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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.