight, though I could be wrong. I think that was the big shift in codifying imagery to genre.

Collage of Twilight covers

Sarah: I think the contrast between how you see minimalist imagery covers vs how I interpret them (to wit, “pretty but that isn’t my genre”) is really interesting.

I think part of the difference in perspective is that I’m a good 15+ (?) years older than you so I did my influential shopping for romance amid fuchsia and manchest and mullet.

Amanda: But do you LIKE the manchest and mullet? Or is it part of a Pavlovian response to reading romances during your formative years?

Sarah: I don’t like them, in fact.

As you point out, the art/painted clinch covers for historicals were part of my formative experience when I first encountered romance. I don’t love them except with silly nostalgic fondness, but that said, I don’t always know what speaks to me as a reader. I dislike the photograph covers currently popular in self published historical even more.

Amanda: There are things that I find I don’t like more often than not, but there are always covers that will prove my wrong. I hate clinch covers because I think they’re a bit melodramatic? (Which LOL given what’s usually waiting inside the books) But tell me those Alisha Rai covers aren’t stunning. So there are often many exceptions to my dislikes.

Sarah: Oh, yeah, the Rai covers are beautiful. And The Belles cover I just received, which is YA. Wow!

Amanda: We featured that previously and it’s interesting that YA is featuring a “character” on the cover, since I usually associate that with the romance genre.

Sarah: Good point. I also understand your struggle with the frozen intensity of the clinch covers. Whereas, with contemporary romance, clinch covers can be so interesting and the variations are terrific. I have gone on at length about how much I liked the cover for A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole, too. (There’s a whole podcast about the story behind that cover, too.)

But historical is where I struggle with cover art. I get the reasons behind them, but I don’t often like photograph covers. I get that painted covers are no longer feasible, and I get that the marketing signals that communicate quickly “what genre” and “what type of romance” include the assembly of gowns, cravats, and clinch positions, perhaps a side order of “O-face.” I get that the easiest bridge between the fuchsia painted art of back then and the historical readers looking for books now is the photograph. This is not to say that there aren’t some very talented photographers developing stock art portfolios for historical romance, either. Some are exquisite.

For me, what I dislike is the mostly undressed, extremely muscular dude, especially if he’s staring at me.

But then, I also don’t see hypertrophic muscles and think wow. They are not a turn on. Dudes in glasses?

Ahem. I am listening.

Amanda: For real, we need more dudes in glasses on covers.

Sarah: Lord, yes. I mean if we’re placing orders, dudes in glasses and soft shirts reading books.

Beard in Mind by Penny Reid. The cover looks like a framed cross stitch of a bearded man silhouette. The top of the frame has a little cross stitch pattern of tools

Amanda: I think the knitwork cover is really cute and portrays a sense of hominess, like stuff you’d see hanging up at grandma’s house. I also noticed that the “trim” elements vary with each over. This one has tools, which is a reference to the autobody shop where both the hero and heroine work. Other covers in the series have things like mistletoe, pawprints, etc.

Sarah: Agreed. I think that’s meant to be cross stitch, which is adorable. A sampler cover is definitely going to stand out on a bookshelf.

The Exposure by Tara Sue Me. A black cover with a delicate pink peony taking up most of the central space.

Amanda: Tara Sue Me’s books have a lot of minimalist covers, but this one is my favorite because it’s kind of dirty once you think about it. Or…once I think about it. Often, a woman’s nether regions are described in flowery language. Usually, “petals” are involved. The flower on the cover is also a nude pink and very similar to a skin tone color.

And the flower looks like a peony, which is my absolute favorite flower.

Sarah: This is a good example of that shift in visual marketing for covers which is traceable to Fifty Shades of Grey, which was of course (in more ways that one) influenced by Twilight.

What’s that, my outstanding (not) memory? Why, yes, I wrote about that back in 2014: “Fifty Shades of Cover Art,” looking at the parodies and the marketing mimicry of the 50 Shades cover.

There were a whole bunch of flower-isolated-on-a-black-background covers, too. Including re-issued classics, I think.



Amanda: Sarah remembering things is a sign of the end times!

Sarah: Anyway.

The isolated image that’s not a weapon or a crown or symbol of power, especially if it’s some sort of foliage, signals contemporary erotic romance to me. I think you’re right about the “flower,” “petal,” “euphemism” connection, as there are a number of botanical covers. The common language of erotic flower covers is probably a very good thing marketing-wise, though eventually folks will run out of flowers.

(First person to bring me an erotic contemporary romance with kudzu as the cover image – a real one! – gets a prize!)

Amanda: Now that I think about it, the cover reminds me of a fancy sex toy that you leave out for decoration and no one notices.

What about you? Is there a minimalist trend in romance you’ve spotted that you like? What covers are working for you?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    KateB says:

    I dislike minimalist covers in romance. Maybe it’s the Fifty Shades/Twilight flashback, maybe it’s because the backgrounds are always black and the foreground image is always FLOWER or PEARLS or SHOE, but they’re so boring to me.

    Literary fiction covers tend to do minimalist well, because they bring in color and shapes and odd angles. I know doing precisely that in a romance cover would signal litfic, but maybe they could through some color in there?

    I dislike photo covers in historical romances too, but I think there are some that manage to straddle the old style with the new. Mary Balogh, for example.

    Slightly OT, but has anyone else noticed the amazing cover work done over at Tor? Every single book that comes out over there has me drooling. They manage to make illustrated covers seem fresh while still keeping that through line to the Golden Age of fantasy covers from the 90’s. Just amazing work.

  2. 2
    Georgie says:

    The first minimalist covers I noticed were for C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. There are some clues to the book’s themes, but their restraint shouts, “the story’s the thing.”

  3. 3
    Tam B. says:

    The JD Robb In Death series were all these type of covers originally (the MMPB ones). They were black with a single image that usually tied in with the book somehow and the font colour changed with each book. I collected these, patiently awaiting the paperback release so they were all the same. I actually moved to kindle when they stopped being available.

    I do like these types of covers when they’re well done, but for a while there Twilight lead to every type of book in the genre sporting something similar.

    Those above are gorgeous. The first would definitely intrigue me.

  4. 4
    Anony Miss says:

    My favorite historical covers these days are the ones coming out from the Christian romance publishers… Bethany House has some stunning ones, Zondervan, etc. Usually the costuming on the historicals is stunning, and of course being religious you skip the absurd horse-frolicking-through-rainbows-and-o-faces bit.

  5. 5
    ivy says:

    I worked for the Heat imprint at Berkley in 2014 and I can tell you–we were consciously intentionally imitating the 50 Shades covers for Sylvia Day and Beth Kery, down to adding “For Mature Audiences” on the back. We repackaged almost the entire Heat line up that year to get rid of the man titty and replace it with stuff that looked like 50 Shades(my favorites being the Maya Banks Sweet series fruit covers).

  6. 6
    Carol S says:

    I find myself really drawn to the accoutrements (for lack of a better word) on covers: an intriguing manor house or ruins, lush and detailed gowns and jackets, swords or other symbols. I am ridiculously drawn to a gorgeous and historically appropriate ball gown, with draping and other details, way more than naked manchests.

  7. 7
    Sandy says:

    There are a couple of indie authors who have the minimalist cover knack. Grace Draven just put out a holiday novella, Sunday’s Child, which has a nicely understated and clean cover image. Sunday’s Child. I also love Laura Thalassa’s iconic minimalist covers in her The Bargainer series.

  8. 8
    Sandy says:

    Drat! My HTML coding skilz are lacking this morning. Here’s the link for Laura Thalassa’s first book in The Bargainer series. I love all the covers in this one.

  9. 9
    Gigi says:

    I’m not a fan of fruits, ties or flowers on covers, but I am a sucker for period gowns and pretty or atmospheric scenery. Sherry Thomas Lady Sherlock series has the prettiest covers. I’ve been tempted to buy print copies just to stare at them. The only contemporary, sort of minimalist, cover I love to distraction is the hot tattooed bearded dude in Kristen Callihan’s The Game Plan. Love that cover and I dont even like bearded dudes.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    @Ivy: That is really interesting! I did like the “Sweet” series covers. And I bet it was a fun creative challenge to repackage books with single items on black backgrounds. I have to confess, though: I still struggle with the cover for Rush.

    Rush is a cascade of blue water on a white background

    Don't read this if you can't unsee things
    To me, it looks like the old maxi pad commercials where people would pour blue water on a maxi pad to demonstrate its absorbency.

    I remember talking to different people inside publishing after the 50 Shades mania about how that book had changed things, and in a lot of ways it seemed to make marketing a little easier, because there was a language both visual and lexical to describe a specific kind of contemporary erotic romance. I’m still bummed no one did a cover image of men’s sock garters, though.

  11. 11
    DiscoDollyDeb says:

    I like some of the flower covers; I’m also a sucker for “high-heeled shoe with a string of pearls” covers (even if the book does nothing for me). I don’t care for the handcuff covers—too obvious for the most part. Call me an objectifier, but male torsos (with or without tattoos) will get me to “look inside” every time!

  12. 12
    Ren Benton says:

    @DiscoDollyDeb: You are not alone. Last round of A/B testing continued to show 4-5 times more clicks on mantitty than an alternate image when every other ad element was identical. If ripped abs didn’t sell books, they’d have been covered up years ago.

    I actually do miss the painted Rapunzel-haired woman falling out of her dress and humping the leg of a shirtless man (although I don’t miss the mullets) behind an explosively cursive fuchsia foil title. They were commissioned works of art instead of generic stock photography that could just as easily be on the cover of a landscaping handbook or a Pier 1 catalog. Nothing says “We don’t care, slap any old cover on it” like a picture everybody can download from DepositPhoto for one 49-cent credit.

  13. 13

    Single item covers have been around since they stepbacks, I think. Remember the classic Amanda Quick novels of the early 90s? Dangerous, Desire, Reckless, Scandal, Rendezvous, etc? They had a one-color and gold/silver palette, with one item (a fan, a magnifying glass, a feather, etc) on the cover, and then the elaborate clinch inside in the stepback. It was a definite trend for historicals for several years in the mid-90s.

    I’m not sure if it was intended to signal anything – or if it was really a pushback against the over-the-top ridiculous clinch covers, sort of a retrenching of “what is our genre/what are we signaling” to try to get more readers. I have no idea, but I’d love to hear from some of the authors who had those covers about what the thinking at the time was.

  14. 14
    Ariadna says:

    REIGN OF THE FALLEN’s gorgeous cover got me to check out the book (though I’m not into YA as I used to be.) I had to grind when I found out that the story features necromancy (hence the skull). I one-clicked cuz it sounded v. interesting.

    What can I say, I like pretty covers.

  15. 15
    Arijo says:

    @Anna Richland : I loved the hidden clinch covers, I grew up on them. They felt like hidden treasures 🙂 I still have tons of them packed up in the basement. They did not serve to hide the genre though, since the over cover was so often pink, mauve, red or gold, with ribbons and titles like “Man of my Dreams” in big letters…

    I used to keep a scrapbook of my favorite images, but these days I don’t really keep up with cover art. I read ebooks on my phone and the images are so small… I admit the new editions of Mary Stewart’s books by Hodder are very much my style, with their oldies feel. I especially like Madam, Will You Talk? which is almost all sky. (BTW, the book is still less than a buck!)

    Another cover that keeps grabbing my attention is Julie James’ A Lot Like Love. The sun, the flying red dress… that cover sings happy dance to me and I like it~

  16. 16
    Deborah says:

    Until I checked out a physical copy of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Duke of Midnight from the library, I didn’t realize how much I missed classic clinch covers. (Duke of Midnight doubles down on the clinch: it’s right there on the cover, then the stepback features a slightly different clinch with more setting/background. I assume all of the Maiden Lane stepbacks work like that, and it made me want to time travel to purchase first printings of all the paperbacks. But I am resolved to use my power of time travel only for the good of humankind, so…no.)

    I like the clinch because it (theoretically) features both protagonists. I honestly don’t know what the underlying message of solo male/female covers is. The overt message is always “[sexy/sweet/historical/contemporary] romance novel,” of course. But is the secondary signal that this book is more about the hero’s or heroine’s journey? Or is the portrayed character just being objectified?

    And then there’s just the painful overuse of any iconography: too many clinches, too many six-pack abs, too many shirtless Scots in tartan, too many tattoos, too many historical heroines with unfastened gowns and skirts that go on for miles. I would love to see graphics and marketing departments experiment with new codes for romance.

  17. 17
    DonnaMarie says:

    I recall that the first JAK/Amanda Quick historicals from the back in the 90s had single images on bright backgrounds: perfum bottles, an inkwell, a lace trimmed handkerchief, etc. The items related to the story, which was nice, but I didn’t find them particularly engaging. That did stand out from other books, though.

    Me, I’m still a sucker for those Avon covers from the 80s.

  18. 18
    chacha1 says:

    A kudzu cover would definitely work on romantic suspense. I mean, let’s face it, that stuff will eat your house if you turn your back on it. [shudder]

  19. 19


    Yes, I have recently purchased eight of the Mary Stewarts … eight. Lured first by the covers into purchasing merely three, I’ve had a really long ahd horrible lingering cough and crud, and taken naps for nine of the last ten days, so there has been much reading. I feel sort of like the heroine’s friend in Madam, Will You Talk — the friend who does nothing but read, sketch and drink apertifs, and who disappears when anything has to be done. My favorites are Airs Above the Ground (the fact that they are already married overcomes the insta-love issue I have with some of the others) and My Brother Michael (the hero is not a jerk). So far my least favorite has been Touch Not the Cat.

    I want to thank SBTB AGAIN and AGAIN for pointing me to this sale.

  20. 20
    Scene Stealer says:

    I like any cover that doesn’t feature a shirtless guy making goofy faces in an effort to look sexy. I don’t buy many books these days.

  21. 21
    Karen H near Tampa says:

    I like most any cover that features a shirtless guy! It may be objectifying the male body but until I’m no longer surrounded by almost naked women advertising products that have nothing to do with an almost naked woman, not to mention the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (the only acceptable swimsuit issue is for a sportswear catalog where I can buy something), I’m not feeling bad about it. Landscapes, items of clothing, women in too-modern dresses, etc., don’t do a thing for me. But if there’s a good looking guy (he can have a shirt on) on the cover, then I’ll pick it up and check out the blurb to see if it’s something I want to read. I have found some wonderful, auto-buy, authors using that method.

  22. 22
    Gloriamarie says:

    About “beard in mind’… Amanda said ” I think the knitwork cover is really cute and portrays a sense of hominess, like stuff you’d see hanging up at grandma’s house. ”

    That looks far more like cross stitch than knitting to me

  23. 23
    CK says:

    One of my favorite covers is the one for Meg Cabot’s Size 12 Is Not Fat. It was one of the first times I understood there was a language to book covers. Also, it really stood out: at the time chick lit books tended to have a cartoon woman shopping or kicking up her heels and this one was a minimalist photograph of a shiny red satin dress twisted at the waist. I thought that simple twist was just so elegant and clever because it clearly communicated the body image ambivalence a lot of Meg Cabot’s heroines have where they bounce between wanting to be fabulous and kind of knowing they already are fabulous to the point that they end up inhabiting two conflicting attitudes at the same time. I’ve often felt like that red dress! It also meant the designer had read or understood the book, which is always nice.

    I wonder how much of Twilight’s success is owed to that fabulous cover. I remember seeing an endcap of those books and thinking “I will read that.” It was a pure reaction because that was my first interaction with the series; it was only later that I heard how infamously popular/bad the book was. Whoever designed that cover deserves serious cred. I’m sure they were the reason a lot of people picked the book up to begin with. When I finally did read it I remember looking on the back cover and the copyright page to see if the cover designer was mentioned (sometimes they are) but sadly no names.

  24. 24
    Cat C says:

    @Deborah–I love those covers! Those stepbacks are one of the only things that make me regret my e-Book addiction. I am very sad that it looks like, aside from the final subtrilogy of Maiden Lane being man-chest, they’re now redoing the covers of the rest of Maiden Lane to be man-chest too (and it’s coming onto my Kindle via updates). I agree that I love seeing both characters

  25. 25
    Louise says:

    Naming no names, but … I love the way Cover Awe and Cover Snark sometimes work as flip sides of each other. On one side: good books with terrible covers that run the risk of turning away readers. On the other side: awful books with wonderful covers that entice readers to spend money they will come to regret.

  26. 26
    Deb Kinnard says:

    @AnonyMiss: one stipulation I always had in the days I pitched my stuff to C-fic houses was that if I wanted to sell them a historical, the cover had better not show a maiden in a transparent bonnet, looking down. ‘Cause for a while every single book had that same cover! IIRC her hair was often the very same light brown (mine own shade is called shit brown which isn’t quite the same).

    In other commentary, if they show a person on the cover of a historical, they’d darn well better get the costuming right. Nothing makes me not-buy a book faster than the descriptor talking 14th century England and the attire being 16th century France. Gahh!

  27. 27
    Gloriamarie says:

    @Deb Kinnard, I found your comments to @AnonyMiss interesting. One of my pet peeves, and from available evidence I am the only one here with it, is the cliche and trite (in my opinion) covers of romance novews which take place in the Highlands of Scotland which always feature a half-naked man wearing only a kilt. Now I like a naked manly chest as much as any heterosexual woman or gay man, but I would like to see a greater variety of the covers when the book is set in the Highlands.

    For instance, the wind could bow his kilt and we could see some manly butt cheek. Or he could be clad only in his shirt which of course would cover any dangly bits and we could see some manly thigh.

    Let’s just please have something different on the covers of such books.

  28. 28
    Christa says:

    I loved those Amanda Quick covers. They felt much more classy to me than what went before. I was sad when that trend passed.

  29. 29
    Nancy C says:

    More single-item covers I love: Penny Reid’s Knitting in the City series (she designs them herself, I believe), and Daisy Prescott’s Wingmen series. I like these so much!

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