Walter Zacharius, a seasoned veteran of the publishing industry, created the Kensington Publishing company in 1975. He witnessed the romance revolution that had begun and had connections to make his own romance line. Zacharius bought Zebra Books from Grove Press which was known for its salacious releases. His unique branding would make Zebra successful.
Zacharius 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 Kensington publisher’s Zebra imprint was its only line.
The Zebra Romance Novel
While Avon diligently 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, often despite their capabilities. Most early Zebra books ran well over 500 pages in length. Experienced editors were hard to come by since Zebra was looked down upon by many in the industry. This resulted in a mixed bag of books. Some were inordinately verbose and boring, while others salacious and rip-roaring fun.
Depending upon one’s taste, the Zebra romance was a thing of beauty, or at least its covers were. Instead of investing in quality authors, Zebra spent much of its money on covers, believing it was that which sold a book. 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, even Elaine Duillo, and, later 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 with a horse, bird, flower, castle, or ship in the background.
Most of the book blurbs would eschew the plot altogether. Instead, they described the heroine’s luscious curves, eye color, and long locks of hair while 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 success of the Lovegram line would cause Zebra to produce another in 1987: the Heartfire line, which used 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. Or in some cases an adjective, color, or term of endearment would be placed before a noun like Jade Temptation or Velvet Vixen.
In the 1980s, Zebra branched out from the historical romance into other genres: horrors, westerns, general fiction, traditional regencies, and more.
Kensington purchased Pinnacle books in 1988 and would eventually revamp that romance imprint to release true crime, celebrity biographies, humor, and other nonfiction works, as well as romances that were quite different from the typical Zebras.
From 1985 to 2005, Kensington published the Zebra Regency line. They published Gothics under the Zebra name as well.
Among the many authors who wrote Zebra romances are 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.
Fern Michaels, Michael Reagan, and Joyce Carol Oates, were just a few “respectable” or established writers who had books published by Zebra.
The Leaner Years
After publishing hundreds of books, the Heartfire and Lovegram lines went defunct in the 1990s, to be replaced by the Zebra Precious Gem Historical, Ballad, and in the 2000s the Splendor lines, which also all folded.
Before their collapse, the usually vibrant covers that portrayed couples embracing in front of an orange-pink sunset or a giant mansion or on a ship sailing on the blue waves would be replaced by plain ones. Perhaps a flower or a castle would adorn the cover or, worse, nothing more than the author’s name and the title of the book.
The times had changed at Kensington and Zebras would be one of its casualties.
Kensington still produces Zebra historical romances, but they are a far cry from the eye-catching books that Zacharius created, as many are just released in e-book format now. They remain a successful company, publishing multiple genres. Quite notably, as a family-owned business, Kensington remains the largest independent publisher to this day.
Zebra Book Reviews:
Sonya T. Pelton