We're delighted to welcome Anna 'Tiferet' Sikorska - a book cover designer for a Big Five publisher, specialising in romance and other genre fiction, with additional several years of freelance experience in designing LGBT romance covers - as she gives us an insight into her work...
When Ali asked me to write a blog post talking about designing romance covers I was first excited and then immediately overwhelmed by the broadness of the subject.
I love my job, I could talk about it for hours (have, actually, both in private and in public, most recently at the UK LGBT Fiction Meet, where we focused on what makes a cover fit a genre). But...
A portfolio of classy fanart can get you hired as a small press cover designer, and from there the sky's the limit
There are so many angles, so many ways to tackle the subject... Then someone suggested I make it a case study, to give insight into my actual process (with pictures!) instead of theoretical rambling. So, voila: a queer historical/fairy tale adventure/romance cover, because an intersection of the genres gave me so very many visual cues and I bravely took them all!
Disclaimer: since it’s a case study, the process is by no means representative to all the covers, or even all my covers you might encounter - I’ve picked one that was both dear to me and quite complicated, to show you the extent of fun a designer can have.
First things first then - the book in question is The Blacksmith Prince by Beryl and Osiris Brackhaus, a story of a young French fisherman gifted with a second sight, who goes on a quest with a beautiful blacksmith and ventures into the faery world to find a way to lift a curse.
Because the authors are my dear friends and it’s a self-pub, we worked on it closely one-on-one (well, one-on-two plus some feedback from friends and family here and there), which makes it very different from designing for a big publisher, where the majority of decisions is made by professionals rather than an author (who almost never has contact with a particular designer).
1. Tell me about the book
The designer very rarely reads the book they’re working on (it’s simply physically impossible and not really necessary, as long as we’re given good feedback along the way), usually our knowledge of the story comes from a so-called art brief compiled by authors, editors, or both. It contains a summary of the book, description of important characters, places and other elements, tells us what the genre and mood are.
In this case I sent the authors a list of questions, but being a fan of their writing I asked to read at least a bit of the manuscript (I ended up reading all of it by the time the first concepts were completed). Still, they sent me a dossier with reference photos of locations and suggestions of what the cover models could look like (“could” being an operative word here - it’s virtually impossible to find a model who fits the author’s vision perfectly, but while it’s not unheard of to have a romance book cover not have a people on it at all, conventional wisdom tells us that conventionally attractive models are just a safer bet, so compromises are necessary).
This would not be needed with, let’s say, contemporary London, but since I know very little about the 17th century France it was very much appreciated
2. What’s the competition?
That’s an easy and enjoyable part. We scoured Amazon for mainstream, bestselling books in the same genre, romance and otherwise, to see what the current visual trends are, and discussed what we liked and what we didn’t. While it’s important for a cover to be unique, it has to be clear for a prospective reader where it belongs (to tell you something like “if you liked xx and yy, you might like our book, zz”). In professional publishing this part is decided way, way earlier by other people, but a designer needs to have a good grasp on the subject too to understand what visuals they’re using and why.
What we want: a big central figure, bold colours, an easily legible title, a visible landscape
3. Finding the right components
This stage can be either super fun or super frustrating, or both. Sometimes you find a perfect model right away, or start work with a particular one in mind. Sometimes you try out five, the author picks the favourite and everyone’s happy. Sometimes though either the designer can’t find anyone who fits their vision, or the author is being picky, or the character is so unique that the standard image banks don’t offer any options.
Way easier with contemporary romances, as you can probably imagine
In this case, it wasn’t that bad though. One of our main characters, the love interest, is a young, beautiful, not entirely human Giraud, the eponymous blacksmith. He’s dashing and happy. We knew we needed someone in period clothes and with long hair (both aspects a rarity). I hoped to find a dynamic pose rather than a guy just standing there, to signal the action-adventure part of the story. I suggested an image bank specialising in models in historical clothes and we picked several photos to try out.
4. Special effects
Since magic plays such an important role in the story I hoped to add some cool light effects to denote that, but they had to both make the character look pretty and allow for the addition of the background. The story isn’t dark or grim, it’s a sweet, exciting fairy tale full of supernatural creatures like dryads and pixies, with settings like picturesque French villages and ruins and magical forests, so I knew that the colours needed to be bright and saturated and the background should include some architectural elements or nature, or both.
The title font we picked basically right away - not too stiff and formal and not modern. We settled on two final models and I tried out a bunch of background and magical effect combos. I wanted the elements like light and fog to give it a soft, romantic feel. The model on the left has Giraud’s colouring and a more appropriate shirt, but the one on the right is Giraud’s age and has that dreamy-eyes-flowing-hair thing going on for him, his pose is more dynamic too.
5. We need to customise
Here’s where the magic happens. New hair colour, musketeer-style facial hair, green eyes, soft glow. It’s not often that this kind of intervention is needed, and sometimes it’s just impossible (as a general rule, it’s easier to add elements than remove them). It’s part photomanipulation, part retouching, plain digital painting, seriously time-consuming, and very satisfying when it comes out right.
6. Background fun
As a rule of thumb, the more intimate the romance, the more of a close up I like to use on a cover to reflect that, be it expressive portraits for emotional stories or naked upper bodies for erotica. If it’s a plotty kind, if the setting is important, it’s good to give the characters some breathing room on the cover. It’s not a necessity every time, but it usually works, and it definitely worked here.
7. The final result
And here you are, the final result. Giraud glowing with magic, surrounded by a faery forest, heading towards the old castle holding his hunting knife, ready to take on whatever he needs to lift the curse - that’s how Jehan, his future lover, sees him.
Romances with contemporary settings aren’t usually that complicated. If you’re lucky, you can find that perfect photo that just fits the story right away. Sometimes though the occasion calls for the big guns, and boy, is it fun when it does.
For more information about Anna's work, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.