A nation founded by Puritans, which once banned D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover as too spicy, has developed an insatiable appetite for the joys of erotic romance.
The cause of this moral cratering/sexual flowering/feminist setback - you choose - is another scandalous Brit import: Fifty Shades of Grey.
E.L. James' erotic trilogy about billionaire bad boy Christian Grey and his virginal young lover, Anastasia Steele, has sold a jaw-dropping 30 million copies in the USA. Whether they are chatting them up on Facebook, downloading the e-books or grabbing the paperback editions off shelves, Americans can't get enough of the London writer's tales of bondage, handcuffs, mad romance and rough love.
Once turned on, those readers are devouring other erotic romances, and authors and publishers are rushing to cash in on the trend with new titles that sport Fifty Shades-like jackets and plotlines.
The evidence is all over USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. For the 16th week in a row, the Fifty Shades trilogy holds the top three spots. But James has company. Sylvia Day's erotic romance Bared to You- complete with cuff links and a very Grey-like cover - has been in the top 10 for 10 weeks this summer. (Today it's No. 9.) It has sold almost 1.4 million copies - print and digital - in the USA.
More sexy tales with heat levels ranging from simmer to smoking are in the top 50 this week. They include:
•Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire (No. 18)
•Taken by Kelli Maine (No. 34)
•Seducing Cinderella by Gina Maxwell (No. 36)
•Wrong Bed, Right Guy by Katee Robert (No. 38)
•Switch by Megan Hart (No. 48)
Frisky titles have been popping up on the list all summer, from a variety of sources - self-published, small e-book publishers and multinational publishing giants such as Random House and Penguin.
The result: editors prowling for the next big thing in erotic romance with the kind of ardor alpha males reserve for bedding sweet young virgins.
Following 'Fifty' footsteps
This month, Berkley Books snapped up Sylvain Reynard's Gabriel's Inferno and Gabriel's Rapture, about the relationship between a tormented wealthy Dante professor and his eager young grad student. Trade print editions arrive Tuesday, with a third novel planned. St. Martin's Press just nabbed print and e-book rights to Anything He Wants by Sara Fawkes. The previously self-published series tells the tale of an office temp seduced by a billionaire CEO. (The fifth novel will be released as an e-book Sept. 25.)
Copycat publishing has a long and glorious tradition. After the success of Stieg Larsson's Swedish thrillers, American publishers signed up a smorgasbord of Scandinavian crime writers. But few of those Nordic noir thrillers became best sellers.
Fifty Shades of Grey is different.
Or maybe not.
Observing the hype and hysteria, there is at least one writer who says that erotic romance is and remains a niche market. "It had a boom in the past, and the market wasn't able to sustain it." There was a bust around 2007, and this spoilsport predicts there will be a bust again.
The name of this literary Cassandra?
Sylvia Day. Yes, that Sylvia Day. The first book in her erotic Crossfire trilogy, Bared to You, is riding high on the James bandwagon, with Book 2, Reflected in You, due Oct. 2.
Set in Manhattan, it is a tale of obsessive love between billionaire Gideon Cross and young Eva with lots of kinky sex. But before you screech ripoff, Day insists she hadn't read Fifty Shades of Grey before writing her novel.
She says she rewrote an age-old plot familiar to any romance fan.
"Harlequin (the long-established romance publisher) has been making money for 60 years off of stories about a tortured millionaire and the young ingénue he falls in love with," Day says.
In the romance world, the plot is an eternal trope - hello Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre (fortune adjusted for inflation) - in the same way mystery writers and their fans never tire of plots revolving around crazed serial killers with determined detectives hot on the trail.
Unlike James, who hit gold with her first book, Day, 39, is a veteran best-selling romance writer. When she was 12, her Japanese immigrant mother gave her her first romance novel -Desert Hostage- and Day was hooked. Erotic romances are her favorite to read and write, but she has also published sexy historical romances as well as other types of fiction.
Day wrote Bared to You in 2011. Originally self-published, it made its debut on USA TODAY's best-seller list at No. 110 on May 3. Then Berkley Books bought the rights. On June 12, Bared to You came out in paperback with a new, very Grey cover (and an acknowledgement thanking James), and sales soared.
When asked if she is concerned people would say Bared to You was a ripoff or copycat, Berkley Books executive editor Cindy Hwang replies: "What we realized with the covers of Fifty Shades is how many people preferred the less explicit covers. And we knew that if we wanted to reach that huge potential audience for Bared to You, we needed a cover that would work for those readers."
Day is the first to say the Fifty Shades juggernaut has helped her sales. Bared to You "is on a different level. ... Suddenly I have all these new readers telling me that they haven't read a book since college except for Fifty Shades of Grey and Bared to You."
Old books find new life
Equally new is readers' openness about buying sexually graphic fiction, even if the erotic content itself is not. Anne Rice, for example, published erotic fiction under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure back in the 1980s, and interviewers tiptoed around the scandalous subject. Today, her Sleeping Beauty trilogy has been newly reissued with her real name bold and brazen on the cover. (The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is No. 97 on USA TODAY's list.)
Another pioneering novel in erotic fiction, Zane's 1998 Addicted, was reissued last month with a new cover featuring a tie, another allusion to Fifty Shades' jacket.
For a decade, erotic romance has thrived as e-books and downloads thanks to online publishing houses such as Ellora's Cave and Samhain, notes romance blogger Sarah Wendell, author of Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels. (Fifty Shades first took off as e-books published by a small press before Vintage acquired the rights in March and flooded bookstores with the paperback editions.)
Berkley's Hwang says that "when a book becomes a phenomenon, like Bared to You has become for us, we start to see readers who hadn't previously read erotic romance discovering the genre. And they must like what they're reading, because the consumer anticipation for Sylvia Day's next book is unlike anything I've ever seen."
Opening the dialogue
Does the fact that mainstream publishers are eagerly acquiring erotic romance herald the dawn of a new attitude toward women and sex in the book world? Not quite, Wendell says. "I don't think this is due to any acceptance of female sexuality but more the desire for profitable publications."
Lyss Stern, founder of Divalysscious Moms and divamoms.com, certainly witnessed the dawn of Fifty Shades. In January, she hosted an event for James in Manhattan and was recommending the erotic trilogy to her 400,000-plus followers.
"The ability to talk about sex is really important for this generation of women. It's something that's been missing in many mommy groups and book clubs," Stern says. "That's why I've focused on erotica and romance with the DivaMoms book club."
Stern's first selection was Fifty Shades of Grey. Her second book club selection is The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (MIRA, $13.95), another erotic romance that explores how an American writer and her demanding British editor get tied up with each other.
Reisz, 34, started the first draft of The Siren in 2004, after dropping out of a graduate program in theology. The Lexington, Ky., writer eventually sold her proposed eight-book series to Harlequin's MIRA imprint in 2010 - yes, before publishing went Grey.
"MIRA was taking a real gamble on my books," she says. "The Siren and The Angel contain controversial content that has reviewers saying Fifty Shades of Grey is preschool compared to my books. They aren't exaggerating. Who knew that two years later, editors who rejected The Siren and The Angel because of this shocking content would be telling my agent how much they were kicking themselves.
"Two years ago, it was all vampires. Now it's BDSM. Kink is the new vamp."