I know romance covers sometimes feel like a punchline to the rest of the world, but I love them and a lot goes into designing and creating them. I would know, because I used to work as a romance cover designer and an art director for a small romance publisher. Romance novels are a billion dollar industry and covers are the chief marketing tool used to drive sales. But how are romance novel covers made today and in the past?
A Quick History of Romance Novel Covers
When the romance genre blew up in the 1980s, we saw an explosion of the kinds of covers that non-romance readers exclusively associate with the genre. Called “clinch covers,” they usually featured bare-chested manly men holding tightly to a swooning woman with hair whipping in the wind and a dress holding on to her slim shoulders for dear life. The publishers would hold photoshoots with the models, then an artist would transform the image into a painting, adding in backgrounds and probably volume to the hairstyles. This gave us Fabio, who was featured on hundreds of romance covers and is still synonymous with the genre to many people outside of Romancelandia.
However, romance cover designs have changed with the times and Fabio hasn’t been on a romance cover since the ’90s. Romance novel cover trends come and go. The publishers and authors who can move with them are going to be getting the biggest slices of that billion dollar pie.
For romance cover designs these days, there are essentially three major options: a custom photo shoot, the use of stock photography, or illustration. They all have their own advantages and disadvantages. Most of this article discusses romance covers with people on the cover, but there are of course many incredible romance covers with objects or settings featured instead of people.
So, how are romance novel covers made today, and what are an author’s options?
1. Custom Photo Shoots
Creating a custom cover with a custom photo shoot requires acquiring models, clothing, a photographer, and a studio. The photographer will take hundreds of photos in different poses and outfits to make sure there is a lot to choose from. It is probably the most expensive and time-consuming option, but sometimes might be the only way to get exactly what you want, especially if you want to feature characters that are non-white, disabled, or fat.
Publishers often conduct custom photo shoots when they have invested a lot of money in a book. They can also be very useful when there is a series planned where you want the same models in a variety of poses for each cover, which also lowers the cost per book. We may be seeing fewer of these this year and next, as one of the sources for this article told me the pandemic shut down custom photo shoots for a while.
2. Stock Photography
Another option is to use stock photography. A designer can alter these photos and add effects for a more custom look, including changing a model’s hair, adding paranormal elements, or combining multiple pictures.
Bree Archer, Art Director at Entangled Publishing said, “A lot of the covers we create are photo illustrated, which is where we take 10 to 50 different stock photos and compile pieces of the photos into one image. This creates something completely unique that you can’t find anywhere else.” Three examples of this are Jennifer Snow’s A Lot Like Love, Alyson Noël’s Stealing Infinity, and Jess Anastasi’s The Last Sky.
3. Cover Models
Models who are often featured on romance novel covers will participate in both custom photo shoots and the creation of images to be sold as stock photography. For custom shoots, they are either hired directly by the publisher/author or by a freelance cover designer who manages the process. For stock photos, often they are hired for a flat fee by a photographer who then owns and licenses the images. Many of these images will not be sold on an exclusive basis and this is why avid readers will often see the same models on many books, including some of the exact same images for multiple books.
Some popular, business-savvy models have flipped the script and hired photographers to create a set of images the model owns and licenses. Indie authors will sometimes hire models or other folks directly to model for their covers. For example, popular TikToker @thatbihbri recently announced she’s been hired by a romance author to model for her covers.
4. Illustrated Covers
The next option, which has risen in popularity over the last couple of years, is illustrated covers. The recent trend in romantic comedy is to have adorable illustrations that are bright, abstract, and cartoonish. For these, an in-house designer is assigned or a freelance artist is commissioned to create the piece with artistic direction from the publisher.
People seem to be really divided on the new illustrated cover trend, which resembles an older trend in the women’s fiction market. Many people love them and think they are less “embarrassing” than the ones displaying gratuitous man chest. But other people worry the covers may result in miscategorization, as people tend to think they are young adult books or have no sex in them.
How Are Romance Novel Covers Made?
With all the different options available, how does a publisher or author decide what kind of cover a romance novel will get? As with a lot of things, budget is a big consideration.
They also look at trends and what romance readers are responding to. When rebranding her Destroyers series, author Calia Wilde said she sampled the current top 50–100 books in the sub-genre for common themes, colors, photographic styles, textures, and fonts used. Archer gave a similar answer: “We’ll look at what’s selling in that book’s genre and also what the retail sales reps are looking for. Once we have a direction set, we’ll pick an artist that works best within that genre, which could be a member of our art department or an outside artist.”
Though every publisher and author is different, Archer said, “Every book’s cover is based on what we feel will set it up for the best chance of success, so if that can be achieved with just stock photos then we will go that route. If we can’t achieve the desired look or effect with stock photos we then look at contacting photographers.” Traditionally published authors often don’t get a lot of say in their cover decisions, but indie authors have total control and those at smaller publishing houses may have more influence.
Indie romance novelists especially are some of the savviest when it comes to knowing what will catch a reader’s eye. They keep a close eye on trends and can adjust at a moment’s notice.
They also will sometimes use a different option that publishers don’t usually use: premades. Premade book covers are those designed by a cover designer without a specific book in mind. They’ll create either single-title images or a set of covers for a series that are sold as a package. Authors like them because they are often cheaper than commissioning a custom cover. I can’t speak for other designers, but I sometimes created premades because I wanted to practice a certain technique or I had a great stock image I thought would make a great cover. They were also usually faster for me to create because I was making all the design decisions and didn’t have to do edits other than adding the book title and author name after they sold.
“If I can find a premade that works, it’s often a cheaper way to go,” says author Catherine Bilson, who purchased a series of premade covers for her Blushing Brides regency romance series. Bilson has also created her own covers as well as commissioned the covers for her romantic suspense series The Rescue Rangers. “I’ve done a mix of different things,” she says. “You have to look at what’s charting in your genre.”
Publishers and authors looking to make a romance novel cover have several options these days, and they’re all keeping a close eye on the market and what readers respond to to inform their decisions. What are your favorite romance cover styles?