Designing a book cover is challenging, even more so when the work contains a raunchy subject matter. How do you convey, in a single glance, that the book is sensual, even sexy, without falling for pornographic tropes?
My debut novel, Little Rabbit, is about a sub/dom relationship between a 30-something queer writer and an older male choreographer. Working with kink made me slightly stressed about my potential cover (also, I was worried I was going to end up with a giant rabbit). I was lucky to have a wonderful team at my publisher, Bloomsbury, headed by Patti Ratchford, who genuinely wanted input from me about the face for my first book (or two faces, in the case of Little Rabbit). I immediately thought of the suspended Louise Bourgeois sculpture at MassMoCa called “The Couple.” The work features two chrome, humanoid figures locked eternally in a kiss, their arms and legs disappearing in a surreal and tangled knot. This sculpture—and all the work of Bourgeois—means so much to me that I placed the main characters below it during a pivotal scene. What better visual for the near-obsessive pull of early romance, the mess of entanglement.
The brilliant artist Najeebah Al-Ghadban created the central image: two collaged faces pressed against each other, enmeshed but also somehow not quite matching, with dark wires wrapped around and through them. The cover is sensual, without exploiting the book’s sexuality, and deeply engaged with the books twin themes of desire and art.
The following book covers depict lust in different ways. Certain themes appear—my book is not the only one with two faces—and certain themes have been left out (I have a personal dislike for food as visual euphemism. Sorry, eggplant emoji). I’m also, as you may note, not super interested in subtlety. I don’t think there’s any need to be abashed or coy when sex is your subject. There are ways to be both tasteful and bold.
Here are the sexiest book covers according to ascending spiciness:
11. The Pisces by Melissa Broder
I like the shadowiness of the beloved fish silhouette, as well as the woman’s pulp-novel style. It does feel a little coy, though, about the fact that the book is about fish love.
10. White Wedding by Kathleen J. Woods
The elegant bird-headed scissors act as the focal point for this densely-layered cover. The mingling of bedsheets and legs is both alluring and a little bit frightening.
9. Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman
You look at this cover and you get it: This book’s going to have some nudes. Props to the bright pink font and the artful crop.
8. Just By Looking At Him by Ryan O’Connell
I just think this is a lovely image—the reddishness of the swimmer’s eyes, the way the bluish shadows on the shoulders match the water. The way the two figures are looking at each other, the intimacy and distance (and extra props for more cheeky text placement).
7. To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss
See—more mouths on a book. I love the longing that comes through these lips.
6. Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki
Is it scary? Is it sexy? Or is it sexy-scary?
5. Gay Bar by Jeremy Atherton Lin
What a perfect image for this history of queer nightlife. The sweaty hair, the hand cupped around the back of the head, the moment a public encounter transitions to the intimate.
4. Future Sex by Emily Witt
This one is so risqué that I had to check to make sure it would be allowed. More props to artful title placement and the dynamic red blue colors that make the atmosphere sensual and otherworldly. My main qualm is that it does seem to imply that future sex is… electronic, which is not quite the thrust of Emily Witt’s essay collection.
3. Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan, Polish edition
Getting deep into the foreign editions in this one. I also love the UK cover for Nolan’s beautiful and painful book about a young woman in a deeply toxic relationship, but the Polish one gets my vote. Here, the cherry outline works because of the clean, stylish design and the peaking allure of the butt cheeks.
2. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Do I even need to say anything? You can’t ignore a clothing euphemism this thirsty.
1. Vladimir by Julia May Jones
*Drum roll* Annndddd the sexiest book cover goes to Vladimir, the first book everyone said as soon as I mentioned this list. Look at the sly nod to the romance genre with the font and chest hair, the glint of gold chain and the hand resting suggestively next to the crotch. Right away, the cover signals the content while also deftly and cleverly hinting at surprises.