|Art by Shishy|
Imagine this. A black woman longs to see her boyfriend after spending a girlfriend getaway in Jamaica. She leaves the plane and sees her man waiting by the arrival gate. The woman rushes toward his open arms but a female customs agent cuts the embrace short, searches her bags and orders the traveler to an inspection room. No drugs are found but she is strip-searched and held in custody for a long time. In the real world the traveler and her boyfriend may be scared or angry about the situation, but in the fictional world of black erotic author Zane, it’s the perfect opportunity for a threesome:
The agent’s “ass is protruding up in the air and you reach underneath the skirt of her uniform and start finger fuc*ing her while she continues to suckle on my nipples. I can feel your tongue deep inside my throbbing pu**y. We can hear planes landing and taking off and people walking by in the hall but none of us gives a damn cause this is just too good to let go.”
The story “The Airport,” from her collection “The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth,” is one of the hardcore, erotic, make-your-gynecologist-blush tales that has made Zane queen of black erotic literature. Although the steamy stories emerged 14 years ago, black erotica is one of the top-selling genres of African-American literature today, says Malaika Adero, senior editor for Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.
“Zane is it,” Adero says. “She is one of the bestselling black writers in any category.”
African-American women are the main consumers and writers of the naughty tales. Carol Taylor, editor of the award-winning erotic anthologies “Brown Sugar,” says African-American women are drawn to black erotica because they have images of black culture that are not found in other erotica.
“The difference between black erotica and other erotica is really a racial sensibility, not only in the story lines, language, settings and characterizations, but in the overall descriptions,” Taylor says. “Before ‘Brown Sugar’ a lot of the erotic literature out there was about whites. So when a character in black erotica is described as ‘a chocolate-colored honey with a blown out natural and a swing in her hips as she struts down the street,’ the readers get it. With black erotica we've gone from simply reading the stories to being in the stories.”
Black erotic literature varies in form and style. Some stories have love scenes that are a few degrees higher than a Harlequin novel. Others include off-the-scale sex acts. The tales may be written with prose, slang or everyday language. Plots vary also, from stories that address social issues to fun fantasies. For example, some parts of Zane’s breakthrough novel “Addicted” tackle child molestation. In the second volume of “Brown Sugar,” writer Shay Youngblood gives readers a peek into the life of a blind woman trapped in an abusive marriage in the story “Lula Mae.” Both stories examine serious issues and include graphic sex scenes. Readers say they are drawn to the sex-lit for various reasons: they identify with the characters, it sparks ideas for enhancing their sex life and they’re fun reads.
“It’s a fantasy for all of us,” says Sonya Battey, 39, a Zane fan.
“Zane is free with her writing,” says a 27-year-old black woman in San Diego. “She develops her characters well and you get to know them.”
“A lady came up to me and said, ’I want to thank you for writing a book that makes me get up every morning and tell my 15-year-old son I love him.’ And I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying they’re going back to school after reading my book,” Zane says.
Some writers and readers aren’t turned on by black erotica’s popularity. They say it has created the sexualization and degradation of black fiction. And editors prefer profitable sexy, fluffy storylines, over literary writers that sell less.
“I think it’s becoming a problem because you’re missing the new Alice Walkers, Terry McMillians and Gloria Naylors,” says writer Laurinda Brown, 36. Brown released her first collection of black-lesbian erotica in 2005.
Zane’s multi-million dollar success has taken the publishing industry by storm. The New York Times bestselling author has sold more than 6 million books. A few of her novels have been translated into various languages, including Danish, Japanese and most recently Thai. She’s the owner of the publishing company Strebor Books International in Baltimore. The Atria/Simon & Schuster imprint carries a diverse line of African-American books from erotica and historical romance to Christian literature and sci-fi. These are major achievements for the 39-year-old writer who won’t disclose her name.
“I dare to say arguably that I have the most diverse African-American publishing imprint out there,” Zane says. “I’ll take chances that other publishers won’t.”
The sex-lit mogul shares bookstore shelves with other writers like Carol Taylor, and newcomer Noire, author of “G-Spot.”
Publishing houses recognized the buying power of black readers in 1992. During this time four books by black women were on the New York Times Best Sellers list simultaneously—Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” Alice Walker’s “Possessing the Secrets of Joy” and Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” and “Playing in the Dark.” McMillan shocked publishers and booksellers when “Waiting to Exhale” sold 1.75 million copies and remained on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 24 weeks. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature the following year. The industry looked at the sales figures and saw that black authors drew not only a high black readership, but also a white audience. The desire for black literature emerged, and publishers capitalized on it.
Today, the black readers market continues to grow. According to the most recent study from Target Market News, a research company that tracks African-American consumerism, black readers spent $326 million on books in 2003. Adero says African Americans are spending more because there’s an increase in books that appeal to them.
“Publishers are publishing more of the kinds of books and authors that the African-American market can relate to,” she says.
Black book sales are a ray of light in the storm of challenges that’s hitting the entire book industry. “In a climate where publishers are complaining more and more of low sales, the African-American market relatively speaking is thriving,” says Adero.
According to Simba Information, U.S.-consumer book sales were $6.46 billion in 2005, a slight increase from $6.44 billion in 2004. This is more than a nice chunk of change, but the amount doesn’t compare to revenues generated by magazines, television and movies.
American corporations are selling their publishing houses to European media firms because of the sluggish sales. This past February, Time Warner, the fifth-largest U.S. book publisher, sold its book group to the French media company Lagardére for $537 million. That’s not even one percent of Time Warner’s $85 billion revenue. Last year, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told Reuters he would sell Simon & Schuster if offered enough money.
“We have certain assets which give us a lot of cash flow but don’t have the growth potential…like Simon & Schuster,” Redstone said.
Technology also poses a threat to the industry. Sony is set to release another version of the e-book. Ingram Book Group’s Lighting Source has sold over 25 million print-on-demand books, and downloadable audio texts means a lesser need for pricey book covers and pages. Amazon.com’s sales of used books are a consumer’s dream because of the low costs, but a financial nightmare for authors and publishers who earn nothing from the sales.
Part II- Black Sexuality and How the Erotic Lit Boom Began
Passion by Shishy