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.
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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?
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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.
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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 indie examples of this trend.