Stepback Covers Part IV: 1980s Romance Stepbacks

1980s romance covers

Horror Dominates the Stepback

In the 1980s, the stepback cover would not be prominently linked with romance, but with the horror genre. Pocket Books, Bantam, Berkley, Zebra, and other publishers invested heavily in lurid covers that hid horrific images behind merely-creepy ones. The keyhole style was popular with this cover design.

Many of these paperbacks are now collector’s items. We can see why.

They’re pretty scary.

Please don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Crooked Tree, Robert C. Wilson, Berkley, 1981, Dario Campanile cover art

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.

all she wants ginsburg
all she wants stepback ginsburg
All She Wants, Suzanne Diamond, Warner Books, 1984, Max Ginsburg cover art

As for mainstream 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 of 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.

the gamble
the gamble spencer tbd
The Gamble, LaVyrle Spencer, Jove, 1986, cover artist TBD

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 almost shouts: “This is a wholesome romance, with absolutely no rape or sexcapades ahead.”

Pocket Books and 1980s Stepback Covers

As usual, the folks at Pocket Books were ahead of the game in paperback design. Jude Deveraux had this style for her 1987 romance, The Princess.

The Princess, Jude Deveraux, Pocket Books, 1986, Lisa Falkenstern cover art

With Deveraux covers, you have to be careful not to be fooled. Some reissues look like stepbacks, making it seem as if the original was a stewas one, too. That’s not always the case. A lot of Deveraux’s books were reissued with fakeout covers. (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!

upon a moon dark moor duillo
upon a moon darkmoor duillo
Upon a Moon-Dark Moor, Rebecca Brandewyne, Warner Books, 1988, Elaine Duillo cover art

Elite authors such as Elaine Coffman, Lori Copeland, Valerie Sherwood, among many others, would get the deluxe stepback treatment. But the true era of the stepback in romance had just begun.

tolovea rogueexterior
tolove a rogue duillo
To Love a Rogue, Valerie Sherwood, Onyx, 1987, Elaine Duillo cover art

Your Opinion?

The 1980s stepbacks were lovely, but we like erotic and cheesy clinches a smidge more. It was in the 1990s when this design style 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.

Please Drop a Comment and Let's Talk Romance!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.