The New E- in Erotica
Digital delivery helps boost the readership and sales.
by Sarah J. Robbins -- Publishers Weekly, 6/23/2008
Sex sells—and always has—so why, in the realm of erotica, has sex sold surprisingly more during the past few years? Is it the ho-hum economy? The war on terror? It's the Internet, stupid: empowering readers, writers and publishers of erotica, and offering instant access to a lively, diverse and ever-growing community. Only in the past few years have major romance publishers taken notice.
The consumers were far ahead of me,” says Kate Duffy, editorial director at Kensington, which launched its erotica imprint, Aphrodisia, in 2006. “For years I thought of e-publishing as something people did because they couldn't publish with us. But then we started seeing all of these stellar talents that had first been e-published. It wasn't that the books were in any way inferior—that was my prejudice. It was a different way of accessing consumers, and it would behoove me to investigate.”
One e-publisher who offers a variety of romance says the racier the story, the better the sales: “It can be difficult to describe the line between regular romance and erotica—it's often a tone or a feeling, or something specific that makes it more raw,” says Rhonda Peters, editor-in-chief of the Wild Rose Press, which publishes 14 different genres of romance in all lengths and in both electronic and print formats. “But whenever we have a new erotica release, it's 10 times more successful than anything else we put out.”
“The be-all and end-all” of online erotica, says Peters, is Ellora's Cave. EC publisher Raelene Gorlinsky says the company saw a 20% growth in e-book sales from 2006 to 2007, the year Kensington and other romance publishing heavyweights like Avon and Harlequin started new erotica imprints. Says Gorlinsky: “Once it was in front of their faces on bookstore shelves, people said, oh! I'll try this.” A large percentage of the original readership is still buying online—for immediacy, convenience and anonymity.
Pocket Books began publishing print versions of Ellora's Cave short stories and novellas in 2006, beginning with founder Jaid Black's Deep, Dark and Dangerous. The company recently optioned 39 more Ellora's Cave e-books, which are now being released in a series of anthologies that will appear, one a month, through February 2009. August brings a cheating-themed A Hot Man Is the Best Revenge; On Santa's Naughty List appears in time for the holidays. “We've had such fun creating these themed sets,” says Pocket editor Micki Nuding. Arguably the most anticipated Pocket/Ellora's Cave collaboration to date is this October's release of their first hardcover anthology, Forbidden Fantasies—featuring some of Ellora's Cave's premiere writers, including Black and Cheyenne McCray. “Unlike our other anthologies, this work is brand-new and has never been released before,” says Nuding.
Harlequin's erotic imprint, Spice, published its first print anthology, What Happens in Vegas, in May. Last August the company launched Spice Briefs—short erotic stories (5,000 to 15,000 words) published as e-book originals. “We knew there was a strong appetite for erotic online reads,” says editor Susan Swinwood. “We've been publishing two to three titles per month and have been thrilled at the response we've had from readers.” Spice will publish an anthology of the best briefs, Size Matters, in March '09.
“The bonus of having three or more short stories in a collection is that there's less time with setup and more time with the fun, juicy parts,” says May Chen, an editor at Avon's Red imprint. In December, Red will offer the Rachel Kramer Bussel–edited Bedding Down anthology; a month later comes A Red Hot Valentine's Day.
Readers also enjoy the variety within a given collection, says Alexandria Kendall, founder and owner of Red Sage Publishing, which has since 1995 published anthologies that combine a variety of genres, including historical, paranormal and contemporary. “They'll often pick up one of our titles because they're interested in one kind of story,” says Kendall, “but they'll end up discovering something entirely new.” Secrets Volume 23: Secret Desires and Secrets Volume 24: Surrender to Seduction will both be available in July.
Some publishers have suggested that the era of the anthology has passed, and that big name authors are what spur book sales. Popular romance writers have crossed into erotica with a good deal of success. Eric Jerome Dickey, a 12-time New York Times bestselling author, released his first erotic novel, Pleasure, in April. It's become a national bestseller. “I think his readers know to expect the unexpected when they come to his books,” says Julie Doughty, Dickey's editor at Dutton. “He turned his focus a little, exploring what happens when a woman leaves a relationship and asking, how realistic is it for one person to fulfill your every need?”
Something for Everybody
Women want erotica—but what, specifically, are they looking for? Every type of encounter within the realm of imagination. This October, Trafalgar Square will bring to the U.S. a diverse collection from Neon, an imprint of the British publisher, Orion. Part of its publicity campaign will include a giveaway with Playgirl magazine. “There's a smart packaging to these titles,” says publishing director Brooke O'Donnell. “They're hip and play to a readership really well.” Trafalgar Square will bring another British export stateside in November: the contemporary Intimate Company series (which includes The Confessional Diaries of a Girl Abroad and The Confessional Diaries of a Girl in the Country).
Some women gravitate toward sexy versions of real life; more and more seem to want something outside their realm of experience. “It's been very obvious to us and our authors that as erotic romance has become popular, readers have gotten acclimated to it,” says Gorlinsky at Ellora's Cave. “And they've become jaded. Things that were shocking five years ago—anal sex, ménage à trois—have now become vanilla.” Since, as Gorlinsky says, the human body can only do so many things, many writers have experimented with different types of adventure and fantasy—or a combination of the two. And readers have responded.
According to Ballantine senior editor Melody Guy, one reason for the category's success is the authors' promotional savvy. At Ballantine's One World imprint, the biggest erotica author, says Guy, is “far and away Noire,” whose 2005 debut novel, G-Spot, continues to backlist strongly. Coming next month is a story collection, From the Streets to the Sheets: Urban Erotic Quickies¸which will be followed next spring by Hittin' the Bricks, based on a screenplay by Noire. Noire's popularity, says Guy, “stems from the fact that she combined two genres in a way that no one else had—street lit and erotica—and appealed to fans of both genres.” She also, Guy adds, has a team of fans across the country that helps to promote her books, and she has a significant online presence.
One emerging category is erotic suspense—a technique St. Martin's bestselling writer Lora Leigh uses in her navy SEAL series to create heart-pounding moments, says SMP senior editor Monique Patterson. Last month, the publisher released her Wicked Pleasure; the second book in her Bound Hearts series, the third entry, Only Pleasure, will be out in January.
A writer's unique sensibility—and the way he or she creates the world in which her characters live—is key to a book's vitality, says Berkley senior editor Kate Seaver. “Each author brings a fresh take to erotica,” she says, “and that's what's so important—a really great story and compelling characters.” She cites new Berkley author Robin Schone's portrayal of Victorian London as an example; the USA Today bestselling author will headline the historical erotica anthology, Private Places, in August.
New American Library's executive editor, Claire Zion, says high-concept historicals, such as Colette Gale's Master: An Erotic Novel of the Count of Monte Cristo (the follow-up to last year's Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of the Phantom of the Opera), have been very successful. “It's erotic and frank and a great retelling,” says Zion. In March 2009, NAL will release Madame Bliss: The Erotic Adventures of a Lady by Charlotte Lovejoy. “It's written in the tradition of Tom Jones and Fanny Hill, about a young innocent released in London,” says Zion. “It's a wink and a nod to the literary tradition of the 18th century that readers up and down can enjoy.”
Kensington editorial director Audrey LaFehr calls historical erotic romance “such a fun genre, because it's still so new we can try just about anything.” One Aphrodisia author, Kate Pearce, writes Regency England erotica, including March's Simply Sexual and the upcoming November title, Simply Sinful. But the imprint's front-runner remains paranormal erotica. “An alternate world really allows the writer the freedom to break all the rules and social taboos they face when writing a contemporary novel set in the 'real' world,” says LaFehr. “The sex tends to be hotter, wilder and much more inventive in paranormals, and the fans seem to be ready and willing to follow the writers' imaginations wherever they want to take them.” Kate Douglas's Wolf Tales novels, which have repeatedly gone back to press, are one Kensington success story. Her latest, Wolf Tales VI, will be published next month.
Bantam Dell senior editor Shauna Summers sees no sign of paranormal erotica slowing down. “The question for a while was, when is paranormal going to implode?” she says. “Now we know it's here to stay. We see it as a niche that has a very solid, loyal readership and is growing from there.” Coming in August as a Delta trade paperback is Seduced by the Storm, the latest installment of Sydney Croft's ACRO (Agency for Covert Rare Operatives) series—which includes sexy, superhuman encounters. Croft also contributes to Bantam's Hot Nights, Dark Desires anthology, released last month.
These genres are so hot, in fact, that there's some serious cross-pollination going on—especially among historicals and paranormal. Kensington author Elizabeth Amber's Lords of Satyr trilogy (including the final installment, Lyon: The Lords of Satyr, due in August) combines these subgenres—and has gone back to press three times. Another steamy example of this unlikely marriage can be seen in Avon's take on traditional fairy tales. In October, they'll release Ravish: The Awakening of Sleeping Beauty by Cathy Yardley.
The newest frontier in erotica, say some publishers, is male/male erotic romance aimed at heterosexual female readers. “Ménage à trois, specifically two men and a women, first became hot a couple of years ago,” says Ellora's Cave's Gorlinsky. “Now people are very fascinated by it.” The e-publisher has a variety of male-male story lines online; a few have been included in recent print anthologies.
“Interest in gay erotica among heterosexual female readers was once a bit of an industry secret,” says Kara Wuest, assistant to the publishers at Cleis Press. “Perhaps now it's becoming more generally known that many women read gay erotica because they enjoy the eroticization of the masculine form, regardless of orientation.” Their newest gay titles have themes featuring masculine archetypes—Truckers, Cowboys, Country Boys, Hot Cops and Hard Hats—and each, says Wuest, sells better than the last. Next up? July's Backdraft: Firemen Erotica.
“Gay men are feeling freer to say they like romance—a fully fleshed-out story with great characters and plots, and there's a huge number of straight women who want to read gay erotic romance,” says Laura Baumbach, writer and founder of ManLoveRomance Press. “Why not? They like men. One man is good, two are exciting together.” She started the company two years ago, frustrated that, as a writer, she lacked publication options through more traditional channels. Today, her titles rank third, fifth, and eighth among Barnes & Noble's gay erotica bestsellers. “It may take years before New York publishers catch on to the trend, but people are asking for it, so we dove in,” she says. “After all, you can write the best book in the world, but there's no point if readers don't know it's out there.”
Travel Guides Redux
Philadelphia-born travel writer Heather Stimmler-Hall began curating tours of Paris in the late '90s, a few years after moving there as a student. “People who came on the tours often took me aside and asked where they could find sex clubs,” says Stimmler-Hall. “It's quite funny—each one always thought they were the first one to ask.” She did her research but found few guides to serve the sophisticated woman traveler, empowered by films like Heading South and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and bedazzled by Stimmler-Hall's new home: “Paris has always inspired women as a place of sexual liberation,” she says. That's why she'll publish Naughty Paris: A Lady's Guide to the Sexy City, through Austin, Texas–based Greenleaf Book Group in September. (The book will be available on naughtyparisguide.com in mid-July.) “This guide shows women exactly how to choose their own erotic adventure,” says Stimmler-Hall, “from erotic cabarets and art galleries to where to find the right lingerie and shoes in order to get the Frenchwoman attitude.” Up next? Berlin and London. “People don't want to stick erotica in one corner of their lives,” she says. “Whether it's in cooking or travel, they want a little sexiness throughout.”
On the other end of the spectrum is a male travelogue of sorts: Joe Diamond, currently a writer for Playboy TV's new travel series, Sexy Things to Do Before You Die has penned Around the World in 80 Lays, which Skyhorse Publishing will release in October. The book takes readers to brothels and other sex destinations around the globe, including Brazil, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and the Czech Republic. “For a publisher in any category, the goal is to publish something different from what's out there. This book also happens to have one of the greatest titles of all time and a Larry Flynt blurb,” says Bill Wolfstahl, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing. Some people have raised eyebrows, concerned about the exploitation in the sex business, says Wolfstahl, who notes that there's nothing in the book about sex with underage girls. “It's not our job to tell what's right or wrong,” he says. “This is his story, and our feeling is that a little controversy can be very good for a book.”
A One-Woman Name Brand
Zane, a New York Times bestselling author of erotica, writes her sex scenes last. “People who think readers want to pick up a book and see sex sex sex miss the mark,” she says. “Even with the anthologies I edit, I select a story based on whether or not I really care about the people having sex.”
And as this singularly named master of invention expands her brand, she's consistently finding new ways to get the word out about her characters. This summer she's launched a viral marketing campaign for her own Atria imprint, Strebor Books, while serving as executive producer for a television adaptation of one of her bestsellers: Zane's Sex Chronicles is scheduled to premiere on Cinemax in September. (Atria will publish the companion short-story collection in August.)
Zane's editor at Atria, Malaika Adero, says the African-American female voice was long absent in American erotic literature. “Zane's filled that gap,” says Adero, who began working with the writer about six years ago. “It's the opposite of flowery—it's edgy and unvarnished. And hers are real characters and real settings that everyone can identify with, from riders on the subway to residents of suburbia.”
Zane's Sex Chronicles features the intertwining stories of five urban women and the men in their lives; when filming wraps, Zane will switch sets—she's next slated to film a telenovela series for BET, based on her novel Afterburn. The shooting of Addicted, her feature film for Lion's Gate, will begin in the fall.
Still Zane insists she hasn't lost traction with the printed word, whether she's pushing the boundaries of her own craft (last month Strebor released the lesbian erotica anthology Purple Panties, and Atria published Honey Flava, a Zane-edited anthology featuring a mix of African-American and Asian characters) or championing other writers. Strebor will release 32 books this year, among them Street Judge by former Detroit district court judge Greg Mathis, and Diary of a 12-inch Brotha by Dante Feenix.
And while she most often deals with fiction, Zane is equally attentive to the real-world needs of her readers, maintaining a blog on her Web site that addresses their questions and concerns. Some of these letters were collected in the writer's first nonfiction title, Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love, which was released last summer. “Women today don't wait for a man to define them—they define themselves,” says Zane. “If you read my blog, it really shows—as they read these fantasies, they start to become more liberated in their own lives.”
Taschen Gets Cocky
In September 2006, Taschen bravely thrust forth The Big Book of Breasts—a 420-page ode to what its author, Dian Hanson, calls “America's premiere body part of interest.” Indeed. The $50 art book has sold 65,000 copies to date and has been bought by an equal number of men and women. How could they top it?
“People of course started asking what body part is next?” says Hanson, a 25-year veteran of men's magazine publishing and Taschen's sexy-book editor. “I said, look, there's only one thing that's going to approach that level of fascination.” Now, after much anticipation, The Big Penis Book will finally debut on June 26.
It features more than 400 photos of phenomenal phalluses—including some of the legendary John Holmes—most of them taken in the U.S. in the 1970s. Hanson spent more than a year researching the book, seeking out and interviewing the photographers and, when necessary, their archivists. “That I was very happy to do—especially to find the photographers people thought were dead,” she says. “Now they're all communicating with one another.”
The fruit of her labors is already selling out in Europe; Taschen's Beverly Hills and Hollywood stores get daily requests for the title. “The amazing thing to me is that no one else has thought of this,” says Hanson. So what, then, is next? Why, legs, of course. Oglers, look out: the book is slated to hit shelves in early '09.