Before “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Everyone loves smut, says Patty Marks of Ellora's Cave, who turned kinky fiction into millions before E.L. James

Topics: Love and Sex, Sex, 50 Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey, Editor's Picks,

Before "Fifty Shades of Grey"Patty Marks

It might seem that women reading super-smutty romance novels is a new phenomenon, thanks to deafening buzz around the series whose name cannot be spoken. (Fine, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” There! I said it.)

But to Patty Marks, CEO of Ellora’s Cave, “the world’s first publisher of erotic romance,” none of this is new. Since long before “mommy porn” entered the popular vernacular, she’s watched women flock to dirty fiction including themes of everything from vampires (and this was pre-”Twilight”) to, yes, BDSM. The company was founded 12 years ago — by her daughter, Tina Engler, a struggling single mom at the time — before the e-book boom; at first, they had to email PDFs or mail CDs of the stories direct to customers.

Since then, it’s grown into a multimillion-dollar business. A visit to the publishing house’s website reveals a rainbow’s array of genres reminiscent of what you would find on a porn site: “multicultural/interracial,” “older woman, younger man,” “time travel” and “paranormal,” for example. These stories all feature typical romantic novel tropes — the protagonist and her love interest always end up “happily ever after” or at least “happy for now” (“HEA” and “HFN” in industry lingo) — but they also feature hardcore sex. And I mean hardcore. 

The formula works: Ellora’s Cave, which publishes in print and e-book, averages sales of 200,000 books a month.

I gave Marks a ring to talk about “mommy porn,” erotic fan fiction and why submission narratives are so popular — with both men and women.

Have you noticed changing sensibilities over time in terms of what kind of sexual thrills female readers want?

There are a couple that are standard, that have consistently sold, and that would be the capture and domination fantasies. We call it “forced seduction.” The paranormal stuff has sold well ever since vampires became popular, which probably started back with “Interview With a Vampire.” The wolfmen, the shape-shifters, too. BDSM started out popular and that’s increased in popularity. The ménages have increased in popularity to the point now where you’re seeing instead of a three-way, four and five and six. They’re still considered romance as long as there’s a “happily ever after” or “happy for now” with the whole group, which really confuses me, but it’s all fantasy. Those aside, we have seen an increase in “male-male.”

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That’s interesting. Can you tell me a bit more about the male-male genre?

While heterosexual women writing and reading and enjoying the male-male genre is really not new, I think it became more p.c. and again more mainstream and thus exploded in the erotic romance industry after the movie “Brokeback Mountain” came out. The movie portrayed the angst and emotional relationship that women love and it didn’t hurt that the actors were hot and extremely popular. I think that piqued more curiosity to read the books and helped to enable us to give ourselves permission to enjoy it.

Surprisingly, you’ve started a men’s line of books. What do guys like in erotic romance?

We did do a survey with men to see what they would prefer. They like relationships. They like a lot of sex. They like it to be shorter stories, they don’t read the big, long novels. They like it very explicit. And they like the women to take the lead sometimes.

That’s true of women’s fantasies, too. Women have taken so much responsibility outside of the house — and this is in no way to say that homemakers don’t have a lot of responsibility, because they do — but women have taken on a lot more responsibility in the last two decades and they don’t have to have their husband write the checks for the bills anymore. So they like to give that up a lot in their sexual fantasies.

Men do too. Men have always had that responsibility on their backs. So, according to our survey, they like to have women take the initiative in their stories. We’re not all that different. Maybe not Mars and Venus, maybe more like northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere.

That brings up Katie Roiphe’s controversial Newsweek article about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which argued that women are flocking to a BDSM tale at this cultural moment because they want to escape the greater pressures of feminism and equality.

You know what? They like the fantasy, but actually I think that embracing your sexuality is feminist. The heroine, while she’s giving up power in the bedroom, she’s not giving up power in real life. She might have that fantasy of giving up power in the sexual relationship, but I don’t know that it’s an escape so much as it’s “I can do that now because I do have power in real life. I am liberated and I can let go.”

That’s a great point. It’s an interesting idea, that you have to have real-world power in order to fantasize about giving up power.

When you give away the power it’s because you have the power to give it away.

And it’s interesting that you’re seeing men too fantasizing about giving up power.

In our surveys they have said they want the woman to take initiative. It makes sense, it really makes sense. They’ve had the power, so they can give up the power too, and it’s liberating for them.

It also makes them feel attractive. It makes the woman feel attractive, too, that the man wants her so badly that he’s dominating her. But the heroine still has to be what we call a kick-ass heroine and not “TSTL,” too stupid to live.

What do you make of the explosion of X-rated online fan fiction?

Again, this has been around for a very long time — probably longer than erotic romance. I’m inclined to question how much it will explode. Fan fic can come dangerously close to copyright violations — which I would assume is why it has pretty much been underground forever. It’s one thing putting it out there for free, which could be a bit questionable to begin with, but when they start trying to sell it, I would expect that there may be some lawyers getting involved — especially if it comes too close to the original vehicle.

Here’s a question already asked by a million different people: Why did “Fifty Shades” make such a big splash?

I think there has been a good publicity machine around it, and that’s awesome. I wish I was the first to figure out how to get that publicity! I know we have as good if not better titles, and in several different genres.

The Internet and the evolving e-book, that I think has been more of the liberation part of it than any individual book. Our royalties we paid out this month were close to half a million dollars. You go back a little over two years ago our royalties we paid monthly were around 120,000 a month, so there’s been a tremendous increase. Everyone’s getting an e-reader for Christmas every year. That’s had a huge, huge impact on sales.

What struck me about “Shades of Grey” was that, despite all the hype, it wasn’t that explicit. That brings up a question for me: How much explicitness do female readers want, generally?

Our readers like explicitness. The bedroom door’s open. [She then lets loose some of the raunchy language used in the books and says, "You're not going to print this, right?"]

My experience was that I was quickly flipping through my e-book looking for the interesting scenes because there were all these lengthy email exchanges between the main characters and a lot of building of romantic tension, but not much action. In your books, is there that same buildup?

In erotic romance it isn’t just gratuitous sex put in there so people can ready dirty books or kids can check ‘em out and highlight them and say, “Ooh, look at this!” It’s supposed to be part of the story and part of the love relationship, but it is very, very sexual. Once they connect, there’s a lot of sex. And it’s good sex.

We do expect the sexual tension, but the sexual tension related to the romantic tension. It’s not like on the first page they’re screwing and then for the rest of the book — that you can get in a porn flick.

Why do you think people are so surprised by the existence and popularity of so-called mommy porn?

After 12 years of publishing erotic romance and erotica and selling about 200,000 books a month, maybe I’m living in my own little world, but I have to admit I was a bit surprised that people were surprised. I think a lot has to do with the fact that in the scheme of things e-books are relatively young and the really hot erotic romance is mostly published by e-book-first publishers. As more and more women are becoming comfortable reading on the new technology, they are becoming more aware of the availability of erotic content and more comfortable purchasing it. I think finally the media has caught up with it.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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