Shirley Showalter, Author of Blush: Tips on Choosing Your Novel’s Cover Art

Shirley Showalter, Author of  Blush, Knows How to Captivate Visually

Hey, all.  Bringing you August’s post about one hot memoir and a very hot author.  I’ve picked Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir, Blush,  for its tremendous cover appeal.  I know you’ll enjoy Shirley’s memoir about a Mennonite girl’s introduction to what Shirley calls in Blush’s subtitle, “A glittering world.”

Don’t you love the title?  I did.  Here’s a peek at Blush’s cover.

Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

Blush, by Shirley Showalter

What Is Blush’s Subliminal Message?

When I first saw Blush’s cover, I looked twice, then I got busy digging in, learning more.  And isn’t that what cover art does?  Goodreads folks say that one main reason they buy books is the appealing cover.  I have a simple rule:  the cover art must draw us visually into a world, and it must make us want to open the book and take the journey.  Shirley’s cover art, coupled with her memoir’s memorable title–love the title’s sweet double entendre, don’t you?–express the subliminal, which is crucial to selling any book.

Finding Your Novel’s Subliminal Message Isn’t Easy

It’s difficult finding our book’s subliminal message, much less conveying it through cover art.  What appeals subliminally to romantic suspense readers might not appeal to paranormal romance readers.  With Blush, the subliminal lies in the contrast Shirley sets up in her title.  In Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, the message is a “hint” of the fresh-faced, sheltered girl’s reaction to a “glittering” world.  What subliminal message do you get?  I sense the clash of innocence with a world of superfluity or “glitz” on its surface . . . of possibility.  Before I even read Blush, my gut is clenching with fear and yet with anticipation.  “Don’t go out into that world, Shirley,” I’m shouting.  “It’s not a completely glitzy place.”

See what I mean, though?  See how Blush’s cover and title make me connect with Shirley’s subliminal message and want to go straight to Amazon and buy Blush?

Shirley Showalter: Mennonite Author Meets Glittering World of Romance Genre

I don’t usually focus on authors per se–that’s not RGB’s focus.   Yet I like Shirley’s memoir’s cover so much for what it teaches us about cover art and for what it does for us as a community of romance readers and writers that I’m adding some extra bio because there’s an important question needing answered.   How would a book like Blush fit with titles like Surrender Your Love or Fifty Shades?  Can Blush, a memoir, become a genre hopper?

Shirley reminded me that Blush is her memoir, so “it might not qualify for most definitions of romance.”  Agreed.  She noted her goal was to avoid misleading, and she’s right.  She also noted, however, that Blush contains romantic elements that touch on her “parents’ courtship and continuing romance and on Shirley’s own introduction to dating at a box social.”

Do we care if Blush doesn’t fit nicely into any specific romance genre?  Not even.  What I pounced on was Shirley’s remark that she was only eighteen at the end of Blush, and she hadn’t “met the love of [her] life yet.”

Deep breath–pounce!  Pounce point is when I and other readers decide we absolutely must read your next book, Shirley Showalter!  Who is the love of your life?  As a young Mennonite, what was that courtship like for you?  Okay, is he . . . Mennonite?  If that story’s not romance–I’m from Billings (not).

Blush will connect with many romance readers via the hot “Mennonite theme” and Shirley’s exploration of the issue of “realism in Mennonite fiction,” which is what Blush is about.  I’ll read Blush and also Shirley’s next book because I connect with her cover art and with Shirley as author.  I want to hear more bout her “straightforward depiction of the courtship practices she experienced.”

Shirley Showalter, Author: Learn More

It’s not just her cover art that you’ll learn from and enjoy.  Shirley Showalter is someone who’s met the glittering world on her terms, thank you, yet she reminds us through her writing and life that she’s grounded solidly in family and Mennonite culture, the reality of which she shares with us in Blush.    Visit her on her Web site at  You may also wish to like Shirley’s Facebook page at

Copyright, 2013, Mary H. McFarland.  You may freely plagiarize.  All images belong to Shirley Showalter.


Judging Books by Their Covers: Are Publishers Using Gendred Art to Sell Books?

Does cover art reflect a gendered message to hook readers and  buyers?  If so, what tradeoffs might publishers be forcing between content and cultural context?  Until mystery author, Debra Gaskill (Lethal Little Lies), pointed out the growing controversy, I paid zero attention to this issue.  Deb guided me to the article, “Coverflip: Author Maureen Johnson Turns Tables on Gendered Book Covers.”   The issue is directly addressed first in “The Gender Coverup” by New York Times best-selling author, Maureen Johnson.  In “Coverflip,” Alison Flood analyzes Maureen Johnson’s criticism of publishers who “pigeonhole female authors as romantic writers and give them ‘girly’ covers” despite their books’ content.

  • Critical Question #1: Are publishers using gendered art to sell your books?

As Flood points out, Maureen Johnson focuses in her article on having us examine our novels’ cover art.  It’s a fun challenge, but responses to Johnson’s and Flood’s articles show everyone taking the argument seriously.  Here’s Johnson’s challenge:

  [T]ake a well-known book [and] [i]magine that book was written by an author of the opposite gender.  Or a gender queer author.  Imagine all the things you think of when you think girl book or boy book or genderless book.

As Flood further discusses, Johnson isn’t judging these categories, whether they’re “right” or not, but says Flood, “Make no mistake, they’re there.”

  • Critical Question #2: Do you use gender neutral pseudonyms?

Flood also questions writers who change their name to avoid gender bias.  I think immediately of Nora Roberts, who writes suspense as J.D. Robb.  Does she do so to net an audience of readers different than that associated with her widely recognized romance novels?  Does this audience include males who read the gender neutral J.D. Robb, but who might not read Nora’s romance?  Interestingly, Flood mentions–as an aside–suspense novels written by males and which include the “obligatory sex scene” to appeal to female readers.

  • Taking up Johnson’s Challenge: A Brief Study of Zola’s Nana and It’s Gender Biased Cover Art

Why should we care what publishers (or illustrators if we’re self publishing) are doing with our novels’ cover art?

We should care because cover art reflects the culture in which we write, and it reflects our attitude as writers toward it.  Covers are visual maps others will use to one day navigate and read our cultural history and to discern how we as authors responded–bravely, boldy, cavalierly or indifferently.

  • Critical Point #1: Nana is anything but a girly romance.

As our way in to Johnson’s challenge, I selected Emil Zola’s Nana, a choice which helps me support–and expand–Johnson’s argument.  I look at the treatment by publishers of cover art for Nana.  What is the art saying about publishers’ response to each cultural period?

Nana Coupeau, the protagonist of Nana, rises from street walker to a kept cocotte.  After destroying the careers of several prominent men who can’t resist her, she dies.  Sounds like a girly romance to me, you say.  But Nana is no more a girly romance than Anais Nin is a porn writer.  Nana is literature–super literary.  The novel’s a metaphor for France’s decaying Second Empire.  The ninth installment of the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, Nana is a realistic novel, written in 1890 to chronicle the history of a family under the Second Empire (Le Second Empire Francais) of Emperor Napoleon III.

Yet looking at the covers, you’d think Nana was precisely a girly romance, or in some instances even worse, more like soft porn.

  • Critical Point #2: There’s a tradeoff between Nana’s content and its gendered covers.

How do Nana’s covers reflect on the various cultural periods since the novel’s first publication?

The first edition’s cover is available only in online curated museums, so I cannot evaluate it.  I’ve learned, however, that the original cover was illustrated by Albert Lindegger, a Swiss painter, political satirist and caricaturist, who spoke out frequently about Nazi Germany.  I thus doubt the cover resembles a girly romance novel’s, not as you and I envision them.  Unfortunately, many of Nana’s covers do.  So how did this realistic and politically intense novel end up perceived–if you judge it by its many gendered covers–as a girly romance?

Look at a few samples of covers from various periods (below).  What do you think these covers say about the cultural period, about Nana the novel, and about the publishers’ intent?

zola1nana darkNana3Nana5











Take The Challenge:  Examine Your Choice of Cover Art.

Flood and Johnson leave resolving the argument about what publishers are doing up to us.  Yet they provoke us to deep thought.  Our cover art choices linger with our reputations as writers and cultural commentators forever.  I doubt Zola would enjoy having Nana described as a girly romance?

So here’s your challenge:

  1. Consider if your novels’ covers reflect gender bias.  If you think that’s something publishers will do with your future books, what can you do?
  2. If you’ve gone indie, make good decisions about cover art.
  3. Think about how your novels’ covers reflect on our culture, and how they could in future end up like Zola’s Nana.  How, exactly, do you hope your novels will be perceived in the future?

Flood, Alison.

Johnson, Maureen.

Special thanks to for pointing out Flood’s article.

Copyright 2013.  Mary H. McFarland.  All rights reserved.  But you may freely plagiarize. 

Do Cover Models’ Ethnicity Affect Publisher’s Bottom Line?


Having Trouble Finding Cover Models for Your Cover?

I just completed Valley of Dry Bones, the first novel in my Dry Bones Romantic Suspense series.  I’m shopping it for an agent and, of course, I’m dreaming of VDB’s cover.  My protagonist, Biara Movradi, a philologist who studies First Century BCE Hebrew culture, is part Hebrew and part Greek.  Have I had trouble finding Hebrew cover models?  You bet.  Hebrew’s don’t like their pictures taken: it’s against Torah, or at least that’s my Goyish understanding. 

Whitewashed Cover – The Gorgeous White Girl Protagonist Who’s Actually Black

But lets say I could find a willing Hebrew cover model.  Would publishers want an ethnically accurate photographic representation of Biara Movradi on the cover of Valley of Dry Bones?  This question gets begged a lot in the publishing world.  It’s time we paid attention because, in future, there is going to be more demand for ethnic accuracy. As librarian, Annie Schulte, points out (she’s discussing YA lit, and I’m writing RS, so make note of the distinction), “I get sick, tired, and embarrassed to be working with YA books for a living,” when “[I] see a gorgeous white girl staring back at [me] from the covers of an upcoming release” (Para. 1, It Matters If You’re Black or White). 

Ms. Schulte isn’t incensed over covers with gorgeous white girls if the protagonist is actually white.  But when the novel has a “protagonist of color,” she calls on us to pay attention and protest this “whitewashing,” a form of racism. 

Publisher Changes Cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Novel, “Liar”


Schulte provides an example of whitewashing, using Justine Larbalestier’s YA book, Liar.  Kudos, Justine, because your publisher made the right call.  Liar’s protagonist, Micah, is black, yet the advanced reader’s copy (shown) had a Caucasian on the cover.  After outcry, according to Schulte, the cover was changed to include a black cover model.  For me, this was not just the right thing to do, but an artistic improvement in the cover itself.  Will the change have an impact on the publisher’s bottom line? I’m hoping for the better.  I’m also betting readers love the cover as much as I do, and they’ll connect with Micah because they can better visualize her.

A “RGB” Commendation to Annie Schulte

I commend Ms. Schulte for calling attention to whitewashing.  It’s at best dishonest and, at worst, as Schulte points out, it’s a money-driven form of racism that needs to end. 

Where Is My Hebrew Cover Model for Valley of Dry Bones?

As for my dreams of a Hebrew cover model, I can’t even find one.  It’s a problem I didn’t anticipate when I wrote my novel, but one I must now manage.  I’ll keep looking.  Meantime, if you have any thoughts on whitewashing, if you’ve encountered any issues in this regard, or if you simply want to comment, I’m excited–as always–to hear from you. 

Source: Schulte, Annie.  It Matters If You’re Black or White.  2012. 

Copyright, 2013.  Mary H. McFarland.

Seeing Red? – Imagining Your Novel’s Cover Design


Seeing Red? – Imagining Your Novel’s Cover Design

Quick.  Close your eyes and imagine the cover of your favorite romance novel.  Can you see it?  What does it look like?  What image strikes you most?  What made you pick it up and buy it?

We buy books for many reasons, but Goodreads readers groups agree they buy often based on what the covers look like.

Cover design is a critical factor in buyers’ decision and in authors branding, so why do we spend months writing our novels yet so little time thinking about their cover design?  It’s a detail the publisher–or someone–will take care of, right?

A novel cover millions of readers recognize instantly is Anita Diamont’s The Red Tent.  Can you see it?  Eyes open or shut, I can.  I still hold the cover’s vivid imagery in my mind all these years later.  What about Nora Roberts’ novels?  Eyes open or shut, I can visualize her covers. Think, for example, of The Villa.  A favorite of mine, the English version of The Villa conforms to Roberts’ visual branding.  ImageIn France, La Villa provides readers with more visually stimulating imagery (see left cover):Image

Even if you don’t remember a specific cover, you know the pastel-colored covers are part of Roberts’ brand.  It’s like sniffing your favorite wine before you take a sip.  Seeing the cover adds to the high you feel when you get one of Nora’s novels home and can’t wait to read it.

What about the cover design of Fifty Shades of Grey?   Can you see the covers?  Although it’s like walking into a wall of grey fog, Fifty’s covers are distinctive and memorable.  They undeniably lend to the mystique of these novels and, in addition, the covers spur readers to buy.

The Red Tent, The Villa, and Fifty Shades of Grey are best sellers.  Is there a measurable link between their cover design and sales?  I’m suggesting there is a subtle ineffable connection.  Although hard to quantify, it’s there.  There’s something about these novel’s cover that makes us pick them up and buy.  Readers know this instinctively.

So what do novels with great cover design have in common?

They all share one design aspect: world-class cover designer, illustrators, and photographers.  One of the greatest of these is Honi Werner, an illustrator who illustrated the memorable cover of Diamont’s The Red Tent and Roberts’ The Villa (La Villa’s incredible French cover is photographic art from an Archangel portfolio).  I remember the first time I saw Twilight’s cover.  The dark background with the spot of red did it for me.  Twilight’s cover designer is Gail Doobinin.

So are your juices flowing yet?  Ready to get out some paper and start playing with your novel’s cover design?  My critique partner, Meghan Hill, and I have done this with collage over lunch.  Visualizing your novel’s cover is a great way to begin connecting now with the novel cover that will make your readers love to pick up and buy.

Have fun visualizing and writing.  Feel free to share this article.  Copyright, 2012.  Mary McFarland, romance writer and global culture junkie at  Where covers and culture click.