In the 1970s, Playboy Press Paperbacks, a division of the popular magazine, entered the romance publishing field with blockbuster bodice rippers. However, their success in the genre was short-lived.
Playboy Press, Publishers of Romance Novels
More Than Naked Women
Playboy was more than a magazine featuring naked women that (depending on your age) your father, grandfather, or great-grandfather got for–ahem– reading the articles. As one of their subsidiaries called Playboy Press, they published tawdry pulp fiction.
In their heyday, Playboy Press released some genuinely good Westerns, horror, science fiction, fantasy, as well as romances from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Begun, the Bodice Ripper Wars, Have
Playboy Press Paperbacks was quick to cash in on the market as well. While Avon was selective in choosing which author to publish, Playboy Press couldn’t churn the books out fast enough, regardless of quality.
Author Barbara Bonham’s first book, Proud Passion, sold well over half a million copies in its first six months when it was published in 1976. It was a major triumph for Playboy.
If you’ve read Proud Passion, you realize how hard up readers in the 1970s were for romance that featured any eroticism. Because that book was a snoozer, punctuated with a few scenes of violence and quasi-sexual encounters.
Playboy, A Player in Romance
While many of their writers soared high only to fall long and hard, Playboy Press Paperback books also introduced authors like Susan Johnson, Sheila Holland (aka Mills and Boon/Harlequin superstar Charlotte Lamb), Stephanie Blake, and Barbara (Alan) Riefe.
The latter sold millions of books, beginning with This Ravaged Heart in 1977. After Kathleen Woodiwiss‘ Shanna for Avon, This Ravaged Heart was the first full-color stretch cover for a “new” romance in the contemporary era.
Playboy Press also published Roberta Gellis‘s romances. who see historical romance novels put the H in history. Her books with Playboy were quite successful as well. Gellis’s medievals, including her Roselynde Chronicles series, are seriously fine works of historical fiction.
Playboy even published Gothics, family sagas, and a series of Regency romances. Although the Gothic novel trend was more or less dead by the mid-1970s, traditional “sweet” Regencies were always popular.
If There Was One Thing Playboy Publisher Knew Well, It Was Erotic Covers
Playboy Press upped the ante in raunchy content and colorful, bosomy clinch covers. Competing with Avon, they decided to spend big bucks for cover art illustrators. Some prominent artists included Jordi Penalva, Sanjulian, Ron Lesser, Betty Maxey, Gino D’achille, and most notably, Elaine Duillo.
Duillo’s full-stretch cover for Rachel Cosgrove Payes‘ 1979 Bride of Fury was a game changer. It was a gorgeous cover that drew mass attention to a mediocre book. Many publishers would follow that formula to huge sales.
The End of Romance
As the era of mass appreciation of pulp fiction came to an end in the 1970s, Playboy Press Paperbacks began to feel the financial hurt.
It didn’t help that the sexual romps of the bodice ripper era were giving way to the more romantic, character-driven historicals.
Playboy Press was sold to Berkley-Jove in 1982. They ultimately folded as a publishing house in 1984.
Playboy Book Covers
- Berkley Wikipedia
- Playboy Romance Part 1
- Playboy Romance Part 2
- My Playboy Press Pinterest
- NY Times: Paperback Talk
- NY Times: Playboy to Sell Book Division