By Kelli Korducki
Mention the words “Harlequin romance” and you’ll inevitably conjure up a certain type of image: billowing blouses, windswept hair and a blonde, bare-chested Romeo. A Toronto-based publishing juggernaut, Harlequin’s name has become nearly synonymous with this familiar tableau, even as the genre’s design conventions have moved on to other things. As with any fashion, romance covers have seen their share of change over the years.
The blockbuster success of the 2011 erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey helped solidify romance fiction’s position within the mainstream. Its cover art—in many editions, a subtle close-shot of a necktie against a dark background signalling the contents within only to those in the know—mirrored a broader shift in sensibilities toward a more muted design with edgy implications. A recent blog post by writer-editor Cecilia Tan points out that, in the aftermath of Fifty Shades, many competitors in the romance and erotica genres have borrowed from the behemoth’s minimalist aesthetic, leaving the lay person with two distinct impressions of what a romance novel looks like: Fifty Shades’ suggestive, two-colour photos of fashion accessories, and Harlequin’s classic chests and dresses.
“Whenever I tell people I work at Harlequin, the first thing I get asked about is Fabio,” laughs Margie Miller, Harlequin’s creative director of non-fiction and special projects, of the iconic model whose golden locks, strong grip and deep gaze covered hundreds of books in the late ’80s and ’90s.
Miller joined the now-65-year-old publishing house in 1995, during the height of the Italian cover hunk’s heyday. But his image, and its associated look, was never a universal conceit. Instead, the Fabio covers that remain so strongly linked with the Harlequin romance brand were tied specifically to the publisher’s historical romance series; other romance imprints under the Harlequin umbrella had their own distinct appearance. Even still, Miller is quick to point out that, over the course of her two decades with the publishing house, sensibilities have shifted away from the fanciful illustrations of yesteryear. Harlequin’s romance covers are now much more likely to feature photographs, with its models arranged to appear truer to life.
“You don’t see those overly dramatic, head-thrown-back types of poses anymore, because it’s not realistic,” says Miller. The staging is still aspirational, with couples ideally fleshing out a state of mind (or, well, some other bodily region) that the book’s readers will want to imagine themselves in—romance novels deal in the business of fantasy, after all. But ultimately, the pictured scenarios, gestures and expressions are meant to be relatable.
Not all romance covers are created equally, either. Every series has its own distinct, unifying theme. Harlequin worked with VSA Partners, a communications agency based in Chicago, to develop trademark characteristics for each subgenre, from paranormal romance to medical romance and everything in between.
“You want them to look slightly different, but when you see them all together they look like they belong to the same brand,” says Harlequin creative director of romance fiction, Tony Horvath, who oversees cover design for the romance series. “The images should show that they live in the same world,” so that the average person browsing at their local bookstore would glance at a cover and immediately tell which series the book is a part of.
Horvath gives the example of Intrigue, Harlequin’s romantic suspense series, as defined by an air of sultry menace. “Everything’s very dark and moody. There’s colour desaturation. You could compare them [against] another series like Presents, where everything is opulent and very sexy and [pictured] in a circle.”
The same unifying design approach goes for the works of individual big-name authors, whose covers are meant to match their personal brand. “With a big author, the type treatment that’s used on their author name is going to be consistent from book to book,” says Erin Craig, Harlequin’s creative director of women’s fiction—the department that handles design for romance titles not associated with a particular series. “You would always know by looking at it that it’s, for example, a Susan Mallery book.”
In the case of Mallery, a New York Times best-selling author of more than 80 Harlequin romances, most covers tend to feature couples warmly interacting against a backdrop that hints at where the story will take place. The author’s name is placed with consistent prominence at the top of the cover, in the same slender, sans-serif font used from book to book. The author, in these situations, is treated as a brand-within-a-brand.
All three directors aren’t sure where future tastes and trends will lead, and it remains to be seen if the company’s recent move from previous parent company Torstar to its new home at News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers will impact its aesthetic approach. But one thing is certain: the success of erotic titles like Fifty Shades of Grey means that more is possible today than ever before. While trends have veered toward the simple and suggestive, the acceptability of these books’ public consumption means there’s less pressure to censor. Says Miller: “It kind of gave women permission to read that sort of thing.” •
A deeper look
Three Harlequin art directors take us behind the scenes of their recent favourites
(Sidebar by Jef Catapang)
Showalter’s The Closer You Come (April, 2015) Gena Sr;
Kathleen Oudit, art director; Mary Luna, designer;
Glenn Mackay, photographer; Allan Davey, digital illustration.
This upcoming 2015 title made for a unique challenge: author Showalter had shifted from the paranormal romance she’s known for into more modern, realistic settings. How to communicate the difference while still speaking to her established fan base? The cover art retains her trademark editorial cues—“a passionate tempestuous dynamic between the heroine and a brooding, ‘dark horse’ of a man,” according to Oudit—but moves it to a recognizable landscape, signaling the subgenre change. The vantage point was pulled back to emphasize the sky, and the extra negative space was used to draw attention to the author’s name. Body language and saturated colours were played up for a classic cinematic feel. Gone With the Wind crossed with a denim ad, says Oudit. The photo shoot provided upwards of 500 frames to choose from; final images are often composites. In this case, the male model’s hands were perfectly placed on the woman’s body, but the lighting on her face was better in another shot. Davey swapped one face for another, gave the man a sleeve of tats, and transposed the couple from the neutral gray of the photo studio to their appropriate exterior setting.
Sarah Morgan’s First Time in Forever (March, 2015)
Erin Craig, ceative director; Tara Scarello, art director;
Mary Hancock, designer; Beverly Wallbrech from Subtle Monsters, digital artist. Author type: ITC Garamond, light, condensed.
Title: Bodoni italic
Challenge: One of the instances where the publisher sources iStock—budget and timeline are constant concerns. The perfect image was found of a couple sharing an ice-cream cone, “an actual scene from the book,” says Scarello. “The colour palette for this series needed to be bright and cheerful but we wanted it to have an East Coast feeling (to capture the story’s Maine setting).” The blues, teals and oranges will carry over into books that follow in the series.
Joss Wood’s The Last Guy She Should Call (February, 2014)
Tania Pery, art director; Michael Alberstat, photographer
The Kiss brand of books calls for fun, flirty and contemporary. Wood’s book, which was the highest selling Kiss title released that month, features a “sexy enemies-to-lovers and opposites-attract theme.” The models are a notch younger than usual, with trendy styling and wardrobe. Straight from the story, the heroine is shown eating a peach, juice trailing down her arm, the hero behind her with his hands exploring. Challenges? “All I have to say is, peach juice has a mind of its own,” says Pery.
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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.