When I first released my first twelve novels in my medieval romance series I had strongly decided on NOT having bodice-ripping humans on my covers. I had gotten really turned off by the man-nearly-raping-woman aspect of many of them. My novels are wholly clean and I wanted to set myself apart from them.
At the same time that I was working on this "no human" cover, I received a press release for a novel series I enjoy which was redoing its covers in preparation for launching its ebook versions. The new cover for the novel I adored now had what appeared to be a 30 year old muscular man, tall, bulky - holding a thin 13 year old girl proudly against his chest. It didn't feel romantic at all to me. It felt incredibly creepy. It really exemplified for me just why I did't want to show human beings on my book covers. What one person might find to be romantic, someone else could easily be distressed by. It's best if we can each imagine our characters in the way that best suits our own personalities.
It was clear to me what image I wanted on the Knowing Yourself cover. I wanted a heart image. The heroine, Kay, is powerful because she passionately follows her heart, doing what she knows in her soul is right despite anything else holding her back. The heart is a meaningful representation of her strength and courage.
Out of the three initial books I was releasing, my designer Debi and I left the heart for last even though in terms of release-order this book was going to be released second. We figured the heart would be the easiest of the three images to design. However, it's amazing just how attentive we both are to detail! We wanted this heart to be just right.
To show you how talented Debi is, she easily created a whole series of hearts for me based on my feedback, tweaking and refining as we went. These are just a few of them. She thought about hearts with an organic, leafy feel. She created hearts with a wave and water feel, since Kay's keep is on cliffs overlooking an ocean. She designed hearts with thin "ironwork" designs to reinforce the idea of strength.
I wanted to make sure the lines didn't look like "bars" - this heart was free and open. So I resisted the hearts in the style of the top two. With the designs similar to the bottom two, I was worried about the thumbnail size becoming too cluttered. I wanted it to be clear it was a heart. I didn't want excess detail that would make the image confusing at a glance.
The key was to give the heart a wealth of meaning. We wanted it to represent strength and conviction as well as love and passion. We wanted it to be beautiful, elegant, and powerful all at the same time. Here is our final design.
I adore the thin lines in the cross-band pattern. They maintain the stained glass look, give a sense of strength rather than "bars", and help the heart present a feeling of being sturdy and long lasting. At the same time they give the heart a quilted feel, of softness and tenderness. The subtle curls within the heart give it beauty and depth, and reflect the curling waves of the ocean. The heart has a three dimensional look to it, representing the many facets of Kay's strengths. The gentle shading of the blue background represents both fidelity and the ocean that Kay adores.
Here's the full wraparound cover.
We launched. The book did well. A number of readers adored the cover. But, over time, in talking with other authors who wrote clean historical fiction, I realized that my books were doing far less sales than the other authors' books were. I embarked on a process of research and talking with readers. I discovered that even though many readers adored this style of cover, there were far more readers who had no idea this book was a medieval romance. It looked, to them, like a kid's book or perhaps an inspirational non-fiction self-help book. They had been trained by publishers that a clean romance had a woman on the cover. Period, the end. If there wasn't a woman on the cover they would skip right over the book assuming it wasn't a clean romance.
If I was going to reach more readers, I had to create a cover which caught my readers' eyes. A cover which said clearly to them "This is the type of book you love to read."
So, on to round two. I was still strongly against the bodice-ripper style of cover. However, I was OK with the idea of a strong, capable heroine with a sword. I tracked down an image of a landscape from the very area of England my book is set in. Authenticity is important to me. I found a stock image of a medieval-woman-with-sword that showed the strength I wanted. I ended up with this:
It was really hard for me to take this step. I adored the first cover. But I understood the feedback that the first cover was just not bringing in the target audience well enough. Sure, some people loved cover one - but vast numbers of people were not clicking on cover one. I needed to reach those other people. You note that I kept the heart on the cover in the form of the gold medallion. It soothed me a little bit to have it there.
Sales definitely rose. I gave it some months. But the sales still didn't rise to where industry research showed the book should be. This new cover was still not resonating enough with potential readers. Readers looked at it and thought "medieval" but not necessarily "romance." After more research I determined that, whether I liked it or not, I really had to put a guy on the cover in order to make clear this was a romance.
On to round three.
I had to work hard to find an image of a medieval-looking man and woman which did NOT look like he was about to rip her clothes off. It's a shame this is so hard! And I really didn't like that I lost the sword. To me her sword wielding is a key part of her. But there's only so much one can do with stock images and I just didn't have the funds at this point to pay for a personalized photo shoot. So I made some tweaks and changes and ended up with this.
The beautiful heart was getting even smaller. But it was a sacrifice I had to make. Now sales climbed even higher. It was clearly medieval. Clearly a romance. But unfortunately even the slight cleavage shown was too much. I had people complaining that there wasn't any sex in my book. That new cover was making some people think this was a racy book. Which, of course, it definitely is NOT. The couple barely kiss by the end. So something had to be done.
In comes my savior Debi Gardiner who did that first book cover. With her magical photoshop skills she pulled up the neckline of the heroine so there was no cleavage showing. Debi added a cross pendant to make even more clear that the heroine was a chaste Christian. She also lightened the faces so they were easier to see. The medallion, sadly, got even smaller this time. There's only so much one can cling on to, I suppose.
Voila, sales really took off. Positive reviews came pouring in because now I was tapping my perfect audience for clean romance. And I at last got an acceptance from BookBub! And now they've run books from this series a number of times. Perfecting that cover played a huge role in all of this.
Here's all four covers side by side to show the progression. In this image cover 3 is another interim version where I'd tried to raise the neckline but had not yet added in the cross.
And note that I don't expect this current one to be the last one. I am sure that as we go forward covers will again change and I need to change with them in order to keep getting bought.
So my takeaway lesson is - no matter how much you absolutely adore the current cover, do your research. Expectations of readers change. The market changes. A cover which might have been ideal five years ago might look incredibly dated now. By researching your specific sub-group target audience, and determining what catches their eye as "the type of book I adore" you can make sure you draw in more readers who will leave great reviews.
I highly recommend Debi for any graphic projects you might have! GardinerDesign.com
Creating Medieval Romance Novel Covers
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