Over the past month, I've been slowly reading through John Markert's Romance Publishing: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present (published in 2016 by McFarlane & Co.). Market is a sociologist, not a literary critic, and thus his book focuses not on analyzing literary texts or trends, but instead on "the structure of the romance publishing industry, and, in particular, the key role of decision makers within the industry who decide what novels to select or reject" (5).
And who decide what cover images will adorn those selected novels.
In his interviews with Mary Ann Stuart, editorial director for Playboy Press in the 1970s, Markert heard that Stuart had proposed the idea of publishing sexy historicals to Playboy management in 1975. But management was worried about producing a product aimed at women because "the company had always thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51). But with the success of Barbara Bonham's Proud Passion (the book sold more than half a million copies by the end of 1976, the year of its publication), the higher-ups at Playboy were convinced. And unlike Avon, which debuted only seven new historical romance authors between 1972 and 1979, Playboy Press issued five historical romance titles per month.
Before their venture into the romance market, Playboy Press had distributed books primarily through mail-order. But to reach the romance market, the Press signed a distribution agreement with Pocket Books, which imposed a five title limit per month. After the termination of that contract, Playboy Press upped their publishing schedule again, this time to ten books per month. And by the time Playboy Press was sold to Berkely-Jove in 1982, the monthly production had been upped again, this time to fifteen sensual historicals each month.
|The original 1972 cover|
...it was essential that the cover tell the reader what to expect from the book's content. The cover illustrations were particularly important to Playboy because, unlike Avon, it did not have a developed group of writers whose names the readers would recognize; moreover, Playboy could not spend much on advertising to promote the number of new authors it was releasing to meet its monthly production schedule. (53-54).
And thus Playboy's art director (a man, I'm guessing, although Markert's book doesn't specify) searched for artists who could convey to readers the "startling sensuality [of] the content's passion" (56). Said art director contracted with a "group of expatriate artists living in Spain" (men, again, one can't but wonder?) to illustrate all covers for the Playboy Press romance line.
|The far sexier TFTF 1980 cover|
Markert notes in an aside that the "ample bosoms swelled with lust" of the heroines featured on the covers of Playboy Press romances might be "a reflection, perhaps, of Playboy's obsession with large-breasted women" (54). Perhaps? It seems to me that the cover concept for the entire market of "bodice-rippers" owes both its genesis, and its proliferation, to the norms of sex and beauty promulgated by a company who "thought of itself as primarily in the entertainment business for men" (51).
If you're interested in reading some of the actual Playboy Press romances, check out these two lists on Goodreads:
Romance by Playboy Press, part 1
Romance by Playboy Press, part 2
Just reading the book descriptions is an education in itself.
And here are a just a few of the hundreds of Playboy Press historical romance book covers: