Sunday, June 12, 2011

Romances Are Marketed Like Food, Not Fiction

Quick: What sort of romance novels are these?

See?  I don't even have to give you the answers.  We're trained to recognize the sub-genres literally by eye.

Okay, what's the plot/style/genre of this book:

You can click on any of these covers to see what the actual book is, but I'm guessing you will only need to click on that last one to see what the book is about.  The rest of them, you know already.

Romance novels are designed to look immediately familiar and obvious.  No subtlety, no cross-marketing, no ambiguity as to the genre, sub-genre, publisher (in the case of Harlequin Enterprises lines), even plot line.

Next time you're in the supermarket, try this little experiment.  Go to the paperback book aisle, then go to the snacks aisle.

How much reading of the labels would you have to do to pick out the style of snack you wanted?  Not much.

Same thing in the book aisle.  And yes, this holds true to some extent with other popular fiction genres, but there the author's name can be very important.  You might know it's a thriller but you might not buy it unless you see Harlan Coben's name on it.

Did you need to know the authors of any of the romance covers above?  We're not being trained to look for any authors past a very small handful of famous names.  And even with the famous authors you get both cues:  Eloisa James's name is in large type, but the cover art still features the now-iconic backless ballgown suggesting a historical romance with some sex.

Finally, if you want to know why I picked that specific unidentifiable book, it's because it's got a claim to be considered a romance (HEAs!) and I wrote about it here.  But it sure isn't being marketed as a romance, is it?

As an added bonus: our old favorite, the YouTube clip showing how tight the constraints are on cover design for urban fantasy/paranormal romances:


  1. But with chips, you are buying exactly the same chips over and over. With books, it's the same kind of story, but not the same story. The similar covers lead non genre readers to think that the books are all the same, but they aren't. To a point, the covers are helpful cues so that readers can find the stories they like. But maybe they do me a disservice when I don't even pick a book up and read the back cover copy because the cover cues me to think, "I don't read that kind of book. Not my territory." Maybe the covers draw a more rigid line between subgenres than what is really in the stories.

  2. Avoriana -- I agree. That added element is what the author does with the story. And because the marketing departments of major romance publishers don't feature the author's name unless she's an Eloisa James or Kristin Higgins (or ____________ fill in your favorite famous-enough author's name), we readers are required to do our own research on whether a particular author has done a good job with this contemporary/historical/urban fantasy plot line.

    In other words, publishers feature the sameness of romances; we readers are responsible for determining the differences.

  3. I wonder if this marketing strategy really helps or hurts book sales? Not that I know anything about marketing, of course, but personally as a reader the sameness of the covers and the titles has always really annoyed me.

  4. Tasha -- It helps, clearly. The reason it doesn't feel helpful to *us* is that we're the elite cognoscenti in Romlandia. We do know which authors write better books. But a lot of readers pick up a book, maybe scan the back cover, and either buy that one or another because, fundamentally, they want to consume a book with the right flavor. Cover design helps them see which books are in which flavors.

    What isn't clear is whether sales could be even higher if publishers tried to do both: use packaging to provide the split-second visual cue as to sub-genre and also market the individuality of the authors. My guess is that it might help sales, but that publishers don't care to put in the man-hours for that sort of individuation.

    Which is why authors are expected to build their own "brand" through social media and a platform, etc., etc. Some people will buy Eloisa James's books for the naked-back dress iconography, some because they liked her last book, and some because EJ's a professor of Shakespeare in her spare time. The publisher is perfectly happy to let the author handle the latter two elements and concentrate only on the packaging.

  5. The cover of How To Flirt With a Naked Werewolf is more chick lit than paranormal. It's got a moon on it and werewolf is in the title, but I bought it because the chick lit cover cued me that I would like it, even though I don't usually read paranormal. Branding via covers really does make a difference.

    The cover with the blue and green curly things says "women's lit" to me and warns me that someone dies. I won't be tricked into THAT.

  6. Interesting comparison. In a way, it suggests that romance fiction is rather like Pringles or Frito-lays of whatever flavor: Once one gets a taste for them, just one won't satisfy.

  7. I am visual by nature and having books covers all look so alike is not a good thing for me (or other people like me).

    However, it does help book sales--people see a cover that looks like a best seller and assume that story within the books covers is 1) like the best seller and 2) of the same caliber.

  8. No one dies! In fact it's HEA-ish. Not everyone ends up rolickingly happy but good. The collective first person must be what makes it literary, because otherwise, it seems like standard sort of women's fiction.

    Covers schmovers.

    This isn't really self promo (for one thing this book is OOP) but seriously, doesn't this cover look like the cover of a book about mourning, featuring a widower who lost his entire family? It's a historical romance. There's nothing on the cover or even the back cover copy that indicates it's historical.

  9. Okay, guys, check out Kate's cover for Someone to Love.

    I have to agree, I would not have pegged that for historical fiction at all! The blurb on the Amazon page "Griffin Calverson at last met his match" suggests a romance. Although I note that one of the endorsements mentions a "forbidden love." That makes it at least uncertain if there's an HEA.

    I've ordered it over at PaperbackSwap, so we'll see...

    Meanwhile, thanks Kate for reassuring Avoriana that no one dies in The Weird Sisters. I'm not saying Avoriana is wrong to decide not to read it, but I don't think calligraphy on a cover says "someone dies." Here's Marian Keyes' UK cover for The Brightest Star in the Sky -- that's the same sort of calligraphy, and no one dies in a Marian Keyes' book.

    Dhympna -- I would agree with you if there was any effort to tap into the specific image for a bestseller. Whose book got the first "naked back ballgown" cover? I'll make a modest wager that it wasn't a bestseller. I think some marketing maven said, "Gee, how do we communicate that it's historical (see Kate's problem, above) and that it has sex?" and came up with the naked back ballgown.

    (Don't get me started on all the ways that image is wildly inaccurate from a history of fashion perspective...)

    Anonymous: Yup, potato chips. You got it. Or, as Dhympna has pointed out, fast food. Romance = food. Bon-bons, potato chips, or Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

    Okay, now I'm hungry!

  10. btw (looking over her shoulder because the author might be lurking) I shouldn't have said "standard sort of" because I love women's fiction and that line could be read as sneering at the genre or the book. Nope, no--I am not.


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