Night Pleasures might have been just another sexy vampire novel by a little-known romance author if a Web site devoted to its characters hadn't taken off like wildfire, sparking passion in the hearts of thousands of romance readers and unleashing a fury of creativity in its author-creator, Sherrilyn Kenyon. While it's too early to tell if the book will match the breakout performance of paranormal romances by authors such as Christine Feehan or Dara Joy, the combined energy of fans and fabricator has already fueled considerable pre-pub heat for Kenyon's forthcoming mass market paperback, propelling it up the Amazon.com bestseller list in the year leading up to its October 1 publication by St. Martin's Press.
The book's serendipitous rise began two winters ago, on February 23, 2001, when a friend of Kenyon's prematurely posted the book's Web site address on two well-populated romance sites, romantictimes.com and romanceandfriends.com. Kenyon's site (www.dark-hunter.com) immediately attracted as many as 12,000 hits an hour and crashed the server, she told PW. After it moved to a new server, the site logged almost a million hits within two months.
More remarkably, Kenyon has maintained her fans' interest in the site over the past 17 months. The dark-hunter.com home page currently averages more than 1,000 unique visitors a day, and has tracked more than two million unique visitors since it was launched. All the while, Kenyon has worked her fans into a frenzy of desire for Night Pleasures. At one point, pre-pub orders placed the book as high as #6 on Amazon. (Currently ranked in the 7,000s, it has dropped as low as 17,000.)
Kenyon undertook the design of dark-hunter.com with a clear vision, based on her experiences as a Web developer at Ingram Entertainment, where she worked with Warner Brothers and other studios to promote movies on the Internet. When she launched her site, it featured a soundtrack, the "Dark-Hunter Creed" and character profiles. "Working at Ingram taught me to think like a Hollywood developer, to focus in on what made people connect, interact with and return to a site," explained Kenyon, who left Ingram in March 2001.
Faced with the question of how to maintain her fans' interest for a much longer period than she had originally intended, Kenyon began e-mailing "Dark-Hunter of the Month" profiles to a select group of subscribers and holding a live chat with each featured character on the site. Last winter, she added a link to Sanctuary, a "biker bar" where the fearless vampire slayers mingle with visitors to the site. Around that time, the indefatigable Kenyon also launched two related Web sites: were-hunter.com, home of shape-shifting characters who venture where dark-hunters can't; and dream-hunter.com, devoted to the gods and demi-gods who help and heal the dark-hunters and were-hunters. This spring, when fans began creating their own related Web sites, Kenyon added links to them.
"The site's huge," she told PW, speaking with a Southern lilt from her home in Tennessee. "It kind of got out of control. It's over 1,000 pages now, but I love it." Depending on her book-writing deadlines, Kenyon, who is 36 and has three small children, devotes as many as eight hours a day to the site.
When some fans wanted to become even more deeply involved, Kenyon encouraged them to create their own characters and role-play with others. Calling themselves the Ladies and Lads of Sanctuary, about 300 fans now participate in role-playing events via an e-mail loop or in real time on the site. One fan is in the process of organizing a more formal club, complete with membership cards. "They've embraced it in a way that is mind-boggling," Kenyon said. "If I never published a book, fans would still play [on the site]."
Before the launch of dark-hunter.com, Kenyon was a prolific if not particularly high-profile romance author. She got her start with several novels published by Dorchester (Paradise City, 1994; Daemon's Angel, 1995) and Kensington (Born of the Night, 1996), while branching into reference books on fiction-writing for F&W Publications, a division of Writer's Digest. More recently, HarperCollins and Avon published four historicals she wrote under the pen name Kinsley MacGregor (A Pirate of Her Own, 1999; etc.)
In September 2000, Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher at St. Martin's Paperbacks, signed up Fantasy Lover (Feb.), a paranormal romance that offered a glimpse of the first Dark-Hunter character, and Night Pleasures, the first full-fledged dark-hunter novel. Shortly afterward, Enderlin bought two additional books—the tentatively titled Night Embrace (July 2003) and Dance with the Devil (winter 2003). Those two, together with Night Pleasures, round out what Kenyon calls the Hunter Legends series.
St. Martin's is, of course, delighted with the results of Kenyon's efforts and has already gone back to press for 10,000 copies of Fantasy Lover, which had a 60,000 copy first printing. Though the house has not set the final print run for the October publication of Night Pleasures, it has so far received stronger orders than originally projected, Enderlin said. In addition to providing stores with advance reading copies and display materials, St. Martin's plans a center-spread ad in the October issue of Romantic Times.