There’s been a lot of talk in the sports world lately about athletes who’ve misled us. There’s Lance Armstrong, of course. He lied and lied and lied about not doping, and then finally fesses up and admits that well, actually, he was doping. Then we’ve got the Manti Te’o story and the girlfriend who died of leukemia hours after his grandmother passed away. Except that apparently the girlfriend never existed, or maybe she existed but he never met her, or maybe he was the victim of a giant hoax. Or something.
Whatever the situations with these athletes, they did get me thinking about being duped. Misled. Outright lied to, and how bad that feels. And then I started thinking about how that’s happened to me, and I bet to some of you, when it comes to the covers of romance novels.
Remember back in the 80s and 90s when it seemed as if the buff bod and streaming long hair of Fabio was plastered on nearly every historical romance being published? It didn’t matter if the hero was a pirate or a Viking or a cowboy, Fabio’s mug graced the cover. Eventually that started to change and publishers realized that if the hero of the romance is the sexy CEO of a global securities firm, he’s not necessarily going to be spending his time 24/7 in the gym and looking like The Rock. In essence, they’d been duping us. The cover models started resembling the story’s hero. Personally, I’m on board with that. I want my guy on the cover looking like the guy in the story.
But wait! There’s more. We readers of romance are a proud, smart, devoted bunch, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to hold up a sign every time we pull a romance out of our bag that practically screams, “Hey everyone! Look what I’m reading!” So the covers started going to the opposite extreme. Instead of misleading the readers with cover models who look nothing like the story’s hero, we had no cover models at all.
My book, Season of Splendor, is a perfect example. Published in 2002, it depicts a garden path on the cover. It’s not about a garden, or a gardener, nor does it take place in a garden. No, rather it’s the story of a poverty-stricken hero growing up in the slums of 19th century London who finds a way to get a servant’s job in a noble family because the daughter in the family unknowingly witnessed the murder of the hero’s’ best friend. With no other way to speak with her due to the chasm of their class differences, he infiltrates his way into the family via the job so that he can talk to her about the murder. Do they fall in love? Sure. Have sex? Of course. But not in a garden, I can assure you.
Now, of course, I’m very aware that publishers started doing the benign cover thing (a picturesque house, jewelry atop a nightstand, perhaps just the heroine standing demurely by herself in a pretty dress) because the cheesy “bodice ripping” covers were, let’s face it, embarrassing. But now we’ve got e-readers, and we can read all the super steamy erotic romance we want on a bus, in a plane, sitting on a park bench, without anyone being the wiser about what we’re reading. So why do covers still sometimes mislead us? Why don’t the models always preview a taste of what the hero and heroine look like? Alternately, do we care?
When I see a picture in a magazine of a model wearing some kind of makeup, I’m fully aware of the fact that no matter what, I’m just not going to look as good as she does with that same makeup. Perhaps romance covers are the same. It’s not that the hero and heroine in the story are going to resemble the beauties on the cover, but that you will indeed get a tale of some really attractive people, having hot sex, and spinning a good yarn. Maybe I just need to rejigger my expectations. I can – and do – read the blurb on the back and usually . . . er, sometimes . . . it tells me what the story’s about.
What do you think? Do you ever feel that you’re duped by the cover? Do you expect the cover to give you a glimpse of the kind of people you’re going to read about? Or could you care less, assuming that no matter who’s on the cover you’ll paint their pictures as you would depending upon the author’s talent at describing them and the depths of your own imagination. I’d love to hear your thoughts!