The Seduction of Romance-Novel Design

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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.

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