Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Quick and Dirty History of Erotic Romance

In the wake of the Ellora's Cave vs. Dear Author lawsuit, some discussion has cropped up in various online venues (most recently Twitter, which is where I first saw it) about the birth of the erotic romance sub genre.  Did, in fact, Ellora's Cave "invent" erotic romance?  My name was subsequently dropped as someone who could possibly detail some history and viola!  The idea started to burrow into my brain like a tick on a hound dog's behind.

First, a disclaimer: I've only been reading romance since 1999, and my "history" with the genre is completely tied up with the Internet.  There are countless erotic works pre-Internet that have, over the years, inspired a slew of writers.  For the sake of this post I'm mostly going to focus on the 1990s to present day.

The rise of erotic romance within the romance sub genre is a fairly complex one, and not something that can easily be condensed down into a magic bullet by saying, "So-And-So is responsible for it!"  So as much as Ellora's Cave has, over the years, marketed themselves as the pioneer of the sub genre, they didn't really "invent" it.  So who did?  Well, a bunch of people.

The first faint rumblings of steam launched with a quartet of writers, some of them working as far back as the 1970s and 1980s.  That would be Bertrice Small, Thea Devine, Susan Johnson and Robin Schone.  These ladies were not strictly marketed as erotic romance - they were all, simply, historical romance writers.  However it didn't take long for romance readers to notice and these authors eventually created a brand around themselves.  Authors, what is first and foremost your "brand?"  Yeah, your name.  You read one book by Small, Devine, Johnson or Schone and you knew the next book you pick up by them is more than likely going to singe your eyebrows off.

In 1999, it came to pass that legendary editor Kate Duffy had an idea and that idea eventually launched Kensington Brava.  Duffy wanted to head up an imprint with a strong sensual element, and since Devine and Schone were already writing for Kensington Zebra, she didn't have far too look.  She corralled all four of these pioneers under the new Brava banner and in 1999 the first Brava release, an anthology titled Captivated, hit the shelves.  Those early Brava covers were understated and simple but inside readers found the sensuality and erotic tones they had come to expect from these four writers.  And now they were all in one place, publishing under a new imprint.

What Brava did was begin to mainstream erotic content.  Yes, Ellora's Cave launched in 2000 - but to say they mainstreamed it is fairly misleading.  For one thing, they were a digital-only publisher for a long while and the first generation Kindle didn't launch until 2007.  Yes, people were reading digitally prior to Amazon, but I think we can all agree that Amazon is largely responsible for the sonic boom.  Even among romance readers who were very early adopters.  Ask some of those very early EC readers and you'll find more than a few who downloaded the PDF files and then printed them out (!!) to read.  Whereas imprints like Brava (and a few others I'll mention in a bit) could be found to varying degrees in a bookstore.  Remember those?  Bookstores?

As much as we like to think that every romance reader is online, they aren't.  And that was doubly true 15 years ago.  Countless readers "read in a vacuum."  So stumbling across a digital-only publisher like EC back in the very early days of digital reading?  Not an easy thing unless word of mouth hit their ears.  But walk into any bookstore and chances were pretty good that you'd find a Brava title, or for that matter - a Harlequin Blaze.

People like to think of Harlequin as a "old gray lady," but when they get their branding and marketing right they really get it a right.  Blaze originally launched as a promotional series within Harlequin Temptation.  Near as I can tell the first one was Outrageous by Lori Foster in 1997.  The books had the familiar Temptation branding on them, with a little Blaze logo slapped on the cover.  This was the signal to readers that the stories were going to be "hotter" than a normal Temptation (and that line was no slouch).  Temptation released one Blaze title a month, a promotion that got so popular that in 2001 Blaze became it's own line launching with Notorious by Vicki Lewis Thompson.  Eventually Blaze eroded away Temptation's readership and after 20 years that line folded.  I know romance readers who still light candles in church over the demise of Temptation.

Things were picking up by the late 1990s and readers were getting some more options if they wanted steam.  But what about those readers who predated this era?  In many cases they had to look outside the genre.  Case in point, in 1993 Virgin Publishing (as in Richard Branson) launched Black Lace Books and their mission was to publish "erotic fiction written by women, for women."  Fiction is the key word here.  Black Lace did not promise a traditional happy ending like romance, but savvy readers soon glommed on to key authors within the Black Lace universe who delivered happy endings, albeit nontraditional ones for what the romance genre was offering at that time.  Emma Holly is probably the biggest name here, having published Menage and Cooking Up a Storm in 1998Portia Da Costa was another known quantity at Black Lace who delivered happy endings and her book, The Tutor (a librarian heroine!) was published in 1995.

The issue with Black Lace however was always distribution.  Being based out of the UK, getting your hands on Black Lace titles in the United States was not easy.  If a bookstore carried them they were typically in the "Sexuality" section interfiled with the I Can't Find My G-Spot self-help titles.  I'm telling you, Amazon was the best thing that ever happened for Black Lace fans.  Seriously.

Also around this time Red Sage Publishing launched their Secrets anthology series.  Volume 1 appeared in 1995 and the latest, Volume 31, was published this past JulyAlice Gaines, Angela Knight, Saskia Walker, Charlotte Featherstone, and Jennifer Probst are just a few of the names that have been featured in Secrets anthologies over the years.

So if EC didn't "invent" erotic romance, what did they do exactly?  Well they really helped ramp it all up.  Blaze and Brava were heavily focused on "sensuality" in those days.  As much as naysayers like to claim that the romance genre never changes, that's a bunch of hooey.  If you pick up, say, an early Brava title and read it today it's going to seem really tame.  Hard to believe that when the line launched there were corners of the online community that were signalling it as the beginning of the end for the genre.  I remember reading light bondage and spanking (for example) in early Brava titles - but hardcore BDSM?  Yeah, not so much.  Also EC was one (if not the only) publisher at that time publishing erotic romance content in science fiction and paranormal worlds.  Red Sage did some of that as well, but in those early days they were doing anthologies only.  EC was offering stand-alone novels.

EC also played a healthy hand in marketing.  As I've already detailed, erotic romance did exist before EC we just.....didn't know what to call it.  I was reviewing for The Romance Reader at this time and while I cannot recall for certain now, I was either the only or one of the very few reviewers who welcomed reviewing this "new" type of romance.  I slogged through a lot of "I'm a good girl virgin who wants to be baaaaaad" stories.  Seriously, you all owe me.  Big time.  Anyway, looking at my early reviews I called this "new" type of romance everything from romantica to romance-erotica to erotic romance.  Finally, we all settled on erotic romance, although where that term actually came from is anybody's guess.  I think I first heard it via Kate Duffy - but cannot definitively say "She's the one!!"

So all this begs the question - if erotic romance has been around so long why did everyone lose their minds over Fifty Shades of Grey?  I get this question a lot from work colleagues.  My answer is that for many non-romance readers, the idea of erotic romance was a completely foreign concept to them.  Remember that first Black Lace novel you read?  Remember how it blew your mind?  Yeah, that's what Fifty Shades did a bunch of readers.  Fifty Shades also brought back the tamer covers a la those early Brava titles, so the packaging was eye-catching while not being salacious (well, except for the handcuffs cover!) and word of mouth took off among non-romance readers.  Once that happens, all bets are off.  What most of us found increasingly frustrating was the idea that somehow EL James had "invented" erotic romance and putting BDSM into a romance novel.  Which, hello?  Go back to the top and reread this post.

What also tends to get lost in all of this history is how ground-breaking the first wave of erotic-romance was.  I honestly remember a ton of hand-wringing on listservs and the All About Romance message boards.  To be fair to those readers who thought "erotica" was the beginning of the end, they had been dealing with a-holes for years who were calling romance "porn for women" (not much has changed).  Now, hello erotica!  Sexing up the Sexy Times isn't going to do anything to dissuade that "opinion."  But soon enough most of us were having too much fun reading it to really give a flying hoot what non-romance readers thought anyway.  Bugger off and all that.  And if you think that was brain-bleed inducing?  I remember plenty of early "discussion" that if you were an author who published with a digital-only publisher you weren't a "real author" and was erotic romance even really romance?

Seriously.  It really was this incredible.  I spent a lot of time biting my tongue and saying "Seriously?!?!  Seriously, now?!?!?!?"

That's my quick and condensed dirty version of erotic romance history in the past 15 years.  I could go into quite a bit of depth on how I, personally, came to discover the genre - but I've rambled on long enough.  I'll just wrap it up by saying Thea Devine, Emma Holly and Portia Da Costa - y'all changed my life.  Bless you from the bottom of my dirty, dirty heart.

Note: Thanks to Ridley and Lynn from AAR over on Twitter for inspiring this post.

22 comments:

Lynn Spencer said...

Awesome! I'm so glad you wrote this.

I remember some of the early kerfuffles over what constituted a "real" book and looking at today's marketplace, I can't help but chuckle.

Sarah S. G. Frantz said...

I remember ordering a CD-ROM through the mail from one of the pseudonyms of Nina Bruhns. That was around late 90s, early 2000s. I also remember printing out one of Joey Hill's early Nature of Desire books, probably NATURAL LAW, b/c I couldn't imagine reading the whole thing on my computer. But I distinctly remember discovering Susan Johnson in 1997 and devouring everything of hers, with Robin Schone soon after. So erotic historical was alive and well in the late 1990s.

BevBB said...

I've marked this to read later cause I know it's gonna be good ;-) but I can't help thinking quite seriously that we've come a long, long way.

Rosie said...

There's a reason I love you...

Wendy said...

Lynn: I know, right? When Sylvia Day spoke at RWA this summer she talked about her first conference 10 years ago and the debate of "is erotic romance REALLY romance?" Seems incredible now.

Wendy said...

Sarah: Marketing is really key I think. While the collective *we* of romance readers KNEW we were going to get steamy shenanigans with Susan Johnson - she wasn't really marketed as "erotic." Even though early on in her career she published with Playboy Press :) The collective we just got very good at finding writers who wrote steam - I think you could almost lump Nicole Jordan in here as well, although she wasn't quite as explicit as Small, Johnson, Devine and Schone. Definitely R-rated though for those days (IMHO).

What's interesting to me is that while historical helped mainstream erotic romance you don't see a ton of erotic historicals these days. They're making somewhat of a comeback, but contemporary and paranormal still outpace it quite a bit. Which is, unfortunate for me since I LOVE erotic historicals - especially Victorian era. Dispels the myth that all Victorians were prudes.....

Wendy said...

Bev: Oh my, have we!

I know you've been reading erotic forever and for the sake of this post I focused solely on the 1990s and early 00s. I, obviously, could have gone back even farther, as there are numerous erotic books that inspired the early erotic romance writers (Anne Rice, Anais Nin, Anne Desclos to name a few). But dang, this post was wordy enough :)

Wendy said...

Rosie: Awwww, I love you to. Now go blog (like you didn't know I was going to get that dig in.....)

BevBB said...

Actually I didn't really get into more erotic romances until probably after 2000 and even that wasn't because I was looking for erotic romances specifically. It was because I was looking for paranormal, fantasy & sci-fi type romances on those early ebook publishers and sometimes the only stuff you could find with those themes were erotic romances!

Before that it was the most I'd been exposed to was just the really steamy mainstream romance authors. ;-)

azteclady said...

You stole my thoght!

azteclady said...

And then Wendy stole my next thought.

Merrian said...

That's how it worked for me as well. EC was doing erotic SFR when here in Oz I couldn't find SFR easily if at all. So I started reading EC ebooks by printing them out

cleo reader said...

"Remember that first Black Lace novel you read? Remember how it blew your mind?"

OMG yes. When 50 Shades was all the rage, I remember thinking that I'd had my 50 Shades moment at least 15 years earlier, when I discovered Black Lace.

Mind you, I don't remember the title or the author (much like I don't remember the title or the author of the first category romance I read at age 14 either - hard to remember details when your head is exploding). But I vividly remember discovering Black Lace on the bottom shelf in the back of one of the smaller bookstores on campus in grad school (whoever thought to carry these books has my undying gratitude). I never had the courage to actually buy any - I just kept sneaking into the back aisle for some secret reading. And then I discovered Amazon and actually bought some. OMG.

I know that I'd read erotica previously - Anais Nin and one or two feminist erotica anthologies, but there was something about Black Lace that just exploded my world.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Re: the Fifty Shades phenomenon. I compare it somewhat to the Harry Potter thing. The Harry Potter books blew a lot of young readers' minds. Well, if you'd read fantasy books in the past, yeah they were all right. But that generation thought they'd invented the concept. :) Just like with Fifty Shades. But I don't denigrate them too much -- whatever brings non-readers to reading, I say bring it on and more.

Gina Drayer said...

What a fabulous post. The first erotica I was exposed to was Anais Nin as a teen. But after that it was hard to find anything that wasn't the formulaic romance (which I read a lot of) The Black Lace novels were a great find for me. I love Portia Da Costa.

Wendy said...

And I think that's why I never got hooked on EC the same way I did Brava and Black Lace. I'm not a big fan of SFR and paranormal - and, in the early days especially, EC seemed to be offering mostly those settings. Nothing wrong with that - just not what I naturally gravitate towards when it comes to reading material.

Wendy said...

Cleo: I got to BL by way of the historicals Emma Holly wrote for Berkley. I reviewed the second one for TRR and it totally blew up my skirt! An online friend then was all like, "Oh Wendy, you totally need to find her BL books." Uh, which I did. And....wowzers! Thank sweet baby Jesus that Amazon existed at this time. I went on a massive ordering spree of any BL title that sounded remotely interesting.

Wendy said...

PK: That's a good comparison. Certainly fantasy written for a young audience has been around for ages - but something about HP captured imaginations and whoa-doggie! We got word of mouth. I'm always fascinated to see word of mouth in action - and it's happened a few times in my career as a librarian: The Da Vinci Code, The Help, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fifty Shades..... It tends to make me cranky after a while, but like you say - heck, people are reading and talking about books for a change! Nothing wrong with that!

Wendy said...

Gina: I'm so excited - Portia Da Costa's The Tutor is getting reprinted in May 2015! It's been out of print for ages and like a dope I sold my copy on Half.com after I read it all those years ago. I can't believe I didn't keep it! One of the few times I didn't keep a book and lived to regret it. I've since gone and purchased the ebook, but I'm still going to get my hands on a print copy in case the apocalypse happens and wipes out all my digital devices.

cleo reader said...

I read Emma Holly's Menage (or part of it at least) and I remember being pretty blown away by it. I also remember The Bracelet by Fredrica Allyn and The King's Girl by Sylvie Ouellette - but most of what I read then is lost in a haze of "OMG I can't believe I'm reading this."

Damon Suede said...

Wendy, thank you so much for this! I do think a huge portion of the debate in all directions is one of branding. Readers were so desperate to find the books/heat they wanted and the only certainty (always a huge piece of the romance equation), meant relying on gifted namebrand authors and brand-conscious imprints willing to poke the sticky places.

FWIW, I was living in London when Black Lace launched and I remember bringing back duffelbags of paperbacks when I'd come back to the States. Everyone knew what they were looking for. That in itself is critical to the narrative of EC and the ramp leading to the wide-market launch of ereaders. Also ironic to me is the idea that 50SoG invented BDSM erotica. As I always say, every 7 years, America wakes up and notices that extreme sensation is sexy and operates sub rosa. Every 7 years a film, book, series, comic unleashes a lot of pearl-clutching and clamped thighs on the train. (e.g. BDSM pulps, Olympia Press titles of the 60s, 9 1/2 weeks both book and cinematic mess, the A.N. Roquelaure titles, The Secretary...). And yet as you describe above, the added component of romance structure WITH erotica created its own beautiful moist critter. 50SoG hit at exactly the moment that the fans who'd grown up on Harry Potter then slogged through puberty with sex-negative vampires were looking for some nitty-gritty in their "wild subculture" romance...a cultural intersection that was calculated and executed masterfully.

Wendy said...

Sorry you got trapped in moderation hell Damon! I turned it on for older posts to curtail spam. Anyhoodle....

Really, at the end of the day, doesn't it all come down to marketing? Readers have always had that uncanny ability to search out WHAT they are looking for, even when it's not labeled for them. Small, Devine, Johnson, Schone - none of these writers were labeled "erotic romance" until they made that move over to Brava. Prior to that? They were simply lumped in with all the other historical romance authors out there. But we as readers KNEW that if we wanted spicy? That's where we had to go. And certainly we talked about authors who wrote "hotter" but weren't necessarily "erotic" - I'd lump in authors like Nicole Jordan and Lisa Kleypas here. Steamy, to be sure - but not quite on the same OMG (!!!!) level as say, Bertrice Small ;)

I have a huge soft spot for Black Lace. I discovered Emma Holly through her mainstream work with Berkley, and then went out searching for her Black Lace titles. From there my listserv friends (remember, listservs? Ha!) started recommending all sorts of BL authors and titles. Readers got pretty good at finding the "romance-like" endings in BL, even though the imprint itself was marketed as erotica. The first time I ever ordered books online? Yeah, it was because I wanted those BL titles! You couldn't find them in the bookstores (believe me, I looked), but there they were - happily available via Amazon. Best money I ever spent.

When FSoG first hit, I started telling librarians, "Think of it as this generation's Peyton Place." The book that captures word of mouth and incites a lot of pearl clutching :) These kinds of things ebb and flow. Eventually something else will come along that, for reasons that will likely escape all of us, will capture that elusive "word of mouth" - and we'll be back on the merry-go-round again.

PS: I stumbled across your Gordon Merrick blog post a couple months back while researching something for work. Great post!