Why you should care

Publishers and traditional romance writers vie to deliver the next hit in women’s softcore porn – and rake in the profits.

Sex sells, particularly when you sell it yourself. Which is why, despite a flurry of brilliant fall books on the way from Hilton Als, Elizabeth Gilbert and Stephen King, the biggest trend on bookshelves is the post-coital reaction to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. With 70 million copies sold worldwide, Fifty Shades is the fastest selling paperback of all time — and every publisher wants a piece of the action.

Expect to see more explicitly steamy submission fantasy fairy tales pushing the sexual envelope on traditional romance fiction. These campy, turbo-charged, bodice-rippers are hotter than ever, filled with lots of whip-cracking, vice-gripping BDSM.

What’s really kinky about this new trend is how it’s changed publishing.

Beyond the implications for taste or what’s happening to the national libido, the market impact of Fifty Shades goes hand-in-glove with the explosive growth of self-publishing. Which leads to what’s really kinky about this new trend: how it’s changed publishing.

Sylvia Day is America’s counterpart to E.L. James. Like James, Day started off self-publishing, popping out close to a novel a month in a steady, lucrative stream. Over the years she managed to get traditional publishers to compete with those earnings – and it’s paid off well. In June of this year, Day got one of the biggest publishing advances ever: an eight-figure deal with Penguin U.S.A. and a seven-figure deal with Penguin U.K. Day is now America’s ultimate “hybrid author.”

Day and James are two of several erotic romance writers who’ve been regaling readers for years, making the transition from self-publishing to traditional print and/or selling on multiple platforms. As their work has gotten increasingly salacious, they’ve sparked a national debate about what’s romance and what’s erotica (not to be confused with literary erotica; that’s been around since Erica Jong unzipped America’s pants with Fear of Flying), plus lots of head scratching: what’s the phenomenal appeal of such low-brow literature? Her forthcoming Spellbound, coming out on October 15, is a paranormal erotic romance that features a horny huntress and a wicked warlock in an Armani suit (always a sign of trouble). Writes Day: “Freeing the button of his coat, Max sank into the seat, his dark blue trousers stretching over firm thighs and an impressive bulge between them. She licked her lips.Yum.” And so the party began.

Cultural gatekeepers and academics have danced around the answers, but Jenny Kerner an advertising executive director and a big fan of the genre, summed it up this way: “Women today have a fantasy about a strong man who takes charge. It’s a break from us having to do it all. This isn’t about writing style; it’s about escape and pleasure without guilt.” Guilt: the American woman’s evil stepsister.

This isn’t about writing style; it’s about escape and pleasure without guilt.

People have been penning porn for centuries. Some things never change. But super-selling sex on whatever publishing platform is not about making good literature; it’s about making good money.Tons of it. And so this fall, along with a slew of celebrity memoirs from the likes of Billy Crystal, Graham Nash, Linda Rondstadt and Angelica Huston, we’ll see more lubricious content pumped out by both self-published hopefuls trying to cash in on the trend (your neighbor, best friend or estranged aunt?), as well as reissues and new books from Maya Banks, Cherise Sinclair and other established names in the genre.

Married couples too tired to whip out the cuffs and chains will find comic relief in Simon Rich’s hilarious The Married Kama Sutra: The World’s Least Erotic Sex Manual, coming to the boudoir on October 29 by traditional print publisher Little, Brown and Company.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed authors that had new books coming out in the fall.

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