Under the covers where they make the romance happen

Romance novels are famous for cover art that shows the buffed and the beautiful in states of semi-undress – but what’s the story behind the creation of those distinctive images?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 2:22pm

Ah, the much-maligned romance novel: the plot like a pretzel, featuring a lovelorn protagonist falling madly for the hunkiest of hunks until the two eventually venture into a world of soft sensual delights. And did we even mention those covers?

But yes, let’s talk about those covers and the bad rap they get for, according to the stereotype, featuring an impossibly attractive (and occasionally shirtless) bastion of virility. But as Iago says in Othello: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Romance novels might not be Shakespeare, but the reality behind what goes into making a romance cover is more complicated than the genre’s detractors would have you believe. Ask Erika Tsang, the editorial director of Avon, HarperCollins’ romance imprint, and the first thing she’ll tell you to keep in mind when looking at a romance cover is that it’s a romance cover, and with that comes a certain level of expectation.

“Romances in general are female fantasy: if I’m going to have a fantasy I want the best-looking guy ever, I want that very masculine, buff guy on the cover,” she says. “You know what you’re getting when you pick up a romance novel.”

Those who pick up romances help create a billion-dollar industry. According to statistics compiled by the Romance Writers of America, romance sales topped US$1.08 billion in 2013, accounting for about 13 per cent of all adult fiction sales. E-books are the genre’s bestselling format, at 39 per cent of sales.

“I used to say that we look to create a cover that is going to jump off the shelves, but these days actual shelves are diminishing,” Tsang says. “We now look to have covers that jump off the screen, covers that are eye-catching and capture the attention of people who are browsing with the swipe of a finger.”

As the act of book-buying has changed, so too have covers. Muscular hunks still grace the cover, but largely gone are the days of jackets featuring the billowing hair of Fabio Lanzoni, says author Jennifer Ashley, who has published more than 80 novels through traditional and self-publishing ventures.

“I have to say covers have really improved over the last 10 or 15 years. They used to be really hideous,” she says with a laugh. “They’ve gotten a lot better and a little more artistic, and cover artists are beginning to realise readers respond to a well-done cover and not just one with a ripped guy on it.”

Typically, the cover creation process of a traditionally published book can take up to three months, Tsang says. At Avon, the initial step is a conversation between an author and the book’s editor, sometimes nine months before publication date.

Romance novel covers take months to design and shoot. From there, Avon looks at “anything from Pinterest boards to magazine advertisements” to see what works for a particular book, Tsang says, before either purchasing stock photos or booking models and photographers.

Meanwhile, the self-publishing route offers a greater amount of control for authors, Ashley says.

“When going the traditional route, we give them a tiny synopsis of what the book’s about,” she says. “When self-publishing, I give the designer a bit more depth and we’ll discuss the feel of the book. I’ll go to stock photo sites to see if there’s some model or pose that matches what I’m looking for. When I find one, [the designer] does a mockup of the cover and sends it to me for approval.”

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Jason Aaron Baca leads something of a double life. When the Californian model isn’t in front of a camera, he works a desk job.

Part of the challenge is dealing with the awkwardness of being provocatively pressed against a complete stranger

“On the one hand, I get to be a guy who shakes hands and talks business like Clark Kent. The other half is like Superman, this big stud,” he says. “People at my job don’t really know I do this. It’s all a big secret.”

Baca first got the bug while strolling through a Barnes & Noble and seeing the romance section. He set himself a goal of landing on a book jacket and began growing out his hair and starting a more rigorous workout regimen.

Getting onto the cover of one of those novels, however, was more often a case of oysters rather than pearls. “I started contacting lot of authors but would get no response or get feedback saying they had no control over covers and to check with the publisher,” he says. “The publisher would say they hire through an agency. It was a dead end for the longest time until I finally got contacted by an author who referred me to her publisher, then the publisher referred me to the designer.”

Baca’s first shoot was for The Legend of Michael by Lisa Renee Jones. He has since appeared on more than 400 romance covers, a Fabio-like frequency rate. It’s an impressive figure that requires more work than readers might imagine, he says.

Looking confident is key, as is your acting ability, says Jax Turyna, a Chicago-based full-time model and actress who has modelled for romance covers for the better part of five years.

“You have to be able to give emotion and you have to be very expressive,” she says. “You have to look like you’re very into the moment and into the other person – whether you are or not doesn’t really matter, you have to pretend. It’s basically acting.”

Turyna frequently models for the Los Angeles company Period Images, which offers historically accurate costumes as well as contemporary, futuristic and paranormal settings. The company keeps hair and makeup artists on hand to make tweaks between shots.

As for the guys, well, they need to maintain a well-defined look throughout shooting.

“I’ll wake up and I won’t eat or drink anything because I don’t want to saturate my abs. You kind of have to dehydrate yourself,” Baca says. “I’ll hit the weights an hour before the shoot. After I arrive at the shoot, I’ll do some push-ups to keep my veins popping out. You flex, take the shot, and flex again, always tightening up so your arms are looking nice and tight.”

Sessions can take anywhere from three to 10 hours, depending on shooting requirements and chemistry between models, Baca says.

“We talk on the set and say, ‘Hey, we gotta make this work,’ ” he says. “We’re thinking, ‘We got to get this down and make it look like these two people are in love.’ It can be challenging at times.”

Undoubtedly, part of that challenge is dealing with the awkwardness of being provocatively pressed against a complete stranger, Turyna says.

“The first time you work with someone is always a little awkward because you don’t know each other,” she says. “The most uncomfortable is the first time you do the more sexy stuff together, like the lingerie shots, but usually every other shot we’re laughing between takes because that’s the only way to get through it. It’s awkward for everybody in the room. You have to remember there are like 10 people watching you.”

Ashley says cover art can make or break a sale for an author. “A lot of people say covers don’t matter, but a really bad cover can prevent people from picking up a book,” she says. “It’s important to have consistency in covers for each author to develop a brand and have a certain look. Really good marketing and really good designers do this.”

And the best covers, Tsang says, aim high. “When we talk about covers, we don’t go into it and say, ‘Let’s make it as cheesy as possible,’” Tsang says. “Each cover is like a work of art. Our art director is so passionate about what he does. He wants every cover to mimic movie posters and has grand visions for each cover. We go in thinking this is art.”

For Baca, the art and end result of being on the cover – and, perhaps, becoming an object of fantasy – is “the name of the game”.

“It’s very rewarding to be the mountain of molten lust,” he says. “If you’re that guy on the cover, it’s rewarding. You put all of your time and effort into this and to see the cover is a reward for the gruelling hours and time in the gym. That to me is what makes this all worthwhile.”

And there’s another thing about being on the cover: readers think you lead an adventurous life, Turyna says. “People have told me what I’ve done in some of the books and it’s funny because it’s something you would never in your wildest dreams do,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I did what?’”

Tribune News Service