Ask the Art Director

Image Courtesy of BigStockYour comments on this entry about cover design, featuring art director Claire Brown has led to a new feature, and some kidnapping on my part. I let the Anonymous Editor out of the basement, and have locked poor Ms. Brown in the comfy chair next to the furnace (don't worry, she has plenty of wine) so she can answer all our questions. I've also asked other art directors for their, um, expertise for this feature as well, so you'll see other romance cover folks joining the discussion soon. 

In the comments to that entry, Susan had several questions, and I had some as well, based on this interview with Ms. Brown from this interview with Imprint. I started there, and I hope you find the conversation interesting. As usual, if you have questions about art direction and cover design for romance novels, let us hear them in the comments, and I'll ask the Art Director!

First question: your comment about “familiarity in typeface” in the Imprint profile caught my attention. What are the typefaces that work, and what hasn't worked?

Claire Brown: I would not say there are typefaces that work or do not work for author and title type treatments, it's more about finding a type design that communicates clearly emotionally as well as forming the words.

The words on the cover have a function which is obvious, telling the reader who wrote this book and what it is called. 

The other function which is less obvious is to get your attention and establish a mood.  A great example of this is Larissa Ione's “Eternal Rider” ( A | BN | K). 

When I started the cover I had her name and the title drawn by a hand lettering artist.  The typography was beautiful and worked well.  The problem was the mood it evoked was too “romantic”.   While Larissa's books are romantic they are really edgy and that is what we wanted to tell a potential reader.  We ended up not using the hand drawn “romantic” type and used a more contemporary font.

We are also using the typography to “Brand” the author.  Once we find the “right” type treatment for an authors name, we will use it over again for all the books in the series and beyond.

For cover quotes and reading lines I pretty almost always use Goudy on Romance covers.  It is legible at a small point size and it has the right mood.

You also mentioned “painterly style” but many covers are using photographs
that aren't rendered like paintings. Have you noticed an increase in the
number of photograph covers? Are there some genres in which photographs do
not work vs genres which fit photography perfectly? Do realistic photo
covers sell better, or the more painterly ones?

Claire Brown: We walk a fine line between painterly and photographic in all the Romance genres.  At first glance many covers appear to be photographs.  Certainly if you compare them to Romance covers in the 90's you can see we have moved away from a painterly style.  However most of the romance covers are photographs with some painting over them.  Of course all the painting is done in PhotoShop on the computer.

One illustrator we work who strikes that balance perfectly is Aleta Rafton. Her work is very photographic to my eye, but with her photo illustration she adds a magical quality to her work.  It's a kind of hyperrealism that I think is perfect for Romance covers.  We need to relate or identify with the characters in the book but the fantasy of the hero or heroine is what pulls us in.  Here are some examples of covers she has done for Forever that demonstrate this hyperreal quality to the photography.




What are the core elements of the “romance novel cover formula” or the constraints you work within?

Claire Brown: Romance covers today that I work on can more or less be grouped into 3 categories:

1- A beautiful, sexy woman in a stunning dress
2- A hot hunk with rock hard abs
3- A couple caught in a moment of passion

Of course, these groups are broad, but what they all have in common is that they convey a fantasy that we know the reader wants to get lost in. While we add special touches to every book to make it distinctive, and while we like to push the boundaries to stay innovative, doing something radically outside of 1 of these 3 directions can be risky. Accounts want covers they can easily look at and say “paranormal” or “romantic suspense.” Plus, the reason these categories came into being is because they have a history of being popular with readers.

With that said, we want to keep our covers looking fresh, and one way I try to do this is by merging current fashion trends into the covers.  When I'm thinking about what our heroine should be wearing and how she should be posing I look at what is happing in fashion photography today and try to incorporate it.

Covers have changed a lot over the years, but it's fascinating to me how the covers are made. Do you have questions for Claire? She's got plenty of wine, and I'm sure you have some curiosity about art direction for romance. 

Thank you to Claire Brown for all her time and patience with my nosy questions, and for the cover images!

Lightning image courtesy of

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    girlygirlhoosier52 says:

    Have you ever rejected a cover?  Why..??  I’ve just finished a ‘not to be named’ book and while I enjoyed it … it was set in 1099…and the cover featured a dress much more Elizabethean… 

  2. 2
    MissB2U says:

    What kind of training/background do your cover artists have?  How involved to most authors get in the cover design process?  At what point in the book production process does the cover art begin and end?  How far ahead of publishing does all this happen?

  3. 3
    Font Snob says:

    This is bouncing off of MissB2U’s question about training and education of cover artists, and isn’t necessarily directed to the editor in this post, but: what are the differences in training between ebook cover designers and traditional paperback designers? I’ve noticed that some e-presses are notorious for making questionable art and font choices that you’d never see on a paperback.

  4. 4
    Sam says:

    It’s the 90s or the ‘90s, not the 90’s. That’s POSSESSIVE, used that way a “greengrocers’ apostrophe.” Why am I seeing nearly everyone everywhere making this mistake with numbers and acronyms? Errors seem to spread like…well, you know.

  5. 5
    Darlynne says:

    Once upon a time, cover art had an immediately recognizable feel and emotion. I remember being able to pick out a 60s era Mary Stewart or Victoria Holt Gothic romance paperback simply by the Harry Bennett cover: a young, long-haired woman walking or standing, usually in the wind, painted in muted tones. There was something very atmospheric in these covers and that’s what I find missing in contemporary book design today.

    Will we ever get back to atmosphere, do you think, to hardcover dust jacket art like Jamie Harrison’s The Edge of the Crazies or John Dunning’s Booked to Die?

  6. 6

    I don’t have a question right now, but I do want to say I adore this new feature. I’m a self-taught designer (saving up to get the certification/training) with a traditional art background, so I love reading about how the pros do it.

  7. 7
    Lise Horton says:

    I’d love to talk color in cover designs – read in Publishers Weekly once that purple was a particularly effective color cover, but almost never see it? What are considered to be effective color choices, or is it tied to the genre/tone of the book in question? I see a lot of blues these days….

  8. 8
    Lil says:

    I know the three types of covers you mention. I see them all the time. So often, in fact, that I generally discount them since they almost never have anything to do with the book inside. Sometime, for historicals, they aren’t even in the right period.

    Can I ask why you use them all the time? I have been told that readers like them. Do you have any actual evidence for this or is it just that everyone says so?

    This probably sounds pissy, and I’m sorry, but I’m a reader and I really dislike them.

  9. 9
    janira Gonzalez says:

    After creating a cover, do you show it to a focus group to see if the readers are getting the mood that you are trying to convey?

  10. 10
    Amy Raby (Alpha Lyra) says:

    I love these posts on cover art! Those Aleta Rafton covers are gorgeous.

  11. 11
    ThesassyG says:

    Love the new section!

  12. 12
    Buff RG says:

    I agree with Lil.  The covers, especially for the historicals, are mind numbingly similar:  A dress with a low back, which usually is not period correct; a set of abs, generally not on the same person; and the word “duke” in the title.  The name of the author, no matter how large, is lost among the billowy fabric.  Surely with all the talent in Romance land, covers can be designed that are not such cliches.

  13. 13
    ani gonzalez says:

    I love this new feature. Thanks for walking us through the Larissa Ione cover and explaining the types of detail you were looking at.

    I recently noticed two very similar covers sitting side by side in a display: one was for a contemporary suspense (Lori Foster’s Trace of Honor) and the other was for a paranormal (Kerrelyn Sparks’ Wanted: Undead or Alive). Both covers featured a half-naked man on a yellow background and the only distinguishing details were dog tags for the contemporary and a bat-shaped belt buckle for the paranormal.

    I suppose the moon and tattoo in the Ione cover also mark it as a paranormal. That’s interesting.

  14. 14
    Kaetrin says:

    fascinating post, thanks Claire :)

  15. 15
    Kelly says:

    I love the UK editions for Julia Quinn (… and the latest Mary Stewart re-issues (http://marystewartnovels.blogs… because the cover illustrations are so *different* and unique for each title.

    The UK Mills & Boon Intrigue covers (… have a much more modern feel than the US Harlequin versions (….

    Is there really that much of a difference between US and UK readers’ expectations? Don’t UK readers like abs and pecs?

  16. 16
    kostia says:

    I design a lot of books and book covers in my work, but my clients are all government, economists, and statisticians, so the covers are usually just typographic or have one (depressing) photo: nothing fun.

    Assuming romance novels haven’t been your only gig as a book designer, what parts of the job transcend genre? Is there anything you’ve learned from designing romance covers that you wish you’d known when you were working on something else?

    What you said about consistent branding for authors’ names as series continue (obviously sometimes for dozens of books) struck a chord with me. I don’t have to worry about drawing the eye in retail, thank goodness, but I do want to avoid my stuff looking even more stale than it is. How do you know what visual feel will stand the test of time?

  17. 17
    Sally says:

    Great interview! I wish the school semester didn’t already end last week because I would have shared this article with my classmates.

  18. 18
    Anony Miss says:

    Does anyone else think the ‘Trouble in Texas’ up above could be fixed with a round of antibiotics? Because yanno…

  19. 19
    Tamara Hogan says:

    Can you provide some insight into one of my pet peeves?  Which factors might play into a cover hero or heroine looking different than the hero/heroine as written in some key way? For example, a completely different hair color, or the height is seriously off? This drives me NUTS.

    Seconding the Aleta Rafton love. She does my covers, and I’m not the only one who thinks they’re absolutely gorgeous. ;-)   

  20. 20
    Silwambapeter says:

    I really loved this book, too. I grew up reading this author since high school. My book ‘True Love Is Not Common;…, has similar main characters as this book. Hope my book will reach many readers as this author

  21. 21
    Rabidreader says:

    I’m another one who really HATES the 3 formula covers. Abs do nothing for me, I get annoyed when the cover isn’t period correct or doesn’t match the physical description of the protagonists, and I dread the clinched couples. I’d prefer generic tablecloths over all of them. I’m curious if you have hard data that your readers really prefer the three covers. I think we are smarter then that.

  22. 22
    Susan says:

    Thanks so much for the inside peek!

    Are there studies/research that indicates what kinds of covers work best with different kinds of books?  And what about color schemes?  Do certain colors/schemes sell better than others?  Do colors fall out of favor (fuchsia)?

    I don’t mind the 3 cover formulas.  My biggest peeves are models that look nothing like the characters, inappropriate/inaccurate clothing or settings, and clothing that’s falling off (you know, those women whose dresses are undone and have slipped halfway down their torsos?  I don’t mind those guys who’ve lost all their buttons and are losing their shirts as much.  hehe.) 

    Not a question but a comment about typography/lettering:  I remember when metallic lettering first became popular, followed by the “puffy” lettering.  Good times.  I can’t think of any other recent big fads in lettering.

    Since I read so many ebooks these days, I really feel cheated out of the artwork.  Many publishers don’t even include cover art, much less back covers or setbacks.  (Oooh, setbacks.  A whole ‘another topic.)

    Thanks again, Sarah and Claire.

  23. 23
    Laurie Evans says:

    How interesting! I’ve always wondered how they decide about cover art.

  24. 24
    Bookswithbenefits says:

    This is great! I am considering self-publishing, and there is so much advice out there that says, “Pay someone to design your cover,” but no one gives you a sense of what a good or successful cover might be. Thanks for putting this together!

  25. 25
    harthad says:

    I agree with Lil and Rabidreader. This reminded me of a recent blog post by romance author Joanna Bourne, “Romance Covers and What’s Wrong with Them”… Her point is that other sorts of fiction covers will usually indicate something unique about the story, while historical romance covers usually don’t (e.g. generic woman in falling-off dress, generic sixpack).

    Quoting her: “What does this say to the world about Historical Romance?
    It says, ‘One Romance book is like another.’  It says, ‘No story inside this book, Ma’m. Just pick one at random.’ This is so much lack of respect. I hate this.”

  26. 26
    Rona_simmons says:

    Alas, what has “fifty shades” done to the cliche?

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