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.

A Worthwhile Visit from the Author of Elephant Speak

What were you doing in 2014?
Five years ago, Roger Henneous granted author and friend Melissa Crandall permission to begin work on a book that would detail his life and experiences with a special herd of elephants at the Oregon Zoo. Writing a biography takes incredible patience, and finishing one takes true dedication. Alongside its spirited author, Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd enjoyed its first appearance in the spotlight this October at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Fall Tradeshow. During the “7 Coming-Up” author showcase, Melissa shared with booksellers the story of how she met Roger and the elephants’ former matriarch, Belle (read the speech on Melissa’s blog). Fresh advance reader copies had their spines stretched one by one as Melissa signed first pages and gave copies away with her thanks to all the attendees, many of whom shared connections with the Asian elephants of Portland.
While many Ooligan authors reside in the Pacific Northwest, Melissa currently lives on the other side of the country, in Connecticut. From Ooligan’s perspective, she existed solely on the other end of email threads and phone calls until her recent visit to Portland, which became an important turning point in this book’s journey. Melissa visited with Roger and his family, celebrating the book’s role in strengthening their friendship. She then spent a full day working with elephants Rose-Tu (daughter of Me-Tu) and Shine (previously Sung-Surin and current herd matriarch) and their present-day dedicated keepers. By the time I met Melissa for the PNBA Tradeshow the following morning, her clarity of purpose was rejuvenated by the joy of these reunions. As a result, so was the purpose of Ooligan and Elephant Speak.
With four months to go until publication, it is a wonderful thing to be excited about this book. The major tasks ahead of us depend on that excitement. Before the holidays, Elephant Speak will be proofread and the interior design will be finalized (all photos included!). Project management tasks will consist largely of communicating with those who are contributing blurbs and reviews, building awareness of the book on social media, and planning the book launch alongside Melissa’s tour of Oregon bookstores and other locations in March. I am grateful to have a team of people who, having just read the book for the first time, understand the story’s leading themes of sacrifice, love, camaraderie, and growth, all of which continue to guide our positioning of Roger’s story within the larger context of animal caretaking practices, human-animal bonds, and wildlife conservation.
Thanks to the strong start given to this book project by my talented predecessor, Monique Vieu—along with the enthusiastic support of our long-distance author and the newly admitted excitement of Roger himself—we can now look forward to the final steps of preparing Elephant Speak for its winter debut.
Ooligan, on three! That is, March 3, 2020.

Passing the Torch: Advice from Graduating Project Managers

At the end of every winter term, students at Ooligan Press have the opportunity to become project managers (PMs) and department leads, and a year later they must pass the torch to next year’s students. As managers are currently in the process of training their successors, three departing project managers reflect on the challenges and achievements throughout their tenure and give advice to future Ooligan PMs.

Sophie Aschwanden was a team member for Siblings and Other Disappointments before she became project manager for the book. Most of the work was already done under the previous leadership, so Sophie’s job was to take charge and quickly move the book through galleys, reviews, and printing during the summer term. The book launched two weeks after school started in the fall. She recalled, “Most of the work was done, but everything needed to move like clockwork.”

Julie Swearingen was a member of the Seven Stitches team before becoming its manager. She was very familiar with the book publishing process in general, yet the immediacy of the tasks as project manager was a surprise.

Jacoba (Cobi) Lawson was given the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Ricochet River to manage, along with At the Waterline. Managing two books at the same time is unusual at Ooligan, but it has been a positive experience for Cobi, who said, “I know both of my books backward and forward at this point, and I know exactly what each author needs in terms of communication. Both authors and books are so wonderful; I want nothing more than to deliver to them total world domination.”

The three project managers agreed on several challenges:

  • The handoff to new project managers is shakey. Even though you’re likely to be familiar with the book, it’s surprisingly difficult to fully understand deadlines and communication needs.
  • Even though we have resources, they aren’t always sufficient for the task. As project manager, it feels like you need to reinvent the wheel at each step.
  • Transitioning your team—especially losing key team members and orienting new team members—is a challenge that is especially difficult during the gaps between terms, where you lose momentum.
  • Often the new project manager needs to quickly build a relationship with the author, who trusts the previous PM. Quickly building a rapport is a challenge.
  • Fulfilling authors’ marketing expectations with Ooligan’s limited budget is a challenge that calls for creativity.

Overcoming these challenges is part of the job, and all three project managers felt great satisfaction in their work. They cited these personal highlights:

  • Working with the author as the manuscript transforms into an excellent book.
  • Working with such capable team members and their consistent desire to do high-quality work.
  • Receiving reviews that demonstrate the book connected with an audience.
  • Being supported by the other Ooligan Press managers.
  • Supporting the author in developing a strong social media presence.
  • Putting together a great launch event.

The three project managers have advice for future PMs at Ooligan:


  • Understand what deadlines need to be met immediately after the PM handoff.
  • Learn to communicate and be honest with the team about what needs to happen.


  • Read your book multiple times for different purposes. A deep knowledge of the book helps to market and make sure Ooligan Press is characterizing the work to its full value.
  • Be prepared for snow, summer slowdown, and mysterious errors like e‘s becoming threes.
  • Get to know your team members’ strengths and use their skills and professional motivation.


  • Aim high. We have so many talented, motivated people in this program. Trust them. Empower them. I have consistently asked more of them than what’s required, and they have always delivered—and then some.
  • Get to know your authors and play to their strengths.
  • Set deadlines! Talk to the department heads to figure out work flow and stick to that plan.
  • Communicate with other PMs and learn from the teams who are one term ahead of you—you’ll be in their shoes sooner than you think.

My Name is Sean Davis and I Wrote “The Wax Bullet War”

Sean Davis is the author of the memoir The Wax Bullet War, which he is currently promoting through book tours and readings. You can see him read at Powell’s City of Books on May 27th at 7:30 p.m. in the Pearl Room.

The Wax Bullet War is about my experiences during war, my difficulty transitioning back into the civilian life, and some other very hard times in my life. When I finished the manuscript and it was time to shop it around, I spent some time sending it to agents and big houses. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was looking in the wrong places. I wanted these moments in my life to be cared for. The story was filled with some of the most proud, vulnerable, and embarrassing moments in my life. I needed to find a place that would take special care of them.

When I was a student at PSU I always saw the glass case outside of the English Department office on the third floor of Neuberger Hall. It was filled with Ooligan Press books. I would stop and read about the newest book coming out and I clearly remember telling myself I would get my book in there some day. I knew the Ooligan team was filled with talented people who really had a passion for words, and a passion to put out the best product possible.

I stopped sending my manuscript to the big houses even though there was some interest and sent it was Ooligan Press instead. I’m so glad I did. Having a book with Ooligan Press is like having an entire team of people supporting you. This is important because writers, especially early in their careers, need that support. I know it really helped validate this leap I made into the literary world. I would go to meetings with ten people and find that not only did they all read the book, they all loved the book and had a ton of ideas. They were enthusiastic and wanted to make the book great, and in my opinion they did. Whenever I get emails or messages from people telling me that they loved the book I always thank them and say it was a group effort. If they’re writers I recommend they submit to Ooligan.

The support doesn’t stop when the book comes out. I’m pleasantly surprised just about every week when Laurel, the project manager, has some sort of marketing plan or a new scheduled reading. Not only that, but since my book was being worked on so long I cycled through a few different project managers. People like Kait Heacock or Mary Breaden have moved on, but we never lost touch. They have set up readings for me in New York City this summer.

The Wax Bullet War is a good book. I’m proud of it. I let everyone know that it wouldn’t be the book it is without Ooligan Press. Everyone I met—from the director of the program to the social-media guru—had a hand in this book, and I have no doubt The Wax Bullet War will keep doing well because of the effort and support I received.

Testing the waters

Even though I am a member of Ooligan Press, I chose not to volunteer at Write to Publish 2014—and therefore attend the panels for free—but chose to buy a ticket and attend as a guest. My reasoning was simple: I didn’t want to take any time or focus away from the panels and workshop I was interested in. We all wear many hats, and aside from my role as a student and my interest in working in the publishing industry, I also write a webcomic called Little Witch, and that was the hat I wanted to wear to the conference. I had a great time, made contacts with people in the comic book industry, and came away inspired with ideas of how to market my webcomic.

Turns out, I wasn’t just inspired to market my webcomic. Almost every other night, when I went to bed, I had trouble sleeping because my head was filled with thoughts of the conference. I thought about the things I liked and wanted to see more of; things I’d change; ways I could leave my stamp on the conference. There are a lot of conferences about writing, but not many about how to succeed at publishing. I’ve always been concerned with improving the world somehow with my existence, and I kept thinking about how Write to Publish would be a great way to do that. I thought, growing up, I knew about the publishing industry because I liked to read. Now, being a part of Ooligan Press, I realize how much I didn’t know. I could leave a mark on the world passing on information to others about how much potential and diversity there is in the publishing industry, and tips and tricks to smooth the way to finding careers (something every student my age is concerned about).

So, when the opportunity came to apply for management positions in Ooligan, I applied to manage Write to Publish (even though I had spent most of my time before this working with the acquisition department and, up until this point, had planned to apply for Acquisitions Manager).  To my joy, I was accepted, along with Melanie Figueroa, to put together Write to Publish 2015. To my surprise, that meant starting right away. Even though the event is so far away, I already feel like it will be here in no time. Whelp! Hold my breath and into the deep end I go. Currently, Melanie and I are tackling the big questions, of when, where, and what exactly, researching other conferences in the area to make sure Write to Publish doesn’t conflict with another event and to get ideas for what we want to incorporate.  Expect some changes, but also expect the same intimate and informative experience with local authors, agents, artists and publishers.

Into the deep end I go, and I can’t wait to swim.