Zebra Books

Walter Zacharius

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.

The Covers

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.

Industry Growth

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.

Zebra Authors

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.

Zebra Today

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.


Walter Zacharius, Romance Publisher, Dies at 87
Roberta Grossman, 46, Head of Zebra Books dies

5 replies »

  1. 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.

    • Edited:

      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! 🙂

  2. 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…

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