Designing Romance Covers: What Works?

What’s the best way to design a book cover for a genre you aren’t familiar with? What if it goes wrong, despite your best efforts? Iditarod Nights, Cindy Hiday’s adventurous romance set in Alaska, is the first romance that Ooligan Press has published. Because of this, we did a lot of market research so we could market the book in the best way possible. However, this research didn’t extend to cover design as much as it should have.

Every book that Ooligan publishes gets pitched to our distributor, Ingram, approximately six months before the launch date. The project manager speaks with a handful of sales representatives from Ingram and reviews the key selling points, the marketing and publicity highlights, and any other unique ways we plan on marketing the book and getting it in front of readers. When I spoke with Ingram last fall, I was a bit surprised to hear that our original cover design was not quite romance-y enough. But they were absolutely right—our previous cover design didn’t show readers enough about the budding romance between Claire and Dillon, nor was it as eye-catching as it could have been.

With that in mind, we (that is, Denise Morales Soto—our design lead—and Des Hewson, another Oolie who graciously volunteered their time to design a new cover) scrambled a bit to develop a new cover-design plan and put that plan into practice. We knew we didn’t want a bodice-ripper, too much focus on the couple themselves, any half-naked bodies, or anything that was mainly focused on typography. We wanted to create an effective romance cover without compromising the Ooligan style, but the pressure was on to stay on schedule.

When I asked Denise what she thought about the whole experience, this is what she said: “We had less than two weeks to reimagine a cover, do market research, lay out some mock-ups, and finalize a cover—that’s a lot of work with not a lot of time! It’s not easy to hear that you need to scrap a project and start over, especially when it’s one that you’ve already put so much time and work into. But it’s important to adapt and listen when people are telling you that something isn’t working, especially when it’s coming from the people that are trying to sell your book. We believe in all the books that we acquire at Ooligan, and we want to give them all a fighting chance in the market.”

Wise words from our design lead. After the rush to get the new cover designed and tweaked as needed, we ended up with an absolutely gorgeous, eye-catching cover. It featured a strong romance element while keeping the snow and the aurora borealis from our previous design. We moved forward with the confidence that we would attract the readers we wanted.

So, when it comes to designing romance book covers, what works? It depends on your press, the content of the book, and the readers you want to target. Iditarod Nights is not an erotic romance novel or a bodice-ripper, so we didn’t have any close-up shots of half-naked individuals. Many recent romance covers focus on typography, but we wanted to keep the elements of the aurora borealis and the snow-flecked trees. Additionally, Iditarod Nights is a relatively light romance, so it made sense for us to split the focus between the setting (the snowy trees, the aurora borealis, and the starry Alaskan sky) and the couple. The design of our new cover made the most sense for our book.

When you’re designing your romance cover, think about what your readers want to see and what will catch their eye; think about what design will best serve the content of your book. And if something goes wrong, sometimes the best thing for everyone is to go back to the drawing board and create something great.

Ooligan Press at the PNBA Tradeshow

This Monday Ooligan Press was lucky enough to snag a table at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) Fall Tradeshow. And while the tradeshow closely followed Wordstock, the two events were entirely different. For one thing, the conference was only open to book industry professionals. For another, the goal was to promote books, not sell them. Publishers, distribution services, and writers’ groups all had tables handing out leaflets, collateral, and advance review copies of their newest publications. As I walked around looking at the booths, the first thing I learned was that although the organization is called the Pacific Northwest Book Association, the publishers present spanned the entire country. Ooligan’s table was directly in front of Random House, for example, and mere feet away from Penguin’s. It was exciting to see Ooligan Press’s representatives talking to booksellers alongside the heaviest hitters in the publishing game.
The Ooligan Table at PNBA 2013
For our part, we used the opportunity to tell the bookselling public about Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s The Ninth Day, our newest title. This soon-to-be-released companion novel to the OBA-winning Blue Thread (2012) was front and center on our table, and the first thing we told visitors about.  We received a fair amount of interest, and gave away a few copies to reviewers, booksellers, and librarians in the know. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Ruth would be signing books at the tradeshow the next day.
Not just publishers had tables. Ooligan’s table was next to Seattle7Writers, an organization of Pacific Northwest authors supporting each other and the written word. In between pitches to booksellers, our close proximity allowed us to discuss ways we can support each other. For example, they were happy to hear and spread the word about our call for submissions for our anthology More than Marriage. It’s these sorts of connections that help bolster Ooligan Press’s reach in the publishing world.
Along with making connections with other publishing professionals, the PNBA trade show was also a great place to eavesdrop. As I surveyed the different booths and books, I overheard one publisher tell another, “This year, it’s all about cookbooks.” Judging from the amount of glossy pictures of fennel salads adorning the shelves, I couldn’t help but agree. However, the trade show wasn’t just about cookbooks—it was also about chocolate. Just about all of the booths had at least one bowl of sweets peppering their table, a great tactic to lure in potential business. I asked Ingram Publisher Services’s representative, Gary Lothian, about the approach, and he assured me it was par for the course. “Yeah, it’s all about chocolate in the publishing world,” he told me. “Chocolate and caffeine.” That was all the affirmation I needed to know I was in the right business.