“Queen of Erotica” Zane On How Fifty Shades Affects the Sexy-Book Scene

"I just write stories."

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Hilsdon Photography
Hilsdon Photography

The author Zane

When it comes to bestselling erotica, Zane has been a trailblazer. The 44-year-old, Washington, D.C.–based author had sold more than 5 million copies of her books worldwide before anyone had heard of  Fifty Shades of Grey. While E.L. James, the author of the latter book, dropped an atom bomb this year on the competition (30 million copies sold worldwide in four months), Zane was indisputably there first. She is known as the queen of urban erotica, famous for its no-holds-barred, raw sexuality, juicier even than more restrained-by-comparison books such as Fifty Shades, a genre which has been labeled as “Mommy Porn” by critics.

Zane, which is a pseudonym (it means “God’s precious gift”), first made her name writing sexy stories on her AOL website, until the company shut it down because of its X-rated content. As her far-flung fans (sometimes known as “Zaniacs”) spread the word, her reputation grew so large that three major publishers pursued her with book contracts. Concerned about demands to tamp down her writing, she initially self-published her work, selling more than 100,000 copies of her first novel, Addicted, in 2001. But finally she cast her lot with Simon & Schuster, and the rest is mainstream publishing history. She has had 14 New York Times bestsellers, in addition to writing and producing a hit Cinemax series, Zane’s Sex Chronicles, and maintaining a hugely popular website, planetzane.com, which features conversations for the “grown and sexy.”

Zane’s steamy first novel, Addicted, which stars Zoe Reynard, a successful married businesswoman who is juggling three lovers, has just been republished. And her beyond-X-rated anthology of other writers, Z-Rated: Chocolate Flava, will be published in August. We caught up with the prolific author by phone on her vacation in North Carolina, gearing up for a book tour that will begin later this month.

TIME: No unpublished writer ever turns down a book contract. Why did you?

ZANE: I had a feeling that if I did this, it was going to be big. Something just told me, and it would eventually end up altering my life. And I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted.

How did you find out that you had a talent for writing erotica?

It’s so funny—I never set out to write erotica…both of my parents are retired educators, so reading was very strong in our house. … I always had a very vivid imagination. All of my teachers always told me that I was going to grow up to be a writer, but I never really believed it, or paid that much attention to it.

Then suddenly, when I was living here in Kannapolis, North Carolina, I got bored enough to start playing around with writing. I wrote one short story, and at the time I was, believe it or not, I was my father’s research assistant for Duke Divinity School. [Her father, a minister, was a well-known religious scholar.] I would be doing my work, and then I discovered AOL, and started hanging out in chat rooms. So I wrote a story, and in the chat room, I came up with the name Zane. I wasn’t going to say my real name, so that’s sort of how Zane was born. It was never about being a writing name.

Anyway, I wrote this one short story called “First Night.” I didn’t know it was erotic; I just wrote a romantic story. And I sent it out to four or five people I had met in the chat room. They sent it out to a bunch of other people, and the next thing you know, I started getting emails from all these people, like “That’s the hottest thing I’ve ever read!”; “Have you written anything else?”; “I want to be on your mailing list.” Honestly, I thought it was all funny. I put a couple other stories up, and within three weeks, I had 8,000 hits by word-of-mouth alone, before AOL took it down because of the content!

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After you  successfully published your own work, you started hearing again from New York City publishers.

Publishers started contacting me, and saying, “You’re one of the best writers we’ve ever read, and we’ll offer you a deal today, but we need to tone you down.”

What did your parents think at this point?

They had no idea I was doing any of this. My parents didn’t know for about five years.

Were you astonished by what happened to Fifty Shades of Grey?

I wouldn’t say that I was astonished by it. I think that it was very good marketing: being on the right shows, and getting the right media outlets. I’m very happy for the author. But clearly it’s not the first time erotica has gone mainstream. Even if you take me out of the equation, Sex in the City is a multi-billion-dollar brand.

You got there earlier, theme-wise—why did the author get so much attention for the book?

Well, I’ve never been on the Today Show. (Laughs.) I’ve had three documentaries done about me. I’ve had my picture hanging up in galleries—my picture just left the Smithsonian [it was part of an exhibit called The Black List, which featured celebrities of color.] Swiss Public Television did a documentary about me years ago called Zane, Queen of Erotica. Honestly, I don’t know.

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I’ve heard a lot of romance and woman’s fiction writers say that they don’t get enough acknowledgment for what they do.  Is that what’s going on? It sounds like you’ve gotten a lot of acknowledgment, too, but is there some you haven’t gotten?

Of course, it would be nice to get it, because I’ve worked very hard for 15 years. I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished. It honestly was never my purpose to be famous, which is why I don’t write under my real name. I enjoy what I do.

Do you feel you have a lot in common with other African-American writers — a sense of being part of a group?

I am African-American, but I don’t write books specifically for African Americans… I just write stories. Honestly, for a lot of African American writers, we don’t get the exposure, in different chain stores for example. Those of us who have consistently been New York Times bestsellers, when our new books come out, they’re not at the end of the stand with James Patterson and John Grisham and Stephen King, all of whom at one point or another I have beaten on the New York Times list. The same thing goes for Terry McMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey. You go in an airport store, it’s very hard to see our books. I feel like, in a way, it has hindered me, simply because I’m not getting as much exposure as Caucasian authors are getting. It is what it is. I’m very happy with what I’ve done. And I do have a big crossover audience, I do know that…. When I do book signings, it isn’t just black people who come. I mean, I have white men come to my signings and say I’m their favorite author.

Do you think people underestimate how much women like erotica?

I think that it’s still very much a taboo subject, particularly in this country. One thing I am happy about is that people will be, hopefully, with Fifty Shades of Grey, be more accepting of the fact that women can appreciate erotica. I will say that my stuff is a lot steamier! (Laughs.)

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Are people surprised that the steamy books are coming from a woman and not a man?

Yes, there are still people who think I’m a man. There was actually a man masquerading as me at book-signings and at book clubs! He even did a book signing in Jamaica.

Have critics or censors ever given you a hard time because of all of the sex?

I honestly don’t listen to the criticisms. I knew going in that I was going to have my critics. For me, I’m just doing what I must do, what I’m passionate about. I use sex as a segue to deal with a lot of deeper issues. I don’t feel like I am a sex writer or even an erotica writer. I would describe myself as a very detailed writer who does not tone down her sex scenes.

Anything sexual you won’t write about?

There are definite things I wouldn’t write about or publish: pedophilia, bestiality. The obvious stuff.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you: have you lived out these fantasies?

Some of them. (Laughs.)

35 comments
cleanupwoma2012
cleanupwoma2012

After writing my first book I was told to look up Zane because our writing is comparable. I am a fan of nonfiction and biographies so I've never had the opportunity to read any of her amazing work. Reading the comments inspire me to keep working because the work I put in will be noticed so I cant give up. I am thankful you her awesome fans that support her. This article is a must read for all beginning authors. Zane inspired me because both of the meaning of her name. I write under Alisha Coleman because in 2012 my job lost me, as a divorced mother of seven I had to stay positive, so I wrote my first book, Alisha Coleman means a precious gem protected by God. I am still unemployed but I know I'm protected and things will work out for my good. God bless you Zane 

sweetbrwnsuga
sweetbrwnsuga

I  love all her books except total eclipse of the heart... 

Markhamiltonw
Markhamiltonw

I love Zane (big fan) whereas I found 50 shades a bit too predictable. Right now I am reading 

http://confessionsfromanisland...  which is written by someone in London. It has the right mix of erotica/sexy and London social life/intrigues. Apparently it is based on true stories. 

Markhamiltonw
Markhamiltonw

I love Zane, because that is true erotica whereas I found 50 shades a bit predictable. Right now I am reading 

http://confessionsfromanisland... written by someone in London. Short stories mixing 50% erotic/sexy stories  and 50% social intrigues... apparently all based on true stories.

JenniferMichelle Iz'aMilfonami
JenniferMichelle Iz'aMilfonami

I'm so excited for Addicted to be turned into a film! Zane is the Queen of the pen! I totally agree with what she said about her novels not being all about sex she just doesn't water down the sex. She goes into detail every aspect of the characters lives.  It's obvious Zane has not gotten the recognition that the 50 shades author has gotten because she and the characters in her stories are usually african american. Racism is real and alive in america!

ladymizvee
ladymizvee

Zane is the BEST EVER!  I plan to read 50 Shades of Grey since I've heard so much about it, but fans of the book should really try reading Zane if they want really sexy, raunchy stories.....Zane fans have known this for years:)

Tissa
Tissa

Thanks Time for publishing this article, I have been reading Zane for a few years now, and it is great, One of Zane's book beat all 3 of  50 Shades of Grey, I think that Zane is an writer that they somehow over looked, Zane is so good at what she does, that my Husband started to read her books, and he does not read and erotica or romance type of books! 

nikeshox
nikeshox

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Yapha
Yapha

Zane is the TRUTH!!

Natasha Collins
Natasha Collins

Been a Zane fan since Addicted!  And what drew me in was how the stories are deep and you can still feel that even with the erotic scenes mixed in.  Ms. Zane has a great gift and I'm glad she's been blessed enough to share it with all of us!  Keep doing you!!

Wanda Leslie-Kidd
Wanda Leslie-Kidd

Zane's books and television shows are the greatest. Very tastefully done. True artist!!!! 

Butrphly Love
Butrphly Love

I have been a Zane for over 10 years. She may not have been on some talk shows, however she has her own publishing company, she has numerous authors under her wing, she has a cable tv series, and is about to release another one, and I believe she is trying to get a radio show going. Um, I think she is doing it well. I love her work. I haven't read the 50 shades of grey but Zane has a major fan base.

Jennifer Gray Jackson
Jennifer Gray Jackson

The first Zane book I read was "Shame on It All" and I was reading it on the bus.  I came to a section and started laughing so much, that I had all the passengers looking at me but I couldn't stop laughing!  Her writing style is so real and entertaining!  I had people asking me who I was reading and promised to buy the book!

Bridgette D. Rodgers
Bridgette D. Rodgers

One Zane book overshadows all three 50 Shades books hands down!! And I do agree with her about the exposure that African American authors get in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts. In the event AA authors were to get equal exposure, Zane, Dickey and other authors would have just as many books sold as E.L. James.

Paivi Beverly
Paivi Beverly

I am proud to say I known you since 1996 when you were struggling on AOL and every time you created a site and published your work, YES, it did get removed by not critics but HATERS! 

You have come a long way from the "chat rooms" we used to hang out in after work every evening and socialize with others.

Congrats on everything and keep up the good work!

former AOL chatroom friend

Nickishell

MrsHiggs12
MrsHiggs12

I LOVE ZANE! I was in the 9th grade I think when a friend handed me "Addicted" and I think I finished it in a few hours! After that was Nervous, then Skyscraper and I haven't stopped since. Her books aren't just sexy, they are GREAT stories!!!!! LOVE LOVE LOVE. I also love to follow her on Facebook, she definately gives good advice. Zane please keep up the good work, you are definately loved!

Quadria Molden
Quadria Molden

Zane is one of my most fava authors behind the others that she does publish. I have been a fan since Addicted and will always be. Keep up the great work and keep em comin!!!!

MrsHiggs12
MrsHiggs12

I LOVE ZANE! I was in the 9th grade I think when a friend handed me "Addicted" and I think I finished it in a few hours! After that was Nervous, then Skyscraper and I haven't stopped since. Her books aren't just sexy, they are GREAT stories!!!!! LOVE LOVE LOVE. I also love to follow her on Facebook, she definately gives good advice. Zane please keep up the good work, you are definately loved!

dWb
dWb

I read Addicted when it was first released and was blown away!  I read a few other novels after that as well.  When my conservative colleagues were gushing and blushing about "50 Shades" I immediately thought of Zane, searched for her on Facebook and "liked" her page.  The letters she receives are interesting to say the least, and I love reading her "tell it like it is" responses.  I recently moved and found all of my Zane books.  I look forward to diving into them on my next vacation!  Long live the Queen of Erotica!  xoxo dWb

Chablis Jasmine
Chablis Jasmine

ZANE! of course we love you lol... I've been reading Zane for about 13 years, around the time she published Addicted, and she is hands down my favorite author! Hell even if you tone down or take out the sex of her stories, you still have some of the most compelling stories ever written! 50 Shades, couldn't hold a candle to Zane!

Minna1980
Minna1980

Zane I love your work from Skyscraper, Addicted, Nervous, Sisters of APF to Afterburn...I couldn't put them down...Some books I read in hours thats how hooked I was. I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey because it just didn't interest me....Its crazy how everyone is just now jumping on the bandwagon...Erotica has been around for a very long time...Maybe they need to check out the African American section of the book store.

Cynthia_Walker
Cynthia_Walker

To be honest, I didnt see what the big deal was about 5o Shades of Grey. I thought to myself HAVE THEY NOT READ A ZANE BOOK.....that book clearly isnt the first erotica to be written. I have been a fan of Zane for many years now and will always be a fan! I have no desire to read 50 Shades of Grey at this point in time...maybe one day. Good Luck Zane with all your futrue books still waiting on Afterburn 2!!!

Joelle Johnally
Joelle Johnally

I am and always will be a ZANIAC!!!! " 50 Shades of Grey" has NOTHING on her!!!!!!!!!!!

sweettea1973
sweettea1973

I have been reading Zanes books for years!!! Love her wild imagination and I feel she should get more recognition as well as the other successful AA authors. You see the other authors getting interviews on mainstream television when they have books coming out so why dont they?? Im just saying...Something to think about

Kelee
Kelee

I absolutley love Zane!  A friend of mine gave me a few of her books about five years ago and I've been hooked every since! Not suprised at all that Fifty Shades of Grey is getting all this new publicity though.  I agree with Zane, her books a way more steamier!

Heidi Kay
Heidi Kay

Been reading Zane's  book's for years! Love her work! Can't get no better than her!

Rikkie Sanders
Rikkie Sanders

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!!!!! Zane is the absolute best Erotica Writer of our time.  Don't believe me, check it out yourself.

deanna321
deanna321

congrats zane.....excellent job....i have been reading with you since day one.....love ya!!!LBVS

Rese Snoopy Patton
Rese Snoopy Patton

I have been a fan of Zane since I first read "Addicted" then I read "Nervous"...then one of my home girls let me read the Sex Chronicles.....and after that I was hooked....I absolutely love what you do.....the Sex Chronicles show was was....m and my man watch it all the time and you definitely sparked some hotness in my house....lol....

Quadria Molden
Quadria Molden

I feel like keepin them all in my trunk in case i run into her. I would love to have them all signed

cleanupwoma2012
cleanupwoma2012

@Kelee  I keep hearing the same thing. I have no desire to read 50