Writers in the Storm

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February 14, 2022

Book Cover 101: Romance Covers

by Melinda VanLone

I’ve mentioned it before here at Book Cover 101 but it bears repeating…cover trends change. That means whatever we learned five years ago, or even two years ago, is probably already out the window.

It’s enough to drive authors and designers insane.

New Trends in Romance Covers

Since it’s a brand-new year, and since there’s been a significant shift in some genre trends, I thought I’d focus the next few blog posts on specific genres and what’s expected on their covers. First up…Romance.

Romance is a genre near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’m writing at the moment (see The Bellamy Sisters). I spend a lot of time researching what works and what doesn’t in romance both for clients and for myself, so when I see a shift in trend I tend to sniff it out and follow it.

The trend I’ve noticed in Romance over the past couple of years is the switch from photography to illustrated, graphic art, like this:

It used to be that contemporary romance, especially among indie authors, featured a hot man, usually with his shirt off, though sometimes he’d be wearing a nice suit if it was a millionaire romance.

If it wasn’t a hot guy by himself, then it was a hot couple in various stages of undress, staring into each other’s eyes or otherwise engaged in something smexy.

Graphic artwork on a romance cover used to indicate Chick Lit, a sub-genre of romance that is lighthearted, funny, definitely not angsty, and often not steamy. Artwork like that promised a rom-com read, one that didn’t dive too deep. Beach reads, I like to call them.

But now graphic illustrations are dominating not just Chick Lit, but romance as a whole. Check out the top ten romance novels of 2021 according to Goodreads (voted on by readers):

Notice the pastel colors, the use of shades of orange or peach, all the graphic art vs photos, and the way they’re using typography. All of these are listed as contemporary romance, not rom-com, and the people are…well, cartoons.

Alternative to Stock Photos

One reason I think this is happening is the sheer lack of good stock photography. If you follow such things on Twitter you’ve probably seen the debate going on about this. Existing stock photography is incredibly weak when it comes to diverse model representation, which makes coming up with a cover that is true to the characters a tough nut to crack.

More than that, though, is the lack of good stock photography period, especially with so many authors needing covers. You’ve probably noticed the repetition of models and backgrounds. I’ve seen the couple on my own cover used on at least fifty other covers.

One way around that is to hire a photographer to do a custom photoshoot, but that option is out of reach for most indie authors, and even some publishers. 

It’s far cheaper and easier to find someone who can do simple illustrations, and no two are exactly alike if you’re having them custom drawn. You can also find a lot more of them at stock art sites.

I understand why this trend is happening, but it sure muddies the waters. The heat level is being lost in this transition. Not every cover you see with a “cartoon” is going to be funny. That seems confusing to readers, to me, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, it’s a prevailing trend, for better or worse, and it’s as common with trad pub titles as it is with Indies.

There are certain sub-niches that haven’t fully switched yet, like Billionaire Romance. I can’t imagine it will fully take over Erotica either, but I could be wrong. After all, Fifty Shades didn’t follow the going trend, and see how well that turned out.

What does this mean for you?

If you write romance, and you’re not happy with your sales recently, it means you should seriously evaluate if your current cover fits the current genre expectations. I’m doing that with my own covers right now, and I’m leaning toward shifting them to something with more graphics, even though my book has only been out a year.

If you write romance, it might be worth taking a second look at your covers to see if they fit the going trend because if they don’t, you could be losing out on sales.

Nobody wants that!

What Romance covers have you seen that really appeal to you? How do you feel about illustrated covers? Please share your thoughts with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Melinda

Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies.

When she's not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.

Her elementary fantasy series, House of Xannon, begins with Stronger Than Magic. For more information on covers, visit BookCoverCorner.com.

Top Image by olcay ertem from Pixabay

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13 comments on “Book Cover 101: Romance Covers”

  1. Great info! I'm working on some romance authors websites right now and I'm thinking that color palette may be ideal for one of them!

  2. This might be the trend, but those covers do absolutely NOTHING for me. Not saying I'm enthralled with the shirtless hero either, but I've got over 20 romance novels (romantic suspense) out there, and no way am I changing them. If it cuts into my sales, so be it. I doubt I could ever recoup what it would cost to change my cover branding.

    1. I have to admit, this trend doesn't do a thing for me either! None of those covers makes me want to click, and yet they must be working for someone because those are best sellers...something I want to be! lol. I'm probably going to do some sort of compromise, like Lucy Score's Things We Never Got Over cover. It's at least pretty 🙂

    1. I keep hoping this trend will fade away, but like vampires it appears to be sticking around. At least for now. I've bought some, but only because someone recommended the book to me, not because of the cover. Which to me is...well, missing the point. But again, as I said above...they're selling, which is all I really want. As a business person I'll do whatever it takes to get my story into the hands of readers, although to be honest I draw the line at yellow, peach, and orange tones lol. Just can't do it.

  3. I have to wonder about the age group buying these covers. They seem geared to those thirty and under. Do you have info on the demographic group buying? Thanks for your post. I'm trying to stay open to the idea but don't care for it, either.

  4. I agree with some of your other responders. In my opinion, most of the covers look cheap and slopped together for romances. I wouldn't pick up a single one of them. Perhaps the success of the books have more to do with the content than the cover? After all, the content is displayed next to the thumbnail if you're looking online. Maybe the readers buy the books because they already like these authors.

  5. You know, in the way back Harlequin had a code for covers. I had a huge discussion with a Harlequin editor about this.

    The colors on the covers of Harlequin and Silhouette's category romances would tell you about the amount of sex you would find in the books. These were the ones that came out each month (Intrigue, Blaze, Special Edition, etc.).

    Pastels such as pink or blue will have no actual sex scenes and will end in marriage.
    Deep greens, blues, purples will have at least one sex scene and will end in marriage.
    Red covers will have multiple sex scenes and do NOT have to end in marriage.

    I wonder if any of that color code has carried through to the new graphical trend.

  6. The "cartoon" covers do absolutely nothing to encourage me too buy. Makes me think the author doesn't take their work too seriously. The story means much to me if I have real people to attach to the characters. I probably will never buy a cartoon cover.

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