The rapid embrace of self-publishing over the past decade has increased the competition among indie romance authors to put out professional, memorable cover designs that fit within the genre and adhere to current trends, but that stand out in a crowded market. And while the cover design process at a major publisher may involve the art department, editorial, sales and marketing, and publicity, indie authors must go it alone. We talked to a variety of authors and designers in the industry who shared their advice and observations about what’s hot for romance covers in 2015.
Before the now-iconic monochromatic Fifty Shades of Grey cover design, the romance industry was perhaps best known for its Harlequin “clinch covers” of the ’80s and ’90s, usually featuring the bare-chested model Fabio Lanzoni embracing a busty maiden. “A clinch cover—a couple engaged in an embrace, sometimes wildly passionate, sometimes sweeter—is a romance classic,” says Romance Writers of America board member and New York Times bestselling author Leslie Kelly. It’s something she predicts will never go out of style. (The clinch was so popular it was even used in the original cover design for Marian Engel’s controversial 1976 novel Bear—a romance between a lonely librarian and a brown bear.)
Despite the enduring popularity of the classic clinch, Kelly says she’s seen a lot of changes in cover trends during her years in the romance writing industry. She points out that just as genres and subgenres become popular, so do cover designs—citing the Fifty Shades of Grey “erotic romance frenzy” as well as the vampire craze. “Early in my career, I remember seeing the start of the very faddish cartoon cover for contemporary romances. They were all you saw for a while, then died out as the market became so glutted with them readers could no longer tell them apart,” she says. Even covers featuring dogs “popped up for a while,” Kelly remembers.
But, while self-published and traditional romance covers often follow the same trends, she says that indie covers tend to “skew hotter.” “While traditionally published books are still trying to grab the passerby at Walmart or in a brick-and-mortar store, [self-]published books are typically targeted toward electronic readers,” she says, which allows readers to choose a book with a sexy cover and still read it in public without fear of being judged.
This leads us to back to the basics of cover design: where do designers get these sexy photos that grace the covers of our favorite titles, and what goes into selecting them?
The Problem with Stock Images
Faced with the challenge of creating a memorable book cover on a shoestring budget, many indie authors and their freelance designers turn to stock photo sites for the images they need. Sites like Shutterstock or iStock offer users a massive selection of photos that can be downloaded for as little as $12 and as much as a few hundred dollars. But, while these sites are indispensable for authors and designers creating covers on a budget, their popularity also causes some problems.
“I think the biggest challenge is avoiding the overuse of certain stock images,” indie author and graphic designer Rachel Carrington says. “You don’t want a couple on the cover that is on four other covers.” To remedy this, she says she searches specifically for images that don’t have a high volume of downloads—something that can be tough if a designer is looking to keep up with current trends.
“The problem with stock images is that many of us authors end up using the same photographs for our covers,” says Katana Collins, a freelance photographer and author of the paranormal Soul Stripper trilogy. Since the beginning of 2015, she says she’s found the stock image used for her current indie cover, Capturing You, on two other books. For this reason, she says she plans to photograph the images for her next covers herself—thereby ensuring that they’re unique.
Courtney Milan, a New York Times bestselling author of historical romance and a freelance cover designer, points out that the stock image problem is exacerbated when it comes to books featuring minorities. She says there are “very little decent, usable stock photos of people of color for covers.” Milan found, for example, that of the 107,151 results for “bride” on a popular stock photo site, fewer than 723 of the results featured black women. That’s 0.7% of all the available photos, she notes. In addition to what Milan points out is a troubling imbalance, this lack of images featuring people of color also makes a designer’s job much more difficult. What’s usually a two- to three-hour process searching for the right stock image can become a much more labor-intensive process. For her next book, Hold Me, (which features a tattooed Thai man in the lead role), she decided to sidestep the stock photo issue and arrange a photo shoot on her own. Milan says that, with just one model and no elaborate costumes, it was a relatively simple shoot at a reasonable price. “It’s more than stock photos would be,” she acknowledges, “but I can specify pose and costuming, and I can get someone who looks something like the person inside the book.”
Despite the issues presented by stock photo sites, Collins notes that, ultimately, it’s the skill of the designer that will transform a single stock image into a professionally designed cover—which means the difference between “an image with some words on top [and] a beautiful, well-designed professional cover,” she says.
Less Is More
“There really is only one big challenge in cover design,” Milan says. “The indie author who is choosing graphic artists, stock photos, etc., needs to either have decent taste that aligns with current marketing, or [she] needs to have friends who do [and] who will tell her honestly if what she has works.”
In terms of what’s working in the industry today, the authors and designers we talked to are in agreement: “I think simplicity does it now; it used to be that the fancier covers were the ones that really got the attention,” says Carrington, who adds that her recent clients are asking for uncluttered covers. “Nowadays, it’s cleaner lines and unique colors.” Her favorite at the moment are the monochrome covers with color used only in the title or on a part of the image. “It really draws your eye,” she says. Collins also says that, as an author and a reader, she is drawn to simple covers using a single symbolic image.
Graphic designer Hafsah Faizal says she tries to steer her clients toward simpler covers. “I think the minimalistic covers stand out the most, and I try to keep my covers minimalistic as much as possible,” she says. Using her cover design for The Body Electric by Beth Revis as an example, Faizal adds, “If the book allows it, I’ll use colors that aren’t the norm.” The novel, which she describes as “science fiction with a touch of romance” features a neon green cover with a hand-lettered font. “I also try to use fonts that aren’t regularly used, but it’s not always possible,” Faizal says. She points to typography-driven cover designs that turn the title into a work of art, citing the YA titles Shadow and the Bone, by Leigh Bardugo, and The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski, as successful examples of this trend.
In another nod to the use of color and a typography-focused design, romance author L.H. Cosway’s latest cover (for a romance set in a traveling circus with a fire-breathing hero) is inspired by old vaudeville circus posters. It was originally supposed to feature a fire-breather, but she says that “in the end I decided to go back to basics and simply showcase the title.” While it doesn’t look like a traditional romance cover, the simple design, the innovative use of color, and the typography focus are all in keeping with the on-trend elements cited by other authors and designers we spoke with.
Though she admits she’s not an expert, Cosway points to the surge in originality that has taken place in indie covers recently: authors are making an effort to be different. “Of course,” she adds, “sexy topless men on covers probably aren’t going away anytime soon, but I like to see authors who push the boat out and do something new.”
What Sells in 2015?
While the design elements that help a book cover stand out are varied and often subtle, the cover image is queen—whether it was Fabio in the ’80s, a high-heeled shoe in the ’90s, or a pair of cuff links in 2012. “When I look at the bestseller lists for romance right now, three things really pop out,” Leslie Kelly says. “The man’s naked torso, the timeless clinch, and the warm and romantic setting.” She notes that the naked torso covers are everywhere across all genres, in both self- and traditional publishing. “They usually show the guy from the jaw down, because most readers want to fill-in-the-blank in their mind with the hero’s face. But a hot body will always catch a reader’s eye,” she says.
Kelly also points to the continued success of object covers. “There will be a beach, maybe a couple’s feet, maybe a swing on a porch, maybe the front of a yarn shop,” Kelly says. “The covers immediately convey the idea that this is contemporary romance that’s going to skew toward the sweeter rather than the sexier side.”
And, while no one can really predict what’s next for the romance industry, Kelly notes that once it hits, it hits big. “Once there’s a pair of men’s cuff links, or a grey tie looped on a bedpost and that book is selling millions of copies—you can bet you’re going to see a lot more monochrome covers with masculine objects on them,” she says. “And when the market becomes so flooded readers begin to get bored, something else will come along to take its place.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Shadow and the Bone, by Leigh Bardugo, and The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski, were self-published titles. They were published by Henry Holt and FSG respectively.