Markus Ricci casts aside his parachute and backpack and lowers his buff-colored jumpsuit past the glistening slabs of his abdominal muscles. "Don't go any lower," a nearby voice says, "or Walmart will kill me."
The word of caution comes from Kristine Mills-Noble, creative director of Kensington Publishing. She is watching a computer screen while Ricci gazes into the camera with a look that's part wooing, part warning. In a downtown Manhattan studio, the Kensington crew is shooting the cover of Burning Up, the first in a new series of romance novels about smoke jumpers. In real life, these elite paratrooper firefighters wear a high protective collar attached to their jumpsuit. This worries Mills-Noble. "A fireman's uniform is sexy," she says. "That collar is not sexy. It looks like what vets put on a dog."
Ricci wears less and less of the outfit as the shoot progresses, but accuracy still matters. Romance novels, Mills-Noble says, are all about the cover, and the cover "is all about the uniform." If the details are off, the spell might be broken. (And if Ricci's britches are too low, he won't be casting any spells at Walmart.)
Getting the uniform right is becoming a bigger issue for romance publishers as trends in swoonworthiness change. For the past decade or so, vampires, werewolves and other phantoms have dominated the romance genre, but now industry watchers sense that the appeal of the paranormal paramour is leveling off. Stepping into his hip-skimming pants is a more macho hero, clad in fatigues, dress blues or, at times, a high protective collar. He's a firefighter or a cop or, increasingly, a returning veteran--especially if he was with Special Forces.
"Readers are responding to real-life heroes, especially military and ex-military heroes. It just fits with the times," says Cindy Hwang, executive editor at mass-market publisher Berkley Books. Harlequin Enterprises, the biggest name in the romance-book industry, published a series of 50 Men in Uniform novels in 2010 and this year followed up with the Uniformly Hot! and Heroes Come Home series. At Avon Books, which is planning a similar series in 2012, the in-house nickname for the subgenre is yellow-ribbon romances.
Whatever one might call them, these books are surging onto shelves. In November, Robyn Carr's Bring Me Home for Christmas--about a woman reconnecting with her hunky ex, a returning veteran of the war in Afghanistan--hit No. 1 on the New York Times mass-market best-seller list. Out in early 2012, Suzanne Brockmann's Born to Darkness features a Navy SEAL as its romantic stud of choice, as did Brockmann's megapopular Troubleshooters series. Published on Veterans Day, the anthology SEAL of My Dreams collects stories by 18 romance authors inspired by a photo of the muscular, tattooed back of a Navy SEAL in Fallujah, Iraq, that appeared in the Times after the assassination of Osama bin Laden.