Tag Archives: decade 1990s

1990s stepbacks v

Stepback Covers Part V: 1990s Stepbacks

1990s stepbacks v

The Stepback Cover Enters the 1990s

By 1990 every established publishing house was rethinking the way they did romance cover art. The clinch would remain ever-present. But new covers were being introduced. The stepback was the hottest trend around.

Some big-named authors didn’t even get stepbacks plus a painted illustration. 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 and 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.

Almost Heaven, Judith McNaught, Pocket Books, 1990 & later editions

Contrary to some old-school artists’ beliefs that hiding the cover art would lower sales, not increase them, the stepback was starting to mean something special to readers. Rising stars–both authors and artists–would combine for a winning combination, and no publisher could ignore that.

Kensington’s Zebra imprint launched stepback covers for their best-selling authors such as Deana James, Phoebe Conn, Shannon Drake, and Penelope Neri. They were illustrated by their reliable stable of artists, which included Franco, Pino and John Ennis.

no sweeter paradise neri
no sweeter paradise
No Sweeter Paradise, Penelope Neri, Zebra, 1993, Pino cover art

As for the biggest publsihers in romance, Avon, they were late players in the game. They hopped on the trend in 1990. Although I haven’t confirmed Avon’s first stepback, this Katherine Sutcliffe cover was one of the earliest:

A Fire In the Heart, Katherine Sutcliffe, 1990, Avon, Victor Gadino cover artist

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.”


Despite her druthers, Duillo was the consummate professional. She almost always brought her “A” game to her stepback illustrations.

once a princess cover
once a princess duillo
Once a Princess, Johanna Lindsey, Avon, 1991, Elaine Duillo cover art

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 the clinch for Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire, this gave artist Victor Gadino the opportunity to step in.

prisoner of my desire lindsey 1991
prisoner of my desire gadino
Prisoner of My Desire, Johanna Lindsey, Avon, 1991, Victor Gadino cover art

As for mid-list authors, or writers who were just starting out? Avon issued them covers with clinch images on the back, instead of 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 place the “embarrassing torrid embraces” in a less conspicuous position.

Unsurprisingly, this design choice was a staple for Avon in the 1990s, particularly the “Avon Romantic Treasure” historical line.

timeswept bride peter attard
Timeswept BrideEugenia Riley, Avon, 1995, Peter Attard cover art

Your Opinion?

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.

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, or series romance, differs from long-form, single-edition romances in several ways. Most notable is the length. Category romances run from 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.” Tropes also define them.

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

All genre fiction uses tropes in some way. Time travel, artificial intelligence, chosen one Messiahs, and space travel are a few examples of Science Fiction tropes.

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, book length, 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 Historical.

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 also released historical romance lines.

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. These books run at 300-600 pages 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 grandmother of category romance. They originated in 1908 in the United Kingdom as a general publisher. Fortuitously enough, their first book released also 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.

mills and boon #1
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 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