Ah, the much-maligned romance novel: the pretzel-like plot featuring a lovelorn protagonist falling madly for the hunkiest of hunks until the two eventually foray into a world of soft sensual delights.

And how about those covers featuring an impossibly attractive (and occasionally shirtless) bastion of virility? Is it any wonder that such artwork has a bad rap?

But the reality of what goes into making a romance cover is more complicated than the genre’s detractors would have you believe.

Ask Erika Tsang, the editorial director of Avon, HarperCollins’ romance imprint, and the first thing she’ll tell you to keep in mind when looking at a romance cover is that it’s a romance cover, and with that comes a certain level of expectation.

“Romances in general are female fantasy: If I’m going to have a fantasy, I want the best-looking guy ever, I want that very masculine, buff guy on the cover,” she said. “You know what you’re getting when you pick up a romance novel.”

Readers who buy romances have helped create a billion-dollar-a-year industry, accounting for about 13 percent of all adult fiction sales. E-books make up almost 40 percent of that market.

“I used to say that we look to create a cover that is going to jump off the shelves, but these days actual shelves are diminishing,” Tsang said. “We now look to have covers that jump off the screen, covers that are eye-catching and capture the attention of people who are browsing with the swipe of a finger.”

As the act of book-buying has changed, so too have covers. Jacked dudes still grace the cover, but largely gone are the days of jackets featuring the streaked billowing hair of Fabio Lanzoni, et al., said author Jennifer Ashley, who has published more than 80 novels through traditional and self-publishing ventures.

“I have to say covers have really improved over the last 10 or 15 years. They used to be really hideous,” she said with a laugh. “They’ve gotten a lot better and a little more artistic, and cover artists are beginning to realize readers respond to a well-done cover and not just one with a ripped guy on the front.”

Months of work

Typically, the cover creation process of a traditionally published book can take up to three months, Tsang said.

At Avon, the initial step is a conversation between an author and the book’s editor, sometimes nine months before publication date. From there, Avon looks at “anything from Pinterest boards to magazine advertisements” to see what works for a particular book before buying stock photos or booking models and photographers.

Meanwhile, the self-publishing route offers a greater amount of control for authors, Ashley said.

“When going the traditional route, we give them a tiny synopsis of what the book’s about,” she said. “When self-publishing, I give the designer a bit more depth and we’ll discuss the feel of the book. I’ll go to stock photo sites to see if there’s some model or pose that matches what I’m looking for. When I find one, [the designer] does a mock-up of the cover and sends it to me for approval.”

If the publisher decides to shoot a photo for the cover, Jason Aaron Baca often gets a call. The model from Los Gatos, Calif., has appeared on more than 400 romance covers. It requires more work than readers might imagine, he said.

“I don’t think people realize when they’re joking, ‘Hey, look at this turkey,’ what models have to do to get on these covers,” said Baca, who hits the gym six days a week to maintain his physique. “Models are always working out and dieting and constantly working on themselves to make sure they’re looking confident.”

Looking confident is key, as is your acting ability, said Jax Turyna, a Chicago-based actress who has modeled for romance covers for five years.

“You have to be able to give emotion, and you have to be very expressive,” she said. “You have to look like you’re very into the moment and into the other person — whether you are or not doesn’t really matter, you have to pretend. It’s basically acting.”

Too close for comfort

The photo sessions can take anywhere from three to 10 hours, depending on shooting requirements and chemistry between models, Baca said. “It can be challenging at times.”

Part of that challenge is dealing with the awkwardness of being provocatively pressed against a complete stranger, Turyna said.

“The first time you work with someone is always a little awkward because you don’t know each other,” she said. “The most uncomfortable is the first time you do the more sexy stuff together, like the lingerie shots, but usually every other shot we’re laughing between takes because that’s the only way to get through it. It’s awkward for everybody in the room. You have to remember there are like 10 people watching you.”

Cover art can make or break a sale, Ashley said.

“A really bad cover can prevent people from picking up a book,” she said. “It’s important to have consistency in covers for each author to develop a brand and have a certain look. Really good marketing and really good designers do this.”

And the best covers aim high, Tsang said.

“When we talk about covers, we don’t go into it and say, ‘Let’s make it as cheesy as possible,’ ” Tsang said. “Each cover is like a work of art.

“Our art director is so passionate about what he does. He wants every cover to mimic movie posters and has grand visions for each cover. We go into it thinking this is art.”