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 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 1998. Portia 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.
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 July. Alice 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 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?!?!?!?"
Note: Thanks to Ridley and Lynn from AAR over on Twitter for inspiring this post.