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Marketing Male Protagonists

Examining Male Protagonists on Popular Romance Fiction Book Covers

By Safiyyah Wilson (2024)


This piece analyzes the physical appearance of male love interests in romance fiction books during the year 1993. I argue there are commonalities between love interests depicted on the covers of the most popular novels during 1993 reflecting a particular formula for book covers. To construct this argument, I will analyze the covers of RITA award winners and the covers of books printed in the Romantic Times magazines during 1993. To construct my argument, I will build a database of these novels and describe the physical appearance of the male love interests. With this information, I will analyze similarities in the physical appearance of the men depicted including comparison of skin color, hair color, and hair styles. First, I will argue there are similarities in appearance. Second, I will argue these similarities are used as a marketing tool.


Books Advertised in Romantic Times

The June 1993 edition of Romantic Times reviewed over 150 romance novels. The magazine, which had an audience of over “135,000 avid readers and booksellers,” provided book ratings, author profiles, and columns.1 There are three novels advertised in color in the Romantic Times magazine published in June of 1993. The three books are: Unveiled by Colleen Quinn, A Promise of Thunder by Connie Mason, and To Love Again by Bertrice Small. These books are advertised in color on thick, glossy paper whereas the remainder of the magazine is in black and white on thin newspaper material.

Unveiled by Colleen Quinn is displayed on the cover of the June 1993 edition of Romantic Times. The assumed protagonists of the book are a man and a woman. The woman wears a white bridal gown and veil and caresses the dark hair of the male love interest, a white man with dark eyebrows. The man wears a tuxedo. The couple appears to be dressed for a wedding. The second novel cover printed in color in the magazine is A Promise of Thunder by Connie Mason. This novel cover displays a dark haired man with long shoulder length hair. He is not wearing a shirt. He is shown again, lower on the page, sensually caressing a woman with long red hair who wears a loose shirt and skirt. This book is also a winner of the Romantic Times Storyteller award, as advertised on the page. The third novel printed in color in this magazine is To Love Again by Bertrice Small. In this image, a large man with long blond hair caresses a woman from behind. He and the women appear to wear no clothes and lay beneath fur blankets.

In each of the three novels printed in color in this magazine, the male love interest is a muscular man. In two cases, he is brunette. In two cases, he has long, shoulder length hair. But, how do these three novels compare to the covers of other popular novels during this period? Though the covers of RITA novels are not the determining factors in the awards of these novels, the cover serves as a marketing tool to draw audiences in. The same way the cover of the Romantic Times draws individuals in to pick up the magazine. The same way carefully choosing which novels are printed in color, draws readers attention to specific novels. Magazine covers are the “gateway” to the content and responsible for initially capturing the reader’s attention.2


RITA Winners and Their Protagonists

The RITA award winning novels of 1993 are as follows: An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverly, This Time Forever by Kathleen Eagler, Father Goose by Marie Ferrarella, Song of the Buffalo Boy by Sherry Garland, Come Spring by Jill Marie Landis, Navarrone by Helen Myers, The Prisoner by Cheryl Reavis, Trust Me by Jeane Renick, Emily’s Ghost by Antoinette Stockenburg, The Silence of Midnight by Karen Stone, and Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson. For consistency and clarity, I am analyzing the first edition of each novel published. The majority of these original covers were located using Amazon.

For each of these novels, I use the cover to describe the hair color and hairstyle of the men depicted. In An Unwilling Bride, the male interest has short, blond hair.3 On the cover of Father Goose, the man has short, dark hair.4 The man on the cover of Navarrone has short, dark brown hair and a mustache.5 In The Prisoner, the man has short brown hair.6 The man on the cover of Trust Me has short brown hair.7 On the cover of Emily’s Ghost, the man has short blond hair.8 In The Silence of Midnight, the man has short, dark brown hair.9 All of the men depicted are White with average to muscular builds. There are no characters depicted on the cover of This Time Forever, Keeper of the Dream, or Come Spring, and in Song of the Buffalo Boy, only the female protagonist is shown.10, 11, 12, 13

Of the 11 RITA winners of 1993, four of the books do not depict the male love interests on the cover. Of the seven remaining, two of the books have male love interests with blond hair. The five others have men with short, brown hair on the covers. Combined with the novels displayed in the Romantic Times, there is a prevalence of average to muscular build, brunette men with short hair on the covers of these novels. As the cover of a novel serves as a marketing tool, it is interesting to unpack what this may suggest. Does it imply a “recipe” for the type of love interest romance readers are interested in purchasing? I have analyzed whether there are similarities between the covers. Now, it is time to investigate what these commonalities might suggest about marketing in the romance fiction industry during 1993.


Marketing Male Protagonists

Book covers were an important marketing tool. They are what the reader sees first, before even reading the synopsis of the book. The cover must initially draw the reader in and garner an “impulse” in readers to pick up the book.14 Outside of author name recognition, cover art is “probably 90% of the impulse,” describes Carol Fass, director of publicity for Ballantine.15 To advance this impulse, publishers cater to what they believe their audience wants to see. As a result, depicting a “solo male figure” on the cover of the novel became“increasingly popular.”16 Publishers argued that female romance fiction readers were looking for the man on the cover, not the woman.17 Book covers with male models “sold three times as much as with a woman alone,” making the attractiveness of the men depicted on the cover crucial.18 This significance is especially important for novice authors who did not have an existing fan base or following, for them author name recognition was nonexistent.19 This further emphasizes the significance of a man’s role in luring the largely female audience into picking up the book.

With this in mind, I look back at the cover of the Romantic Times with fresh eyes. Now knowing that showing a male model on a book increased its sales threefold, I am unsurprised a man is on the cover with the female protagonist of Unveiled by Colleen Quinn. The depiction of a man on the cover had tangible impacts on book sales. Colleen Quinn’s team likely chose to have a man and woman on the cover of her book as a marketing tool. Similarly, the publishing team of the Romantic Times chose to advertise and market their magazine using a book with both male and female characters on its cover. Not only are the subject matters of the book covers marketing tools, but the covers of magazines are marketing tools as well. In fact, when I take a second look at the cover of the June 1993 edition of the Romantic Times, the book cover of Unveiled utilizes a majority of the space. Save for the title printed on the top of the page, the cover of Colleen Quinn’s Unveiled takes up the remainder of the page. My eyes are drawn immediately to the male protagonist as he is placed in the center towards the top of the magazine cover. The female protagonist is shown below him. Choosing to have this book, with a male protagonist centrally depicted, was a marketing tool that I believe worked two fold: once in the initial publishing of Unveiled and again with the publishing of the Romantic Times 1993 edition. Placing a man in the spotlight of a romantic fiction book cover was not unique. Rather, it was reflective of a marketing blueprint.

With the rise of icons like Fabio, the romance fiction industry was able to craft a repeated image that facilitated brand recognition.20 Fabio dramatically increased the attention paid to the romance fiction industry. Fabio, who was highly popular during the 1980s and 1990s, covered hundreds of romance fiction novels “that hit the paperback racks and sold like proverbial hotcakes.”21 He served as a sexual icon and selling point for female romance fiction readers. Nicknamed the “Italian stallion,” Fabio had long hair, a muscular and toned body, and brown “mesmerizing eyes” that “were irresistible to female romance novel readers.”22 He first appeared on the cover of a novel in 1986 and soon after began an exclusive contract with Avon to work as a book cover model.23 Avon Vice-President and Director of Sales, Bruce Brill credits Fabio with “heightening the industry’s profile.”24 Fabio was not the only male cover model who hit it big in the romance fiction industry. Older covers suggested publishers followed a formula that interested readers: a white man with dark hair, a “smoldering gaze,” and “a glimpse of his six-pack abs.”25 During this period, “everyone wanted Fabio.”26 The “bodice ripper” and sensual romance covers were popular of this generation.27



Ultimately, the similarities between men depicted on the covers of romance fiction novels suggest a type of formula that publishers follow. This formula is crafted in order to appeal to the majority of customers in the short amount of time a book has to catch the reader’s interest. Similar to the formula that existed for female protagonists in romance fiction, (young, shockingly beautiful, virgins), men were expected to be strong and sexy, the type of “modern man that any woman could easily imagine falling in love with.”28 Romance fiction publishers follow a set of steps in order to create the ideal cover image for their books.29 When focusing on a man, publishers work to sell the hero to women, “his strengths” and “the actions that make him attractive.”30 This so-called anatomy of a cover engraves a specific idea of what should be on the cover of a romance novel, like“image of a lion-maned Fabio leaning into a love-struck woman.”31

The initial hypothesis of this paper was that there was a correlation between the covers of these novels and the type of man that women idealized. Scholarly research is limited on whether there is a true preference for women towards men with brown hair.32 One study found that men with brown hair on a dating website were more likely to receive dates than blonde men on the same sites.33 However, it is difficult to conclude whether this phenomenon is legitimately due to hair color alone. I chose to analyze RITA award winners to narrow the subject matter to a specific set of books that were proven to be popular. I chose the books advertised in color in the Romantic Times because I believe that being printed in color is a specific effort to attract attention. Ultimately, there are commonalities between the covers of the novels in the Romantic Times June 1993 magazine and the winners of RITA awards during 1993. The majority of these men were white with short, brown hair. They were not overweight and appeared to be strong or of average build. Due to marketing, it is likely publishers found that this depiction of men worked and encouraged their mainly female audience to pick up their novels.

In order to contribute further to this research and form a more formidable correlation and conclusion, it would be beneficial to analyze a larger data set of book covers. Due to limitations in time and accessibility, the dataset for this piece is relatively small. It is likely that a larger sample of book covers would allow me to determine a statistically significant correlation between the men depicted on the covers of romance fiction novels. Additionally, analyzing what is most commonly depicted helps to foster thinking on what or who is often omitted from being displayed on the covers. What does this say about the publishers choosing what book covers to publish? What does this say about what the audience wants to see on the covers of their novels?


1 Romantic Times. “Romantic Times.” June 1993.
2 Stein, Jay “Magazine Covers on the Library Display Shelves,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 37, no. 1
(1985), https://www.jstor.org/stable/20863209.
3 “An Unwilling Bride: Beverley, Jo: 9780821736692: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://amzn.to/4dkALT6.
4 “Father Goose (Silhouette Romance No. 869, Fabulous Fathers No. 1): Marie Ferrarella: 9780373088690:
Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3WhMziE.
5 “Navarrone (Silhouette Desire): Helen R. Myers: 9780373057382: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d.
6 “Prisoner: Cheryl Reavis: 9780373287260: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3QpyTyp.
7 “Trust Me (Harper Monogram): Renick, Jeane: 9780061080067: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3Qjwi9h.
8 “Emily’s Ghost: Stockenberg, Antoinette: 9780440210023: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3QmGHRC.
9 Goodreads. “The Silence of Midnight,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3wcFMw9.
10 “This Time Forever: Eagle, Kathleen: 9780380766888: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d. https://bit.ly/3WkfToF.
11 “Amazon.com: Song of the Buffalo Boy (Great Episodes): 9780152000981: Garland, Sherry: Books,” n.d.
12 “Keeper of the Dream: A Novel: Williamson, Penelope: 9780440614159: Amazon.com: Books,” n.d.
13 “Come Spring by Jill Marie Landis (1995-09-05): Jill Marie Landis: Amazon.com: Books,” September 5, 1995.
14 “Seducing the Reader.” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 22 (May 30, 1994). https://bit.ly/4bgz7zT.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Holson, Laura. “Sexy Sells, but it Doesn’t Always Pay.” The New York Times Company, April 3, 2016.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Oppenheimer, Jerry. “Romance Novels Ditch Hunks for ‘squishy-centered’ Men — Fabio Calls It ‘hogwash.’” New York Post, June 17, 2023. https://bit.ly/3UzgjGx.
22 Ibid.
23 “Seducing the Reader.”
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Liang, Sarah. “Heaving bosoms, begone: Romance novel covers embrace playful shift; So-called ‘clinch covers’
common in Harlequins have given way to more modern art as publishers look to expand their audience.” Globe &
Mail, February 11, 2023. https://bit.ly/3QqOGNA.
28 Ibid.
29 Joe, Ryan. “Anatomy of a Cover.” Publishers Weekly 262, no. 46 (November 16, 2015). https://bit.ly/3JGd49Y.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 Escobar, Sam. “Women Don’t Prefer Blondes.” Good Housekeeping, June 23, 2022. https://bit.ly/4dfLQon.
33 Ibid.

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