The Hell of Romance Book Covers

The right stuff

Another holiday season has come and gone. It’s back to the writing desk. And now here’s a fervent plea to photographers hoping to sell stock photos to self-published authors who desperately need images for book covers.

I know it must be difficult to find attractive men with sexy bodies. And you’re doing a semi-okay job with dark-headed men. But please try really hard to produce some decent stock images of blonde men. They surely exist—Brad Pitt comes to mind.

Currently, searches for ‘sexy blond men’ through Dreamstime, iStockphoto, and Shutterstock yield images like these—not a bicep in sight.

Excuse me while I puke.

If I’m looking for a grown-up blonde man with dom tendencies, there is Nothing Out There.

This is heartbreaking because this guy in my story is deeply blonde and this is one alpha male that I refuse to change over to dark hair. I’ve done that before, you know, in desperation for a suitable male cover image.

Now as far as stock photos of men in general, what’s missing are images of men in poses that might actually work on a book cover. Authors don’t need men grinning inanely toward the camera. We need men with attitude, moody and boiling with pent up emotion. We need men standing at a door waiting to knock, men looking away from the camera absorbed in thought, men turning in surprise. Well, I could go on but hopefully you get the idea. Real life stuff.

Currently, what does a search for “sexy man” yield? This guy, for God’s sake. In what universe is this sexy? Or this one?

Okay, maybe for a story featuring a young guy who doesn’t know he’s gay and the breaking in, so to speak, by an older man. That might be sexy.

But the guy on the bed? Clearly he has no idea where to find his own ass. Who figured out that sexy pose? Give me a break.

Then there’s the inane batch of men with super-developed musculature, veins popping as they pose in front of gym equipment. I get that they’re proud of all the time they’ve dedicated to body building, and I get that photographers may feel so desperate to capture images of ‘muscular’ men that they resort to this bizarre subgroup, but I guarantee you that putting an image like this on the cover of a romance novel is a sure-fire route to zero sales. Gak!

Keep in mind, photographers, that virtually all romance for women readers is written by female authors. We are the ones looking at these images for something that triggers a faintly hot response. Muscle bound males grinning like idiots or, worse, looking at their triceps in adoration takes the female libido in the opposite direction. Read: self-absorbed, dude.

What’s wrong with men in sports jackets? Men sitting at a desk in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up? How about carpenters, electricians, and auto mechanics who epitomize the allure of blue collar men? Cowboys actually on horses?

Oh, and another thing. Please try to tag your images with appropriate descriptions. There’s no reason for this image to show up in a search for “sexy men.” I agree that platforms for stock photo retailers should offer more discriminating search options. Like if I want to search for images of a threesome, why does a photo of a three women show up?

Why can’t I designate that I want to see two males and one female in the image? As it stands now, such a search might yield three women, but more often what shows up is two women with one man. I get that a lot of men have that fantasy, but we’re talking about women’s romance, you know, that market that sells more books than any other genre? Two men!

I appreciate that many photographers and male models may be gay, and maybe it’s that point of view that causes them to label images like this guy as “sexy man.” But in whose feeble imagination, even among gay men, is this ‘sexy’? This is simply embarrassing.

And a turn-off. This and so many other images that turn up in a “sexy man” search feature men who would never garner the description of “sexy” even in the wildest stretch of their own personal fantasies. Elfin, maybe. Jail bait perhaps. Creepy? Goofy?

Why do I have to look through over 170,000 images of idiots like these to find a handful that actually show a truly sexy man with personality, like this one?

Or this one?

The problem with useable images like these is that none of them are blonde, and, more importantly, they’ve been used over and over again by authors desperate for anything that shows a hint of male sexuality. Is it that photographers have no idea what they’re producing photos for?

Yes, I understand that there may be a few uses for sexy male images that are not for romance book covers. What those might be escapes me at the moment, but with romance authors publishing new books at a pace that far exceeds any other genre in the market, and with many of those authors minus the funds required to hire custom images, that leaves a huge opening for photographers/male models to give us what we want!

I think websites like Dreamstime and Shutterstock should set up a ‘want list’ among subscribers  so that there is clear information for photographers on what buyers want. Many photographers obviously go to a lot of trouble trying to meet demand but they’re working in the dark. Why not establish a workable dialogue between the producers and the customers that allows for a better match-up between the two parties?

This is the service retailers should offer instead of just raking in the bucks with a mute line-up of images, poorly sorted by description, and sadly lacking the aspects that made for a salable cover.

And please, for God’s sake, no more crass attempts at humor like this guy in a search for “blonde sexy man”!

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The Hell of Writing Isn’t Writing

There’s a perfect irony about self-publishing. Work hard, pay for professional editing and cover design, and then like the dog that chased a car until it stopped, what now?

Does it really matter how good you are if no one ever reads what you write? Oh, sure, you can pay for promotions and reviews, but in the real world of publishing, that simply doesn’t count.

The rule is that if you aren’t published by a “real” publisher, you can’t get “real” reviews. Without such, you might as well be waiting for hell to freeze over.

Traditional publishing has all the power. There’s a process. First you must convince an agent to read your work. Or you can write by the formula fitting your genre and submit directly to a select few publishing houses.

If you find an agent who likes your work, you then embark on a lengthy process of editing your work to fit the agent’s criteria. Then the agent submits your work to a variety of publishers which the agent believes will be interested in what you have to offer. Or make that, what you and the agent have to offer.

Assuming the publishing house thinks your work has merit, there’s more editing. The final product is not your work any longer, but rather the product of your ideas and hard work plus the agent’s tweaks and the publisher’s tweaks which fit their idea of what you were trying to say.

That’s when you find out that your publisher expects you to market the book yourself. You’ll be at their beck and call to appear (at your own expense) at book signings and conventions. You’ll be expected to maintain a website, Facebook page, and other social media platforms where you will work tirelessly to promote your book. At your own expense.

The only good thing to come out of this insider game is the “real” reviews your book can get now that you have jumped through the industry hoops. In exchange for this generous bestowal of a gold star in the middle of your forehead, you can expect to yield up to 90% of your book’s proceeds to the publisher and agent. For a book that retails for ten dollars, you’ll get one.

Been there, done that. Believe me, it hurts to see all that hard work and creative energy fly through your fingers into someone else’s pockets.

No wonder that so many authors choose to self-publish. No wonder hundreds of review blogs and Facebook groups have sprung up to assist Indie authors in getting the word out. Problem is that the vast majority of those blogs and groups are frequented mostly by other authors.

For example, I’ve “joined” over sixty promotional Facebook groups whose stated goal is to promote books. After five years of watching this ebb and flow, I’ve realized this is all preaching to the choir. Virtually everyone else visiting those groups is also an author.

I’ve participated in Goodreads groups to learn more and participate in various “communities” of certain genre writers all of which is intended to help authors reach more readers but ultimately consists mostly of writers or, in other cases, mostly of readers who’d rather not hear from writers unless they’re giving books away.

At no small expense, I’ve given away paperback copies of novels, packaged and mailed, to recipients of Goodreads and other group giveaways as promotions. For the most part, the recipients don’t even bother to post a review as promised.

There’s reason here for me to point out that among the reviews of my works which have been posted, they’re mostly four and five star reviews. So it’s not like I’m peddling trash. And I write romance, so it’s not an obscure market.

There are 1.2 million hits on a Google search for “Indie author promotions.” Among the top sites appearing in such a search, Published to Death offers a cautionary list of how best to spend your promotional budget. Oh – don’t have a promotional budget with three or four figures? Well then, aren’t you precious.

Here’s a cheery note from another website on this topic: “Marketing is dead. You can’t go out there and promote your book to everybody you know. Sales and promotions won’t really work.”

Yep, I believe him.

Other blog posts and websites tell cautionary tales about how to spend a lot of money on marketing without getting a decent return. Or any return. The most successful method of promoting a book is to write a book about how to promote a book.

One of my personal pet peeves is advice to get to know your fans. It’s as if by making friends with your readers, you can get them to talk excitedly about you with their friends. This might work a little while, but there are multiple downsides to this, not the least of which is the coercion factor that you pretend to be friends and your only real purpose is to sell books. I mean, how many real friends can you have? What happens when you forget their birthday or don’t appropriately comment on their life event? I mean, you are writing, aren’t you? Or do you give up writing entirely just to maintain a stable of “friends”?

And when was the last time you heard from your friend, the author of your favorite book?

No doubt reviews are key to book sales. Any other kind of promotion is likely to flounder if there aren’t good reviews, and more than a handful. As noted by A Marketing Expert, along with lots of other good up-to-date suggestions:

Include a letter in the back of the book inviting your readers to review the book and link to the book page on Amazon. Make the letter friendly, thank them for taking time to read your book and ask them, good or bad, if they might also make the time for a review. You might be surprised how many of your readers will do this, simply because you asked. This back of the book letter is a must for indie authors.

So yeah, for writers struggling to work out character development and plot lines and settings, marketing is the last thing you want to do with your time. But face it—even if you snap up a hot agent and mainstream publishing loves your book, it’s up to you to do the bulk of the marketing. Best to write because you have no choice, do what you can to get the word out, and give up that dream of making it big.

You  might, but odds are against it.