Romance fiction used to be simple: boy meets girl, conflict is overcome, they live happily ever after. Anything else was taboo. But as taboos fall by the wayside, romance protagonists are tying knots literally as well as figuratively—and often disdaining the cultural strictures of heterosexuality and monogamy.

About 10% of the romances published by Carina Press, Harlequin’s digital-first imprint, fall into the broad gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) category. “That includes male/male and female/female titles, and one wonderful transgender story,” says Angela James, Carina’s executive editor. “We’re covering all the different subgenres, heat levels, and pairings, as well as ménages and more.” (The ménages are no longer just à trois: in the erotic romance field the term takes in threesomes, foursomes, and “moresomes,” both romantic and sexual.)

“Brokeback Mountain and the visibility of many gay or lesbian actors and comedians certainly made gay relationships more visible and acceptable to mainstream America, which meant readers went looking for books with male/male romance,” says Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher of Ellora’s Cave. Novels with GLBT, ménage, or bondage or sadomasochism (BDSM) themes have always been a major part of the Ellora’s Cave list. “BDSM has been one of our top-selling categories since 2001, and GLBT since about 2007,” Gorlinsky says. “Ménage took off about seven years ago. In fact, EC was the first of the erotic romance publishers to highlight ménage and make a splash with it.”

“GLBT romance, including male/male and ménage stories, continues to become more popular as our society begins to embrace the idea that love is love and that a good romance story isn’t bound by gender,” says Lorna Hinson, owner of GLBT e-publisher Torquere Press. “Readers are asking our authors to step out of their comfort zones and provide stories about bi characters, multiple partners, and many other combinations of sexualities.”

“Society has become much more open to differences, including varying sexual desires,” says author Nicole Austin (Melting Ice, Wild Rose Press, Jan.). “For many readers, being the center of a ménage is the ultimate fantasy. For those who have stressful, demanding careers, the idea of giving up control in the bedroom to a dominant partner is a little slice of heaven. Others may long for a same-sex encounter.”

One person’s fantasy is another individual’s everyday life. While women are writing and reading male/male romances as eagerly as they do male/female romances (and with many of the same genre tropes), specialty presses publishing queer stories for queer audiences are creating romantic stories that draw on real-life experiences while putting tired old stereotypes to rest. “Bisexual characters in gay romance used to get bad press,” says Aleksandr Voinov, cofounder and senior editor of Riptide Publishing. “We’re noticing more writers tackling the specific challenges of being bi in an honest manner. Authors are exploring fidelity and emotional commitments in interesting ways, such as polyamory.”

Adds Voinov: “The big no-no, cheating, seems to have been softened somewhat, especially in gay romance. In heterosexual romance, the man was very often allowed to roam before committing to his soul mate; well, now we’re seeing that in gay romance, too.”

And queer romance tales aren’t necessarily explicit. “Erotic romance has always been a popular but small subset of the 50 to 60 new LGBT romances we publish each year,” says Len Barot, president of Bold Strokes Books.

Kinky Is the New Vanilla

For those who do want erotic romance, plenty can be found, ranging from the simply explicit to the acrobatic or even sadomasochistic. “We’ve been publishing erotic romance in various subgenres for many years, but the BDSM books seem to have gained the biggest popularity,” says Kerry Donovan, senior editor at NAL. “These books speak to the most popular female fantasies—alpha heroes and loss of control—and allow the reader to enjoy them in a safe, entertaining way.”

Audrey LaFehr, editorial director at Kensington Publishing, notes that sexual subculture fiction now makes up about 10% of her list. “Because certain books that explore these lifestyles have gotten so much mainstream publicity, readers who’ve never read romance or erotica are now curious,” she says. “In March 2013, we’ll be publishing Yes, Master, an anthology by Tawny Taylor, Anne Rainey, and Vonna Harper, that will be somewhat of a master class in the arts of bondage, dominance, and submission for readers who have just discovered the world of light BDSM in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey,

“Fifty Shades identified very clearly something that the reading community was eager to purchase and read,” says Bob Podrasky, senior editor of Insatiable Press, whose Web site cheekily proclaims it a “brand spanking new” venture. It’s set to launch with erotic e-books in late 2012 and audiobooks in early 2013. Insatiable’s first titles will include the BDSM-themed short story collections Please, Sir and Serving Him; both are edited by powerhouse erotica writer and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who has become something of a household name since James’s success led the mainstream media to take more notice of erotic writing and publishing. “Both Rachel and I have been interviewed on NBC, Fox, CNN, and more,” says Cleis Press associate publisher Brenda Knight. “When Tom Ashbrook, the host of NPR’s On Point, interviewed Rachel, he joked that he never thought he’d be introducing the editor of Best Bondage Erotica on his show. Quite honestly, we’ve never pitched BDSM authors to NPR before, and it’s pleasant to have media come to us.”

Amy Pierpont, editorial director of the Forever and Forever Yours imprints, points out that the new vanilla is not quite so new. Romance readers have been devouring erotica—BDSM, male/male, ménage—for over a decade,” she says. “But since these books were predominantly bought in e-book format, the sales weren’t reported through traditional sales channels. Now the New York Times is tracking e-books and adding them to their bestseller charts.”

Pierpont says this boom has encouraged her to take chances on self-published authors, especially for the digital-first Forever Yours imprint. “We’ve acquired USA Today bestselling author Kelli Maine’s erotic Give and Take series, eight backlist and four original books from rising self-published star Kristen Ashley, and Erin Kern’s bestselling self-published novels,” Pierpont says.

“The explosion of Fifty Shades of Grey on the scene marks the first time one of these erotic romances has gone mainstream in such a big way,” says St. Martin’s Press editor Rose Hilliard. “Many readers discovered for the first time that they enjoy erotic romance, and now they’re buying more of it. We’ve seen this happen with our own erotic romance author Sara Fawkes, whose previously self-published, e-serial BDSM novel, Anything He Wants, sold 100,000 e-books in five weeks.”

Major publishers are also signing authors whose careers were launched by small presses. Shoshanna Evers started out publishing sweeter romances while writing BDSM erotica for herself. Ellora’s Cave published her first BDSM erotic romance, Punishing the Art Thief, in 2010. Evers believes that the mainstream success of BDSM erotic romance led Simon & Schuster to offer her a six-book deal.

“Reader response has been very strong to these more erotic titles,” says Cindy Hwang, executive editor at Berkley. “Sylvia Day’s Bared to You, which we published in September, has been on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list for 18 weeks and has 1.1 million copies in print to date.”

In January 2012, Berkley launched InterMix, a digital-first imprint that includes erotic romances by some of the house’s bestselling authors. “The eight-part serial Because You Are Mine by Beth Kery has sold a combined total of over 300,000 e-book copies since its on-sale date of July 31,” Hwang says.

Samhain editor Amy Sherwood notes that books with more unorthodox scenarios—such as hardcore BDSM and voyeurism in Lainey Reese’s New York series and ménage marriages in Bianca D’Arc’s Dragon Knights series—are selling briskly. But don’t get distracted by modern trappings; erotic romance, BDSM romance, and GLBT romance are still romance, and their protagonists (however many) still overcome conflicts in search of that requisite happy ending.

“As long as the story is sexy, has a romance, and the BDSM or GLBT elements work within that romance, then we’re happy to publish it,” says May Chen, senior editor at Avon. In March, Avon Impulse will release Karina Cooper’s Wicked Lies, its first GLBT romance. The hero is a gay man who was a secondary character in Cooper’s Dark Mission series. “Since Fifty Shades, there is definitely a wider acceptance of these subcultures in romance, as long as the story and characters are strong.”

The search for strong stories and characters has led some writers to spice up out-of-copyright classic novels. November brings the publication of one but two erotic versions of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: Eve Sinclair’s Jane Eyre Laid Bare (St. Martin’s Griffin) and Karena Rose’s Jane Eyrotica (Skyhorse). “In July of this year, we launched a new line called Clandestine Classics,” says Claire Siemaszkiewicz, the chief executive officer of Total-E-Bound Publishing. “Whenever I read classics from authors like Charlotte Brontë, I was drawn to the underlying sexual tension between the characters. Readers will finally be able to read what the books could have been like if erotic romance had been acceptable in that day and age.” And if venerated works of literature can be reinvented as vehicles for erotic fantasy, truly no taboos may be left.

Life After Fifty Shades

No matter what one may think of E.L. James’s bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, few would deny that it has widely increased the market for erotic romance. “So many women never knew this genre existed until Fifty Shades, and now they are voracious readers looking for more books to love,” says author Kelli Maine (Taken, Grand Central, Dec.). This gives new and established romance publishers an opportunity to extend their reach, if they can find a way to capitalize on the trilogy’s success without being derivative.

Many longtime authors and editors of erotic fiction are finding their knowledge in demand, as romance publishers looking at the erotica market learn that just tossing some sex or kink into a story doesn’t guarantee success—especially with audiences used to the conventions of the romance genre. “The minute you give up on story development just to make something sexy, you’ve quit writing romance and gone over the slippery slope into pornography, ” says author Kate Douglas (Dream Unchained, Kensington/Aphrodisia, Nov.).

Alicia Condon, editorial director at Kensington Publishing, highlights Kate Kinsey’s Red, published in October by digital imprint eKensington. “Kinsey’s writing incorporates BDSM fantasies that are drawn from her real life,” Condon says. “Red is a BDSM thriller that has had strong interest from mainstream readers curious about this subculture and the realistic portrayal of a writer who has actually lived it.”

Publishers looking for ready-made audiences are taking chances on reprinting self-published erotic romance and erotica titles. “Our first self-published acquisition, Taking Chances by Molly McAdams, came out from our Impulse line in October as an e-original,” says Avon senior editor May Chen. “And the print version will be published in April.”

The covers that Vintage Books created for the Fifty Shades trilogy have visually transformed erotic romance. “Previously, the erotic titles featured more explicit covers, whereas the new covers are more subtle and feature objects, artistic lighting, and bold text,” says Cindy Hwang, executive editor at Berkley. “For example, starting in February, Maya Banks’s all-new Breathless trilogy will feature stop-motion photography of water, ice, and fire.”

Avon senior editor Chen is also rethinking covers. “In the wake of the phenomenal success of Bared to You, Sylvia Day has gained a slew of new readers,” she says. “And Avon has repackaged her e-books to appeal to readers who have come to expect their erotic romances to look a certain way—beautiful and sophisticated.”

Julie Naughton reviews romance for PW and is an editor at Women’s Wear Daily.

One Foot on the Floor: Defying trends, some romance readers crave sweet stories.

Nonsexual “sweet” romance novels used to be the near-exclusive domain of inspirational publishers, with mainstream imprints cranking up the heat at every opportunity. Now erotica is hitting the bestseller lists, and a new market niche has opened up: readers who want neither religious morals nor lustful escapades.

We’re going to see a deepening divide between readers who want their romance as hot as possible and those who prefer a much sweeter take on love,” says Alicia Condon, editorial director for Kensington. Though paranormal romance was one of the first romance subgenres to feature explicit eroticism, Kensington’s long-running vampire series from Amanda Ashley (which by next May will include As Twilight Falls ) “caters to readers who are fascinated by the children of the night but don’t want graphic language or scenes,” Condon says.

Kelli Martin, senior acquisitions editor for Amazon Publishing’s Montlake Romance imprint, observes that authors may steer clear of sex but are hardly shy about cranking up the emotional drama and trauma. “Before, you didn’t see that as much in sweet romances,” she says. “The conflict was more ‘happy-go-lucky’ and stayed relatively surface-level. But in November’s Take Me Home by Nancy Herkness, for example, we have a hero who is really struggling after his wife’s death.” St. Martin’s Press editor Monique Patterson agrees: “There is a mistaken impression that the heartwarming romance isn’t as emotionally intense as the sexier romances out there.”

Extended communities play a large role in these titles, as is the case with the first in Lacey Baker’s upcoming Sweetland series (Homecoming, Apr.), Patterson says. Lucia Macro, executive editor at HarperCollins, says that many PG-rated titles are set in small towns that have distinct personalities, almost becoming characters in the stories. “These books also feature a larger set of secondary characters,” Macro says. “With all the many ways we have now of staying connected, we still long for that personal sense of community and family.”

Amy Pierpoint, an editorial director for Hachette, says the increased sensuality in historical and paranormal romances leaves some readers looking for alternatives, and contemporary romance authors are happy to provide them. “Contemporary novels provide more realistic representations of readers’ own lives,” she says, “while offering the ultimate fantasy: finding faith, hope, and happily-ever-after in a local community.” Rochelle Alers’s Cavanaugh Island series (with Haven Creek coming out in May) is just one example.

For dedicated fans of historicals who prefer to turn down the heat, Simon & Schuster’s Lauren McKenna, editorial director for Pocket Star and executive editor for Gallery Books, makes a case for the sweet historical western: “While these books aren’t completely chaste, the mores of the time lead to a sweeter, more classic love story,” she says, citing Sara Luck’s Rimfire Bride (Mar.).

Go to the Wedding, Not the Honeymoon

As one end of the romance spectrum blurs with erotica, the other blurs with women’s fiction. Those who “love a good romance but do not feel comfortable reading explicit sex scenes” are gravitating toward women’s fiction novels that focus on plot and humor, says Kensington editorial director Audrey LaFehr. “It’s not that the characters falling in love in these books don’t have sex; it’s just that when they go into the bedroom, the door is immediately or quickly closed to the reader,” she says. LaFehr cites Cindy Myers’s The View from Here (Dec.) as a novel in which the sex is “not the cake but the icing.”

Some publishers are starting new imprints to help readers discover sweet romances. Entangled’s digital-only Bliss imprint is aimed at readers who want to “skip over the physical bits” in a couple’s emotional journey and “get to that swoon-worthy happily-ever-after,” says editorial director Stacy Cantor Abrams. She points to Karen Erickson’s new Lone Pine Lakes series (Jane’s Gift, Oct.) as one example.

Harlequin’s new line of PG-rated category romances, Harlequin Heartwarming, will debut in July. The imprint “doesn’t just close the bedroom door; it banishes the bedroom entirely from the house,” says senior editor Victoria Curran. But while these titles may lack the groping, they’ll still be gripping, she promises. “Because these romances are not aimed at an inspirational audience, they need to be exciting page-turners,” Curran says. “Without sex or the element of faith, that means digging deep into characterization and creating compelling narratives.”—Laurie Gold

Laurie Gold reviews romance for PW and writes about it on