Jason Aaron Baca is good-looking, not handsome like the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds) or rugged like Daniel Craig, who is fetching in a tailored Tom Ford suit. But when Mr. Baca, 42, slipped on a pair of dark aviator glasses recently, he looked remarkably like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
He was dressed for work in a khaki military jumpsuit. And even though it was barely noon, he had already stopped by the gym to make sure his biceps and legs looked combat-strong. His assignment: To be a military helicopter pilot saved in a crash by a female rescuer with whom he once had a torrid affair. Now that they’re reunited, their passions have flared.
Mr. Baca is a cover model for romance novels. He has been on nearly 500 book covers, by his own account — one of scores of men like him vying to be heroic heartthrobs. Not since the flaxen-haired Fabio Lanzoni dominated drugstore book racks in the 1980s and 1990s, with his lion’s mane and bulging biceps, have cover models been in such demand.
“Look at me like you are really mad at me,” cooed Portia Shao, his photographer that day. “Show me your good side.”
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After a few more clicks of the shutter, he and Ms. Shao paused to examine his work on a 2-by-4-foot television screen. “It looks good because it has everything,” Mr. Baca said. The smoldering gaze. A glimpse of his six-pack abs. Mr. Baca had even thrust his pelvis forward, a trick he learned to make his stomach appear flatter and ensure the ladies looked, well, you know, there.
Romance writers and publishers, as it happens, are among publishing’s most innovative participants. They were early to digital serialization. Booksellers, too, now crowdsource ideas to find fresh writers. And if you want to explore a virtual relationship, you can try a romance-novel app.
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“I never thought I would say this,” said Liz Pelletier, the chief executive of the romance novel company Entangled Publishing. “But I am so tired of looking at men’s abs. I don’t know if these ones are sexier than those other ones.”
“It used to be that everyone wanted Fabio,” she added. Today, though, individualism prevails. “Readers don’t want every book to have the same face.”
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Sexy still sells. At Brazen, Entangled’s more risqué fiction line, Ms. Pelletier said book covers with male models sold three times as much as with a woman alone. And for new authors in particular, “the cover is really critical,” said Dianne Moggy, vice president for romance fiction at Harlequin.
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Unlike the Fabio era, when covers were painted by hand, today they are more assembly line than art. Consider Daemon Black, a space alien with dark curls and emerald green eyes who is the hero of Entangled’s Lux series, written by the New York Times best-selling author Jennifer L. Armentrout. In 2011, Pepe Toth saw a photograph of himself and his then model girlfriend, Sztella Tziotziosz, on the cover of “Obsidian,” the first in the Lux series, published that December.
Mr. Toth, 26, then living in his native Hungary, had been transformed into Daemon Black without his knowledge. “I thought, what kind of book is this?” he said in a recent interview.
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If covers were hand-painted in acrylic back in the Fabio era, the tool of the trade today is Photoshop. Heads are cut off midface if a model is overexposed. Parts of different photos can be pieced together like a Picasso portrait. Toes, too, are deleted if they clash with the book’s title.
For Mr. Baca’s helicopter-pilot shoot in Santa Cruz, Eileen Nauman, a writer better known by her pseudonym, Lindsay McKenna, emailed a series of guidelines. She wanted to see him looking alert, with a “slight, playful, teasing smile” and, she wrote, with his “flight suit open to sternum, showing off your great body, but nothing too flagrant or obvious.”
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Few romance models, if any, make enough money to eke out a living. Mr. Baca, for example, works at the Housing Authority of the Santa Clara County, Calif., as a customer-service clerk. And although he has an agent, he said he earned only $20,000 in his best year. This, despite the fact that he is a tireless self-promoter who fancies himself the next Fabio. Industry executives say it will be difficult to topple the king. “Nobody did it better than Fabio,” said Allison Kelley, executive director of the romance writers group. “He really did create the brand.”