If you’re a romance reader, or you’ve been in the vicinity of a bookstore anytime over the past couple of years, you’re probably familiar with this trend. Go to the display with the sign reading some variation of “BookTok Made Me Buy It” for plenty of examples. You’ll see a slew of titles that are identical in terms of pure marketing, all adorned with the cute cartoon cover of a romantic pair about to make mischief. The designs are simple, the kind of artwork that is straightforward in aesthetic but readily charming. Maybe one of the loving pair is leaning against the title to demonstrate their sassy attitude. Whether they’re sportspeople, bakers, royals, travelers, or part of some other quirky occupation, they are the same. Sorry beefcakes and flowing skirts: the cartoon cover is in charge of romance right now.
Marketing shifts are hard to ignore and even harder to stay apart from when you’re pushing your product. When something is in, be it a genre or author, everyone else wants to keep up. Often, the easiest way to do so is a quick rebrand (it’s usually the cheapest way, too.) The cartoon cover is hardly the first example of this move either. When Twilight took over the world, many books, including some literary classics, got re-released with minimalist black, white, and red covers designed to deliberately evoke the iconography of Stephenie Meyer’s work. That’s how we ended up with copies of Wuthering Heights and Anne Rice’s back-catalog designed to be casually confused with the sparkly brethren they inspired.
Classic literature goes through this all the time. Great stories never fall out of trend but you still need to keep them visible to a new generation. Many eternal favorites, from Jane Austen to Bram Stoker to Lolita, get refreshes every few years or so, all to appeal to whatever audience segment of the moment might desire a shiny new copy. Consider the gorgeous Penguin Classics clothback editions and how beloved they are on places like BookTok thanks to their blog-ready beauty. Publishers have spent decades trying to find ways to sell books like Lolita that are stylish but appropriate (and, frankly, they’ve mostly failed.) in modern literary publishing, the trend has been for ambiguous silhouettes and blended colors that Eye on Design helpfully defined as “the unicorn frappuccino cover.” Even romance has been through this cycle. The original cycle of romances, the Fabio era from authors like Johanna Lindsey, moved away from the oft-parodied eroticism of their covers to safer, human-free options that were more likely to be found in large stores like Wal-Mart.
As Rachel Ake Keuch of Random House told Eye on Design, “The current book cover trend is highly influenced by what publishers and sales teams think is ‘Instagram-friendly.’” Deciding on a cover often means looking at what everyone else is doing and slotting your title into that style. If something looks good, it plays well on social media, which has become an increasingly crucial part of the promotional cycle. BookTok alone has accounted for so much in modern romance sales, and there, the cartoons are popular. They seem universally appealing, non-threatening, and unabashedly feminine. For many readers new to romance, an illustrated couple seems far less intimidating to a first-time reader than a shirtless hunk in a clinch pose with his love interest.
Such covers have also allowed more diversity on the shelves, as well as an opportunity for authors to bypass potential stereotypes and assumptions. Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient (one of the early examples of the current cartoon cover trend) noted on her Facebook page that she had specifically asked for an illustrated cover because “I wanted to slip past unconscious bias. With a fun illustrated cover, I could be on equal footing with other authors and tell a love story with an Asian person in it without race being the biggest part of it.”
The cartoon covers do make me yearn for the days of the beefcake, it must be said. Perhaps it’s a generational thing but I don’t feel any embarrassment at reading such works in public. I appreciate how forward they are in conveying what the novel inside offers, and that’s usually some spice. Sometimes, you just want something that does what it says on the tin! These covers are often artistically striking, full of little details that the reader will pick up on only once they’ve finished the story. There’s a candor to these covers, an appreciation for the reader who has gotten what they desire, and desire is typically front and center here. It’s hot people getting hot together.
There’s no reason a cartoon cover can’t depict the true variety of the romance genre, but as it currently stands, there’s a homogeny that feels unrepresentative of what they’re selling. It’s weird to see a reverse harem erotica have the same cover style as a low-spice rom-com as a paranormal romance. When you pick up a Sarah MacLean novel, you know exactly what it is. I’m not sure that’s the case for these cartoon covers, especially when they’re reissues of older titles. Romance Twitter certainly had its share of opinions when Jaci Burton’s The Perfect Play, a sports romance with one of the great “hot dude with abs” covers, got an expensive reissue with a cheaply made cartoon pair that is personality-free and fraudulent marketing. Imagine picking it up thinking you’re getting something far less sexy than what Burton wrote. The cartoon suggests fun for all ages, for better or worse.
It’s also worth noting that the cartoon books, deliberately or otherwise, also evoke YA fiction in their style and objective. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see titles like Icebreaker and Red, White and Royal Blue in the young adult section despite both being far from teen-focused or appropriate. BookTok, which is driving a lot of online publishing decisions, leans younger and that seems to be a priority for such books, whether or not they’re intended for them. The lines between YA and adult fiction have often been vaguer than expected—we had to create the entire New Adult category to explore that liminal space between them—and the audience crossover is big. Cartoon covers often feel like a way to take advantage of that, although the amorphous nature of this trend seems doomed to lead to multiple instances of reader miscommunication.
Cartoon covers and illustrated couples on romance novels is, like everything else, a trend. It will eventually make way for something new. BookTok will find something else—perhaps we’ll return to the Twilight style or bring back women in backless gowns. The genre itself will always prevail, even when the fads surrounding it fall out of style, and certain things will remain eternal. Beefcake clinches aren’t going anywhere, I promise you. Sometimes, romance just needs to give the world exactly what we all expect.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.