Erotica e-books: Fifty shades of success

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First aired on Day 6 (31/3/12)

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By now you've probably heard the buzz about e-book sensation Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The steamy tale about college grad Anastasia Steele and her wealthy and controlling lover Christian Grey currently tops the New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Fiction Bestsellers list. Scenes of explicit sex and bondage take Fifty Shades of Grey beyond the realm of the traditional romance novels, and e-readers are said to be a big reason for its popularity. Just last week, Universal Studios won the movie rights to Fifty Shades of Grey in an intense bidding war. Not bad for a novel that began as Twilight fan fiction.

There's no doubt that the cheques are rolling in for E.L. James, but she's not the first to strike it rich in this genre. In fact, she's just the latest -- albeit perhaps the biggest -- "rags to riches" story arising from the sales of erotica e-books. Just ask Patty Marks, the CEO of one of the biggest erotica e-book publishers today, Ellora's Cave.

Ellora's Cave was founded by Marks's daughter, Tina Engler Keen, known better to erotic fans as Jaid Black. Keen was a single mom on welfare back in 2001 when she decided that the romance novels she was reading weren't steamy enough. So she decided to write her own. After having her books rejected by several publishers for being too dirty, she started selling them online and never looked back.

According to Marks, Ellora's Cave sold 1.32 e-books a day when it was founded in January 2001. The first year's sales ran around $30,000. In year two, they sold $120,000 in books. But by 2004, Ellora's Cave was a publishing success, raking in $1.2 million in sales.

Marks chalks up her company's success to two things: giving readers what they want and the rise of e-reading. "It's no coincidence that erotic romance or erotica in general has taken off in concurrent with the e-book industry," she explained to Day 6 host Brent Bambury in a recent interview. "You get it when you want it, kind of like the subject. You can get it in the privacy of your home...[and] it's a pretty quick read so you can buy lots of them."

Ellora's Cave thrives on the genres found within erotica: their Aeon imprint publishes futuristic or science fiction erotica, Shivers is for erotic horror, Sophisticate is for romances involving an older woman and a younger man and Xanadu encompasses fantasy romances. But make no mistake: Marks is dismissive of any term that denigrates what Ellora's Cave produces. Their authors do not write "mommy porn" and are proud of what they publish. "You don't have to read it if you don't want to read it," Marks said. "We're very, very open about what we publish."

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One of those authors they are proud to publish is erotica writer Laurann Dohner. Dohner has more than 25 titles to her name and recently penned a 75-book deal with Ellora's Cave. Like E.L. James and Jaid Black, Dohner has made a successful living from writing erotica. She recently moved from a double-wide trailer in California to "a huge home in Vegas."

Dohner, like Marks, is proud of what she does and is not a fan of the term "mommy porn." She points out that "pornography is mainly about the sex. Erotic romance is more about the romance and a lot of romance happens in the bedroom."

So if erotica e-books have been around for over a decade, why are they just hitting the mainstream now? Dohner believes women are looking for something new in what they read and the old-fashioned romances found in pharmacies just aren't cutting it any longer. "Women are tired of the old romances," Dohner said. "They're more open to reading about sex, they're more open to their sexual orientations as far as being told what's acceptable, what's not, it's okay to have a sex drive, it's okay to want certain things in your relationship."

And if the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is any indication, the erotica explosion has only just begun.