For years, Tina Engler was just another frustrated erotica writer, shunned by publishers and literary agents who told her that women would not buy her stories of female sexual desire.
Engler, however, wasn't convinced. She figured that if she liked sensual reads, there had to be other women who did as well.
So the single mother of two daughters started to write erotica novels. She managed to write six under three different pen names — Jaid Black being her best known — while still going to college and in 2000, she started the Web site Ellora's Cave, which sold her books and those of other authors on demand and eventually in e-book form.
Until recently Engler never advertised her site, but readers found her and her publishing business grew. By 2004, she had about $1 million in sales. Now, the Borders Group and Barnes & Noble distribute her books.
"Erotica legitimizes the female sexual experience," Engler says. "Women read these books and it makes them feel normal about their own fantasies."
Much of the genre's popularity is rooted in the fact that the books are often written by women with female heroes, therefore making it easy for women to relate to them.
Erotica has a long history, dating back to the Marquis to Sade and the 1954 book, "Story of O." But despite its popularity, particularly among women, the genre has had a more underground following and has never really reached a mainstream audience.
Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore sales figures like Engler's and the emerging popularity of other publishers, such as Red Sage Publishers, which also started as an online business. Mainstream publishers have taken notice. In June, Avon Books will begin a line called Avon Red, catering to the steamier side of romance. Harlequin Books also plans a line called Harlequin Spice, debuting in May.
The stories are hot, and the difference between erotica and pornography is a fine one, says May Chen, an editor at Avon Red. Chen says that the most important difference is that there's a definite plot and story line in erotica. It's not just episodic sex.
"Erotica writers can tell a story," Chen says. "There is a definite hero or heroine. You might have a few sex scenes in there, but it's not gratuitous."
Lynn LaFleur's story, "Victim of Deception," in Avon's anthology, "If This Bed Could Talk," takes place in a haunted Victorian house in Texas. The house is inherited by a woman named Karessa, who senses the presence of spirits once she moves in. The spirits are ghosts of murder victims, who were killed in one of the bedrooms. At the same time, Karessa's ex-boyfriend turns up as one of the workmen hired to renovate the house. The tension between the former lovers is palpable, but also complex.
"Unrequited" by Kimberly Dean is a sexy tale about a recently divorced woman named Trista who deals with the complicated emotions that arise after she becomes involved with her ex-husband's brother, Ty. The love scenes between Trista and Ty are explicit, offering play-by-play details.
Editors at Avon noticed that sales of erotica from smaller presses were growing, Chen says. Avon editors then looked around the Internet and tried to find writers who were putting out good stories and then approached them with offers to write for Avon.
"It was commando publishing," Chen says. "And the authors were very happy to be aligned with a major publishing house." Avon plans two anthologies for June entitled, "Parlor Games" and "If This Bed Could Talk." Each book will have an initial print run of 40,000 to 50,000 copies.
One of the first authors on the new Avon Red label is Liz Maverick. Maverick's story, "Agent Provocateur," is in Avon Red's first anthology. It's an urban, semi-futuristic story about a woman named Vienna who is trying to get out of prison and a death sentence, as well as away from the men who have purchased her at a strange auction.
Maverick thinks that since men have always had outlets for their erotic fantasies, such as movies and magazines, women are finally coming around to creating their own.
"I think 'Sex and the City' had a large part of it," she says. "For a lot of 20- and 30-something women, we would watch the show and see these women talk about sex and make it fun. Then we would call our girl friends and talk about the show. I think it opened a lot of things up."
Especially words. The language of erotica is different from traditional romance novels and key to its genre. Instead of euphemisms, erotica uses much more graphic language.
Maverick says that she doesn't shy away from explicit language. She says that when writing erotica and erotic romance, there are certain words that just fit the mood.
"You want it to be sexy," Maverick says. "Sometimes, flowery language doesn't fit as well as a good expletive."
Beth Bingham, a buyer at Borders Group, says that they started carrying erotica and erotic romances in 2004 when they took on the titles from Ellora's Cave. They have since added the Avon Red and Harlequin erotica lines.
"It came from customer interest," she says. "Customers would come in and specifically ask for it. It's now a growth category in our romance department."
Chen acknowledges that no matter who puts out the book, be it a mainstream publisher or a print on demand, there will always be some sort of stigma about writing romance and women's fiction.
"For some reason, it's considered unintelligent to read these books," she says. Yet according to the Romance Writers of America, the romance genre brings in $1.2 billion dollars a year, and just over 50 percent of all popular mass-market fiction are paperbacks.
"I think there are a lot of closeted romance readers out there," Chen says.