Horror Dominates the Stepback
In the 1980s, the stepback cover would not be prominently linked with romance but the horror genre. Pocket Books, Bantam, Berkley, Zebra, and other publishers invested heavily on lurid covers that hid horrific images behind merely-creepy ones. Many of these covers are now collector’s items. We can see why.
They’re pretty scary.
Please don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Other works of fiction would take advantage of the stepback cover to hide irreverent art or add an element of distinction. Historical fiction would use the stepback for that reason.
As for romance? It was going through another transformation. While bodice rippers were still selling like hotcakes, tastes were changing. A new generation of readers wanted sophisticated, emotionally driven romances. Ones that were tightly written rather than sweeping sagas with sex, violence, and melodrama. There was a new sentiment in the genre about the roles for men and women. The stepback fit perfectly with those changing beliefs.
Romance Stepback Covers Into the 1980s
Throughout the 1980s, romance publishers would use various tricks to catch prospective buyers’ eyes: embossing, foil lettering, bright colors, explicit embraces, big-named artists, and superstar cover models. Nevertheless, the stepback was not commonly utilized until the mid-1980s.
Jove had previously used stepbacks for historical fiction and other genres. When they designed one for Lavyrle Spencer’s sweet 1986 romance The Gamble, it was a big hit for the best-selling author. Moreover, Spencer was delighted with it, as she had despised clinch covers. Spencer believed her books merited less campy artwork, a common sentiment among many authors. And readers.
With The Gamble, the flowery cover didn’t disguise a steamy embrace. It depicted a couple gently holding hands, with a small child in the distance. This image screams: wholesome romance, absolutely no rape or sexcapades ahead.
Pocket Books and 1980s Stepback Covers
As usual, the folks at Pocket Books were ahead of the game. Jude Deveraux had a stepback for her 1987 romance, The Princess.
With Deveraux covers, you have to be careful. Some reissues look like stepbacks, making you think the original was a stepback. That’s not always the case. A lot of Deveraux’s books were reissued with fakeout stepbacks. That is one of my big cover pet peeves.
Something Wonderful, McNaught’s 1987 follow-up to her best-seller Whitney My Love had a tasteful exterior cover and a stunning Morgan Kane painting inside.
Something Wonderful, Judith McNaught, Pocket Books, 1987, Morgan Kane cover art
Everybody in the 1980’s Used Stepcovers! Except…
Eventually, Dell, Warner, and Bantam would follow in Pocket Book’s and Berkley/Jove’s footsteps with their own beautiful “tip-ins.” One of my favorites is the artwork by Elaine Duillo for Rebecca Brandewyne’s Upon A Moon-Dark Moor. The reds, pinks, and purples are so pretty. This cover didn’t need to be hidden behind a stepback!
The 1980s stepbacks were lovely, but we like erotic and cheesy clinches a smidge more. It was in the 1990s when stepbacks really exploded in popularity. Look for Part V: 1990s Stepbacks tomorrow.
Where do you stand on romance cover art? Do you like stepback covers? Do you prefer them to regular clinches? Are you more drawn to the modern cartoon-illustration style that’s being used today? Or does cover art not concern you that much, thanks to e-readers?
Whatever is on your mind, we’d love to hear what you think. Please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.