It was 2007, and I had been a clothing and ad model for 10 years. The thrill was gone, for these sorts of shoots anyway, so one Friday night I went into a Barnes & Noble hoping to find a good self-help book to inspire me. I was looking for new and exciting things to do.

As I walked in, from the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a romance novel, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning—I was completely dialed in on this book. I looked it over in great detail. I especially noticed the look of the guy on the cover: he had a body that had obviously been through many rigorous workouts. He oozed confidence, yet the cover seemed almost angelic. I knew this was for me.

I decided right then that I would be a romance novel cover model—someone who would not just get on one or two covers but a lot of covers. I had it all pictured in my head: exactly the way it would all pan out. It was in my eyes, in my heart, and soon, it would become a part of my every workout. From this moment on, I wanted nothing more then to be a successful romance cover model.

The first thing I did was renew my gym membership. I knew I had work to do: good-bye waistline, hello abs! And forget Supercuts. I needed a great haircut, so I went on Yelp and found the hairstylist with the best reviews. Next I got a membership at a tanning salon, and, finally, I signed up for a monthly facial at a local spa. Hey, what’s the point of a hot body if there’s not a face to go with it?

After a few months, I was ready to begin my quest to locate the right people—the ones who could get me on these covers. I started with the authors of the books. I’d spend an hour or so every day in a bookstore writing down as many authors’ names as I could, then I’d go home and look the authors up online hoping to find an email address for them. If I found one, I’d ask if they knew whom I should contact about getting on their covers. I sent 100 emails; I got one back.

But one was all it took. The author’s name was Lisa Renee Jones. She asked me to send my photos over to the publisher and graphic artist. The shots of me, she said, resembled the hero of her next book. I sent them, and before long, I received an email from a cover artist named Aleta Rafton who lived near me. She asked me to let my facial hair grow out and to be at her studio in a few days for the shoot.

The shoot went amazingly well. Fast-forward several months later: I walk into a Barnes & Noble, and there I am on the cover of a novel—and the book is located in the exact same spot as that book I first saw! I bought the book, took it home, and must have stared at it for hours. It was really me on the cover. I wanted that thrill to continue.

After the high I got from landing my first cover, I was hooked—fixated, possessed almost—into landing more covers. And here I am today, 439 covers later, still enjoying being a romance novel cover model, just as much as I did the very first time. I feel fortunate to have a job that is so much fun.

Not that modeling for romance book covers doesn’t have its roadblocks. There were times when a shoot would take place but another model would get the cover instead. In the beginning, I didn’t understand this. I thought once you were booked, that was it, but in reality, you can’t celebrate until the book actually comes out. That took some getting used to for me. Another disappointment is when family and friends don’t share your enthusiasm for what you’re doing. But you have to accept that if they don’t appreciate your unconventional work, then so be it.

I had a set goal in mind when I began all of this: to match the record of the gold standard for cover models, Fabio, who’s been on 460 covers. I’m up to 439, and while ultimately I want to reach 500, getting to 461 would be a major step. And when that happens, I imagine Fabio patting me on the back and my having a feeling of real satisfaction with my work in the business.

And when my mission is accomplished, I plan to tear open bags of Reese’s Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Cups and eat a few hundred of them in a row, washed down with a cold Coors. Oh, what a feeling!

Jason Aaron Baca has appeared on more than 400 romance novel covers, including those of bestselling authors Lisa Renee Jones, Carly Phillips, and Karen Robards.