As the romance world grapples with its need to be more diverse—and to reflect that diversity in its offerings—book covers are on the front lines of the battle. And several authors’ experiences suggest that some readers may be more reluctant to pick up romances whose jackets feature characters of color.
Take the first two covers in Alana Albertson’s self-published romance series the Trident Code. Both show a long-haired beauty, her head tilted to receive a kiss from the handsome, muscular man cradling her jaw.
Steamy, right? Albertson thought so. But sales figures revealed something troubling to her.
The first book, Invincible (2014), featuring a white man on the cover, made $9,500 in its first year, Albertson said. The second, Invaluable (2017), earned just $1,375 in its first year despite being similarly rated in reviews. Although it’s not uncommon for series to see a drop in sales from the first title to the second, the difference, Albertson says, is that Invaluable’s cover depicted a black man—and readers weren’t buying.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” says Albertson, a biracial Mexican-American who writes characters of many ethnicities in her books. “It just tanked.”
A similar experience for Naima Simone had her publisher, Entangled Publishing, questioning what it could have done better to promote Simone’s Scoring with the Wrong Twin (WAGS #1, 2018), a book featuring a black hero, which sold fewer copies in its first two months than the second book in the series, Scoring Off the Field, sold in its first two weeks. The latter cover featured a white hero.
“Is it my fault? Am I not finding the readers for this book?” asks Liz Pelletier, Entangled’s cofounder and publisher. It brought home the fact that she and the Entangled staff need to do more to reach new readers.
Love Is Love
Latoya C. Smith, an agent with the L. Perkins Agency who was named 2017’s agent of the year by RWA–NYC, says publishers need to treat romances with multicultural characters and authors as they would any other book in the genre.
“Let’s say it’s a contemporary romance; you would promote that the same way that you would promote any other contemporary romance,” says Smith, whose clients include LaQuette, an author of erotic, multicultural romances. “Treat the covers the same way, treat the marketing the same way.”
Authors and editors say they’ve seen more readers picking up books whose covers feature multicultural characters, written by authors of color, in the young adult genre—and they think the same can happen in romance if publishers do more to seek out such titles. It’s important, they say, that the models used on the covers of those books accurately represent the ethnicity of the main characters.
“When readers walk into a bookstore, they [should] have a variety of choices, so that they’re seeing covers featuring happy, gorgeous couples of color in love,” says Tara Gelsomino, former executive editor at Crimson Romance, which Simon Schuster closed in March. She launched One Track Literary Agency in April and says she’s seeking own voices stories. “Change has to start somewhere, and if we’re considered the gatekeepers, we have to open the gate wider.”
Leslye Penelope, who writes under the name L. Penelope, says that for her self-published debut novel, Song of Blood Stone, having a black woman on the cover was a must, and ultimately “very powerful.” “I thought about younger Leslye walking through the bookstore craving covers that looked like her,” she says. “It was important to have that cover.”
For LaQuette, a good cover is “artful, sexy, and still tasteful,” and above all doesn’t fetishize the characters depicted.
Shannon Criss, senior acquisitions editor at EverAfter Romance, says that in an ideal world, an appealing, professionally done cover should catch any romance reader’s eye, regardless of the skin color of the character or couple portrayed. “We all judge books by covers,” she says. “But [it should not be] because they have an African-American person on the cover.”
The major hurdle, authors and editors say, is finding professionally shot, appropriate photos featuring models of color. Albertson recalls searching the internet for interracial stock photos once and being horrified at the search results, which included offensive depictions of men of color in chains.
Most recently, Albertson says, she’s struggled to find a Mexican-American model to portray a Mexican-American character named Joaquín on the cover of an upcoming book. “I’m this close to hitting the local bars near the Marine Corps base and walking up to some men: ‘Hey, want to be on the cover of my book?’ ” she says.
Jenn LeBlanc, a Los Angeles photographer, often does custom work for authors and has made a concerted effort to build a stock photo portfolio with images representing a number of multicultural groups, including the LGBTQ and disabled communities, and a variety of romantic combinations. To make headway on that goal, she’s putting together a big shoot this summer.
“We’re going to go through and make this big matrix of people—a big checkerboard—and see how many we can mix and match,” LeBlanc says. “We can shoot straight, we can shoot queer, we can shoot everything.”
Mina V. Esguerra, whose next self-published romance is What Kind of Day (June), spearheaded a similar effort within her writing community in the Philippines to crowdfund a photo shoot featuring Filipino models. The group, known as #RomanceClass, began after Esguerra hosted a free workshop in 2013 to encourage Filipino romance readers to start writing and publishing their own stories. Their books, which are available via Amazon and other online retailers, are written in English and mainly feature Filipino characters. Before the photo shoot, however, many of the titles’ covers had to be digitally illustrated because stock photography featuring Filipinos was rare.
“When the covers featuring the models started coming out and getting published, there was excitement—real excitement—to finally see Filipino faces on the cover,” Esquerra says.
The main thing to keep in mind when designing covers, Esguerra and other authors of color say, is that representation matters. “We should see ourselves [on covers],” she says. “And we should also see someone that we like.”
For more on romance cover design, see “Everyone Judges a Book By Its Cover—So Choose Wisely.”