Friday, November 10, 2017

The origins of the bodice-ripper cover: Playboy Press?

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.

For me, the most fascinating fact in the early chapters of Markert's book is his discussion of the role Playboy Press played in the packaging of what publishers and writers were beginning to call "bodice-rippers" in the romance market of the 1970s. Though the trend for publishing historical romances "spicer and more sensual than any of the romance subgenres being published at the time" began with Avon, and their 1972 paperback original The Flame and The Flower, the number of sexy historicals being published began to climb at a rapid pace only after Playboy Press entered the market in 1976.

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
As Markert notes, the cover of Avon's early sensual historicals did not look much different from those of other, "tamer" romance books being published in the 1970s. Playboy's Mary Ann Stuart felt they needed to package their books differently, Markert reports: 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
These new, provocative covers did more than just power Playboy Press romances to the top of the lucrative romance market. They also taught a generation of romance readers to equate the "startlingly sensuous" covers with the type of romance that, for the first time, depicted sex not from (or not just from) the male point of view, but from the female's (however problematic those depictions may have been). For with the success of the Playboy romances, other publishers who eagerly jumped into the historical "bodice-ripper" market in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed Playboy's lead, adorning their own new books with similarly "sensual" covers, and repackaging and republishing older books in newer, sexier garb.

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).

Pretty ironic, isn't it, that women are the ones who were laughed and sneered at for snatching up the tawdry-covered bodice-rippers when it was Playboy Press, and other publishers who imitated them, who created those covers with the assumptions about the male gaze in mind?

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:


  1. This was one of my favorite fun facts from reading Markert's book! Publishing Romance was the most indepth look at the industry history of the genre that I've read to date. I came away with stacks of notes and the feeling that the romance community may have forgotten as much as it has remembered!

    1. Thanks, Jessica, for stopping by! I'm looking forward to ploughing through more of Markert's book and discovering more of those long-forgotten pieces of the romance genre story...

  2. An alternate explanation for the rise of the bodice ripper cover:

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