Nina Terrero
October 17, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The heroine is tattooed, with long purple-streaked hair. Her black-lacquered fingernails are digging into her partner’s tightly muscled torso, his wrists bound by a pair of black leather handcuffs. It’s not the cover of a risqué adult DVD but a design by romance-cover illustrator Don Sipley, who specializes in racy, fantasy-driven art for many of the lustiest offerings currently available.

”They say not to judge a book by its cover, but you do,” says Sipley, who has designed more than 500 romance-novel covers for top publishers including Harlequin, Penguin, Amazon, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. ”The flowery-type stuff just doesn’t do as well.”

The creative process begins once Sipley receives a novel description from the publisher, often with notes about specific character attributes and scenes to depict. He then rents costumes, hires models (who pose for a flat rate of $180 per hour), and styles the photo shoot with props from the collection he’s amassed in his New Jersey studio. An experienced photographer, he’ll snap upwards of 200 images and digitally edit the photographs in a highly technical process, resulting in a jacket that couldn’t be further from the sweet hand-painted illustrations that characterized early romance reads.

And with Photoshop, Sipley — who earns between $2,500 and $4,000 per cover — has the ability to add key final touches, like rock-hard abs for a male model whose physique may not be chiseled to perfection. ”If you want a guy to look a little more muscular, you can add more muscle tone,” Sipley says, laughing. ”You could have a really beautiful piece of art, really great, but if the guy’s abs don’t look good, that’s not going to work. That’s why women are buying this stuff.”

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