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On The Edge: The Power of Titillation

Now that the erotica trend is climaxing, writers—and readers—are wondering what constitutes erotica and what that label really means.

EROTICA IS HOT. This phrase has been uttered again and again by a growing number of publishers, including Avon, Harlequin and Kensington, who've developed entire imprints based on the premise that books with explicit sex scenes sell. But many romance writers have been surprised to see their latest novels being labeled—and shelved—as erotica. Longtime erotica writers and publishers have their own fears, too.

"There's now more confusion about what erotica is," says Vastiana Belfon, managing director of London-based Brown Skin Books. "On one hand, there are attempts by those selling pornography to hijack the term, and on the other, you find romance marketed as erotica. The category is in danger of becoming so broad that it becomes meaningless."

Then there's the worry of a glutted market. "I think that some publishers rushed out material that was just writing about sex rather than erotic," Belfon says. "There's a huge difference. Many writers submitting material to us believe that just because they know how sex works, they can put it down on paper and, somehow, that will be erotic. They're so wrong. It takes a great deal of hard work, thought, intelligence and creativity, as well as an understanding of the writer's craft to make sex erotic."

Today's erotica market is quite different from the 1940s when Anais Nin wrote the stories in Delta of Venus for $1 a page. And the trend isn't necessarily a comeback—Susie Bright, who The New York Times called "the avatar of American erotica," has been editing The Best American Erotica series since 1993. Today more erotica is being released, and the term is more freely used. But the spirit of the work—sexual journeys ripe with character development—is largely the same.


Several factors contributed to the rise of the erotica trend: self-published-turned-superstar authors such as Zane, the unprecedented success of e-book company Ellora's Cave and the HBO series "Sex and the City."

In 1997, Zane wrote a story centered on a sexual experience and e-mailed it to several friends. After receiving a positive response, she posted that story, along with two others, online. In three weeks, 8,000 visitors read her stories. Then AOL got wind of the subject matter and shut down her account. But she knew she was on to something. In May 2000, Zane self-published The Sex Chronicles, which sold 108,000 copies. Next came Addicted and Shame On it All with equally impressive numbers.

Zane didn't self-publish out of lack of interest from publishers. They knew of her Internet success, and she'd received several offers. "They all wanted me to change my writing style," she says. "They wanted to chain me down and make me less risqué. I refused. I knew I had a market."

Her instincts were right. In 2001, Zane signed a deal with Simon & Schuster. She's since been named publisher of Strebor Books International, an imprint of Atria/Simon & Schuster. Addicted is slated to hit theaters this year. She has a line of body products, and she's in the process of designing sex toys and lingerie. Her books are both New York Times and Essence bestselling titles.

Tired of being rejected by agents and publishers, Tina Engler created Ellora's Cave Publishing ( in 2000, publishing erotic novels under three pen names—Jaid Black being her most famous—in e-book form. Soon she began acquiring additional authors, and today the company has 1,300 e-books available for download and more than 400 books in print. Ellora's Cave releases about five new digital titles each week and reports first-quarter sales in 2006 of more than 200,000 e-books. They recently signed a deal with Pocketbooks to publish 10 three-novella anthologies in trade paperback form.

Finally, many point to the influence of "Sex and the City." "I feel strongly that `Sex and the City' was the first time women really saw other women openly talk about sex and about relationships within the context of sex," says Toni Blake, author of Swept Away (Avon Red). "It really made them realize it was OK to want sex, to think about sex." And as publishers see it, read about sex.


People have differing views as to the distinction between romance and erotica, but one thing's clear: Romance lets you peek inside a bedroom; erotica invites you into the bed. "Erotica focuses on the sex, and romance focuses on the romance," Blake says. "I think erotica is written to titillate. And it usually follows a sexual journey. Romance is about love and a happy ending and security."

In romance, the love story is the plot, says Angela Campion, London-based author of Scandalous and A Darker Shade of Blue (both Brown Skin Books). "In erotica, I think unless you've come up with something truly original or have a theme you want to explore, the plot isn't dictated by sex and can be something else, anything you like," Campion says. Zane says in erotica, the sex scenes steer clear of euphemisms and are more graphic, more real.

However, all these writers see a clear distinction between erotica and pornography. "To me, pornography's chief purpose is masturbatory," Campion says. "I'm not judging it. I'm simply arguing that this is its sole function. It's graphic for the immediate payoff. There's no art to it because there's no need. Erotica can end at arousal but doesn't have to, and because it tries to speak to us on multiple levels, recognizing that arousal can be mental as much as physical; it can aspire to art."

Many erotica writers spend little time crafting sex scenes. "I have to start with the premise," Campion says of her writing process. "It has to be one that can stand up on its own without erotic content." Then she figures out what drives the sex scenes. "The characters can't simply fall into bed every 20 pages," she says. "You still need motivation for them to come together." Whenever Zane comes to a sex scene, she simply types: "insert sex scene here" in a big, bold font. She writes dialogue first and continues developing her characters and plots. Her sex scenes are always written last.


"It was once quietly suggested to us that it wouldn't be a good idea for us to attend an exhibition aimed at libraries," Belfon says, adding that compared to the U.K. market, the U.S. and Canadian markets seem more open to innovation and less uptight. But Belfon has never let censors steer the direction of her work. "Through our distributors, we've had comments about our covers. At first they were too 'out there,' and when we made them less so, we were told that they were too subtle. We were also told by the buyer from one major chain that there was 'rather a lot of plot' in our novels. It seems that he didn't expect 'plot' in an erotic novel. While I'm willing to discuss covers and formats with booksellers, I won't compromise the quality of the writing."

Zane insists on writing what she wants to write in her books, although she did compromise when it came to one of her book's titles. Initially she wanted The Sisters of Alpha Phi F***em. Her sales representatives were unsure of how to sell the title, and her editor feared the book would be hidden in the shelves. So she agreed to The Sisters of APF on the cover instead. "As a publisher, I understand this," she says. "You want the book on the shelf."


Several authors have been surprised to see their work marketed as erotica. Avon bought Blake's latest novel, Swept Away, and then created Avon Red, its erotica imprint. Because Swept Away was, what Blake calls, a sexy romance, Avon Red decided it should be the imprint's launch book. "I don't think Swept Away is an erotic novel," Blake says.

Despite the resulting publicity, Blake worries longtime readers will have trouble finding her book if it's not shelved in the romance section. "It's not that I have anything against erotica," she says. "I think erotica is a great genre. But I don't think that's the correct way to categorize [Swept Away]."

In an interesting turn of events, Avon recently decided to reissue Swept Away as a mass-market romance book this year.


In addition to romance publishers, some literary publishers are releasing their own erotica, often very graphic in nature. In 2005, Grove Press released The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman by Nedjma. And in January, Bloomsbury released Walter Mosley's 30th book, what he calls a sexistential novel, Killing Johnny Fry. This venture has mixed reactions.

"I'm not much of a fan of the so-called literary novelists who dabble in erotica," Campion says. "There's an air of apology and condescension to many of these works and a lack of intellectual honesty. When I wrote Scandalous, I was keenly aware that a big part of the job description is arousal. I wanted to make my readers' toes curl."

Blake sees a distinction between what she calls literary erotica and romance erotica. Recently she was asked to give a quote on a book of erotic short stories, and she refused. "It crossed some lines I found morally disturbing," she says. "I understand that's what literary erotica sometimes does but it was very different from what romance readers are calling erotica."

Some mainstream novelists, like Mosley, didn't set out to write an erotic novel. But his work, after the fact, has been labeled as such. "I wrote a literary novel, which is existentialist," he says. "In it, a man is looking for his identity and his worth and his commitment in this world. A strong part of his method is through sexuality. Some people might find it pornographic. I knew that some people would, and that's OK. I don't find it pornographic. If I did, I wouldn't have written it."

Mosley says he doesn't care if people call his work literary erotica. "My editor at Bloomsbury calls it porn noir," he says. "I don't mind that. It doesn't matter. It all depends on what people see as the definition of the word eroticism. If indeed that word becomes the dominate definition of what the book is—meaning it takes away from the novel, plot, character and character development—that's problematic."

Publishing trends are constantly shifting. But well-written work sells, no matter how it's classified. "A good book equals a good book, no matter what its genre," Campion says. "Widen your expectations, open your mind to other possibilities, assume that those who read must have a grain of intelligence to begin with and we'll have more than just a trend."

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