Years ago I was buying a stack of romance novels at my local bookstore. I set the books down on the counter and the male sales associate decided to mimic the poses on the covers. He really got into it.
I blushed hard. I also hoped he didn’t try to re-enact a dead body when he saw a gruesome scene on a crime novel. He definitely would injure himself.
After I left the store, I realized it was unlikely that he would say anything about a book cover for a mystery or thriller. A stranger would not lecture or tease a person for reading something like sci-fi/fantasy in public, but most romance readers I know have been judged and disrespected by random people about their reading material.
People are more uncomfortable about a book cover with two people locked in a clinch than they are with a suggestion of murder. The clinch cover, a term used to describe an embracing couple on the front of a romance novel, has often been ridiculed since they showed up in the 1970s. According to Jessica Avery’s article “The Origins of the Clinch Cover”, the editorial director of Playboy Press wanted to seize on the popularity of sexually explicit romance fiction and created the clinch cover for their first romance novel.
While artwork and styles change continuously, the clinch can still be found on romance covers today. It’s always going to sell books, at least in the United States. A romance book with a clinch cover in North America might have a different cover in other countries. In some romance fiction markets, there are no people on the cover at all and instead the publishers use flowers or a landscape.
It’s not just international markets that are hiding the sexual content of a romantic story. Editors are trying to create covers that will appeal to readers who won’t pick up a romance novel. In Elena Nicolaou’s article “How These Instagrammable Book Covers Are Tricking People Into Reading Romance”, she noted that the “object cover” for Fifty Shades of Grey purposely hid the heat level of the book. Current bestsellers are using cartoon covers to emphasize the romantic comedy premise and ignoring the sexual relationship found in the story.
Yet romance publishers still create clinch covers for some of their books. No matter how often people make fun of them, the artwork sells. Not only can a reader immediately know that the book is a romance, but the clinch will also indicate the heat level. It’s as if the author and publisher are embracing the sexual content in the story and don’t feel the need to hide it.
Clinch covers also help publishers get the impulse purchase. They have to make sure the book cover doesn’t just capture attention when a reader is browsing the shelf at the store, but that the cover also pops on the screen when it’s a thumbnail size. A clinch cover will always get noticed.
Some readers think the clinch covers are becoming less suggestive. If that’s true, it’s probably because of marketing and distribution. Discount stores have a lot of veto power over the book covers. If they think the artwork is too risqué, they won’t shelve it. Online booksellers will actively hide a book if they think anyone will object over the cover. Social media will reject any book advertisement they think is inappropriate—which might mean a naked shoulder or bare feet popping out from under a blanket.
Despite these limitations, publishers and indie authors will always find a way to use the clinch cover. It immediately conveys the sensual relationship in the story and it also acknowledges how the romance genre celebrates women’s sexuality. Love them or hate them, the clinch cover doesn’t just represent the genre’s history but it still speaks directly to today’s romance reader.