Stepback Covers Part VII: Stepback & Modern Romance Novels

stepback covers vii

The Stepback in Romance Circa 2000

By the dawn of the 21st millennium, the stepback was the pinnacle of cover art in the romance genre. From the crests of sensual beauty…

intrigued duillo
Intrigued, Bertrice Small, Kensington, 2001, Elaine Duillo cover art

…to the heights of campy, wonder…

Ritual of Proof, Dara Joy,
Ritual of Proof, Dara Joy, Harper Collins, 2002 (2001 orig. pub.) Steve Assel cover art,
Ritual of Proof, Dara Joy, Harper Collins, 2002 (2001 orig. pub.) Steve Assel cover art

…this particular cover style ruled the day.

By Y2K, all sorts of genre changes were in swing, but one aspect was consistent in romance. A stepback was “it.” The combination of a best-selling author, a prominent artist, and fantastic design aesthetics meant quality all around.

Suddenly YOu ginsburg
Suddenly You, Lisa Kleypas, 2000, Avon, Max Ginsburg cover art

Change is always a constant in life, however. Such is the case for the artwork for paperback romances. As artists of the second-golden age of pulp began to leave this mortal plane, publishers looked to a new, cheaper style of design.

Plain covers did not sell as well as clinches, despite the embarrassment associated with the latter. The stepback was an acceptable middle-ground and proved to be constant in an era of transformation.

Romance Covers in the Modern Age

Cover art in romance has always been controversial due to its sensual nature. Today, in 2022, the most notable trend is the cartoon-illustrated design.

Many authors and readers prefer this, as this modern cover style downplays the campy eroticism and adds an air of “respectability” to romance.

Nevertheless, stepback covers are still prevalent. At least, they are in historical romance. Although the covers are no longer painted by hand, there are digital artists who design fantastic modern romance covers. Alan Ayers, Jon Paul Ferrera, Chris Cocozza, James Griffin, Victor Gadino, and Anna Kmet number among them.

a kiss at midnight
a kiss at midnight
A Kiss at Midnight, Eloisa James, 2011, Avon, James Griffin cover art

Modern Stepback Covers

The more prominent an author is, the more likely their books will have stepbacks. Modern-era romance covers can be created quickly through the digital process, so it’s easier to design a more illustrious stepback.

Writers such as Lisa Kleypas, Tessa Dare, Elizabeth Hoyt, and Sarah MacLean have received the “special” stepback treatment.

wicked and wallflower maclean
wicked and the wallflower
Wicked and the Wallflower, Sarah MacLean, Avon, 2018, Alan Ayers cover art

Digital Art Covers For the 21st Century

One difference modern covers have from those of the past–besides the digital aspect– is the exterior of the stepback is not “plain” anymore. The front may display a couple embracing. Often, the outside cover portrays a solo image of the hero or heroine. Usually, the interior artwork shows the clinch pose.

chasing cassandra kleypas
chasing cassandra ayers

Chasing Cassandra, Lisa Kleypas, Avon, 2020, Alan Ayers cover art

Another variation is instead of multiple hues vying for the eye, one solid source–often the heroine’s gown or the bedsheets surrounding the couple–will be the primary spot of color.

Though we adore painted covers, we can also appreciate the loveliness of digital images. So long as covers inspire romance, there’s always room for them on our shelves!

Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Rey Books, cover artist TBD

Your Opinion?

Do you prefer modern romance, cover artist TBD covers with computer-generated images or are you an old-school-lover of painted covers? Or do you adore romance cover art and love looking at them no matter what era they came from?

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.

This entry was posted in Covers, Discussion, Romance and tagged , , , on by .

About Jacqueline Diaz

Old-School, retro, and vintage romance reads are my jam, baby! The good, the bad, the cheesy, and the sleazy! I have no shame about it; I love ’em! An auto-didact, amateur historian, and reader of romance novels since 1990, I hope to offer a unique perspective on the genre. As a blogger, you may know me by several names; here, I’m Jacqueline Diaz. I’m also the aspiring author of two works-in-progress, historical romances, The Savage Noble and What She Says with Her Eyes, which hopefully will be released in 2023.

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