When it comes to romance novels, the image of a lion-maned Fabio leaning into a love-struck woman is indelibly embedded in American pop culture. But look beyond the cliché, and each romance cover offers clues as to its contents. In other words, sometimes you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.

For each of the romance category’s countless subgenres, a certain visual vocabulary prevails. “There was a time when every historical romance had a clinch,” says Louise Burke, president and publisher of S&S/Gallery. Her purview includes the mass market imprint Pocket Books and the e-books division Pocket Star. “Then every big author had the step-back, which is the cover behind the front cover, which no longer seems as popular. And when you melded romance into chick lit, it became all about high heels.”

Given that sameness, here’s the challenge: each cover must distinguish itself from the competition, both in-house and across publishers, while fitting in with a particular brand or series aesthetic—all while reassuring readers that they’re going to get the love story that they expect.

Fortunately, romance publishers have cover design down to a methodical process. Here’s how they do it.

Cover Conception

The road from initial concept to final cover design can take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

The first step involves consulting with the author, who can articulate the book’s original vision and key elements, such as whether the novel is a contemporary love story, a Regency romance, or a cowboy tale.

At Harlequin, authors write synopses and scene descriptions to help associate creative director Tony Horvath and his team illustrate each novel’s theme or plot. Avon editorial director Erika Tsang has her authors visualize the cover and send basic character descriptions.

From there, the art and editorial teams hold a roundtable discussion and brainstorm concepts. For Elizabeth Turner, associate art director at Hachette Book Group, that means mood boarding: she compiles a collage incorporating various fashion-magazine images and color palettes.

No matter the size of the house, each publisher needs to keep its romance releases from blending together. “I attend all the cover conferences and make sure that the five to six books Avon does a month don’t all look the same,” Tsang says. That’s one reason why certain covers might depict a couple, and others a solo hero, or a close-up of an object.

Outside factors also influence cover design early on. Alexandra Nicolajsen, director of social media and digital sales at Kensington, says, “We look at the competition, and what the sales look like for previous books by that author, and what’s working in the marketplace,” in order to compose a cover that not only reflects the book’s plot but also will attract readers.

Building a Brand

One way a publisher distinguishes its books from the competition is by developing a recognizable aesthetic. At Harlequin, a rebranding in 2013 gave a more uniform look to the company’s various imprints and series. “We wanted to make it easier for people to look at the rack [in the store] and identify our books,” Horvath said. To that end, every cover prominently features the Harlequin name.

Some authors are brands in and of themselves. Lynn Andreozzi, director of art and design at Random House, worked with a hand-letterer to design a logotype for Jude Deveraux’s Nantucket Brides Trilogy (Ballantine), which concluded in June 2015 with Ever After.

Danielle Steel received similar treatment about a decade ago, Andreozzi says—the author’s name always appears in the same font on her covers.

While those writers are in the minority, there are other ways to convey series branding. Consider the Perfect Gentlemen series by Shayla Black and Lexi Blake (Berkley). The cover of the first novel, 2015’s Scandal Never Sleeps, is steeped in black and rich, dark reds, with a photo depicting rumpled clothes and high heels on a hotel-room floor. The cover of the follow-up, Seduction in Session (Jan. 2016), is notably brighter, naturally lit, and focuses on an empty, rumpled bed, showing the aftermath of the tryst.

“You want a consistent approach, but you don’t want the same color palette,” says Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley Publishing Group. “The lighter color in Seduction in Session pops more. They look nice side-by-side without looking like the same book.”

Mixing It Up

Striking a balance between brand coherence and visual distinction can be tricky. One way for a cover to stand out is through unusual props, poses, and environments. When Dawn Adams, the art director for Sourcebooks Casablanca, began work on the romantic suspense novel Hold Your Breath by Katie Ruggle (Apr. 2016)—which launches the Search & Rescue series, about first responders in the Colorado Rockies—she wanted to focus on some of the hero’s more unusual aspects.

“This guy is an ice rescue diver in the Rocky Mountains,” Adams says. “You don’t see that in romance very often, and it’s an exciting opportunity to put something new on the cover.”

Similarly, Kate L. Mary’s Moving On (Feb. 2016), third in the College of Charleston series for Kensington e-book imprint Lyrical Shine, has an atypical image for a romance cover: a photo of a couple embracing in a car.

“They’re in a pose you’re not going to see on a lot of other covers,” Nicolajsen says. “We wanted the background to convey location. It’s summer, you have the Spanish moss and the edgy, hip young couple. We found this image so evocative of the title, story, and characters that we couldn’t pass it up.”

It’s a notably different look from the first two books in the series, both of which feature more conventional clinches. But, Nicolajsen says, the Moving On cover maintains series continuity in its font and placement of the text.

Electronic, Mass, or Trade?

The rise of digital publishing has freed designers to make artistic choices they might not otherwise make. For instance, e-book covers tend to be racier, since people can read them more privately than they can physical copies.

“Indie authors, who were self-published before they came to us, brought in fresh looks that could be sexier because they were digital,” Gallery’s Burke says. “You don’t have any buyers in stores. You don’t have someone saying, ‘Oh, this is too sexy, I can’t have it in my store.’ That was a nice breath of fresh air.”

While traditional publishers have historically kept erotica separate from romance—in erotica, sex drives the story, whereas in romance it’s the other way around—indie authors tend to blur the line. “They pushed the envelope before they came to us,” Burke says.

And even if that sexier aesthetic fails to transform romance novel covers overall, traditional houses want to retain it for indie authors who’ve successfully used it before. “A lot of authors who come over from self-published ranks only have e-book fans,” Berkley’s Hwang says. When publishers acquire a popular self-published e-book, they often keep the original cover.

Before the advent of digital publishing, publishers released romance novels almost exclusively in mass market paperback, so publishers needed to consider how the covers would look crammed onto shelves.

But as romance formats diversify—more novels are pubbing in hardcover first, and books in some subgenres, including new adult, tend to be released in trade paperback—cover design considerations have also changed.

The hardcover version of Debbie Macomber’s Starry Night, for instance, depicts a quiet cabin next to a Christmas tree, and its compact trim size positions it as a stocking stuffer. The mass market edition is aimed at the habitual romance reader, who is shopping for her next read herself.

Sex Sells, Except When It Doesn’t

New authors need more guidance in terms of what works best for a cover, but an experienced author knows from reader feedback what the audience expects.

Author Monica Murphy, for example, nixed one of the original cover designs for a forthcoming contemporary romance from Bantam, Never Tear Us Apart. When the trade paperback pubs January 2016, it will feature a closeup of a couple kissing. The original cover concept, by contrast, showed two arms clenching on a beach, and the couple, though otherwise out of frame, was clearly having sex.

“We sent it to the author, and she didn’t want to go in that direction,” Andreozzi says. “It might not have sold for her audience. She said she didn’t write super-sexy, and that was too sexy of a look for her.”

Ultimately, while publishers want authors to be excited about their covers, they also want them to sell.

“We try to please the author, because it’s their book,” Gallery’s Burke says. “We listen to what they prefer, but if it doesn’t work, we’re very fast to tell them. [Cover design] is really getting many options and choosing the ones that work best—none of this is a science.”

Decoding the Covers

In February 2016, Berkley will reissue Mary Balogh’s Indiscreet, a Regency romance, in trade paper, with a lone woman on the cover. The 1997 mass market edition showed a couple, which also is typical of historical romances (like The Wrong Bride, above). The difference? “A [couple] cover is usually really sexy,” says Hwang, a trend that has developed over the last decade. “Mary doesn’t write those kinds of books. They’re sensual, but not really sexy.” Solo men, by contrast, work well in contemporaries, paranormal, and romantic suspense, whose readers tend to appreciate alpha males.

Ryan Joe is a writer and editor living in New York.

Below, more on the subject of romance novel covers.

Body of Work: Romance Novels 2015–2016

Romance cover models, photographers and illustrators reveal all… of what goes into making a bang-up book cover.

Beneath the Covers: Katie Ruggle’s ‘Hold Your Breath’

Dawn Adams, art director at Sourcebooks Casablanca, discussing how the ‘Hold Your Breath’ cover was created.

Beneath the Covers: Kelly Bowen’s ‘Duke of My Heart’

Elizabeth Turner, assistant art director at Hachette, discusses how the ‘Duke of My Heart’ cover was created.

Beneath the Covers: Nicole Jordan’s ’The Art of Taming a Rake’

Lynn Andreozzi, director of art and design at Random House, discusses how the ‘Art of Taming a Rake’ cover was created.