The Seduction of Romance-Novel Design

My first romance novels were Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love and its steamy sequel, Dark Fires. It didn’t take long for me to devour the glamorous Sidney Sheldon canon, which included The Other Side of Midnight, A Stranger in the Mirror, and Bloodline. And then, like every other teenage girl, it was good-bye romance, hello Sylvia Plath.

I don’t know if my tawdry Sheldon tomes are the equivalent of today’s popular teen fiction. I’ve never read the Twilight series, but my sister recalls not seeing my niece for an entire summer as she holed up in her room with Bella, Edward, and that kid with the big muscles.

My thick 1970s paperbacks were pretty sexy, with lots of heaving breasts and stirring manhoods. Such weighty volumes made me feel like a grown up—I was dazzled by tales of passion, power, and greed. Wasn’t that what adults liked?

Claire Brown knows a lot about love. She designs romance novel covers as part of her job at Hachette Publishing Group—for its Forever imprint—and she’s got a passion for, well, passion. (Sorry, I had to say it.)

“I used to steal my mom’s Danielle Steel novels,” Brown says. “My friends and I traded Judith Krantz novels, with all the ‘good parts’ highlighted. We were ten. Our mothers were not amused.”

The design of the romance genre is driven by sales, but the formula works. “There are constraints in how much we can deviate without alienating the reader,” Brown says. “Familiarity in typeface and painterly style reassures the reader that this book is what you think it is going to be, and you are going to love it.

“With that said, there are an infinite number of design problems that need to be solved within the constraints of a romance cover. The canvas is very small and the typography and setting are grand. A knowledge of history and classical art, architecture, and furnishings is important. We have a library of classical art books, contemporary high fashion, architecture, and interior design. I take field trips to the Met for inspiration.”

Tartan rules

Fun fact: Kilts sell books. And clearly, so do chiseled abs.

“I love the Devil in a Kilt cover,” Brown says. “John DeSalvo is a very popular model. He has done over 1,500 romance and sci-fi covers in his career. This book was published over ten years ago, and it is still selling. One of the first things I learned when I started doing this is kilts sell books! Who knew? Actually, the more plaid you can get on there the better. Lately, it has been male torsos and beautiful dresses that really grab the historical-romance fan.”

In exploring the various romance categories, an unusual one popped up that I just had to ask about: paranormal romance.

Spooky (yet buff)

“Paranormal romance can mean a lot of different things,” Brown says. “Vampires and demons, parallel universes and futuristic settings. But something that is a part of all paranormal romance is that our heroes and heroines must face and overcome tremendous, sometimes life-altering, earth-shattering obstacles in the name of love. It’s the ultimate expression of love conquering all. And I personally think that part of the reason people connect with paranormal romance is because often the characters are outsiders, and people can relate to the way that feels.”

Brown came to New York City with a bachelor’s degree in english literature from Tulane University. She quickly became a student at the Art Students League, studying painting and drawing. “I decided, given my interests, I’d like a job in the art department of a book publisher,” she says. “I sent my résumé to every publisher in town and waited and waited.

“Finally, Jackie Meyer, the creative director for Warner Books, called me in. She was looking for an executive assistant, but also someone to mentor. Within three years, I was the art director of a book imprint. I started on the romance genre when I assisted Diane Luger, executive art director for mass market. Anne Twomey, who came in as creative director after Jackie, was also a great inspiration. She’d done romance for years at several publishing houses, and has a reservoir of knowledge and respect for the genre.

“I realized that, while I wanted to work on other kinds of projects, I felt a connection to the romances and didn’t want to stop working on them—it has been 13 years now.”

Thirteen years of love.

Mechanical for Confessions of an Improper Bride

Yes, please

Just a hint?

Anne Twomey’s Beauty from Ashes

Never a Gentleman, followed by Barely a Lady





33 thoughts on “The Seduction of Romance-Novel Design

  1. Linda

    Great article!! I have a friend that is perfect for a romance book cover… he has awesome eyes, amazing body, lips.. i mean the men is gorgeous! i have being searching how can he do that but have not found any info… anyone has any ideas? SOS lol

  2. Alex

    The fantasy and escape that these covers bring hit the right notes.  I’ve bought many a book based on the cover or at the very least picked it up to see what it is about.  

  3. Ana R.

    Amazing!  Claire you are so talented.  I’m sure there will be many people reading these books at the beach this summer.  Congratulations on your success!!

  4. Kelly C

    Those covers are exquisite! I think everyone wants to have that feeling of intense passion and love. That is why there will always be a demand for romance novels. Your talent is amazing!!!! Well done Claire.

  5. Mary Ann

    I’v always had a longing for Scotland, but Duncan gave me something else to long for. When I went
    I could’t find him, but I’m going back to look again. Never give up hope!!!!!!

  6. Claire

    For the Sue-Ellen Wellfounder fans  she has a series out right now that begins with “Sins of a Highland Devil”  The cover is similar to Devil in a Kilt.  I know what Glittergirl means about book stores.  Borders was a great store for Romance books, we miss them.


    Love Sue-Ellen’s Duncan in Devil in a Kilt… Heck, I LOVE her books… There’s love, paranormal, adventure, and heroes/heroines galore.. And then, there’s SCOTLAND and kilts.. And yes, I’ve been to Scotland twice! I could live in the place… A friendlier bunch of kilted and non-kilted heroes/heroines abound, and that’s no fiction! And about kilts, when I see them on the cover, consider the book bought!

  8. Glittergirl

    You have the most fabulous job! If I lived closer to NY I’d look into it. I have to admit it’s the cover that first grabs my attention. I look for my favorite author’s new releases not by the title but by the cover. I’m not looking for new authors but a tartan will grab me EVERY time…ighland romances are my first love. The colors, textures and male abs these days make the books hard to resist. It’s too bad local bookstores are going away because the internet isn’t friendly to book brousing. Thanks for a glimpse into the cover department of publishers.

  9. Barb R

    Devil In A Kilt – fantastic story, fantastic cover, and last but not least – simply fantastic author Sue Ellen Welfonder – enough said!

  10. Claire

    @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
    Thanks for all the interest.  One of my favorite things about Romance readers is the enthusiasm they have for the genre and sub genres.   @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }The covers are not high concept but every detail on the cover matters.  The sparkle of a jewel, the hint of a smile, @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }the historical accuracy of the setting, everything is important. 

  11. Carol L

    Love this post. Reading what it takes to bring a cover to the book. And yes I have to agree that anything with a Kilt is going home with me.  🙂 Duncan, my first love and introduction to Sue Ellen’s Highlanders. Devil In A Kilt is still holding a place of hnor on my bookshelf. I love everyone of Sue Ellen.Allie’s book covers.  All these years and Duncan is still right up front. The covers you’ve shown above are beautiful. Thanks for this post. Very interesting.
    Carol LLucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

  12. Janice Lee

    I’m very pleased to see first Devil in a kilt’s, Duncan up there. These all are so precious. Can’t stop looking at them. Either the bodies, the romance or the colors on the covers.
    And I’m amazed by how beautiful ALL the covers are, I can’t pick one as a favorite, they all got that romance something that makes me want to grab those books.
    Kudos Claire Brown!

  13. Z

    Love Devil In a Kilt and all the other covers are great too, such talent, it’s amazing when the artist is able to capture the characters so well. DIAK started it for me I have read all of SE’s books. Yes tartan will sell books.

  14. Helen

    Duncan, Devil in a Kilt. Oh my what is there not to love, again and again. Sue-Ellen’s Duncan is all you would even want in or out of a plaid. I would read the phone book if Sue-Ellen had written it. She is that GREAT…… Helen in Ark.

  15. Paper Acrobat

    Really enjoyed this article. OK so the images are a bit cliched and just on the edge of tacky, but they sell books and give the reader what they expect. It’s been said before but sex sells…

  16. Lea Ann

    Sue-Ellen’s book “Devil In A Kilt” was the book that brought me back to reading years ago. I fell in love with Duncan back then and he still holds a very special place in my heart today. “Devil In A Kilt” was the start of a long term love affair with Duncan and his family and all of Sue-Ellen Welfonder’s books. I also love her Allie Mackay books, too!

  17. Kathy Garuti

    Claire, thanks for the look inside the world of covers.  I always enjoy learning more about what it take to bring a book to the book stores.  I love Duncan, have loved him all through the series.  Thank you for the beautiful job on the cover.

  18. Mary M

    Stunning covers, and I must say that I love Devil in a Kilt! I am the proud owner of the ARC, and I will never forget when my general manager (former Borders bookseller) held it up for all to see in a meeting. I nearly jumped out of my chair to snatch that one away. Little did I know, that would start my love affair for book covers, but for Sue-Ellen Welfonder, too!

  19. Leah Weller

    Beautiful covers! I do like the beautiful dresses that are gracing the covers lately, but I have to admit that I love a kilt! Not only did I fall in love with Duncan in Devil In A Kilt, but that wonderful book also brought a wonderful lady into my life. Sue-Ellen is the best and her friendship is truly valued!
    When you spoke of your first romance novels and showed the cover to Sweet Savage Love, it reminded me of my first romance, The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I searched until I found a copy of the first issue just so I could own that cover. It’s a little tattered but I love it dearly. There’s just something about those old covers that grabs me.

  20. Mary Anne Landers

    Fine article!  I absolutely love romance cover art, and can’t get enough excellent examples.  I especially appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at what goes into creating an effective cover.  Thank you, Gail Anderson and Claire Brown!

  21. Amy M

    Devil In A Kilt is a great read! The first book I read by Sue-Ellen Welfonder but not the last.  Duncan the hero is just as tasty as the cover.  Read the book!!

  22. Pingback: Devil In A Kilt’s Duncan Honored Today… | Tartan Ink

  23. Anne B

    What a fun article! I haven’t thought about this genre since Fabio got all that attention for however many covers he did. I wonder what happens to male models when their abs are no longer needed to sell books…