Chick-lit Cover Design Demystified
The illustrated covers for chick-lit and its cousin romantic comedy are made up of common elements that help readers pick stories they might like.
Getting these things right will make all the difference in reaching the readers who are likely to enjoy your novel. Here are some of the commonly used devices that communicate more than you’d think.
The title is usually the most prominent element on the book cover. This is why the font plays a huge part in communicating the right feel. Some women’s fiction novels go for a simple serif, but often pair it up with a handwritten or script font. Sticking to a serif gives the book a sense of gravitas, i.e. “This is a novel you should take seriously”. It can work beautifully–especially if you’re a well-known writer with rave reviews. If you’re not, it can also imply heavier subject matter and a slower-moving story. A script font communicates lightness and fun. Even in the script font category, each font carries its own specific nuance. Here are some of my impressions…
Fun, determined, light-hearted
Silly fun, girly, fast-paced
Fun, quirky, romantic
Girly, young, easy read
2. Dreamy landscape
Stories set in picturesque little towns, well-known cities and other note-worthy locations usually depict the location on the book cover. Rolling hills and city skylines create expectations of the location featuring prominently in the story. Using white or another solid background implies that the location is not that important–or that maybe there are several of them.
3. The fringe/border
The ‘fringe’ usually hangs out at the top or around the top half of the cover. It’s still fairly common in chick-lit, less common in romantic comedy or women’s fiction. I don’t actually think the fringe serves a higher purpose, other than reinforcing the genre and using every bit of the available real estate to add (hopefully) story-related props or foliage. It is a handy feature when you want to illustrate the location and add some detail to your dreamy landscape. The beach scene can be completed with palm leaves, a vineyard with some overhanging grapes.
Photo vs. Illustration
It’s worth noting the difference between a photographic and illustration based cover designs. Both styles are used in chick lit and especially women’s fiction (the less fluffy end of the scale). There are some beautiful covers that use photographs (Amy Sue Nathan’s being among my favourites!) but unless executed by a skilled designer, the photo-based ones will scream ‘self-published’ like nothing else. Custom illustration is time-consuming and can be more expensive than stock photos, so it communicates a higher design budget and is easily seen as a sign of traditional publishing, as well as high-end photography used by a skilled designer.
Traditional romance, particularly in the US market, is dominated by photography-based covers. Going for a photoshoot, i.e. paying a photographer and the models is by far the most expensive option out there. For steamy romance, this is still the go-to option as it evokes a strong, emotional response. Well done, detailed illustration can get close, though. One reason I love using real photographs for drawing characters is the ability to get real facial expressions without spending gazillions on photography. Also, if the main character (in the author’s mind) looks like a certain celebrity, I can create a bit of likeness without getting sued 🙂
Here are some covers with illustrated characters I’ve done…
This can be anything: snowflakes, clouds, stars, hearts, flowers, leaves, or actual confetti. If a chick-lit cover design is a cupcake, these are the sprinkles on top. I would argue that the amount of sprinkles communicates the level of magic in the story. This can relate to supernatural things (body swaps, angels, messages from beyond), too-good-to-be-true story twists or simply a shimmery, magical time such as Christmas. The go-to Christmas confetti is of course – you guessed it – snowflakes!
Traditionally, publishers have believed that readers want to imagine themselves as the character, and showing their face interferes with this. That’s why the characters are often displayed as silhouettes or cutting off their upper body or head. This mentality seems to be changing with indie authors, though, with more illustrated characters appearing on books. Romantic comedies seem to be leading this change.
The choice of whether or not to use a character on the cover is a tricky one. Humans are drawn to humans, so it can definitely pay off. As the ebook market grows and becomes more fragmented, quickly communicating specific things about the main characters, such as dress size, ethnicity, or age can be very valuable. This is especially important for indie authors, who may not be targeting a wider audience but are going for a specific niche.
Romantic comedy / romance
In romantic comedy, characters are used regularly to communicate it’s a romance, as well as quickly identify if it’s straight or queer. Illustrated characters quite a handy way to tell the reader about the main characters – their clothes, skin tone, dress size, any props they’re holding, and how they interact…
One thing that is hard to convey is the level of heat. There are many books out there with illustrated covers featuring fully dressed characters standing far apart, which actually contain several, steamy love scenes. Personally, I like to hint at the heat level with colours, clothing choices, and whether the characters are touching. Sometimes, it’s all in the eyes, though. A fellow designer Elle Maxwell has created some pretty hot vector guys. See below…
If you decide to not use a character, consider props. Is there a key prop in your story that could be used instead of a person? It could be a car, suitcase, rings, teacups… Or, if you’re going with a prominent dreamy landscape, it can be the house featuring as the main location. The goal here is to create a scene the reader can imagine entering as they open your book. You’re inviting them on a journey. Maybe that’s why many chick-lit book covers resemble old-fashioned postcards. They are messages from other worlds and other lives we are invited to enter. Imagine receiving a postcard so enticing that you want to immediately pack your bags and buy a ticket to that place. That’s what a truly beautiful book cover should do.
Hi! I'm Enni.
I've worked in the creative industry for nearly two decades. I was born in Finland, but currently, live and work in New Zealand.
As a designer, I love beautiful book covers. As a reader and writer, I love romantic comedy and chick-lit, as well as women's fiction.
This website is my way of connecting with fellow writers and offering what I can do – beautiful, yummy book covers.
We're stronger together, so let's connect!
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