Covers: should images be historically accurate?

Historically accurate costumes?

Is it historically accurate to wear a tablecloth over a Regency gown?Those who follow this blog will know that I often bang on about cover failings. I want my covers to be historically accurate. For me that means: no Regency heroes with beards or designer stubble; no twirling round the dance floor wearing knee-high boots; ladies in Regency costume that isn’t swathed in a tablecloth (see left); and hairstyles and accessories appropriate for the period.

It also helps if the cover models look vaguely like the characters in my story, but that’s a rant for another day 😉

Historically accurate backgrounds?

Life Guards on horseback with Wellington Arch in background, not historically accurate for 1814I’ve recently been mocking up a cover for a book I’m writing. It’s set in London in the period between Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814 and his return the following spring. My hero is a serving soldier who’s enjoying his first leave for 5 years.

I thought it could be good to show uniformed soldiers in the background on my cover. I found the image shown right.

Great image for a Regency cover, yes?

1850s photo of Wellington Arch showing equestrian statue of WellingtonI’d say not. The Life Guards’ parade uniforms haven’t changed much, if at all, so they’re accurate enough. And it’s true that the Wellington Arch was built to commemorate the victories against Napoleon. But not until the late 1820s. What’s more, the bronze on the top of it dates from 1912. Originally, a colossal equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington sat on top of the arch, as shown in this photograph from the 1850s.

girl facing a red question mark on blackboard

So I don’t feel I can use this image on my cover. It’s not historically accurate for 1814. (Channelling my inner Dame Isadora here?)
But am I the only one who would care?
Would it bother you?

I remember here my independent bookseller’s advice. He said that covers should be clear, concise and beautiful, in order to have more impact. He didn’t say they should be historically accurate. In fact, he didn’t say anything about accuracy at all.

Pedants require accuracy. What do readers require ???

Partly, I think, it’s a question of unknown unknowns (© D Rumsfeld?). Some writers don’t think about unknown unknowns at all. I recently met racoons in a medieval romance set in England. The author was not British. Did it ever occur to her to check whether England had racoons? It surely couldn’t have, or she wouldn’t have put them in. Classic case of the unknown unknown.exclamation mark in fire

Pedants check out whether a particular monument/frock/hairstyle has the right date. Most people wouldn’t think to do so. They’d probably assume an image was accurate enough. And might not care if it was wrong.clock showing just after half past 12

After all, how long does the average book buyer spend looking at a cover? Not more than a few seconds. And how closely do they look? Is it more about overall impression—my bookseller’s impact—than the components of the image? Am I making a rod for my own back by striving for historical accuracy?

Current covers and historically accurate costumes (not)

I have a hard time finding acceptable female models for my covers. To my mind, her costume should be right for the period. And her hairstyle. And her make-up should be pretty much invisible. Yet loads of successful books breach the rules I’ve been trying to apply. Look at this screenshot (taken 26 Feb) from Amazon’s “Hot New Releases in Regency Historical Romance”. [Click to enlarge a bit.]

Screenshot 2021-02-26 of Amazon's Hot New Regency Releases

Regency? Really?

Wow, those skirts! Some of them look to be in need of a Victorian crinoline, don’t they?

Yet these are clearly successful stories. Readers must like them. They’re numbers 11-25 in the Hot New Regency [sic] Releases so they are definitely selling. (I haven’t shown you a screenshot of the “Best Sellers in Regency Historical Romance” because a large proportion of those are Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books which do use historically accurate costumes. Well done Netflix and Julia Quinn’s publishers.)


one girl whispers into another girl's ear - impactIt looks like impact may be much more important to book buyers than being historically accurate.

So should I ditch my inner pedant and put the Life Guards and the Wellington Arch onto the cover of a book set in 1814?

Should I go for designer stubble and big swirling skirts that might help sell my Regency stories? it would certainly make finding cover models easier.

What would you, as reader and book buyer, advise me to do? And what attracts you to a Regency cover?

Joanna Maitland, author

Joanna, a perplexed pedant

36 thoughts on “Covers: should images be historically accurate?

  1. Elizabeth Rolls

    I tend to be somewhat forgiving about inaccurate costume on covers, and even designer stubble for that matter, especially with trad published books. I know exactly how hard it is to nudge one’s publisher in the right direction. After hearing from indie published friends about the difficulty of finding the right images that don’t cost an arm and a leg and your front teeth, I’m forgiving there now, too. But the Wellington Arch? No. That would have me doing a massive eye roll.

    1. Joanna Post author

      And here was I thinking I might go with the Wellington Arch after all 😉 But you’re right that it’s really really hard to find images for indie covers at reasonable cost. Sigh.

  2. jjackson42

    As am author, we have about 50 seconds to attract a new reader. One thing is for sure, if there ARE glaring errors, a reader will tell the world about it!

    I’ve no objection to seeing Fabio and a Swooning Maiden on the cover (going back a few years), but their clothes and background should at least be as accurate as possible.

    Trivia Note: The famous Fabio, he of many. many covers, is now most known in the USA for advertising “I Cant Believe its Not Butter!

  3. lesley2cats

    It matters to me. Long, long before I was even a baby novelist, cover accuracy was important to me. The covers on which I was brought up were mostly non-pictorial, and I was most upset when I realised that cover models, particularly in the romance category, completely ignored the content of the book itself. I’m glad that my covers are now landscapes, but got very bothered when one, described as a stone mansion, turned up on the cover as an image of Great Dixter. I’m with you, Joanna.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, it’s annoying, isn’t it, when an author gets a really disappointing cover after all the months of work on the book. Sympathies, Lesley.

  4. Rosemary Gemmell

    Great post, Joanna. Personally, I absolutely don’t like inappropriate gowns whether on Regency or Victorian covers (or any other period). However, I doubt whether readers will care as much as other writers, unless they’re really into the historical accuracy of the period. One of my writer friends is always suggesting that (most) readers only want a good story, whatever the genre, and probably won’t notice many of the anomalies a writer will!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think you’re probably right, Rosemary. We writers are probably much too picky. Though I do think that even the most forgiving of British readers would have raised an eyebrow at that English racoon 😉

      1. Princess Fi

        I have a feeling I read an English set historical with a racoon in it recently and it puzzled me mightily. I can only assume Leif Eriksson picked up one on his travelled and his compatriots brought it to England. That seemed a rational explanation to me.

  5. Liz Fielding

    Like Rosemary, I rather think this is something that other historical novelists will notice, rather than readers. I once wrote a trilogy with two other authors and the heroines were muddled up by the art department. My blonde bombshell was a slender, dark haired beauty, but I had no complaints. It still annoys me, however and I fear that if you go with the Wellington Arch, it will be a constant irritation – not to the reader – but to you.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Very perceptive on MY reactions, Liz. I think you’re probably right about them. Interesting, isn’t it, that no readers ever complained to you about the cover model being wrong on that book? I once had a cover showing a ball where one of the males had a beard. I complained loudly to my editor but it was too late to get it changed. Did any readers complain? Not that I ever heard of. So yes, I’m clearly picky in a way that (most) readers aren’t.

      1. Princess Fi

        *cough*. I did notice the cover model thing but I didn’t complain loudly because I loved the book too much. I do get a little irritated when the cover models are blond when the text says brunette and vice versa. But as you say, a beef for another day. It is surprising what we will forgive though. I loved the Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice and I’m sure the film company had done another period piece previously and the wardrobe department simply dragged out all the costumes and refurbished them despite them being the wrong era. Though I did wonder if they were going for pre or post regency. Some historical covers are simply works of art and I can forgive the heroine’s for posing without a shift under the unlaced dresses and the hero for being so passionate his shirt somehow is split right down the front instead of being stitched in a seemly manner.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Made me laugh, Fi. Thanks. I remember the Garson/Olivier P&P too. Even though I was just a young thing (ahem) when I saw it, I did wonder about those vast crinolines. I love your Leif Eriksson rationalisation. I’ll go with that one. Why not?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Made me laugh, Jan. I did wonder about cropping out the bronze on top of the Wellington Arch, to make the image just 15 years out instead of a century, but maybe not, eh?

  6. sarigelin

    I’m totally with you on this. Those so un-Regency shirts being hauled off the bulging muscled hero, and ‘gowns’ consisting of a split skirt with a hair ribbon’s worth of bodice are enough to make me reject a story.[ And they even do it to Mary Balogh’s novels]. Mr John Hale set my standard when he made the cover artist [nice David Young] correct not only the Wellington Arch but also Apsley House to make the cover correct for my 1810 set story.

  7. Elizabeth Bailey

    Don’t get me started! I used to have fashion plate images for my self-pubbed covers but had to bow to the pressure of marketing and changed to models. One just has to do the best one can with what is available. The competition is intense in the genre and if you want to be noticed, you have to work with eye-catching images, even if the colours and style are largely inaccurate. As most have said, I don’t think readers care, but fellow authors are bound to notice anything wildly off.

      1. Elizabeth Bailey

        On a hopeful note, I’m in a group on Facebook where images of authentic gowns created by devotee seamstresses are often shared. We’re looking at how to contact these amazing ladies and find a way to use their images on covers instead. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

        1. Joanna Post author

          Sounds fantastic, Liz. If they could be modelled on females with an authentic look, I’m sure authors would happily pay to use the images. I would.

  8. janegordoncumming

    Poor Georgette Heyer suffered so much, I see Penguin have used contemporary paintings for their reprints of her historicals. (Though if you read the very small print, as only a pedant would, they’re sometimes a bit late.) Personally I read historicals for the pleasure of seeing what it might have been like to live in those times, so inaccuracies totally spoil it for me, but I know I’m in a minority, and I doubt if the average reader cares a hoot.

    1. Joanna Post author

      It’s the unknown unknown problem, I think, Jane. Inaccuracies spoil a story for you because you recognise them. Most readers probably don’t. But would it be spoilt, even for you, if you didn’t recognise the inaccuracy? I remember when Louise Allen, good friend of this blog, asked whether I was sure about referring to 3 stumps in cricket in a historical I’d written. Not being a cricket fan, I was unaware that, at one time, there were only two stumps. As it happens, my story was accurate because cricket had moved to 3 stumps at the time of my story but I hadn’t realised it was something I should have checked. Classic problem of the “unknown unknown”.

    2. sarigelin

      Same here, Jane, I want to experience life in that time, agreed it’s a novel, but the framework [real people, dates, behaviour, etc] must be accurate and belong to that period, or else the story is ruined for me.

  9. Terri Brisbin

    I learned early in my publishing career that the cover and title are MARKETING decisions and have little to do with the story and less to do with the author’s sensibilities. Their only purpose is to draw the reader’s/purchaser’s attention. Historical accuracy is not a requirement or even an important element for marketing. Sadly.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Terri. I think you’re probably right. And I agree it’s sad. Perhaps I should start the Society for Disappointed Cover Pedants?

  10. sarigelin

    I’m totally with you on this. A cover with a shirt being ripped off an overly muscled gentleman, a dress consisting of a slit skirt and a bit of hair ribbon as a bodice on a Regency novel, a brawny tanned Highlander [how??] in nowt but a kilt, are turnoffs. And the wrong buildings for an era also lead to a loss of confidence in the story within.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Seems like we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. But it probably won’t change the inappropriate covers much, sadly.

  11. Sophie

    I cackled with laughter over the Wellington Arch. Not least, because every time I see it (and in the days before lockdown when We Were Still Allowed Out) I used to see it at least a couple of times a week, I always think of the old boy standing at his window in Apsley House and saying the Regency equivalent of “Advertising Pays”.

    Not, of course, that he could ever have been seen to encourage the erection of the Touching Tribute. Though he did host a Waterloo Dinner on the anniversary of the battle every year from 1822. He became Prime Minister on 22 January 1828. Yup, the man knew a thing or two about PR.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Loved your mental picture of Wellington, Sophie. And yes, whatever he said, I’m sure he was very well aware of his own worth. He couldn’t miss, with that arch just across the way (though the incongruous statue on top wasn’t added till 1846 when Wellington was nearly 80). I think the current bronze fits the arch better. On which point, I love the fact that the little charioteer for Nike’s quadriga is modelled on the son of the peer who paid for the bronze. ‘Twas ever thus, eh?

      For anyone who’s interested, Wikipedia has a piece on the Waterloo Banquet including the famous painting here.

  12. Sharon Farrell

    I love Indie authors like Lucinda Brant who go to extremes to get the historical and the book details right on the cover. Her videos showing the process are amazing and the end-results close to perfection. I will probably turn away a new author if the cover is too inaccurate for the period.

    1. Joanna Post author

      That’s a helpful comment, Sharon, thanks. And a warning that authors should take seriously, I’d say.

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