What do women want?

From gothic novels to Gone with the Wind, from Peyton Place to chick lit, the history of modern publishing has been, in large part, an attempt to answer that question.

Now more and more publishers think they've solved the mystery: women want sex.

Romance publishing heavyweights Harlequin, Kensington and Avon all have new erotica imprints, where euphemistic references to throbbing members and dark moist caverns of desire give way to explicit descriptions of sex that's more about immediate gratification than everlasting love. Meanwhile, edgy Virgin Books has a new U.S. distribution deal with Holtzbrinck intended to increase sales of its U.K.—based hardcore imprints.

Even literary publishers are getting in on the action. Next winter Bloomsbury will publish Walter Mosley's "sexistentialist" novel, Killing Johnny Fry; last year, Grove's novel The Almond described a Muslim woman's sexual exploits in language (translated from the French) that is anything but coy.

And no wonder, given the numbers. In 2005, 26 erotica titles had sales of more than 11,000 copies each, according to Nielsen BookScan. Unlike categories such as thrillers or less graphic romance, this is not a category driven by blockbusters. But at least one bona-fide superstar has emerged to give publishers something to strive for. Atria's Zane has gone from being a self-publishing erotica phenom to being one of the most successful African-American women writers ever. Her 2005 novel, Afterburn, sold nearly 55,000 copies in hardcover last year, according Nielsen BookScan. Her backlist also continues to sell briskly; her titles held 12 of the top 15 spots in the erotica category last year.

While pornography—whether it's the old-fashioned magazine variety or the infinite number of sexy Web sites—appeals largely to men, erotica—in particular erotic romance—is primarily a woman thing. Susie Bright, who's edited Simon & Schuster's Best American Erotica series for nearly 14 years, sees the new explicitness as a logical evolution and points out that sex has always been key to romance fiction: "If romance publishers didn't change with the times and their community, they wouldn't exist as a genre anymore. The romance people realize that most of their audience are not purists—they're women who read a variety of general fiction and nonfiction."

But just because these days it's hotter between the covers than between the sheets is no guarantee that readers will be easy to satisfy. And publishers looking to sell sex must find a way to understand and cater to a variety of tastes—and appeal to readers who want it steamy, but not cheesy.

The Revolution Was Televised

To understand how to exploit the appetite for frankly sexual content, it helps to consider how it became such an open part of the culture.

Demographics likely played a part. "Readers who devoured romance fiction, the kind that was filled with euphemism, have gotten older and franker," says Jo-Ann Power, media director for Virgin Books. "As we age, we call things what they are, and we are also more comfortable talking to our partners about sex. In our books, the dialogue is the way people talk to each other in intimate situations—not stiff, stylized 'My liege lord, prithee hold me' kind of stuff. The older and more sophisticated you get, the more sophistication you demand from your fiction."

Toni Blake, whose novel Swept Away will be the published this fall as the first full-length book in Avon's new erotica imprint, Red, says the genre's mainstream acceptance is another step in the sexual revolution. "People thought that the sexual revolution had already happened—but really, there was still a huge stigma about women's sexuality," Blake says.

So what changed that? Many credit the Internet and a certain cable TV show.

Sex and the City, the HBO series that debuted in 1998 and ran for six seasons (and lives on in reruns on basic cable) showed female characters leaving no position untried in their quest for sexual fulfillment. "Sex and the City erased many of the taboos about women—and got them talking to each other about them, too," says Blake.

Sometimes that means talking in person. But it also means connecting via the Internet. Enter Tina Engler, aka erotica author Jaid Black. Since 2001, Engler's online venture, Ellora's Cave, has grown from an actual kitchen table-top to a company that releases 25 e-titles and 15 print titles per month. It's biggest seller in 2005 was Black's The Empress' New Clothes, which moved nearly 7,000 copies in trade paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan. Its electronic sales also continue to increase, says Engler, who reported first-quarter sales in 2006 of more than 200,000 e-books, an increase to 67,000 a month from 56,000 a month in 2005.

Though sales of its individual print titles tend to be modest, the volume of books it publishes, its early entrance into the market and its focus on bringing women together through the Web site all make Ellora's Cave a force in the industry.

Engler explains, "Women feel safer in communities not simply because they are surrounded by sympathetic others, but because those others echo their own experiences. It's very important to women to feel the validation that comes from hearing someone else say 'I love that, too!' or 'I know, that scene was so hot!' In feeling less alone, women gain the freedom to imagine new things for themselves."

"Ellora's Cave is just a publishing phenomenon," says M.J. Rose, the author whose self-published LipService was the first e-book to be picked up by a major imprint (Ballantine, in 1999). Rose, who has since published five novels, says that even as recently as 2000, erotic fiction was not understood by the industry.

"I heard again and again, 'This just doesn't fit,' " Rose says. It was only after her self-published erotic thriller sold 2,500 copies that mainstream publishers took notice—and made offers.

Now such books are hot in more ways than one. In addition to Avon's Red, this year has also seen the debut of two other erotic imprints, Kensington's Aphrodisia and Harlequin's Spice. And next month, Kensington's Dafina imprint will begin publishing books from the U.K.—based Brown Skin Books, a publisher of erotic fiction aimed at black readers.

"Tina Engler is the one who drove this market, and who inspired the growth of erotic romances, especially because the Internet has become a place where readers learn about what they like," says Power.

Sex and the Bookstore

But when erotica moves from e-books and Web sites to print and bookstores, it encounters a whole new set of challenges. In 2004, when Ellora's Cave's print line was picked up by Borders, Engler had to consider how to package her books for the first time. The challenge: how to telegraph the graphic content without offending retailers or customers.

"Ellora's Cave Presents" books have a racy overall style, with muscled men and scantily dressed women, that nonetheless toes the cultural line—no nipples, no genitalia and no sex acts. Borders spokesperson Ann Binkley says the chain does not put restrictions on covers and shelves the books according to content. Erotic romance is shelved with the rest of the romance titles, while "erotic literature" (such as The Almond), goes in the "Sex & Intimacy" section.

Appealing to readers may be more of a consideration than appeasing retailers when it comes to designing covers. "We decided to start up an erotic fiction imprint when at Pocket Books we heard again and again from the big chain stores that they wanted to know what we had in erotica," says Liate Stehlik, publisher of Avon Red, which will publish one novel a month starting in September. "But after we saw what was out there, we decided to create packaging that was a little more upscale, a little classier than what was already available."

"Our readers are not kids," Stehlik notes. "We want to sell them sex in an evocative and literary way. I'm not shy about calling it erotica. We should embrace it for what it is—but that doesn't mean we have to wrap it up in a tacky way." Perhaps the most intriguing Red cover is that for Pleasure Control by Cathyrn Fox (Nov.), which features a woman reclining on lavender satin sheets, her feet in stiletto pumps and her calves bound with black ribbon.

Covers help Harlequin's Spice division, which publishes Rose's Lying in Bed, distinguish between its subgenres of erotic fiction—which include thriller, fantasy and romance. And subgenre aside, Spice gives each title a distinct look and feel. While the cover of Lying in Bed features a lush photo of a pale woman's body entwined in deep burgundy wrappings, Kayla Perrin's Tease has a striking image of a well-manicured hand crushing a ripe peach.

Different Strokes

The different approaches to covers hint at another fact about erotica—that the books are as varied as readers' tastes. While Engler has even coined a term, "romantica," to describe her ideal combination of erotic content and romance-driven plot—Virgin's Power says "romance" doesn't have to be part of the equation. "I think that you will find, more often than not, that American authors tended to adhere to a 'happily ever after' plot line in their steamier books. Black Lace is also about relationships, but about intimate ones that do not necessarily include emotional ties."

Virgin's Black Lace line of erotic fiction began in the U.K. in 1992, long preceding its American counterparts. Black Lace, Cheek (the imprint for younger female readers) and Nexus Enthusiast (Virgin's fetish series) only recently gained a firm foothold in the U.S., Power says. The company declined to reveal sales figures, saying that it's focused on long-term goals. But one thing is certain—these books cater to a less-than-conventional taste in sex.

Black Lace plots may not involve vanilla sex (for example, Circus Excite is about a professional dancer who joins a circus devoted to arousal), but connections between the characters are still paramount—whereas a Nexus title is more likely to revolve around a very specific fetish (buttocks, legs, breasts) and include little plot or character development. While Power emphasizes that the Nexus line is more oriented toward men, there are still plenty of titles in it written by and for women, like Exposéby Laura Bowen, in which "secret drawings" by a submissive attract the attention of a cult.

All of which may mean that what women want is not just sex, but sex with plenty of variety.

Author Information
Bethanne Kelly Patrick is the editor of AOL Books (aol.com/books). She lives and writes in Arlington, Va., and has a fetish of her own: review copies.