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Big Books Feature

Hustler

Once an Anonymous Internet Sex Writer, Now the Diva of Erotica, Zane Has Erected Her Own Hot Publishing Empire

Frank Klein
Zane Gray: Zane's full-bore erotica swings in that gray area between giddy thrill and out-there shock value. "People don't use [euphemisms] in the bedroom," she says.

Big Books Issue 2004

The City That Writes Hey, remember writers? The people who, like, create books? They’re still around in full effect, but ...

Hustler Once an Anonymous Internet Sex Writer, Now the Diva of Erotica, Zane Has Erected Her Own Hot Publishing Empire | By Anna Ditkoff

Transition Words For Author Maud Casey, Moving to Baltimore Has Led to Writer’s Block, Obsession, and Her Most Ambitious Book Yet | By J. Bowers

Making History After 15 Years, Madison Smartt Bell Brings His Benchmark Haitian Trilogy to a Close | By John Barry

What're You Reading? On the Street with the City's Reading Habits | By Wendy Ward

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 9/15/2004

“[He] stuck his dick in my pussy from behind. He fucked the living daylights out of me, and there was no point in saying it wasn’t what I really wanted. The streams of cum and pussy juice trickling down my inner thighs onto the floor told the true story.”

And with these words a small publishing empire was born. Maryland author and publisher Zane, who prefers not to reveal her real name, started her career as an erotica writer by posting a few stories on the Internet seven years ago. Now, she is a mainstay on best-seller lists with her own publishing imprint, Strebor Books International, and a new bookstore in Fells Point. This summer, when she embarked on her first book tour for the paperback edition of her erotic novel Nervous (her seventh book), security details had to erect barricades at some locations to hold back the crowds. And publications like Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times have all done profiles of the no-longer-media-shy author, who had spent years trying to safeguard her privacy.

Zane started writing in 1997, sending a few racy short stories to her close friends. Working as a sales executive in the paper industry, she says was spurred by “complete boredom” to pursue her true passions, as it were. Her friends passed on the stories, and soon strangers were e-mailing her asking for more. She started posting them online, and after several of her personal sites were shut down for content, she started www.eroticanoir.com and released an e-zine called The Sex Chronicles. From there, her popularity soared, at least virtually. At one point she says she had tens of thousands of people on her e-mail list and people started going to bookstores looking for her books, even though she had never printed one.

“Somehow the rumor got started that I had an actual book out. So I decided to try it and see what would happen,” Zane says during a phone interview. “I had offers from several publishing houses but not for the type of writing I was doing. They all wanted me to write things that were tried and proven, like romance novels or be another Terry McMillan knockoff, and I didn’t want to do that. They believed that my writing was going to be too risqué for the general public, and they were wrong.”

So Zane self-published her first three books, including a compilation of stories from her e-zine. Together they sold more than a quarter of a million copies, and in 2001 Simon and Schuster decided to publish her books, without asking her to compromise her style; a year later, the publishing giant also agreed to distribute books from her Strebor House International imprint. She now has 2.5 million copies in print, a stable of 34 authors from a variety of genres in Strebor, and in November she will officially open her general-interest bookstore, Endeavors, in Fells Point. And after seven years of working in anonymity, this summer Zane finally went public on her first book tour, surprising her fans by looking more like a Sunday-school teacher than a vixen.

“It’s kind of overwhelming quite honestly. . . . There were security guards bringing me in through the back entrance, that kind of thing, 200 people in line,” the 37-year-old married mother of three says of when she arrived at a signing in New Jersey. “So I didn’t really get a chance to build up to that. It’s kind of overwhelming to me, but in my day-to-day life I’m just still Mommy.”

Why did she finally decide to step into the spotlight? “The whole Zane thing had become to the point that people were trying to figure out who’s going to expose me, and I had already told Simon and Schuster that when it came time for that, that I would orchestrate it myself,” she says. “And then there was someone impersonating me. At least two people—one of them was a man.” Several different people, it seems, had held book signings posing as Zane, without the author’s knowledge. But the most important reason she stepped out of the shadows, she says, was to promote Strebor.

“I know that as an author I could have remained anonymous or faceless, but I knew as a publisher that wasn’t going to be able to happen,” she says. “Because if you want a successful publishing company, you have to get out there and hustle.”

But with eight books in print and a ninth, Afterburn, hitting the shelves this fall, Zane is used to hustling, even in a genre she didn’t set out to be a part of.

“Quite honestly, when I wrote [the first short story] I didn’t know it was erotica. I was familiar with the term but had never read any erotic books and still didn’t until I had written probably at least 50 stories of my own,” she says. “Which is why, when people ask me why is mine different from other people’s, it’s because I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone.”

Zane’s writing is generally more raw and graphic than other entries in the genre. No one thrusts his throbbing sword into a fair maiden’s delicate flower here. Dicks go in pussies. “People don’t use [euphemisms] in the bedroom,” she says with a chuckle. “I mean, how many women actually use the word ‘manhood’ in the bedroom?”

And the self-described feminist has loftier goals in mind then just getting people off. “My main purpose in writing my books is to empower and liberate females period,” she says. “Not just sexually but just period.”

Her books have attempted to grapple with a series of serious issues, including classism, domestic, sexual, and child abuse, and unplanned pregnancies. But in some ways, despite the graphic screwing, her books betray a Victorian sensibility. Her sexually adventurous female heroines are generally punished in some way for their dalliances. In Addicted, Zane’s second self-published book from 2000, which spent nearly three straight years on Essence magazine’s best-seller list, heroine Zoe turns out to be a sex addict who is horrified by her own behavior and is nearly murdered by one of her lovers. Janessa, in Heatseekers, struggles with an unwanted pregnancy, and Nervous’ Jonquinette’s sexual liaisons are controlled by her sinister alter ego, Jude.

While Zane says that her books help women realize that their fantasies and desires are commonplace—pointing to “the thousands of e-mails I’ve gotten from women thanking me for letting them know that they’re normal because they’ve had these fantasies and they’ve had these desires”—the author’s sense of “normal” occasionally seems skewed. In Addicted, for instance, a psychiatrist diagnoses Zoe as a sex addict based largely on the fact that she started masturbating “at a considerably young age”—she was in junior high. And Zane’s belief that “men talk about sex with their friends openly but women really don’t” seems out of touch, in a time when the “funky spunk” episode of Sex and the City is water-cooler chat.

Another recurring theme in Zane’s books—that promiscuity is often the by product of childhood sexual abuse—brings up some worrisome questions. When asked if her portrayal of sex addict Zoe as a victim of childhood abuse might cause people to assume that all molestation victims become sex addicts, she says, “No. But the fact of the matter is most of the time, and this is something I did research and I actually heard it several times, when a child is sexually abused either one of two things generally happens. They’ll become sexual shut-ins and not have sex at all or they will just become very promiscuous.” (According to the Sidran Institute, a national non-profit organization dedicated to trauma education and advocacy, this misconception further stigmatizes survivors.)

But regardless of how you feel about Zane’s dubious data or her writing, there’s no doubt that she has become a force in the publishing industry. When once-mainstream bookstores had refused to stock her books, they now display them prominently beside the latest Harry Potter. And with Afterburn coming out in November, a touring stage production of Addicted in the works, a publishing company, and a bookstore about to open Nov. 1, it looks like the hustle will continue.

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