Jan 6 2014 2:15pm

More Than Meets the Eye: Book Covers in Sci-Fi Romance

The Empire by Elizabeth LangIt's been said—a lot—that a book's cover is one of the most important marketing tools. A good quality cover will intrigue readers to pick up a book and read the blurb (or in the case of an ebook, click through to the blurb).

Despite this wisdom, many covers bend and even break the rule of strategic packaging. Over the years there have been some awful, jaw-dropping covers in all genres. Sometimes this means a sharp disconnect between a cover and the story. In other words, a cover isn't always the best indication of how entertaining a story actually is.

I was reminded of this phenomenon while reading BuzzFeed's 13 Fantasy Novels That Are Good Despite Their Covers. As a big fan of science fiction romance, I've seen my share of less-than-stellar covers for stories that are more entertaining than the packaging would suggest. I worry some readers might pass over a fun read because the cover isn't up to snuff.

Therefore, I thought I'd do a similar roundup of SFR books that, for me, are entertaining despite their covers. (Art, of course, is subjective, so your mileage may vary.)

The most technically flawed cover I've ever seen for a story mixing SF and romance was the original cover for Elizabeth Lang's The Empire (SF military space opera with a light romantic subplot). The cover design for that book made me question what I truly want in SFR covers. Is it better to accurately represent the story, even if the end result is of questionable quality? Or is a simple approach more effective when one doesn’t have the resources of a mainstream print publisher?

I read the story to discover if, in fact, the technically flawed cover represented an equally flawed story. Then I blogged about my conclusion, which was that the cover did not do the story justice. The author saw my post and obtained the publisher's permission to revamp the cover—to great success.

Sunrise Alley by Catherine AsaroBaen, the publisher for Catherine Asaro's Sunrise Alley, is known for its engaging SF/F stories. But for its covers, not so much. Sunrise Alley features a romance between a scientist and a biomech hero and involves some of my favorite SF tropes. Yet this is a book I almost put back on the library shelf upon seeing the cover for the first time. But I read it anyway because I enjoy SFR so much.

Sunrise Alley is chock full of plausible hard SF elements, a tender romance, and thought-provoking themes. The cover accurately conveys the story and even symbolizes certain elements very well (e.g., the looming face in the background).

But the art—oh dear, it just makes me shudder. Something about it doesn't compute. Plus, the hero and heroine look like they could be brother and sister, which is not an impression one wants to convey for a story involving a romance. But the story is definitely worth reading.

Agent Provocateur by Nathalie GrayTake a look at the cover for Nathalie Gray's Agent Provocateur. This is one of the best high octane sci-fi romances around. It features a terrific, sexually charged fight scene between the hero and heroine. But you'd never know it from the cover. I can't stop wondering if the cover model is deeply in love with his nipple. Plus, his arm appears to have been bizarrely rotated. Luckily, the story itself delivers more interesting action than what the cover promises.

From a technical standpoint, the cover for Marcella Burnard's Enemy Within is competent. I can't fault details like the color scheme and setting details (even though they don't quite represent the space opera setting). But the woman—the heroine—is so artificial and Barbie-doll like that I sigh every time I see this cover. The heroine's appeal is so not dependent on her looks or her ability to strike unnatural poses. Enemy Within's sexually exploitive cover is at odds with the dark and thematically rich elements in the story.

Nico Rosso's Night of Fire features a stiff cover model with a bland expression. Color me underwhelmed. The man's spaced-out expression and static pose represents a severe disconnect with this action-packed steampunk romance story. Night of Fire involves a Ranger hero and his mechanical horse, a tough sheriff heroine, shoot-outs, and a nefarious villain. The cover promises a fantasy hero—although a seemingly disinterested one at that—but the story offers much more than sexy times.

Refugees on Urloon by Melisse AiresThe cover for Melisse Aires's Refugees on Urloon is like an optical illusion. I went cross-eyed the first time I saw it. I just couldn't figure out what was going on and it makes for an unfocused cover viewing experience. What, exactly, is the heroine kissing? Regardless of the cover confusion, Refugees On Urloon is a fun read about a hero and heroine who are physically transformed in a unique way after a space disaster. The cover may be a puzzle, but the story knows exactly how to deliver a “hearth and home” sci-fi romance.

Christine Danse's Island of Icarus definitely conveys the m/m nature of the romance as well as a hint of steampunk, but these two men have got to be the most smushed couple I've ever encountered on a romance cover. Something about the proportion is off. It doesn't seem like the head of the man in the foreground matches the body. Disembodied, perhaps?

Is this the worst cover ever? Unlikely, but I hope readers can look past its quirks to find the subtle and gentle romance of two men marooned on a remote island, one of whom has a prosthetic arm!

Now I'd like to hear about your cover encounters. Which books have you read that are good despite their covers?


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit

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Teddy P
1. Teddy P
Some of those covers are great! haha
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I always avoid looking at Baen covers; they are awfull!
Teddy P
3. Kaz Augustin
Yep, I'll second that @bungluna! Baen covers really are bad. I read them DESPITE the cover, not because of it. LOL

In general, I prefer UK covers for both art and paper quality. My husband (a Warsaw Pact boy) couldn't believe that N. American SF authors didn't strike en masse after seeing how their books were/are presented to the public.
Teddy P
4. Jody W.
Pretty much ALL covers of SFRs from the 80s and 90s are mockworthy, and a few of the books are quite good. I enjoyed a lot of Cathy Spangler and Anne Avery, for example. But that's like making fun of clothes from the 80s and 90s, which we were relatively content with at the time. Styles change!
Heather Massey
5. HeatherMassey
@Kaz @Bungluna If Baen covers were at least in the "so bad they're good" category, I might view them differently.

@Jody W. Right, and sometimes we have to discount styles because while style may be dated, the cover can still have decent composition, coloring, concept, etc. The cover for Catherine Spangler's SHADOW CROSSING is one of my favorites in terms of execution. Nothing like a futuristic hero in uniform, yum!
kathlyn smith
6. castiel
Is it bad to say that I've always been shocked by the level of cheesiness shown on American paperback covers? I've visited USA 3 times, and was reading kids books, SFF and then romance...all have been dreadful compared with the covers I'm used to here in UK, even for books in the same series! Sorry, but ours are way more enticing! I think you need to compare a few (amazon US vs UK?) - you'll soon see what I mean!
Teddy P
7. Helva715
I agree that UK covers are frequently much, much better. I've been a Terry Pratchett Discworld fan since the first books came out, and have been buying the UK versions when on trips to Canada or, more recently, from Far better art work, usually, and more in tune with the feeling of the books, at least the earlier ones. On another note, when will book covers allow men to have chest hair? I insist on shaving my legs, but I don't make my husband shave his chest!
Teddy P
8. Melisse
Lol, Heather. I decided my heroine was giving the hero a kiss on the back. Plus there's the sea and the moons. :) I really wanted one of my alien sea beasts on the cover but that was a no-go.

Refugees on Urloon is currently in an awkward state as Lyrical titles transition to Kensington. But it will be back soon!

Melisse Aires
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