Reading Romance #1 Judging a book by its cover #RespectRomFic

Since I fell down my romance reading rabbit hole last year, I’ve started to widen my reading net and had my eyes opened to a whole world of romance I’d been largely unaware of. Before my enlightenment I was happily ensconced in my long term reading bubble that consisted largely of crime fiction, some general fiction and what, for want of a better descriptor would be described as women’s fiction (including rom-coms/chick-lit). That had been my norm for as long as I can remember and, as I have more books on my Kindle and bookshelves than I will ever live long enough to read, I was comfortable sticking with what I knew – until I wasn’t.

I’ve mentioned before that it was getting hooked on Christmas reads over 2021/2 that led to my romance reading binge. While I wasn’t a stranger to romance, it wasn’t my go to genre, but rather one that I might have added into the mix to shake things up a bit. But, since that Christmas, I didn’t want to give it up. At the time I didn’t fully embrace why I had that need, but it’s become more apparent since and it appears I wasn’t alone. The pandemic seems to have been responsible for not only reminding us of the value of books, but also the comfort and certainty they can bring. Romance of course fits that bill exactly, because it’s all about, for the most part, the happy ending. There might be angst and tears along the way, but we’re all avidly reading for the happy ever after – or at least I am. Beth O’Leary, author of The Flatshare observed “In a world where everything feels unstable, there is something so comforting about knowing the ending before you even start.” (1) Other genres also saw an increase in popularity, other than ghost stories and horror, unsurprisingly, but romance saw the largest increase in sales since 2012, contributing to 66% of adult fiction growth in 2022 (2) As if the pandemic wasn’t reason enough to seek an escape, we’ve since had the added atrocity of the war in Ukraine and economic/political meltdown on the homefront – who wouldn’t want to escape?

My romance reading took a different turn on holiday last summer, as a result of two things, one, I signed up to a Kindle Unlimited offer (yes, yes, yes, I know I already mentioned I’ll die before I read what I already have) and two, I was suckered in by a book advert when I was scrolling through Facebook. I say suckered in, what I really mean is that I was particularly attracted to the bloke on the cover of the book and started reading the extract. After that I needed to know what happened next, as the book was included with Kindle Unlimited I downloaded it and that, as they say was that, it started a whole new romance ball rolling. So what was the book I hear you cry, well, it was the first in a series by the Canadian author Jaine Diamond featuring members of the fictional rock band Dirty. It started with Jesse and Katie’s story and I was hooked enough to want to know about the others.

This took me down a whole new world of largely, US and Canadian titles that I hadn’t tangled with before. Of course, once I’d read one, Amazon was constantly recommending more, most of which were on Kindle Unlimited so how could I refuse? I fell down a series rabbit hole featuring more rock gods, hockey players, NFL players, firefighters, billionaire CEO’s, brothers and cowboys to name but a few. Basically, any grouping that bonded men together so that the established romance tropes could play themselves out between them and their partners, be that male or female. At this point I also have to admit I didn’t know there were so many ‘tropes’ either. I’m now much better informed about single dads, grumpy heroes, enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, age-gaps, fake relationships, roommates to lovers, second chances, love triangles and forced proximity (which always sounds a bit dodgy to me) and that’s not all of them! In addition, I’m reliably informed that in literature at least, that from a male point of view, best friend’s sisters, sister’s best friends, secretaries and nannies are strictly verboten (but of course that hurdle is always swiftly overcome after the first kiss). I’m also much more enlightened about all sorts of things now, not all of which is probably best shared in polite company.

Examples of serial reads – some but not all of which I’ve read

What was becoming rapidly apparent with the majority of these books, was that the covers featured half undressed men, or worse headless torsos. In the case of the latter, I’m now convinced that it’s so that you can create your own fantasy ‘book boyfriend’ without being put off by the model featured on the cover, and trust me, I can be. Now I’m not really complaining, because whilst I may be knocking on a bit, I’m still not averse to looking at an attractive set of abs. Also, judging by comments in various romance and author Facebook fan groups I frequent I am not alone. But that said, it’s worrying when I’m starting to recognise the male model by his tattoo’s, body or chin, before I recognise the author! When the majority of these books feature a female counterpart, who is often sassy and empowered, why is a male body the go to option for so many romances?

Authors I’ve enjoyed

The basic answer is sex, and as we all know, sex sells! In 2016 one publisher reported that book covers with male models sold three times more than with a woman alone(3). The nudity is also intended to be an indicator that the book will include sex scenes – well colour me surprised! Perhaps, is now the time to address the elephant in the room – the sex. I was surprised at how graphic and explicit some of these books can be. Although, as my last ‘erotic’ reads probably date back to the 80’s with Erica Jong and Molly Parkin, I suspect things have moved on apace since then. It’s just something I don’t usually encounter in my usual romantic reads, or maybe I just haven’t discovered the UK equivalent rabbit hole yet. The books I’ve enjoyed have all featured the things I look for in a good book, a great story, with engaging characters. Some were more angsty than others, but in general the majority were also warm and often funny. They all just had sex as an added ingredient. Unfortunately, neither the cover or the blurb is necessarily a good indicator of how much of the latter you might be getting, or how steamy it might get. It’s a case of getting to know which authors suit your tastes. Admittedly some of the books I’ve picked up feature more sex than story for me, which can get tedious. With the best will in the world, there are only so many ways of saying the same thing, but then that’s perhaps because I tend to veer more towards the vanilla end of the scale. All of the books though, conform to the basic premise of a Romance in that they have a central love story, and an emotionally satisfying ending. Despite my OH’s belief to the contrary, I’m not reading ‘soft porn’ masquerading as romance. I know from other comments I’ve received that the covers don’t help to prevent the negative stereotyping of romance as being ‘trashy’ something which isn’t helpful to the genre, the authors or the readers.

A few ‘gems’ from the past

A feature published in 2019(4) stated that “Romance covers are incarnations of fantasy and desire and sexual want, sold to an audience that was generally female, often older, and often middle and working class” or in other words the aforementioned ‘soft porn’ for housewives. In the same year, romance author Penny Reid tweeted “I’ve seen my books called “trashy romance,” “fluffy,” “a pallet cleanser,” “smut,” etc” – no wonder that readers continue to feel ashamed to admit to reading romance. That though is now starting to change. The reality is that romance readers are getting younger and statistics reveal that 45% of romance readers have a college degree. This younger audience is far less apologetic about its wants and desires which has helped to remove some of the stigma that was attached to the romance genre. We’re starting to see a shift in the notion that women should be ashamed about their desires, and as result neither should they be made to feel ashamed about reading about them.

When I started this feature I had an idea in my head of what I wanted to say but once I started to look at book covers I realised I couldn’t express it all in one post. So this is simply part one, looking at one type of romance cover. In future posts I want to look at how they are changing, why and what that means for readers. But in this post, however well or badly I might have expressed it, the gist of is quite simply, don’t judge a book by it’s cover and by association the person who is reading it. We are all different, we all enjoy different genres, but the thing we have in common is reading, we should be able to do that without being made to feel ashamed.

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that in this piece I’m over generalising a subject which has much more depth and nuance than I’m capable of presenting. I also want to make it clear that the book covers I’m referencing refer to content that would fall within the category of general romance with sexual activity, whatever form it might take, that is always consensual.


1 The love boom: why romance novels are the biggest they’ve been for 10 years by Ella Braidwood. The Guardian 13 Dec, 2022.

2 40+ Romance Novel Sales Statistics [2023] Wordsrated October 9, 2022

3. Romance novel Beefcake Sells, But it Doesn’t Pay. Chicago Tribune (from NT Times 30 March 2016)

4. The Steamy, Throbbing History of Romance Novel Covers by Kelly Faircloth. Jezebel, 14 Feb, 2019

Other reading

Why we’re falling in love with romance novels all over again by Claire Armitstead. The Guardian 16 January, 2022

“Can we still judge a romance novel by it’s cover” Ann Wallentine in Electric Lit, Feb 2022


  1. Such an interesting piece Jill. There are a lot of books with half clad men around aren’t there? Never judge a book by its cover is a strange concept when it comes to actual books as they do tell us so much without even opening the book. And they definitely sell the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Until I started looking I wasn’t aware of just how many there are. Like all books though some are better than others – it’s a very crowded market with a mix of self published and publisher produced titles. The cover definitely sold the first one to me! I’m invariably drawn to a book by it’s cover, that’s its purpose. Looking back at the context of the original George Eliot quote, it related to what was deemed an age inappropriate book being bound in a binding which suggested it was something more edifying. Almost the exact opposite of these – they certainly don’t hide what you’re likely to find inside. On that note you might be interested in Part 2!


  2. Great post Jill. I agree, I don’t mind looking at a handsome man with a sixpack. I enjoy romance, but steer away from books with half naked men on the cover, assuming there will be too many open door scenes and steam. I might be wrong, but that is my assumption. I have read a few that had cutesy covers and boy were they steamy, so I guess I am judging and not always right.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Jill's Book Cafe Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.