The Stepback Cover Enters the 1990s
By 1990 every established publishing house was rethinking the way they did cover art. The clinch would remain ever-present. But new covers were being introduced.
Some big named authors didn’t even get stepbacks to cover the image beneath. They got covers with just their names and the title printed on them. Sure there might be some embossing, or some digital images added in, but they were plain covers designed to make the reader feel comfortable about reading “smut” in public. Usually, these authors, such as Judith McNaught and LaVyrle Spencer, trended away from the erotic and were more romantic anyway.
The stepback was starting to mean something special to readers, contrary to some old-school artists’ beliefs that hiding the cover art would lower sales, not increase them. Rising stars–both authors and artists–would combine for a winning combination, and no publisher could ignore that.
Avon hopped on the trend by 1990. Although I haven’t confirmed their first stepback, this was one of the earliest:
Elaine Duillo and Changing Cover Styles
The “Queen of Historical Romance Covers,” Elaine Duillo, had no great love for stepbacks. Unlike other artists, she had no hangups about the dazzling, sexy romance covers she created. She derided “tip-ins” for covering up her exquisite artwork. Covers were the sizzle to sell the steak! The existence of “tip-ins” in romance perplexed Duillo.
“I did have an argument with a publisher once. He thought it was very thrilling to put an outside cover and the ‘tip-in’ using the entire cover art on an inside cover so they had the whole thing inside. Big mistake! Johanna Lindsey became big and wanted that, so publishers tried to do this with other books too. The book buyers, women with a stroller with a kid and another kid that’s going out of her sight, they have to pick up book quickly. They are all aware of the ‘tip-in’, but they’re not going to do that, they’re going to pick up the book with the cover image they like and that they can see immediately.”ELAINE DUILLO, ILLUSTRATION MAGAZINE #37 SPRING 2012 by GARY LOVISI
Despite her druthers, Duillo was the consummate professional. She almost always brought her A-game to her stepback illustrations.
Avon Stepback and Back Cover Art
While other houses produced books with stepbacks, Avon–the largest and most successful paperback romance publisher–for some reason was slow on the uptake. I couldn’t find any Avon stepbacks dating from the 1980s.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until romance superstar Johanna Lindsey requested this cover technique for her novels that Avon regularly employed its use for big-name talents.
When Duillo was unavailable in 1991 to paint a cover for Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire, this gave artist Victor Gadino the opportunity to step in.
Prisoner of My Desire, Johanna Lindsey, Avon, 1991, Victor Gadino cover art
As for lesser-selling authors, or authors who were just starting out? They would have covers with clinch images on the back, not the front. Technically, artwork placed on the back isn’t a tip-in or stepback. Even so, the purposes of both formats are the same: to put the “embarrassing torrid embraces” in a less conspicuous position.
Unsurprisingly, this design choice was a staple for Avon romances in the 1990s, particularly the “Avon Romantic Treasure” historical line.
Like the great Elaine Duillo, we feel no embarrassment over covers that show off fantastic clinch embraces. We adore them! But stepbacks also hold a special place in our hearts. Plain-looking covers with a mere castle, flower, jewel, etc., not so much.
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.
- Stepback Covers Part I: Stepbacks Are Back!
- Stepback Covers Part II: The History of the Stepback
- Stepback Covers Part III: The First Stepback in Romance
- Stepback Covers Part IV: 1980s Stepbacks
- Stepback Covers Part V: 1990s Stepbacks
- Stepback Covers Part VI: Stepback Saturday
- Stepback Covers Part VII: Stepback & Modern Romance Novels