Anatomy of a Romance Cover

Authors, who tend to have little control over how their books are packaged and presented to readers, often complain that the covers of historical romance novels tend to be too generic, neglecting to capture what’s unique about the content in the pages behind the cover.

I’ve been very lucky with the covers that have come from my publisher. I absolutely love the cover for Tempting Bella, my second book, which features a wedding dress.  And once I heard that naked man chest outsells other covers by a rate of 10 to 1, I asked to test out that theory for Engaging the Earl, my fourth book.  I also wanted Earl to have the same  look and feel as Bella and was pleased with the result.

Tempting Bella-Engaging the Earl

When I decided to self-publish my fifth title, the opportunity to have complete control over the book’s final look was both daunting and exciting. I turned to Carrie at Seductive Designs for guidance.

Since Spy Fall features a parachuting heroine who also pilots hot air balloons, I very much wanted Mari’s unique profession to feature prominently on the cover. I happily scoured stock photo sites for images of a cover couple and hot air balloon. I came up with the perfect images, which turned out not to be so perfect. In the end, I happily dumped my first choices for the photos Carrie suggested and the result is a cover I adore.

Spy Fall (final) 800 @ 72 dpi low res

But, getting to this final look took some work. And I’ve asked Carrie to tell us a little bit about what went into it.

Carrie: The look of Spy Fall started with Diana’s request to have a really great “S” for the word Spy.  That was the one thing that she knew she wanted to emphasize from the very start.  I think a lot of authors who haven’t had a cover designed for them before are surprised at how important the fonts of the text are to create a cover that gives the right impression. 
I initially chose the couple and background in the middle sample. But once I saw it laid out, I went for the look on the far right, which Carrie went on to refine.

Diana initially chose the couple and background in the middle sample. But once she saw it laid out, Diana went for the look on the far right, which Carrie went on to refine.

You can see from these initial samples that the text of the cover didn’t vary much from beginning to end. Which is actually pretty unusual, but I had a vision of how I wanted it to look overall and it worked (which doesn’t always happen).We didn’t really know what images we were going to use, but I had a pretty good idea of the fonts that I thought would work well for the title as well as for Diana’s name, and where we were going to place all of the text.

We finally decided on the couple in #3 because of the connection between the two models. It’s intimate and touching and the female model plays a very dominant role in the image. She seems strong, yet vulnerable and protected by her hero at the same time which was perfect for our lady Spy. I love that the couple plays such a strong role on the cover, and the beautiful blue greens of the sea that evoke the danger and turbulence that our heroine faces.

While the colors are vibrant we kept the color palette fairly simple so as not to overwhelm you with too much too look at. By keeping to blues, greens and yellows, it let’s you really focus on what’s important, the couple, the hot air balloon and the text. It doesn’t try to visually represent all aspects of the story, just the most important ones.

There are a lot of little things that make the design work, but I don’t think you want me to get into the minutiae…like how the slope of the coastline leads into the fall of her dress and how they are holding hands. Or that the line of their heads angle down to the hot air balloon parallel to the coastline. And that the “action” of the cover reads left to right. It starts high on the left and angles down to the right. That’s not a happy accident, it’s deliberate. Little things like that that you probably didn’t notice, but when you see it it’s pleasing to the eye. Your brain likes it, even if you don’t know why 🙂

In the end it’s a combination of aesthetics, color, finding and personalizing the right images to fit the story, and maybe one or two happy accidents in addition to careful planning and communication between Diana and myself. I’m just thrilled that the cover is being received well, and that Diana loves it and how it represents her story. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into making a cover that readers will find appealing.

Diana: What makes a good cover?

Carrie: I think the best way to try to explain it is by giving you some comparisons. First, let’s take two different covers that were released within weeks of each other for the same author, Janice Kay Johnson, in the Romantic Suspense genre. Janice is a RITA-award winning author of more than 80 books, most of which are with Harlequin, and she’s now starting to self publish some of her books herself.

I created a cover for Janice’s new series, Shroud of Fog is the first, and another cover artist created a cover for another of her romantic suspense novels, Dangerous Waters. They were released within weeks of each other. Same genre, same author…totally different sales. I don’t know the full sales history of either book, but I do occasionally check books that I’ve created covers for to see how they are selling compared to an author’s other books, and against their competition.

Shroud of Fog was released Jan. 31, 2014 and is currently ranked 17,918 in Kindle sales. It’s seemed to have steady sales from the get to. Maybe not NYT bestseller list sales, but it has sold well for the author. Dangerous Waters was released Jan. 17, 2014 and is currently ranked 224,509 in Kindle sales. That’s a dramatic difference in sales for books by the same author in the same genre in the same time frame. True, not all books are received the same, but neither book has many reviews so I don’t know that you can say that one book is necessarily better than the other…at least not based on reviews. So you could say that the cover design might be driving sales up for one, and down for another (this is just a theory).

shroud of fog-dangerous waters copy
Let’s take a look at Dangerous Waters first. The book description describes a couple attracted to each other while on the run, desperate, and in danger. So a woman looking over her shoulder makes sense. It’s set in a small town where the heroine rescues the hero in a lake at twilight so the lake makes sense. I think where this cover goes wrong is that the heroine is made less important than the lake. She’s almost like a ghost in the water. And while the blues and oranges are bright colors the landscape isn’t appealing enough to have the most important role in the cover imagery. The cover artist used fonts that were easily readable, which is good, but dark letters on a dark background don’t stand out well when you are browsing titles at a small scale. We have three things that don’t really work well together. The woman is hard to see when the cover is small, the text is hard to read when the cover is too small, and the landscape picture that dominates the cover isn’t as appealing as it should be. These three things combined work against this book (at least IMO).

Now let’s take a look at Shroud of Fog. The book description describes a woman seeking refuge, a killer threatened to be exposed and a wounded hero trying to protect the woman that he’s come to love. It was important to both the author and me to find a couple that gave the impression of love and tenderness. With the woman resting her head on the man’s shoulder and his hand caressing her cheek, you are visually connected to the hero protecting the woman and their blossoming love. And since the author’s books aren’t explicit romances, neither is the image.

Next we wanted to portray that sense of danger, and what could be more creepy than a shadowy figure in the woods? The sense of danger is just as important as the love story since it’s a romantic suspense novel, so they occupy equal space and are given equal importance on the cover. The colors are deliberately muted so that it’s more about the imagery than about the color. Sometimes color can work for you, and sometimes it can work against you. In this instance, I think it gave it a more misty, scary quality that ties in with the title Shroud of Fog. The fonts are also bigger so that they can be more easily read at smaller scales.

It’s interesting to see a comparison like this for a well-seasoned author where you would think a cover wouldn’t matter as much, but clearly it does. I think a great cover will help tell the author’s story visually using the most compelling elements. Keep it simple, make sure it’s easily legible, and hopefully is the best version of the author’s vision for her story.

Diana: Your second example involves a cover you revamped… 

Carrie:  It’s a cover for an author who wanted a book cover redesigned. One was designed by another cover artist, and then the author approached me about redesigning the cover using the same imagery. What kind of difference can there be if you use the same image on a cover? A LOT!

a measured risk
The hero in this book is a dominant male so the first thing I did was flip the image from having him on the right, to having him on the left. Visually the hero is going to seem more dominant subconsciously when on the left. The second thing I had to address were the details like her hair and dress. These were recolored to fit the story, but in the first version, all of the detail of her hair was lost when changing it from honey blond to black. Trust me when I say details like this can be tedious, time-consuming work, but when you get it wrong, you notice that it’s not right.
One of the best compliments that I can get is that you don’t notice all of the changes that have been made to stock images to personalize it to the author’s story. However, the biggest flaw in the previous version is the background. It overpowers the entire cover. The background has the same kind of visual importance as the main couple, in fact it fights for dominance…and when you have an alpha hero like the one in this story, that’s not what you want. We’ve got a beautiful male model to work with so why would we want to overpower his presence with a very busy background? It’s called a background/backdrop for a reason. It should compliment rather than distract.
Finally, I changed the fonts and the placement of the text. The author has a very long last name so placement can be tricky, and by placing her name in the center of the cover, which usually lends the name more importance, it actually kind of gets lost because of all of the visual busyness at the top. So even though her name is now at the bottom, and one of the last things you might see, it is more prominent. Using a different font, and emphasizing the work “Risk” (which carries through the rest of the series) for the title completed the new look. Same image, two totally different looks.

After the author switched out the cover image her sales immediately shot up to a level that she had never seen before (according to an email she sent me). I was very happy that the new cover did it’s job and helped readers find a lovely love story.

You can ask 10 different people and probably get 10 different answers. A good cover is somewhat subjective, but by keeping it simple, stunning and legible, you can never go wrong.

Diana: What covers are you loving right now?

Carrie: I personally tend to be drawn to a more artistic-looking cover that is both beautiful and striking. Some of my newest favorites are Grace Burrowes’ Captive Hearts series.  I love the colors, the flowing fabrics…everything about them speaks to the designer and romance reader in me. I think they are just STUNNING (and I’m sure cost a pretty penny, too). 

Leave a comment


  1. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  September 22, 2014

    This is a great discussion. Like it or not, people do judge a book by its cover, so it’s really nice to see what makes a cover work, and what doesn’t.

    • Diana Quincy

       /  September 22, 2014

      Hi Jaye – I was amazed by the details that go into a cover. Most of these things I would never think of…like how the slope of the coastline leads into the fall of her dress, or that their heads angle down to the hot air balloon parallel to the coastline. I kept going back to the cover to look at the elements Carrie described.

  2. JB Schroeder

     /  September 22, 2014

    So interesting, especiall for me, Diana, to see Carrie’s take on on all these. She’s amazing! And Bravo to both you and Carrie for the SpyFall cover. It is simply Gorgeous!

    • Diana Quincy

       /  September 22, 2014

      JB – After that gorgeous author banner you designed for me, you know I depended heavily on your expertise during this process. Thank you for that!!! There is SO much that goes into a cover design that I had NO idea of prior to this experience!

  3. Love this insight! Very cool, Diana. And thanks to Carrie!

  4. Diana Quincy

     /  September 22, 2014

    Thanks Joanna!

  5. This is a great blog post Diana! I find everything that goes into a book cover fascinating. It’s a true talent that I don’t have! You’re book cover for Spy Fall is gorgeous. Congrats!

  6. I’m with you, Tina. There are so many subtleties that go into making a winning cover. I guess that’s why we leave it to the professionals!

  7. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  September 24, 2014

    Thank you to you and Carrie for taking the time to go through these details and comparisons. I really learned a lot as a result of this post. Carrie does a wonderful job with her covers. Congrats on Spy Fall!

  8. Thanks so much for the interesting post! I loved reading every sentence as like it or not, covers do matter, and I, like everyone in my opinion loves an enchanting cover! Yours turned out truly stunning Diana, congratulations to both you and Carrie!! 🙂

    • Diana Quincy

       /  October 22, 2014

      Thank you Stella! I feel very fortunate to have worked with Carrie. She understood my vision for the cover and made it even better.


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