New book preview: Cover design woes

Very exciting news: I’ve just submitted my cover design request to my publisher for an upcoming novel. At this point, I can’t show it to you or tell you much about it, so this is just a jerky, vague alert that a book is coming and the cover will hopefully be awesome!

Recently, the romance community has been debating the value of illustrated covers, which have become quite popular lately. See, for instance, Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue (this summer’s much talked about book) or any of Jasmine Guillory’s books, the covers of which I love. The first cover design for Crazy Rich Asians prompted critiques that the book was trying to mask its genre (romance), and the cover post-film shows the movie stars, associating the novel more with its big screen success than the romance plot. There are myriad arguments for and against illustrated covers, and I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out who falls into the “pro” and “con” categories, but it’s a jumble. Here are some of the overlapping points made:

  1. Illustrated covers refresh romance away from the stereotypical Fabio and bodice ripper covers that people associate with romance.
  2. This might mask that the book being read is romance, which perpetuates the stigma of romance but also might welcome in new readers who were historically embarrassed to be seen carrying around romance novels.
  3. By reaching out to those new readers, publishers who produce illustrated covers may be devaluing the genre’s most loyal readers.
  4. But illustrated covers are also helpful for folks writing romance novels with characters who can’t easily be found among stock photo models. (There is a great thread explaining this on Twitter.)

Both my previous publisher and my current one solicited my input on cover design. In addition to asking about the tone of the book, the appearance of the central characters, important settings, small publishers also give you access to the stock photography sites they use, where they will probably pull an image to use on the cover. As the Twitter thread linked to above explains, stock photography is lacking in diversity and representation, especially when you are searching for images with more than one person romantically linked. So the options are to avoid people on the cover, PhotoShop them together awkwardly, or pay for a special photoshoot (which many small presses simply cannot do).

This is a real vintage photo from News Dog Media, but not likely to be found in a stock archive, sadly. You can see more vintage portraits of couples here.

But the illustrated vs. photo cover debate isn’t the only thing causing cover design woes. Another problem is that the number of stock photography archives are limited, especially those that are affordable to smaller presses. And genres like romance tend to use specific tropes with similar themes, characters, and storylines, which brings us to this….

How did this happen?

Road Tripping (2014) and Driving Her Crazy (2015) use the same stock photo, only slightly moved to the left for one of them. How does this happen? Is this allowed? Is this common? It happens because cover design happens very quickly, publishers subscribe to the same stock photo archives, and it’s impossible to research all existing book covers before creating a new one. Just as books might have the same titles, they may also have more or less the same covers. In fact, repeated cover imagery is so common that there is a list compiled on Goodreads.

With all these things to consider about designing a cover, what did I end up telling my publisher I wanted to see? I’ll leave that as a surprise for now, but I’ll tell you what I told them I didn’t want to see: headless bodies or bare feet. Because no.

Okay, I haven’t read this one yet, but I think we can agree that THIS is how you use stock photos!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s