Love Under Harlequin's Covers

It takes more than a toga and spray-on tan to create a steamy romance-novel cover image

The project called for a lusty image from early 1800s Britain, recalls romance novel cover artist Chris Cocozza. The book publisher wanted lovers in the rain and specified that they should look drenched. It was winter and the shoot would be indoors. To keep the studio floor dry, he bought a blow-up kiddie pool, inflated it at a bike shop, and carried it half a mile by foot through Manhattan. Then the two models—the male costumed in white puffy shirt and breeches, his lady in high-waisted gown—stood in the pool as Cocozza unleashed buckets of water from atop a ladder.

“There are little things you can do to get the details that really make the cover,” says Cocozza, who’s been making cover art for about 25 years. He has worked with such romance models as Fabio Lanzoni (yes, that Fabio), Steve Sandalis, and Cindy Guyer, whose images grace hundreds of novels.

Those visuals are critical to the success of Harlequin, the Toronto-based giant of romance novels. Harlequin publishes 110 fiction and non-fiction titles per month in 31 languages; about 80 of them are romance. In the first nine months of 2011, Harlequin made a profit of $62.1 million on operating revenue of $341.4 million, according to the quarterly report from its parent, Torstar (TS/B:CN).

Last year, just under 11,000 romance books and e-books were published or distributed in the U.S., roughly 14 percent of all fiction books purchased, according to Bowker Market Research. Some were big hits: A few of Linda Lael Miller’s Montana Creeds Series novels, featuring rugged cowboys on the covers, made the New York Times Best Sellers List.

“A Whole World for the Audience”

The key to a successful romance cover is to create “a whole world for the audience,” says Margie Miller, Harlequin’s creative art director. “We treat it more like an ad campaign than just a book cover.” Any successful ad campaign taps into readers’ wants—and judging by Harlequin’s covers, that involves a lot of bare-chested heroes and tendrilled maidens. Romance readers are overwhelmingly women (91 percent, according to surveys by the Romance Writers of America), and they skew toward the South and Midwest.

Harlequin covers have evolved since the company’s beginnings in 1949, from suggestive, conceptual illustrations to explicitly sexual photos. Miller says they also reflect  the changing role of women in society and in relationships. Today’s readers prefer realism, she says, and almost all covers now are photo-based.

This sets forth new challenges for artists, who follow highly detailed descriptions from publishers about what a cover should look like, including the mood, level of sensuality, time of day, season, situation, clothing, props, and even poses. In Cocozza’s cover for Suspect Lover, a Harlequin title, a man and woman embrace in a moonlit pool and peer uneasily into the distance. The setting is mostly a creative feat. It was shot in a studio—not a pool—the models were sprayed with a watering can, and a bit of baby oil was used to keep their skin looking dewy.

From Studios to the Rockies

Lighting is always key. After photographing them, Cocozza manipulated the image using Photoshop and Painter, adding the setting and painting in some brush strokes to transform it into a photo illustration.

Photographer Robert Goshgarian, who works on covers for Harlequin’s Blaze series, among others, has built sets ranging from showers, bars, warehouses, and factories (romance can happen anywhere) to grassy fields, kitchens, bedrooms, dining rooms, and historical sets. The budget for a shoot, including the set, hiring models, renting costumes, and getting props, can add up to several thousand dollars, he says. That includes finding the right location: Harlequin recently staged photo shoots for cowboy covers in Colorado and Montana.

The models’ performances are just as important as the setting. “It’s a lot of grabbing. You don’t just rest your hand on a hero’s or heroine’s arms. It’s passion, a little romance. You don’t want to go too far, but there needs to be a connection between the two models,” says Cocozza, who tries to also communicate kindness and respect in his photo illustrations. The best models “are professional. And they have the abs and everything.”

Click here to see how Harlequin’s romance novel covers have evolved through the decades.

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