By Lisabet Sarai
Approximately two years ago, the mega-publisher Random House acquired Virgin Books, including its celebrated erotica imprints Black Lace and Nexus. Roughly two weeks ago, Random House announced that they planned to shut down both lines. For many of us in the erotica reading and writing community, this is extremely sad though not completely unexpected news.
Speaking from a personal perspective, Black Lace is responsible for my ten year career as an erotica author. It's not only the fact that Black Lace published my first novel, Raw Silk. I would never have written the book in the first place if I hadn't picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace title Gemini Heat from the bookshelf of my hotel in Instanbul. Gemini Heat (which I've recently learned was Portia's first novel) overwhelmed me with its sensuality, imagination, diversity and intelligence. To put it more crudely, it was possibly the hottest thing I'd ever read, far surpassing the Pauline Reage and A. N. Roquelaure titles that had been my touchstones up to that point.
My first reaction was “Wow!” My second was, “I'll bet I could write something like that...”
Erotic fiction for women, by women. Back in 1993, when Black Lace launched, this was an original, even radical concept. Before the Best Women's Erotica series, before Susie Bright's Best American Erotica, there was Black Lace: carefully crafted, meticulously edited, classy stories about women and sex with three dimensional characters and non-trivial plots. Rich, delicious, graphic, transgressive—erotic fantasies that you could enjoy at both an intellectual and a physical level.
Some people, including members of the ERWA Writers list, have a long-standing gripe with Black Lace's women-only policy, which they view as discriminatory. I do not plan to reignite that debate here. As a marketing ploy, however, the policy was effective, at least initially. Since 1993, Black Lace has published over 250 titles and sold more than three million books. Paper books, mind you.
Black Lace helped establish the mainstream market for erotica. Black Lace didn't exactly make erotica respectable—that might be a contradiction, even counter-productive—but it provided a steady diet of erotic content that aroused without insulting the reader's intelligence.
Markets evolve, however. It is a truism at this point that the publishing industry has changed dramatically in the last half decade, and is continuing to do so. The rise of e-publishing and Print-On-Demand pose challenges to traditional publishing concerns. Meanwhile, the erotica market has matured and diversified. Black Lace was a pioneer, but in recent years seems to have been involved in a game of me-too, jumping on the popular bandwagons of paranormal romance and softer core erotic chick lit. When I saw that that the 15th Anniversary reissue of Gemini Heat was being pushed as erotic romance, I just sighed. I had this sinking feeling that the end was near.
Still, I am personally saddened by what I see as Random House's short-sighted decision. I realized while working on this post that in addition to bringing out my first novel, Black Lace also printed my first erotic short story, “Glass House”, which I wrote and submitted to the Storytime list a few weeks after joining ERWA in 1999. Actually, Black Lace rejected more of my work than it accepted (including my second and third novels) but I do not hold that against them. In fact, it might be considered as a mark of their discriminating tastes!
When I was waiting for Raw Silk to come out, I fantasized about going to London to participate in a book release party that Virgin Books would throw. I saw myself drinking champagne and hobnobbing with all the other erotica authors, imagining them as a glamorous, sexy lot. I wondered about what costume I should wear to fit in. Leather mini-skirt and high-heeled boots? The red cocktail dress with the plunging neckline? Maybe I'd actually meet Portia da Costa! I pictured her as tall, curvy, and dramatic, rather like one of her heroines.
If Portia's reading this now (we've become good cyber-friends, though so far we haven't met in the flesh), I know she's laughing. How little I knew about the prosaic, penny-pinching world of publishing!
Now, in fact, there will be a party, though it's a bit late. The Black Lace editor, Adam Neville, has announced a wake in early August, to mourn the passing of Black Lace and Nexus. The image at the top of this post was part of his invitation.
Alas, I can't attend this gathering—I'm even further from London now than I was in 1999. I'll raise my glass, though, to toast sixteen years of lust-filled, literate sex, and observe a moment of silence. Requiescat in Pace.
Visit Lisabet's Fantasy Factory: http://www.lisabetsarai.com