Tag Archives: decade 1980s

1980s romance covers

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.

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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.

brief look

A Brief Look at Category (aka Series) Romance

brief look

A Brief History of Series Romance

Category lines, or series romance, are one of the cornerstones of the romance novel industry. We’ll delve deeper into each line as we document the genre’s past at Sweet Savage Flame. We’ll also be adding more pages to the site. As always, you can access pages via the top MENU. Please follow us via e-mail to stay informed of our latest updates.

What Is Category Romance?

Category or Series Romance

Category romance, also known as series romance, differs from long-form, single-edition romances in several ways. Most notable is the length. Category romances run 55,000 to 70,000 words. These range from 150 pages to a short novel of 300 pages. As the name implies, they are sorted into category lines. They are also defined by tropes.

Tropes are common devices in stories that appeal to readers. They can be a type of plot, kind of character, a theme, or setting writers use because of familiarity. Some examples are Highland Scots, second chance at love, playboy billionaires, or arranged marriages.

All genre fiction use tropes in some way. Time travel, artificial intelligence, chosen one Messiahs, and space travel are a few ones would find in Science Fiction.

Tropes are not clichés. Clichés are ideas that are so overused they become trite. They irritate rather than engage. Examples that are found in romance would be the spunky heroine who stomps her foot when angered or purple-prose phrases like “whirling vortex of desire” to describe sex scenes.

man and woman kissing
Photo by Katie Salerno on Pexels.com

Romance Lines or Imprints

What is a line or an imprint? A line is a category, or series, of books written by assorted authors that, while usually unrelated, share commonalities. These can be heat level, length of the book, and tropes employed.

A publishing house creates and distributes books. Publishers use trade names, or imprints, to market their books to the appropriate audiences.

Historical or Contemporary, What’s the Difference?

Harlequin is a publisher of romances. They have numerous category lines, such as Presents, Intrigue, and Historicals.

Kensington Books is also a publisher. Zebra is one of their imprints. The historical Lovegram and Heartfire books were two of Zebra’s lines. Many other publishers, like Harlequin, have released historical romance lines as well.

Why don’t we at Sweet Savage Flame classify these lines as category romances?

There are several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, publishers didn’t number historical categories like contemporary series romance.
  2. At 300-600 pages, these books run at a greater length than usual category romances.
  3. At Sweet Savage Flame, we try to separate historical from category and contemporary romances, as they have different lineages and genre conventions.

When we review books from historical category lines, such as Harlequin Masquerade, Harlequin Historical, and Signet Regency, please note that we file them under Historical Romance Reviews. If the books have a number, we provide that information.

The Yankee
The Yankee, Kristin James, Harlequin, 1990, Max Ginsburg cover art

Mills & Boon

Mills & Boon is the big grandmama of category romance. They originated in 1908 in the United Kingdom as a general publisher. Fortuitously enough, their first book released happened to be a romance, Sophie Cole’s Arrows from the Dark. Romance would not be Mills & Boon’s primary focus until the 1930s, however.

Mills & Boon sold their romances mainly to lending libraries. They produced brown, hardcover books which were instantly recognizable. A UK-based company, they never directly released their books in North America. They distributed them through Harlequin. In 1971 Harlequin Ltd bought out Mills & Boon.

Mills & Boon’s romances were almost always told from a third-person perspective that focused on the heroine. Usually, they left the hero’s thoughts unknown. Only through his words and deeds did the heroine, and thus the reader, know how he felt about her. The stoic, inscrutable hero would be a staple of the genre for decades.

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Arrows From the Dark, Sophie Cole, Mills and Boon, 1909


Harlequin Ltd. was founded in 1949 as a Canadian company that printed paperback editions of previously published works. Mysteries, westerns, and historical fiction were among their reprints.

The first romance Harlequin published was Nancy Bruff’s The Manatee in 1949.

Harlequin The Manatee, Nancy Bruff, Harlequin, 1949
The Manatee, Nancy Bruff, Harlequin, 1949

Medical romances were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, so Harlequin capitalized on the market, reprinting them as early as 1953. These were huge sellers for the company.

The Romance Series

In 1957, Harlequin entered into a partnership with Mills & Boon, where they established the North American publishing rights to their romances. The first Mills & Boon released as a Harlequin Romance was The Hospital in Buwambo by Anne Vinton (#407). By 1960, Harlequin would release category romance exclusively.

The books would never extend into the bedroom. They consisted of no more than kisses and passionate embraces. If there were any love-making scenes, they were between married partners and never explicit but written in a “fade to black” sense.

Harlequin purchased Mills & Boon outright in 1971, significantly expanding their library. By 1972 the monumental revolution in the industry and culture would lead to major changes at Harlequin.

series romance contrasts
Contrasts, Rowan Kirby, Harlequin, Frank Kalan cover art

The Presents Series

In response to the radical sexual transformation of the 1970s, Harlequin created the Presents line. In the beginning, these were just reprints of “steamy” Mills & Boons repackaged and rebranded.

Authors Anne Hampson, Anne Mather, and Violet Winspear would be the sole producers of Presents romances for the first couple of years. Cover artist Don Sinclair would create new artwork for the first 100+ editions of Presents.

More sensual in nature than Romances, Presents would move beyond kisses, often using euphemisms to convey sex. However, it would be a while before plots contained explicitly detailed scenes. Intercourse between unmarried partners, particularly the kind that wasn’t considered “forced seduction,” was still years away.

Usual tropes included arranged or forced marriages, Greek or Latin millionaires, and widowed heroines who had never experienced true sexual pleasure.

Harlequin Presents has been and remains the world’s best-selling category line.

series romance Gates of Steel
Gates of Steel, Anne Hampson, Harlequin, 1973, Don Sinclair cover art

The Super Romance Series

With the creation of the Silhouette imprint and other competitors arising in the early 1980s, Harlequin would introduce new lines to keep up with the changes. The SuperRomance line was one of them.

Category romances generally ran under 200 pages in length. In the 1970s, thick doorstopper epics ruled the day. Harlequin released extended-length romances to enable more character development or longer plots. These were similar to the standard Romance line but contained about 100-150 pages more.

series romance The End of Innocence
The End of Innocence, Abra Taylor, Harlequin, 1980, Will Davies cover art

American Romance

Another series that Harlequin introduced in the early 1980s was the American Romance line. They had published authors from outside the United States, primarily the UK, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Indeed, Janet Dailey was Harlequin’s only American author until she moved to Silhouette. Nora Roberts was famously rejected by Harlequin, who declared they only needed one Yankee.

The American Romance line was created to allow for more familiar settings written by American authors.

change of life
Change of Life, Judith Arnold, Harlequin, 1990, cover artist unknown


In 1983, Harlequin would produce their most sensual line yet: Temptation. These took place in America or Canada, although they could be set in other nations. The protagonists were usually both North American. This series featured people from all walks of life: ordinary Joes and Janes to the jet-set.

These books ran in between the length of the Presents and SuperRomance series, fewer than 250 pages.

The first Temptation released was an unnumbered special edition. The line officially began with Lavyrle’s Spencer’s Spring Fancy.

forever mine valentine crouse
Forever Mine, Valentine, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Harlequin, 1990, Daniel Crouse cover art