Under the Covers: The Design Stories Behind Bestselling Romances

Posted by Marie on October 17, 2019


Take a glance at the romance section in any bookstore and you'll see a tempting assortment of shirtless hunks, breathless duchesses, and sparkly illustrations that have all the addictive appeal of candy.

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"Covers are the single most important marketing tool for any book," says Cindy Hwang, the editorial director at Berkley. "Getting a reader to pick up your book is especially challenging in romance—there are more titles published every month than any other genre because romance readers are especially voracious."

Fortunately, it's a challenge that Berkley's art department has taken on with gusto. Its repertoire includes the likes of Nora Roberts, Sylvia Day, Jaci Burton, and Christine Feehan. It's also one of the front-runners of the rom-com renaissance, a trend that continues to gain momentum.

Even if you aren't a romance reader, you've likely recognized Berkley's rising stars. Helen Hoang and Jasmine Guillory dominate seasonal book lists, paving the way for other Berkley rom-com debuts, including Jen DeLuca's Well Met, Lyssa Kay Adams' The Bromance Book Club, Roselle Lim's Natalie Tan's Book of Luck & Fortune, and more.

These brightly packaged love stories were created with intent. "We decided on the illustrated cover approach because it allowed the widest vocabulary for our designers," says Hwang. "Though there are always cyclical trends in both covers and content." Indeed, traditional romances incorporating type or photography haven't disappeared from bookshelves (and likely won't for a long while).

That sentiment is echoed by Rita Frangie, a senior art director who began her career at Berkley as a designer 19 years ago and has been working with the company ever since. She is quick to point out that illustration isn't new, but there are always opportunities to approach it in a different way.

"It's just like fashion," she says. "In the end, the romance reader is looking for romance. There's definitely a newer generation with a different aesthetic than the previous. That's not to say that people don't change their taste, but it's kind of nice to give a novel a chance to put on a different outfit and see how that works. Looking forward, I see all good, beautiful, glittery things."

Over the years, Frangie has collaborated with many designers to bring romance book covers to life. "Across the board, you want to do right by a manuscript. You want to package it and respect it as a work of art on its own," she says. "As an art director, as a cover designer, it's a huge responsibility to try to give the visual perception of what this book is about."

Below are a few of Hwang and Frangie's artistic colleagues, who spoke to Goodreads to bring us behind the scenes of how their design concepts are transformed into dreamy covers.

Colleen Reinhart

Associate Director of Art/Design

Goodreads: Tell us about your artistic journey.

Colleen Reinhart: I interned at Berkley my senior year of college and have been lucky enough to stay a part of this team ever since! My background in illustration made romance a natural fit when we wanted to give our romance novels a fresh look, and it certainly didn't hurt that I am such a sucker for these stories.

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GR: Can you walk our readers through your process?

CR: The editors and the designers meet weekly to discuss covers and upcoming titles. If a particular book grabs my attention, I will ask to work on it and gather as many materials as I can. Character descriptions, mood boards, and comparative titles are all incredibly helpful.

If the manuscript is done, I will read it and take notes. But sometimes all I have is an outline to go off of. Then I will get to work sketching different compositions until I have a collection of covers I am happy presenting to the editorial and sales team. There is a lot of tweaking and back-and-forth before we end on the final cover—hopefully one that everyone is happy with!

GR: Let's talk about a particular romance book cover that you've designed. How did you bring that story to life?

CR: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang was one of the first illustrated romance covers I worked on. As a team, we decided on two key points: The cover should look different from a traditional romance and should incorporate math in some way. Beyond that, I had free reign to try a variety of approaches, from full figures to a close-up of a woman's face to lips made out of numbers.

My art director, Emily Osborne, thought to weave an actual quotient sign into the title, which worked perfectly with my sketch of a tiny couple kissing. Although I have to confess it was actually a square root sign at first, and Helen was the one who pointed it out. Math was not my strongest subject. From there, we tweaked the characters until they accurately conveyed their personalities.

GR: What other romance book covers have you done?

CR: Intercepted, Fumbled, and Blitzed by Alexa Martin, Fight or Flight by Samantha Young, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Unbreak Me by Michelle Hazen, Well Met by Jen DeLuca, Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher, and the Mystic Creek series by Catherine Anderson.

Claudio Marinesco

Photographer

Goodreads: Tell us about your artistic journey.

Claudio Marinesco: I got started in the business in my last year of high school. I was 17 and interned with a fashion photographer in New York City. It ended up becoming my profession…I assisted various photographers for about 12 years and then started shooting on my own after that.

The romance cover work came pretty late in my career. I met a couple of art directors that worked at Penguin, and they started giving me some covers to shoot. There were different genres, but the bulk became romance covers.

Berkley (Penguin) has definitely been one of my best clients, but I work with other publishing houses as well. Rita and I have a great working relationship, we have collaborated on titles for Jaci Burton, Jo Goodman, Lauren Dane, Lora Leigh, Madeline Hunter, Maya Banks, Nora Roberts, and many more.

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GR: Can you walk our readers through your process?

CM: I usually get a short synopsis of the book, a character description, and direction on what the client envisions for the cover. Sometimes the art director will send over some comp titles as a visual reference. A lot of authors put together a Pinterest board on what the characters should look like (very helpful).

I then start casting for the models, hire a hair and makeup person, book a studio, and either get a stylist or shop/rent costumes and props myself. Some covers will require a set, some we shoot on a green screen. It's all one big collaboration: the author's story and character description, the art director's vision of the cover, the models, photography, retouching, etc. Lots of people involved in a seemingly simple cover.

GR: How do you put your models at ease (especially for something as intimate as a romance cover)?

CM: I try and keep things light and fun, joke around a lot, and keep things moving. I show the models the art director's concept and give them direction as we shoot. Most of the models are professionals, so they get right into character. The best ones are also actors, and they always bring more to the shoot.

The models are always picked to match the characters in the book just as the author envisioned. The reference always seems to be a celebrity (actor, athlete, model), so that makes it a little easier to cast.

There's also been quite a few times where models that just met on set walked out together at the end of the shoot. One time the girl actually left hickeys on the guy's neck. Hate when that happens—lots of retouching to clean that up.

GR: Let's talk about a particular romance book cover that you've designed. How did you bring that story to life?

CM: A Heart of Blood and Ashes was a fun shoot! Lots of props involved: We had furs, leathers, armor, axes, finger knives, bear claws, etc. The character was supposed to be a huge warrior, almost beastly. We had visual references of a combination of A Game of Thrones and Conan the Barbarian.

GR: What other romance book covers have you done?

CM: I've shot about 600 covers, probably 75 percent of them have been romance. Here are a few on Pinterest and some on my photography site.

Sarah Oberrender

Senior Designer

Goodreads: Tell us about your journey as a designer.

Sarah Oberrender: I didn't take the typical route of going to art school, knowing exactly what I wanted to do as my career. I knew I loved design and wanted to pursue that, so when the opportunity arose to work at Penguin, I dove in headfirst.

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GR: Can you walk our readers through your design process?

SO: The process starts for the Art Department at the cover conference meeting. The editor presents a cover concept and some ideas from the author, and the editorial, marketing, publicity, and art departments come together to discuss a direction. Sometimes the direction is very open-ended, so we read the manuscripts to get ideas, and other times there is a clear vision for the cover.

Once we have a direction for the cover, we will either set up a photo shoot, create a photo illustration using stock photography, or create original illustrations. It's an exciting time to be designing romance covers because there's a great variety of cover styles that readers are responding to.

GR: Let's talk about a particular romance book cover that you've designed. How did you bring that story to life?

SO: A couple of years ago, I worked on Sylvia Day's Crossfire series, which was a great challenge and also very rewarding. Romance novels were at peak popularity (the Fifty Shades effect), and readers were clamoring for more.

We published this series at a very quick pace, and it was a huge team effort across all departments to put out the best packages possible. At that time, the cover style trend was to feature still-life objects that signaled opulence with an air of mystique. Everything about the cover needed to be sleek and luxurious, from the clean typefaces to the rich colors and textures. In the following years, it was great fun to see the covers adapted into other languages using our cover art!

GR: What other romance book covers have you done?

SO: Over the years, I've worked on covers for Jaci Burton, Megan Crane, Jessica Clare, and Beth Kery, to name a few. I've also worked on historical romance, paranormal romance, and western romance covers—it's always fun to blend genres!

As designers, we get a peek into different ways of life, different time periods, and sometimes even different worlds. Even though each genre has certain recognizable characteristics that readers have come to know, we love to mix things to keep our readers intrigued and coming back for more!




Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Dana Al-Basha (last edited Oct 17, 2019 11:59AM) (new)

Dana Al-Basha دانة الباشا I like the bright ones like The Wedding Date and The Bride Test, and I love the Nora Robert's Bride series.


message 2: by Erika (new)

Erika Natalie Tan's ... is the cutest ☺


message 3: by Brittney (new)

Brittney Tessa Bailey's Fix Her Up was an INSTANT cover buy for me. It was so bright, cheery, and really showed the main characters as they were. It was definitely STEAMY, but I loved that surprise.


Berkley Romance Thank you, Goodreads!! We would be lost without our fantastic team of designers and artists!!


Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ Was there meant to be a link to Marinesco's Pinterest page?

I love a good cover - that can make a book jump from a shelf into my hand!

Not romance but this is my favourite cover this year Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble

I like the branding strategy behind this one Trouble in Nuala (The Inspector de Silva Mysteries #1) by Harriet Steel All the books in this series look very similar, so easy to pick out.


message 6: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Jones I've been loving the vector-art style on modern romance covers. I was hoping to hear from more of those artists! I definitely judge books by their covers and I WILL read a book just because it has a pretty cover. More articles about cover artists, please!!!


message 7: by Tucker (new)

Tucker  (TuckerTheReader) I just want to pop in to say that Berkley publishes all the best romances. Seriously. I have never read a Berkley Romance that I haven't five or four starred.

okay PSA over


message 8: by Kayon Henry (new)

Kayon Henry Cool thanks


LectoraEstherica This was interesting, I hope you bring us more post Like this one!


Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ LectoraEstherica wrote: "This was interesting, I hope you bring us more post Like this one!"

I'm sad it disappeared from my home page so quickly! I love book covers!


message 11: by Helen (new)

Helen I'm waiting for on Hart's boardwalk book 4 by Samantha Young


message 12: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Very interesting!


message 13: by Shaundra (new)

Shaundra I try not to but the cover really makes a big difference on whether I buy or read a book. Many of the covers mentioned in this piece are my favorites especially the Intercepted cover.


message 14: by Shaundra (new)

Shaundra LectoraEstherica wrote: "This was interesting, I hope you bring us more post Like this one!"
Agreed! It was great to get a behind the scenes look at the design process.


message 15: by Lovetoread (new)

Lovetoread I’m not a big fan of the cartoon illustrated covers but they do have their place as long as they work well with the writing style and promise of the book. Sure you can put a fun cover on a book but if the story ends up being angsty and dark I think the cover becomes a lie.


message 16: by Hannah (new)

Hannah Crawford This was such a fun article! I love the new illustrated styles and the variety of book cover designs we're seeing among the romance genre. As a romance reader and graphic designer, this makes me SO HAPPY!


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