Romance is a billion-dollar industry. In 2016 these novels made up 23% of the overall fiction market, and they consistently outperform all other genres. But while we’ve reclaimed the rom-com in film, these books are still often relegated to being “guilty pleasures” or considered “mommy porn.” This week we’re discussing these overlooked, often powerfully feminist books—that just so happen to have a happy ending.
At first I thought someone was shrieking. Commotion muffled the sound, yet the wail managed to break through the noise. But as I got deeper into the room, the cry became unmistakable: It was the howling of a wolf. “Don’t worry about that,” publicist Erin Galloway told me. “We put it on to help the model get into character.” And because it was my first time on the set of a romance cover shoot, I didn’t question it.
When I was invited to sit in on the cover shoot for A Touch of Stone and Snow—the second installment in best-selling author Milla Vane’s “A Gathering of Dragons” series, which drops July 2020—I didn’t know what to expect. The Game of Thrones–esque book follows its heroine, Lizzan, as she strikes up a new alliance with her former enemy, the warrior Aerax. So I pictured the second coming of Fabio decked out in medieval garb, and plenty of bare chest; cliches of the romance cover genre. I was entirely correct.
Most romance novels have this same kind of aesthetic. A male model with eight-pack abs and a jaw that could cut glass gets dressed up as a cowboy, a gentleman, a warrior, or sometimes a combination of all three. While those in the fandom are here for these thirst traps—which are clearly good for business, as romance is a billion dollar industry—the covers tend to perpetuate the stigma associated with these novels. That they’re “mommy porn” for horny housewives and set unrealistic expectations of love and sex.
But according to best-selling romance author Sarah MacLean, those who criticize them are missing the point entirely. “These covers are designed to basically say, ‘Men, keep out!’ Because romance novels aren’t for them. They’re not for a patriarchal society; they’re for the other. It’s having that conversation about the patriarchy in front of patriarchy—without them noticing,” she says. Just make something designed for women actually by women, and rest assured men won’t go anywhere near it.
And on the set, as the wolf howls gave way to Top 40 jams, I was introduced to the cover’s hero figure, male model Will Reis (who yes, did have an eight-pack). The clean-cut, chiseled 25-year-old was undergoing a transformation. While Reis was already wearing a platinum blond wig, the shoot’s stylist was still futzing around, braiding a few strands together for optimum effect. Once completed, Reis was thrilled with his new look. “I’ve always idolized Fabio,” he told me. “I love the long hair. It’s a breakaway look. People look at you as kind of like a god amongst them when you have superlong hair.”
Up next was Reis’s makeup session, which primarily consisted of the stylist’s rubbing a mix of powders over his abs to look like mud. And as he got tastefully dirtied, I learned that Reis too was a romance-shoot virgin. When I asked if he had any hesitation accepting the gig, pointing to the idea of “mommy porn,” Reis assured me that he was “pumped.” He also added, “I always like hanging with older women more than I like younger women. They just get it, you know?”
With hair and makeup complete, the vision for the day started to come together. The inspiration was simple and, I soon learned, very common in the romance genre: Jason Momoa in furs. “[Jason] has so much drama in his look. He’s that guy who is intimidating and strong but you’d still want to fall in love with him. There’s definitely a fantasy appeal to him and that kind of romance,” said Rita Frangie Batour, senior art director for Berkeley Publishing (the company behind A Touch of Stone and Snow).
Batour—a seasoned 19-year veteran in the romance industry who’s best known for designing Nora Roberts’s book jackets—worked with her frequent collaborator, photographer Claudio Marinesco, to bring the Neanderthal-meets-Aquaman hero to life. Marinesco is responsible not just for handling the camera but also for acquiring the props and costumes, of which there were many. “I bought fur and leathers by the yard from a fabric store and cut it up into different pieces for the shoulders, arms, and to wrap around the waist, then purchased knight’s armor on Etsy to complete the look,” he told me of his creative process.
On the day of the shoot, Marinesco continued to tweak Reis’s outfit right up until the moment he stepped behind the camera, even ripping white fur off another pair of boots and adding them to the pair Reis already had on. Then later—upon the realization that Reis just had to wield a sword—Marinesco rigged a spear together from an African pole and a blade he had in his prop collection.
Once photography began, Reis got comfortable in front of the camera quickly. A wind machine blew his wig in all directions as Marinesco directed him to get into positions that revealed more and more thigh. He crouched on a wooden block, flexed with his arms in the air, and roared—all the while smoldering for each click of the shutter. Each shot was better than the last.
Heartthrobs like Reis have long been a staple on romance covers.“Within the first year or two that I was a designer, they were like, ‘Hey, let’s put a guy on the cover alone and see what happens,‘” says Batour. “Then it was a shirtless guy. They kept pushing it. It was a huge trend, and the market was flooded with covers with guys on them for a long time. But trends come and go when it comes to covers.”
One of the latest trends—especially for some of the more popular and buzzy romance novels of the past few years—have been more “Instagrammable covers.” Ones that remove some of the stigma out of the experience. You can see it on books like Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue, along with Helen Hoang’s and Jasmine Guillory’s works—which all come in millennial-friendly colors and feature illustrations in lieu of hunky photographs. They look more like the literary-fiction covers of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or On the Come Up than their genre brethren. (And according to Casey McQuiston, this more mainstream approach could be potentially responsible for why Red, White & Royal Blue was able to breakthrough to non-romance readers.)
But while these books that are less likely to be judged by their cover might seem like the new normal, Batour points out that’s really just the case for a specific set. “They’re popular for the rom-com genre, where it’s not just about the romance but about the relationship and a point of view. The illustration gives you a way to represent the story in a fun, lighthearted way,” she says. “But regardless of trends, you have to match your cover to the story. If it supports the novel and is true to the story, then it enhances the experience for the reader.” Meaning, sometimes a beefcake is required.
Back on set it was clear that Batour’s right. The old faithful “sexy-man cover” is still alive and well. Reis stood in front of the green screen for hours, nailing all angles. And when Marinesco took a break to show me the images he’d captured—with the snowy backdrop added in—it just worked. It was A Touch of Stone and Snow’s truth.
In my final conversation with Reis, I asked him if this is something he could see himself doing again—like Fabio, who has appeared on 466 romance covers, or Jason Aaron Baca, who holds the record with 603. Without hesitation he replied, “I would, yeah. One hundred percent.”
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour