Zebra romances would not have existed if it were not for Walter Zacharius. Zacharius was a seasoned veteran of the publishing industry.
In 1975, he created the Kensington Publishers. After witnessing the romance revolution, he knew that with his connections, he could create his own romance line.
Soon thereafter, Zacharius bought Zebra Books from Grove Press. The company was known for its salacious releases. Zacharius’ unique branding would make Zebra thrive.
He immediately hired Roberta Grossman to work for him. At the age of 29, she was the youngest president of any paperback house. For many years the Zebra imprint was Kensington’s only line.
The Zebra Romance Novel
While Avon carefully chose their authors, Zebra tried a different method. As they were unable to pay high advances or royalties, Zebra published as many authors as possible. This was often despite their capabilities.
Early on, most Zebra books ran well over 500 pages in length. They frequently needed rewriting and were filled with typos. Experienced editors were hard to come by. This was due to many in the industry looking down on Zebra as upstarts. The result was a mixed bag of books. Some were inordinately verbose and boring. Others were salacious and rip-roaring fun.
Depending upon one’s taste, the Zebra romance was a thing of beauty. At least, the artwork was. Instead of investing in quality authors, Zebra spent much of its money on covers. The belief was that the covers convinced readers to buy the books. One of Zacharius’ maxims was “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”
So to dazzle book-buyers, Zebra covers used foiling and embossing. Then they hired talented cover artists like Walter Popp, Ray Kursar, Pino Daeni, Robert Sabin, Diane Sivavec, Elaine Duillo, and John Ennis to design their covers. Bright pastel colors, like pink, lavender, and orange, would draw one’s attention. The couple would be engaged in a clinch embrace. A horse, bird, flower, castle, or ship was usually in the background.
Most of the book blurbs would avoid the plot altogether. Instead, they described the heroine’s luscious curves, eye color, and long locks of hair. While at the same time emphasizing the hero’s musculature, alpha nature, and desire for the heroine.
Lovegram & Heartfire
Holograms were used to decorate their new Zebra Lovegram line of books, which was launched in 1985. The first Lovegram was Elaine Barbieri’s Passion’s Dawn. The eventual success of the Lovegram line would cause Zebra to produce another in 1987.
The following Heartfire line was similar to the Lovegrams. It would use newer, less established authors like Nicole Jordan, Jane Feather, and Dana Ransom (aka Nancy Gideon).
Zebra titles were as formulaic as their covers but also as fun. They would consist of a geographical location before a noun like: Cheyenne Captive or Texas Princess. In some cases, an adjective, color, or term of endearment would be placed before a noun like Jade Temptation or Velvet Vixen.
Sweet Savage Flame created a Romance Name Generator based on Zebra’s method of naming books. We recommend you check it out for laughs.
Later in the 1980s, Zebra branched out from historical romance into other genres. These included horror, westerns, general fiction, and traditional regencies were big sellers.
Kensington purchased Pinnacle books in 1988. They would ultimately revamp that imprint to release true crime, celebrity biographies, humor, and other nonfiction works. They subsequently also produced romances that were quite different from the typical Zebras.
From 1985 to 2005, Kensington published the Zebra Regency line. Concurrently, they ran a popular Gothics series under the Zebra name as well.
Janelle Taylor, F. Rosanne Bittner, Sylvie F. Sommerfield, Sonya T. Pelton, Cassie Edwards, Rochelle Wayne, Deana James, Carole Finch (who had multiple pseudonyms), Thea Devine, and Penelope Neri are among the authors who wrote Zebra romances.
Heading into the 1980s and 1990s, Zebra would gain some serious credentials. Consequently, Fern Michaels, Michael Reagan, and Joyce Carol Oates were just a few “respectable” or established writers who had books released by Zebra.
The Leaner Years
After publishing hundreds of books, the Heartfire and Lovegram lines went defunct in the 1990s. Following them were the Precious Gem Historical, Ballad, and, in the 2000s the Splendor lines. However, they quickly folded, too.
Before Zebra’s collapse, the usually vibrant covers disappeared. No longer would they portray couples in front of an orange-pink sunset with a mansion, ship, or rearing horse in the background. These would be replaced by plainer ones. Perhaps the cover would be adorned with flowers, a castle, or a mask. Or, worse, nothing more than the author’s name and the title of the book would be displayed.
The times had changed at Kensington. Zebra would be one of its casualties.
Today, Kensington still produces Zebra historical romances. But they are a far cry from the eye-catching books created by Zacharius. Many now come out solely in e-book format.
Zebra remains a successful company, publishing multiple genres. Quite notably, they are still a family-owned business. Kensington is the largest independent publisher to this day.
- Heartfire Backlist at FictionDB
- Lovegram Backlist at FictionDB
- Splendor Backlist at FictionDB
- Goodreads: Zebra Romance Group
- Goodreads: Favorite Zebra Historical Romances List
- My Zebra Pinterest
- Zebra Books Wikipedia
- Bookpage Interviews Walter Zacharius
- Publisher’s Weekly Obituary for Walter Zacharius
- New York Times: Walter Zacharius, Romance Publisher, Dies at 87
- New York Times: Roberta Grossman, 46, Head of Zebra Books, dies
One thing I forgot to mention is that, in the early 1990’s, after acquiring Pinnacle publishing, Kensington would go on to create another imprint called “Denise Little Presents”, after one of their editors. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a list of books published under this moniker; I own a few of them, and the imprint included both contemporary and historical romances. I’ll update as much as I can when I get to them.
Yes, I have several of those Denise Little Presents, and like you couldn’t find them any backlists. I’ll check out LibraryThing. If I can only remember my password…
Hi, Jacqueline. Sorry I’m late to the party, but I didn’t see this earlier.
A few observations/additions to your fine article:
TOTALLY agree with you about the Zebra romances of the 1980’s. Some were great, but some were really bad (overlong, boring or other issues). The covers were the real stars of Zebra romance. I love the “clinch covers” ever if some authors disavow them.
The same can be said of the Lovegram and Heartfire books. Some keepers, and others not so much.
Kensington also produced other short-lived series:
Encanto: September 1999, ended April 2002; this contemporary romance series was written exclusively by Latinx authors and featured almost exclusively Latinx heroes and heroines.
Lucky in Love: September 1992-June 1993. This contemporary romance series features heroines who find fortune and love at the same time.
Precious Gems: May 1996-November 2000. These contemporary romances were separate from the “Precious Gems Historical” series.
To Love Again: March 1992-August 2002; this contemporary romance series focused on heroes and heroines “of a certain age” who find love later in life.
Zebra Bouquet: July 1999, ended February 2001-contemporary romance.
Zebra Splendor: October 1997-June 2000. Historical romance and a few with paranormal elements.
Kensington has also produced other series/imprints but since they are outside the parameters of this blog, I am not including them here.
One thing Kensington can be given some credit for-at least by me-is the sheer volume of books published, but as you mention, the quality of said output varies heavily.
I love this so much! Zebra is family owned, independent company that accounted for so many romances. They gave a lot of leeway to their authors to write what they wanted. I’m going to update the page to reflect this information. Plus, this is great addition for a “Closer Look” post.
Yes, those Kensington publishers did value volume more than overall quality, but being the independent kid on the block allowed them to take innovative “risks” where a more conventional publisher wouldn’t. The Encanto & To Love Again lines are great examples, and I forgot to update the Zebra page to show this. Have to wait until after dinner! 🙂