Pulp Friction

A conversation with the '90s Prince of Porn Paperbacks.

Published July 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

for 63-year-old Richard Kasak, being one of America's leading publishers of erotica -- gay, lesbian, straight, S&M, you name it -- is a bit like being in the grocery business. "You know you need a certain number of eggs every day, and a certain number of milk bottles," he said during a recent interview in his midtown Manhattan office. "But sometimes you also think: Maybe today I'll buy some Haagen Dasz, just to dress up the store."
It's this kind of few-frills attitude that helps Kasak and his small staff publish up to 11 books a month, titles which span such imprints as Masquerade (primarily heterosexual and S&M), Bad Boy (gay erotica), Rosebud (lesbian erotica), Hard Candy (less sexually explicit gay and lesbian erotica), and Richard Kasak trade books. (Trade books are larger-format, high-end paper, as opposed to the smaller, cheaper paperbacks called "mass market.")
The trade books are what Kasak is referring to when he talks about his "Haagen Dasz" writers. Among his better-known authors are Pat Califia ("Sensuous Magic"), the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany ("The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village") and John Preston ("My Life as a Pornographer"). Kasak also publishes erotica by Lars Eighner, best known for his bestselling memoir, "Travels with Lizbeth."
Those writers aside, the vast majority of Kasak's books are quickly written narratives with titles like "Mike and the Marines," "Katerina in Charge," and "Provincetown Summer." A handful, like "Man with a Maid" and "The Yellow Room," are issued under the suddenly hot nom de plume Anonymous.
Kasak has been in the book and publishing business for nearly 40 years. In the late '50s, he opened the Bookmasters Chain, which he refers to as "the first paperback bookshop in the world" and which had up to 11 stores in New York. In the '60s and early '70s he published -- with the help of the legendary Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset -- a book called "Becoming a Sensuous Homosexual," which he calls "probably the first gay sex manual ever published." He founded his own publishing house in 1990.
In our interview, Kasak reminded me a bit of a suburban version of Screw publisher Al Goldstein. With his checked shirt, silvery hair and easy demeanor, Kasak could be a successful small-town insurance broker. The spell is broken only when you notice the large collection of erotica spread around his office and when he enthuses about current projects, such as the current issue of The Masquerade Erotic Newsletter ($5 on most newsstands), which features an exhaustive overview of spanking scenes in Hollywood movies.
You're a straight man who's made a lot of money publishing gay and lesbian erotica. Has that fact ever raised any eyebrows in those communities?
Not really. Because the gay and lesbian community knows I'm supportive, and I come with credentials. I'm not exploiting them. Often straight people who get involved in the gay and lesbian world are really exploitative. But I don't do that. I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends. I'm straight, but I'm also queer.
What does that mean, "straight but queer"?
Well, I understand their sexuality. I don't want to get into my own total sexuality -- but I understand where they are coming from. I feel like we're all one big family.
In what ways are your books less exploitative than others?
I promote books as they should be promoted. I value them as written works. I don't promote books in a fashion to exploit gay or lesbian sex, or straight sex for that matter. I publish a lot of S&M books, but I don't really exploit that area. I just treat everything as I would treat everything else. All the books I publish are treated in the same way.
Is there anything you wouldn't publish?
You mean sexually? I won't publish anything that exploits children. I won't publish anything that's demeaning to any religion or race. I try to steer away -- in the S&M books -- from having a man or a woman just destroyed in an act of sexuality. And we stay away from bestiality.
What makes a great book for one of your imprints?
When you say "great," I assume you mean: What will make money? It's sort of like being in the grocery business: You know you need a certain number of eggs every day, and a certain number of milk bottles. But sometimes you also think: Maybe today I'll buy some Haagan Dasz, just to dress up the store. And we do that. We have our trade imprint [Richard Kasak books], which has titles that I am very proud of. Some make money, and some don't make money. We're not here just to make money, but to publish some work that might not otherwise get published. I published three of Alice Joanou's books that never made any money. She's also published in Europe now because of the books I published. She's also being excerpted in a book that's being published in Sweden; they've bought the rights. She needs a lot of work, and she's just starting out -- but I'm proud to have published her first.
There are other authors, too. With some of them, I don't even have to read the book. Because I know it's going to be the exact same thing I published six months ago, and the same reader will want that book. There are other books I've brought back. There's an author named John Norman, who wrote a series of about 30 science fiction books in the '60s called "The Gor Series." They've been out of print since the '60s. And I reprinted them because I felt there would be an audience, and there is an audience. He wasn't politically correct in the '60s, and he's not politically correct today. But there is a market.
How important, in most of your books, is a strong plot line and believable characters?
It's a balance of things. In my slightly more literary Hard Candy line, I have books by Felice Picano, and Viking has published his books. In the Rhinoceros line, I have a book by [National Public Radio commentor] Andrei Codrescu. He wrote a book called "The Repentance of Lorraine" many years ago, which I've reprinted. The trade books are dealing with erotica, but on a totally different level. We have books that have very little sexual description and content, but they have an undercurrent of sexuality, such as John Preston's essay, which he gave at Harvard, called "My Life as a Pornographer." It's really not about pornography, but it deals with sexual aspects of his writings.
When a manuscript arrives in the mail, how quickly do you know if it's a book that will work for you?
I know instantly. I got a book yesterday from a writer who has written five books for me, so I just have to look at the outline. I know how he writes, I know the market, so I bought it. I don't have to read it. I don't read all of the books.
Your books are carried by most of the national chain stores now, aren't they?
They're all over. Barnes & Noble, Borders, B. Dalton's.
Do the chains ever say to you, There are certain books we won't carry?
No. They do that with other publishers. But unlike other publishers, I have certain things that I will not publish. And my books don't get complaints.
You have a long history of being at the front lines of publishing gay and lesbian literature. You were involved with Grove Press in the 1960s.
I wasn't really at Grove Press. I was packaging books that Grove Press distributed. For a number of years, I was quite friendly with [influential Grove Press publisher] Barney Rosset. And the first gay book I did, in the late '60s, was called "Becoming a Sensuous Homosexual," probably the first gay sex manual ever published. I also did a photo book with Charles Gatewood called "Sidetripping," with words by William Burroughs. It's now a classic book. It's out of print.
How difficult, at that time, was it to get those books published?
It was very difficult. But the Gatewood book was like the other side of Robert Frank's "America." It documented a culture that doesn't really exist anymore. Robert Frank traveled across America photographing people. Gatewood went into the underbelly. He photographed transvestites, people demonstrating, people with outrageous costumes.
Did you have to fight to get those books into stores?
A lot of stores wouldn't buy them. Frankly, they weren't that successful. But they were important. And I still publish things that I think are important, not only to make money.
What has it been like, watching the change in this country in terms of its acceptance of erotic literature?
Well, the change is because of Grove Press and Barney Rosset. He caused the change. But I think that, in a little way, I have become very important in getting gay and lesbian erotica into the mainstream. Because my Bad Boy books and Rosebud books are selling in Borders and Barnes & Noble. I think what Rosset did with the heterosexual sexual books, I've done with gay and lesbian books. They're accepted. A lot of mainstream publishers are following me. In Susie Bright's "Best American Erotica" anthology, I would say that 30 percent of all those books contain my authors, my short stories. It's because of me. That's why it's being published. Because of things I have done. I'm proud of that.
Are you happy to see the success of erotic fiction by so-called "literary" writers?
Well, that's a different thing. It's not on the cutting edge. You can also say that Danielle Steele has sex in her books, like Harold Robbins did. But that's truck-driver sex. I mean, there are no relationships. Not that my books have gigantic relationships, but those are Harlequin Romances. I think, strangely enough, that my books are more meaningful. I'm probably wrong. The best was Mickey Spillane. Anything that dealt with sex in his books was in italics! Gimme a break. My books are sexual books, and I don't disguise it. But Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins or that type of author, they throw in the sex. It has to have sex on page 60 and sex on page 180. But my books are only created for sex. There are some great stories, but they are all sexual.
When you get a manuscript, don't you ever say: We need another sex scene right about now?
No. I might raise a question when somebody is unable to give a description of something that I think is important -- a person, so that you get to know the person, or the sex act. I won't publish something that contains the sentence: "And then we fucked. End of Chapter Eight." Okay? I won't do that. I want lots of description.
You publish a lot of books, as many as 11 a month. How do you keep quality up?
Don't ask me [laughs]. I have a pretty good staff. They don't speak to me; they're overworked. I have an incredible editor in chief, who says two words to me every week -- and those are hostile words. And we get along fine.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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