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05 February 2010

Telling a Book by its Cover Redux

"Just looking at its cover, would you guess that this is a very sexy romance novel?"

A fellow romance writer held up a copy of my now out-of-print The Slightest Provocation at lunch last summer.

And the answer, repeated 'round the table of history hoydens? Sadly (especially sadly in light of such a lovely, period-appropriate cover) the answer was a resounding NO!

The consensus being that you'd more likely suppose The Slightest Provocation was a classy -- even an elegant -- historical novel, perhaps of the snobby "stealth romance" variety.

"Ah, yes," a distracted shopper might tell herself as she makes her way past it on the bookstore shelves, "I think I read somewhere that Pam Rosenthal writes 'poetically.'

"Maybe I'll check it out later," said shopper might think, "when I'm in the mood for something improving and uplifting."

But sexy? No way.

While as for hot (not to speak of hawt?) -- not a chance.

Which is a big part of the reason this June the mass market edition of The Slightest Provocation will look like this -- officially encoded as sexy by means of those pecs and abs, and (these days -- go figure) by that arcane female leg action so ubiquitous on romance covers and so rarely found in nature.

Even, I dare to dream, encoded as hawt. Well hot, anyway.

Which is a good thing. Because The Slightest Provocation isn't a sweet, shy sort of love story, but probably the most challenging, turbulent historical romance I've written, Mary and Kit certainly my angriest, sweatiest, most contentious pair of lovers.

DearAuthor.com called the book "envelope-pushing, smart and astonishing," and thanked me for my "courage to break so many conventions." You can read the whole review here, and get links to some other enthusiastic praise here -- though I haven't posted this one yet, received unsolicited last December in an email from Regency romance writer Christine Wells, who said The Slightest Provocation was:
...unlike anything I've read, devoid of romance cliches, yet it was such a satisfying romance, I cheered at the end.
But let me also be clear that The Slightest Provocation made a couple of reviewers angry too. I didn't save the links, but I'm sure Google will help you chase down those opinions too.

All of which leads me to think conclude that the original elegant and sedate cover wasn't exactly right for a controversial, "raw, unflinching" romance (thanks, Contra Costa Times) between an estranged couple whose relationship might at first not seem worth salvaging.

Maybe a little more graphic passion and a little less period rectitude would made for a more accurate representation of what's between the covers of The Slightest Provocation (because when NAL asked me for some hints on what I remembered from the erotic scenes, I wrote back, "overgrown greenery... rain... rumpled linen," some of which it seems they actually caught).

In any case, I'll be eager to think what romance buyers think next June.

And right now, eager to hear what what you think as well.

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25 Comments:

Blogger Muse in the Fog said...

Your right I had no idea that was inside lol! I bought this a while ago and loved the cover...guess you really cant judge a book by its cover :) I'll be sure to let you know what I think when I read it, have a great day!

1:17 AM  
OpenID erastes said...

I really can't stand the new cover - (sorry, Pam) although I'm sure it will be hugely successful. It's horribly anachronistic, and as a reader looking for a book about that era I wouldn't buy it. It certainly makes it clear it's "hawt" though - but I disagree that the original doesn't say romance - it looks exactly like a regency romance. The new one looks like it's got sex on every page, and if I was looking for an arousing read that's the one to pick.

1:34 AM  
OpenID gehayi said...

I'm sure the new cover will sell to most people. that said, I wouldn't buy it. I WOULD buy the first, because it looks like a Regency that's well-written, has good characterization and possesses a solid plot.

The new cover looks like it's all about the sex and no story. Also, given the guy with the washboard abs and the outfit that doesn't look even marginally correct for the era, as well as the woman in a decidedly non-Regency gown...well, just going by the cover, I'd think that the book might well be as anachronistic as the cover is, and walk on by.

This isn't fair, considering how anachronistic a lot of covers are. But there it is--I'd buy the first. I wouldn't buy the second.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, I have to say I am extremely partial to the original cover -- which is precisely what would make me stop in my tracks in a bookstore to read the back cover and flip through the pages.

The "hot" cover is precisely the sort of image that turns me off about romance novels and keeps me, with my own prejudices against clinch covers, heaving bosoms and swelling pecs, from discovering hidden literary treasures within the genre.

I understand the publisher's rationale for re-branding the novel, but I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, that's a fascinating selection of responses -- bringing issues of prejudice, or even pride, to bear.

What jumps out at me first is Gehayi's assumption that a book with the second cover must be "all sex, no story." How did we get to a place where sex and story line up on opposite sides of the balance sheet, anyway? They aren't opposites in the erotic subgenre where I first got my writing chops, so I'm always surprised that they seem to be in the romance world.

And then, of course, there's Muse, saying I'm right -- she had no idea the original cover hid a sexy book... Hope you enjoy what you find, Muse. Let me know.

Leslie speaks, I think, to a sense that I actually share, that eroticism oughtn't be a matter of too-easily decoded symbols. Which is why I very much appreciated the cover artist's addition of the landscape out the window, the sense of refuge and shelter, that is a thematic aspect of this novel, both in its eroticism and its plot (to me always profoundly linked elements -- which is to say, I hope that in a romance novel there is (qua ERastes) "sex on every page", even when the hero and heroine are hurling the crockery at each other).

10:11 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I say there’s something nicely subversive about the fact that the “bodice” being ripped seems to be the guy’s shirt. *grin* The historical costumer in me is appalled, but I’m also grinning as I anticipate Pam gaining a whole new audience and fan base.

We snooty historical purists are not the target audience of this reprint. I too prefer the original cover, but I can tell you right now, the new one will move this sucker off those mass-market shelves like it’s filled with a never-ending supply of Cosmos and Godiva.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Getting people to READ the book? The first cover got all of us who prefer a more accurate veneer on our books, this one will get the book into the hands (and carts) of the majority of readers who buy their books alongside their washing detergent and diapers.

I say CONGRATS and EMBRACE it!!!!!!!!!!!!

10:48 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

"Nicely subversive" is what we're going for, Kalen. Thanks. As well as "getting people to read the book." From your keyboard to God's browser, and I hope she enjoys it too.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Well said Kalen and everyone else. I keep the original cover where I can see it easily and always smile when I look up. The first cover is so Regency -- elegant and ladylike on the outside and full of passion inside.

The new cover is very contemporary in several ways. I suspect the use of non-era clothes is deliberate in an effort to appeal to a non-historical book buyer.

I'm sure it will find a whole new readership.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The new cover is very contemporary in several ways. I suspect the use of non-era clothes is deliberate in an effort to appeal to a non-historical book buyer.

I don’t think the art departments know or give a good damn (and they never have). This cover image seems to be about the norm for historicals now. It’s right in line with what I see coming out of all big houses. I think it will appeal to the same readers who buy Julia Quinn, Joanna Bourne, Anna Campbell, Elizabeth Hoyt, etc. And that’s the whole point.

When I come to power (as they say on Top Gear) only beautiful, alluring, uber-historical covers will be allowed and readers will be sent to special education camps to be indoctrinated into appreciating them. Until that joyous day arrives, bring on the anachronistic eye-candy if gets my book into readers’ hands.

As Karin Tabke says: I didn’t sell out. I sold.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous LizA said...

Hm... I actually thought the first cover was more erotic. I think a lot of people confuse "erotic" with "sexy" - I think there ought to be some "mystery", some mystique - but obivously people look at this in different ways. I esp. dislike the lurid colours and the waxed look of the guy, but maybe I am the only one who gets nightmares when they are confronted by Ken and Barbie having a go at it? It's a good thing I already own the first version....

2:54 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Whole new readership sounds so nice, Mary. Thanks for the lovely thought.

Kalen, where do I sign me up for special education? Where I trust we will be force-fed crustless cucumber sandwiches, forbidden to pick up our asparagus with forks, and tortured (LOL, Liz) with incessant images of Ken and Barbie porn.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Covers are so confusing. I'm glad I don't have cover control, because I don't have a clue what sells.

Personally, I'd pick up the first cover but the not the second. The first cover is lovely, but I don't think it quite conveys the edgy, angsty, subversive (politically and romantically) side of The Slighest Provocation. Nor does it come across as particularly erotic. Neither does the second cover to me (I almost never find clinch covers very erotic). I actually the cover for The Edge of Impropriety does a better job than both of conveying sensuality and sophisticated eroticism.

But it's all the eyes of the beholder. I suspect the new cover will bring you new readers, which is wonderful.

6:45 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I really like your first cover. However, from the description of the story, it certainly wasn't an accurate depiction of what to expect from the story. I would however, pick the book up to read the cover blurb which should clue me in on what to expect. I'm not a big fan of the second style cover. It doesn't insinuate anything new or edgy, just more groping.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now, see, I didn't know you wrote love stories, Pam. I've seen your books in the store, they have the most lovely covers, but I associated you with Fiction. Not Romance. As a Romance reader, I tend to stay away from the Fiction section because those love stories often turn out to be sad and depressing (although Lauren, you are shelved in Fiction, so I am aware that my logic is flawed). The good news is: you are now on my To-Buy list.

PS. I like the first cover better, as well.

-Randi Thompson

8:27 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Hmm. I tend to agree with Kalen. This new cover is about getting this fabulous book in the hands of as many people as possible. No matter what, that's progress! I do love the original cover. It is shelved in the company of many similar covers on my bookshelf and I don't doubt any visitor to my home may think it is historical fiction. I take every opportunity to disavow them of that notion. I do NOT, however, offer to loan them my copy. I keep index cards on my desk for the express purpose of writing down titles and authors for those who ask what a good read might be. I have had a number of comments from those to whom I have recommended The Slightest Provocation. The consensus was "Damn, that is one hot book! Has she written any more?"

That said, the new cover WILL sell books and that is what you have to do to bring in that repeat business and that is the thing that keeps you in the fray! So, yes, I'll buy this new ccvered copy and preserve my lovely period-correct copy.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm with Tracy. Clueless in the world of marketing and glad it's not me charged with making the decisions.

Librarypat, I hope you're not right that the cover only evokes a sense of groping. We'll have to see.

And then there's Randi, who's perhaps closer to the buyers my publisher is going for -- thanks for weighing in, Randi, and isn't it interesting how different ones of us divide up the world of books? (For my next post, I want to discuss the dividing lines between historical fiction and historical romance, which I'm thinking about at hyperspeed as I work my way through the glorious Wolf Hall).

And Louisa -- thanks thanks thanks to you and your index cards and thanks to your friends who enjoyed The Slightest Provocation.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam, I hope it will bring you a ton of new readers who LOVE your work and don't lay the book aside whining "I don't get it." (Of course the cynic in me says they've paid the $ already, let them whine.)

If you look at the pic full size there's some very funky airbrushing in there. His left hand is odd, there's a strange gap between their chins, his nose seems to be intruding on her eyelid, and oh yes, top marks for historical inaccuracy, his pants have flies.

But I find the original's elegant bosom far sexier: it's a whisper rather than a shout.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

However, as I told an unimpressed editor one time, I do like the font treatment. That curvy S is very good.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

The first cover is pretty, but says to me the book might be worthy but boring. (Could anything be further from the truth about anything Pam writes?) The new cover is fairly standard historical romance, telling me it might be good and it might be terrible.
Do I assume the new edition is mass market? The major difference I see between romances published in trade and those in MM is that the former are a great deal more expensive. I hope TSP version II sells a million copies.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

I love the original cover, and the book itself is among the best I've read in the last couple of years. The new cover isn't something I would seek out for my shelf, but if it sells, then I'm *thrilled* for you.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

Pardon my reserved phrasing. Slightest Provocation is one of my favorite romances ever. Which has nothing to do with having read it in the last couple of years. :)

9:16 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Janet, parsing the physical possibility of any mass market romance cover is something I try not to do. Clearly the graphic convention speaks its own language, and I hope it will speak its language about me. Just like the way I'm moved to challenge the verbal and plot conventions of the romance novel, to make them work for me. (I've always thought that a reader or writer falling too easily for a well-worn trope is like a romance heroine falling too easily for a romance hero.)

Miranda, thanks for the well-wishes. And folks, come back in March when I interview Miranda Neville about her forthcoming The Wild Marquis.

And thanks for all your appreciation, RfP -- no matter how it's phrased.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anthea Lawson said...

I'd like to point out to those who "would never pick up" a cover like the second... beneath those cliche and "trashy" mass-market covers lie a WEALTH, a veritable cornucopia of amazing, sexy, deep, rich stories. Also, some not-so-good reads. But that caveat aside, please, don't judge books by the covers that publishers put on them. :) Meredith Duran, Joanna Bourne, Sherry Thomas, Courtney Milan (all writers whom I think would appeal to the more erudite readers of this blog) are given very cliche covers -- yet their writing is amazing.

This cover will, as mentioned above, put this book in the hands of a slightly different demographic. So hooray for all the overt glory of a mass market release, Pam! May it win you many many new readers!

12:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Amen, grin and giggle.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous RfP said...

"please, don't judge books by the covers that publishers put on them"

I've read romances for so long that I wouldn't judge a book's content by its cover, but that doesn't make the newer cover a physical object that I covet. If a book's cover doesn't appeal, I'll likely read it at the library or as an ebook, or read it and then donate it. It's unlikely to find a spot on my "keeper shelf".

Is that a bad thing for Pam? Nope. Many romance readers cheerfully live with stacks of books with what I consider ugly covers. Some even *like* those covers! ;) And whether or not the new cover suits *my* taste, it has all the right signifiers to alert a broader potential readership.

9:35 PM  

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