How Does a Book Cover Say Romance?

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July 19, 2014 by Mod

Many of my clients identify as romance writers, so I have regular opportunities to bust out my romance chops in making their covers.

But is romance just romance? In a field with everything from Christian contemporary romance to erotic BDSM paranormal romance, authors and cover designers need to have a good handle on how their cover matches the genre in which they write. What are some of the guidelines? Let’s take a look at a few covers as we learn them.

Just like romance books, romance covers have conventions and traditions. One of the first decisions to make is whether your cover will have photographic models, character illustrations or no people at all. Romance covers use all three, but these days the photographic models do tend to be more common, especially for less well known authors (very well-known authors such as Nora Roberts sometimes have a very simple cover, dominated by the author name). Occasionally I see character illustrations but since I don’t often work in this style I don’t tend to do these covers. I will say, character illustrations, such as this cover by Sophie Kinsella do usually evoke romantic comedy, almost what used to be called “chick lit”. If that’s what you’re writing, this might be the way to go.

ditched12 copyCan you evoke romantic comedy with character photographs? Absolutely. This recent cover I did for Ditched Again by bestseller Stacey Joy Netzel has a real rom com vibe to it. The trick here is to work with the humor of the pose and the expression on their faces.

With romance covers there are two elements of your book your designer needs to keep in mind when designing your cover – specific genre (ie is it historical romance, paranormal, contemporary or YA and/or LGBT variations on these) and “heat level”.

Genres are each evoked by certain types of images and colors. Naturalistic colors in modern shades (turquoise, mauve etc) suggest contemporary. Rich dark colors in royal tones (deep red, gold etc) evoke historical, add wings or dragons and you’ve got high fantasy. Dark nighttime scenes evoke paranormal.  If there is leather, skylines, urban scenes you’re saying urban paranormal. Science Fiction is evoked of course by space and technology. Erotica comes from leather, lingerie, hand-cuffs etc. Since 50 Shades of Grey, erotica covers tend towards simple tones too, even black and white. Westerns have sunsets, rich earth tones and cowboys, horses etc.

But within each of these genres the heat level may vary. Heat level refers to the depictions of sex in the book. Are there none? Is this a chaste romance (perhaps a Christian YA romance for example) wherein the characters never have sex? Is it a sweet romance where the sex is only implied?  Are there a few sex scenes described…how can I put this…tastefully? Are there a lot of sex scenes described graphically? Is there a lot of dark and kinky sex? Roughly, those are the levels, each evoked by different cover imagery.

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The simplest way to define heat in a cover image is to look at the pose and the state of undress. If your romance is relatively chaste, your characters should be fully dressed unless they are at the beach. Their bodies might be positioned in such a way that it doesn’t look like their fun bits are rubbing together. They might not be touching at all. They also should not look like there are in a bedroom or in lingerie. The cover to the left good example.

Most YA romance covers, regardless of how graphic they are, fall into this range.

Books with tasteful and minimal sex can use slightly warmer images, the couple might be embracing, kissing or just gazing at each other. Normally they are again, fully dressed, however the setting can be a little sexier. CC Mackenzie’s Ludlow Hall books are good examples. While these books have sex in them it is not the main focus of the story and the scenes are tasteful.

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once in a blue moon300Books with lots of sex scenes or even where sex is the main focus of the story can have characters in various states of undress (be careful of Amazon guidelines though). Characters can be horizontal and/or actually in bed. A shirtless guy is practically a must have. Women might be wearing lingerie or be implied nude or shirtless (female nipples are never allowed!) Delilah Devlin’s new cover is an example. It’s sexy. These guys are definitely going to do it!

Erotica would be as above but more so, perhaps with a darker kinkier element. Something you sometimes see is a fully dressed man and a nominally dressed woman (or vice versa or two men or two women in a dominant/submissive tableau.) These days BDSM erotica is often evoked with no characters at all, but rather an object such as handcuffs or a mask.

sword4 copyA word about shirtless men. Typically readers expect  higher heat level from cover with shirtless men, or men in the process of de-shirting. even if the couple aren’t touching at all, shirts off seem to imply sex. It’s rather strange but a shirtless man either on his own or with a partner is often seen on romances with higher heat levels, both F/M and M/M (the only exception is beach covers). Strangely, a woman on her own often evokes a lower heat level.  Possibly this is because women can’t appear shirtless on book covers, I don’t know. I did some interesting research about this a while ago.

So this has given you a lot to think about. Do you have models on your cover? Are they touching? Are they dressed? What colors do you use? We haven’t even begun to discuss the implication of font choice, which are many and various. Whether I’m designing for you or someone else, I hope this has given you some insight into the important choices you and your designer can make in choosing the right images for your covers.


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