By Angela Hill
Staff Writer, Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group
In the past, she'd whisk her naughty novels home in a black opaque bag, glancing over her shoulder to be sure no one had seen. Then she met Kindle. The slim e-reader was handsome, felt good in her hands, and could fulfill her passion with the satisfying press of a button.
Best of all, Kindle could keep a secret.
"It wasn't until I moved to e-readers that I considered reading (erotica/romance) in public," said Nicole D. of Berkeley, a 25-year-old coffeehouse barista who describes herself as "demure and suburban" and asked to keep her last name as confidential as her choice of reading material. "Now, I can read it on BART, on the bus, on my break at work, and I won't be judged by onlookers or passers-by."
While it's a notorious fact that sex sells, it may be selling even better these days thanks to the advent of e-readers such as iPads, Nooks and Kindles -- innocent portable electronic devices that don't expose graphic covers and titillating titles, their generic anonymity cloaking a multitude of sultry sins.
Of course e-readers are big right now for books in every genre, but they're even better for the steamy side of lit. Though publishers won't release specific sales data, many say such digital discretion has spurred a surge in popularity of the once-disparaged romance/erotica category. And with the stunning success of British author E L James' new erotic e-book "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- the first installment of a trilogy peppered with whips, chains and handcuffs and which currently resides at No. 1 on The New York Times best-sellers list -- romance/erotica has achieved a new stature in the mainstream, especially with women.
Traditional publishers everywhere are capitalizing on the e-book market, where salacious selections can be consumed away from the prying eyes of neighboring airline passengers or judgmental bookstore clerks.
Last month, HarperCollins' U.K. division announced the launch of Mischief, its new erotic/romance e-book imprint that has been in the works for about a year with upcoming titles such as "Red Grow the Roses" (vampire erotica) and "Sisters in Sin" (an "arousing" tale of a woman's travels in Italy). Here in the U.S., Avon Red has been putting out racy novels for more than six years but is happy to ride the wave of the "Fifty Shades" success, Avon publisher Liate Stehlik said.
"Fifty Shades" has helped to "normalize erotica and romance," she said. "High sales bring a new level of credibility."
A truly private purchase
Those who've long been on the bawdier side of the book biz are thrilled with the trend.
"E-readers are the ultimate 'brown paper wrapper' for erotic books," said Brenda Knight, associate publisher for Cleis Press in Berkeley, who adds she's not the least bit surprised at the "Fifty Shades" sensation. Cleis has been publishing taboo topics for 32 years and has experienced the erotica e-book phenomenon since 2008, when the company released its first digital title.
"We thought it would be a slow build, but the e-book versions instantly took off and we noticed it right away," Knight said, noting a 30 percent growth in sales over the past four years. "Anything on bondage or BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism) has been doing great, and we've been selling tens of thousands of copies digitally."
At eXtasy Books online, publishers have seen a 50 percent increase in demand for erotica in e-book form during the past two years.
And just as the Internet is the portal for private porn, the clandestine aspect of e-readers is key for books.
"You don't want to be standing in line at your local bookstore with a book about bondage," Knight said. "Maybe you don't even want it delivered to your house, by ordering it online. But pressing a button and downloading it? That's a private purchase. A private read."
Knight said market research shows about a third of their lesbian erotica is bought by men and that erotica for women is big in the heartland. On the Eastern Seaboard, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, "they are totally into male domination," she said. "Upper East Coast like New York, they like stories with strong women.
"And on the West Coast, anything goes," she said. "I mean, anything."
It's not just erotica. Romance and romance-erotica genres are big too, and yes, there is a distinction.
"Erotica is really about the sex, while romance is about the characters, the relationships -- anything from sweet, close-the-bedroom-door kisses to super-steamy sexy stuff," said Kristin Ramsdell, Cal State East Bay professor emeriti and former Romance Writers of America Librarian of the Year, who pens a bimonthly romance review column for the national Library Journal.
Romantic fiction has infamously been a big seller, she said, with a more than 90 percent female readership. Romance sales -- in paper and cyber forms -- hit $1.36 billion in 2010, double and sometimes triple the sales of more accepted genres like mystery, science fiction and fantasy.
Research groups, such as Bowker Market Research and Simba Information, that track trends for the publishing industry say two out of five new romance book purchases in the fourth quarter of 2011 were electronic.
"E-books are gaining in popularity in general, but especially for erotica and romance," said Michael Norris, a senior analyst for Simba Information, which also tracks trends but doesn't release sales figures to the public. "You can actually compare best-seller lists for print and e-books and, while you'll see a lot of similarities, there are lots more erotica titles popping up on the e-book side."
Romance has taken off digitally, Ramsdell said, partly because e-books make it easy for publishers to re-release out-of-print books, giving readers a chance to find old favorites, and also squeezing more money out of them.
"Romance -- except for the big names like Nora Roberts -- goes out of print very quickly with quick-turn-around series," Ramsdell said. "So people gobble up some of the old stuff you can't find anymore."
Melody Saberon Ybarra is an avid reader of Cleis books and other racy novels, and while she was always bold about her literature purchases, even in bookstores, she too finds the use of e-readers convenient for her large collection of racy titles.
"I love erotica because if the story is compelling enough, aggressive sensuality will grab you in the first couple of pages," said the 36-year-old Central Valley marketing project manager. "Erotica can take your imagination to a romantic realm where a discovery of a deep, passionate desire you didn't know you had can surprise you."
While Stehlik is of course delighted with e-book sales, she jokingly said "the great equalizer" of e-readers is also a little disappointing. "You used to be able to walk along an airplane aisle and peek at what people were reading. Now all these devices -- that's no fun for curious publishers like me."