No Butts, No Boobs: The Making Of A Romance-Novel Cover

If you’ve ever browsed through the “Romance” aisle at a bookstore, perused the hunky shirtless men and winking ladies on the fronts of the volumes and wondered, “Who comes up with these covers?” the answer is an artist like Erin Dameron-Hill.

Dameron-Hill has designed hundreds of romance covers, for titles with names like like “Outlaw Kind of Love” and “Love to Bear” and “Tall, Dark, and Apocalyptic.” She makes art for Ellora’s Cave, Samhain Publishing, and Blushing Books Publishing, as well as a huge roster of independent authors. She is a master in the delicate art of creating a cover title that’s suggestive without being smutty, sexy but still PG-13.

This week, Dameron-Hill addressed a problem on her blog that she and other cover designers are facing: How to design a cover that will pass muster on the bookselling mega-site Amazon. (The guidelines listed on the site are just “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”)

The list of things Dameron-Hill found that will get a book flagged on Amazon includes some obvious things—nakedness, visible breasts or butt—and some less than obvious ones, like handcuffs on wrists (“handcuffs being held is fine”).

HelloGiggles reached out to Dameron-Hill to chat about the challenges and joys of designing for romance covers in the Amazon era.

HelloGiggles: How did you get into designing covers for romance novels?

Erin Dameron-Hill: I have been painting, drawing, and creating using whatever medium available since I could hold crayons.  I took a few art classes in school, but parental pressure forced me into taking business courses in college.  I was bored out of my mind!  Studying business was not the life course for me. I even accepted a few clerical jobs after college because my head was still saying I needed to pursue a more traditional path.

A few years later, I tried my hand at writing.  I’m laughing as I write this because I’m a terrible author!  But the experience was amazing!  Through the publisher I was with, I met fellow authors and cover artists.  When my fellow authors and I grew upset at how our publisher was treating us, we vowed to self-publish.  But none of us really knew what we were getting into.  This was a few years before self-publishing became a force to be reckoned with.

Anyway, I let them know my artistic background and tried to create a cover.  I failed miserably. I did not have the proper know-how.  So, I hit the books and hit them hard!  I took classes to hone my digital skills, learned everything that I could learn about Photoshop, InDesign, and AfterEffects, studied the market for the bestselling books with covers that popped, read every article about design I could find, and finally, I studied models.  Not all models are created equally.  Some know how to portray passion while others just look like porn stars.  Covers are complicated—they are intricate pieces of art wound by layers and multiple images. I’m still learning tricks of the trade.

HelloGiggles: What are some of the guidelines you go by when creating a cover?

Dameron-Hill: Will it grab a potential reader by the short hairs?  That is the question I always ask myself when creating a cover.  A cover is the first thing a potential reader sees—it should tell the story, it should be professional, it should command attention.  I’ve had several authors tell me they had commenters say they only purchased the book because of the cover and were glad they did—they loved the book!  That’s the point of a cover—it’s a marketing tool, a very important marketing tool.  To skip out of a cover is to sell yourself short.  Never settle.

HelloGiggles: On your website, you list a long set of things that Amazon will flag if you see them.  How did you figure this out, trial and error?

Dameron-Hill: Yes and no.  I have a great network of fellow cover artists, authors, and art directors who always share their experiences with each other.  I have yet to meet a cover artist who hasn’t had a cover they created flagged for some reason.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the work but rather how provocative the cover is.  As far as I know, there is no official list from Amazon of what is or what is not appropriate. The list I compiled include examples that have been brought to my attention—instances where Amazon has flagged a book because of what it deemed as “inappropriate” content. My list is to just simply save authors the headache of potentially having their book flagged. However, I do believe Amazon needs to have official rules instead of the very broad interpretation of “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect”. My goal, as a cover artist, is to provide the most eye-catching cover I can provide within safe guidelines.

HelloGiggles: What is the most surprising thing Amazon has flagged?

Dameron-Hill: I created a cover for the wonderful Tracy St. John.  I followed my list, made sure it wasn’t too overtly sexual even though it is a ménage with kink and came up with the cover below.

I thought it would be safe.  It wasn’t.  Ms. St. John was contacted and told her cover was unacceptable because of the man’s butt.  “What butt?” was my response, “His upper thigh?!” I painted over most of his lower body to fix the problem and it was fixed.  But that blew my mind!  Here I was thinking this would be safe and it was flagged. I still kept some of his thigh visible just because I’m a rebel and the author loved his look as well. Part of the cheek close to the thigh was “inappropriate.”  I guess I can see that.  Darn shame, though.  That man had a very nice physique!

HelloGiggles: How do you try to figure out the line between something that’s provocative/eye-catching and something that’s going to get flagged?

Dameron-Hill: It’s difficult, I admit.  I haven’t seen any consistency with Amazon and what they flag.  I see covers on Amazon and I wonder how the heck that wasn’t flagged.  And then I get a story from a peer where the cover was flagged and we don’t see why it was.  That’s why everyone should demand Amazon have an official list of what they will or won’t accept.  It would make things far less complicated.  So, when creating covers for dark erotica, erotica, or BDSM, the best rule is to keep it simple. Black and white covers with a splash of vibrant color are rarely flagged in my experience.  I make sure nothing private is showing.  Instead I focus on the sensual curves of the torso, neck, shoulders, and back.  These are intimate parts of the body and it’s a subtle, safe way of showing passion.  That’s my goal in staying safe—show sensual passion.  Being subtle and classy keeps the cover safe.

HelloGiggles: How often do your covers get flagged?

Dameron-Hill: Before I created the list that I’ve been updating for a few years, I had multiple covers flagged.  So far, I have had none flagged this year because I closely adhere to the list I compiled.  As I mentioned earlier, I don’t see any consistency with what Amazon flags or doesn’t flag.  But I know what they have flagged and I won’t put anything from my list on a cover I create.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

(Images courtesy of Erin Dameron-Hill)

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