Changes in cover art by Steve Ammidown
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. In any kind of genre fiction, the cover is an important part of the hook that draws customers in, but it’s especially true in romance. The artistic style, who or what is featured on the cover, how they are posed, and even what they are wearing sends a powerful signal to the experienced romance reader about what they can expect to find inside.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend looking at Kelly Faircloth’s 2019 article at Jezebel about the history of romance cover art. It’s a great primer. I also enjoyed Jen Prokop’s recent piece about Harlequin’s current cover approach.
I’m fortunate enough to work at the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which has a lot of old romances. And do I mean a lot. In category romance alone we have more than 16,000 titles, plus somewhere around 20,000 stand-alone books. We also have manuscript collections for more than 40 romance authors and the photo archives of Romantic Times magazine. We also have 130 original paintings by Harlequin cover artist Frank Kalan from the 1980s and 1990s. We are, to put it mildly, surrounded by covers.
Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the history of covers, and also highlight some of my favorite old school covers from the 80s and 90s. These can be tricky to find now, especially as most of them have been reprinted with new covers, but they’re fun to look at, and can be a jewel in your collection if you can find them!
As the oldest name in category romance, the covers of the more than 4500 Harlequin Romances provide a really interesting window into cover trends. From the 1960s into the 70s, their dominant style was similar to these covers for A Girl Named Smith (1966) and Not by Appointment (1976), with the woman front and center and the man lurking in the background. By the 1980s, as seen on The Lost Moon Flower (1989), a Harlequin Romance was more likely to find the couple together on the cover.
One of the cover artists who was part of that 1980s shift was Frank Kalan. Our library is lucky enough to have an extensive collection of his works, including many of the supporting materials that show his process, as you can see here for Kay Gregory’s 1992 book, Breaking the Ice. Kalan would get an information sheet from the editors with detail about
characters, plot and settings, and then he’d have an hour in a Manhattan photo studio to take as many pictures as he could to fit his vision for the cover. He’d paint the couple pretty much as they appeared in the photo, adding in details (like pets!), and leaving space for the cover copy. Then he’d take a photo of the cover and ship a slide of it off to Toronto, where they’d transform it into a cover. And he’d work on several at once! Kalan did more than 300 covers for Harlequin all together, and you can see his signature style from the late 70s through the mid-90s.
Sandra Kitt’s long publishing history gives us a great opportunity to look at how covers have changed. Her 1985 Harlequin American title Adam and Eva marked the first time a Black couple had appeared on the cover of any book published by Harlequin. The cover art by the legendary Dick Kohfield is so evocative and transports us to the Virgin Islands right away.
The 1993 publication of Love Everlasting saw Sandra put her MFA to good use, as she painted the cover herself for the Odyssey edition.
In 1995, two very different covers marked high points in Sandra’s career. Serenade was one of the
launch titles for Kensington’s new Arabesque line, the first to focus on Black authors and their stories. That same year, Penguin books published The Color of Love, one of the first interracial romances from any publisher.
While the 90s were generally a time of photorealistic covers in romance, several of Sandra’s books from the second half of the decade have more abstract illustrations. Suddenly, an Arabesque title from 1996, shows that the line’s shift away from photography. And Kitt’s titles for Signet, like Family Affairs (1999), have a sort of hybrid photo/abstract look to them.
Authors on Covers
And lastly, one of my favorite odd moments in cover art is the min-trend in the late 80s of authors appearing on their own covers. The three examples I’ve been able to find are Shannon Drake (Heather Graham) and her family appearing on the stepback for 1985’s Tomorrow the Glory, Sandra Brown posing with television’s McLean Stevenson for 1986’s The Rana Look, and Nora Roberts herself posing for the cover of 1988’s The Last Honest Woman.
I could go on for hours about the amazing covers of romance. How about you? Do you have a favorite old school or current cover artist? Whose covers are you instantly drawn to?
STEVE AMMIDOWN (he/him) has been the Manuscripts & Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University since 2016. He obtained his Master of Library Science from the University of Maryland College Park in 2014. In 2019, he was named Cathie Linz Librarian of the Year for his work in preserving and promoting the library’s collections that document the history of romance fiction. Visit the library online at https://www.bgsu.edu/library/pcl.html or follow them on Twitter at @BGSU_PopCultLib and on Instagram @PopCultLib
#Rombklove 2020 Day 7: Cover trends come and go, but what does a cover say to you? Share with us your favorite covers, new or old. @stegan is sharing how cover art for romance has changed over the years
#Rombklove 2020, día 7: El diseño de las cubiertas es una cuestión de moda, pero ¿qué te dice una portada? Comparte con nosotres tus favoritas, nuevas o antiguas. @stegan nos habla sobre la evolución de las cubiertas de romántica.
Day 7 Archive:
How to participate?
Readers: Respond to the prompts! Share your favorite books, characters, scenes, or thoughts on tropes. Make sure to include the #RomBkLove hashtag with your tweet! If you have read and loved a book by LGBTQIA+, Disabled, and/or Authors of Color that fits the prompt please, please mention it. You might think everyone has heard of the book but I can guarantee you there are lots of people who still need to hear about it.
Authors: You are welcome to participate too, as fellow readers. The tag is not meant for self-promotion. Boost fellow authors, celebrate the community but do so in a way that respect reader spaces. Respect the conversation. Join in to rec the books you love that fit the theme/trope/prompt. Yes, you can say “I wrote a book with this trope” but please don’t spam the hashtag with generic promo.
For a list of all of these month's prompts and archives go to: https://www.anacoqui.com/2020/04/rombklove-2020-celebrating-inclusive-romance-during-a-pandemic.html