An American erotica pioneer goes from hero to villain for dozens of authors

Anne Wills, the publisher of Blushing Books, in 2014. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Anne Wills was a mother of four, an active volunteer and known to those around her as a generous nurturing, motherly figure in her small town in rural Virginia.

When that life felt too tame, she became Bethany Burke, a bawdy, kink-loving erotica author who also made low-budget spanking films.

She was an early online erotica entrepreneur with her subscription spanking site, Bethany's Woodshed, and mentor to dozens of authors, most of them women, whom she published for the first time through Blushing Books, the company that grew out of her original site.

Some of those authors started earning tens of thousands of dollars a year from what they had thought of as a secret hobby, not a profession.

Now, to many of those same writers, she is a villain.

"She has you, she owns you," said Barbara Carey LaPointe, a retired social worker in Camden, New York, who writes romance under the pen name Stevie MacFarlane and who, like dozens of other authors, is fighting Wills to reclaim the rights to the stories she created.

In interviews with The New York Times, a dozen Blushing authors and seven former employees described a haphazardly run business that frequently failed to pay authors on time and threatened them with lower royalties and defamation lawsuits if they defected.

Some writers who spoke to the Times discovered they were not being paid for books that Blushing was selling through certain online vendors or in audio format.

Others were locked into contracts that gave Blushing "permanent and exclusive" rights to their books and pen names, which publishing experts called onerous and outside of industry standards.

When asked by authors about the missing payments, Wills, 63, often called it an oversight or a glitch in the system.

But several former employees said that delayed payments to authors were a result of Blushing's routine mismanagement.

In December last year, the Romance Writers of America, a trade group, announced that, following an investigation, it had suspended the publisher's membership for three years.

The Authors Guild, an advocacy group, is representing 30 writers seeking to reclaim rights to their work from Blushing.

In a statement to the Times, Wills declined to address specific allegations from authors and said her company's policy was not to speak publicly about any "author's contractual obligation with Blushing".

She also noted that Blushing had paid "millions of dollars in royalties just in the past five years".

Under pressure from authors, Blushing has offered more transparency and says it is now providing monthly royalty payments, and that since the first quarter of last year, it has used an automated royalty tracking system to generate payments.

A lawyer for Wills said she "believes she has fulfilled her contractual duties to her authors and continues to do so".

The enormous appetite for erotica, a nearly US$1.5 billion (S$2.04 billion) industry, has stoked a feeding frenzy among publishers for new content.

Romance sales exploded in the past 15 years, following the rise of e-books and self-publishing, and Fifty Shades Of Grey, which brought hard-core erotica from the fringes into the mainstream.

Romance accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the overall adult fiction market, drawing the largest audience of any genre, according to NPD BookScan.

About 60,000 romance and erotica books were published last year, up from nearly 35,000 a decade earlier, according to data from Bowker, which tracks publishing trends.

The departure of many of Blushing's best-selling authors was disastrous for Anne Wills. PHOTO: NYTIMES

On top of major companies such as Harlequin, Avon and Berkley, a constellation of smaller, independent romance publishers sometimes operate in a grey area between corporate publishers and vanity presses.

In 1998, long before Fifty Shades Of Grey brought literary sadomasochism to the masses, Wills started the subscription website Bethany's Woodshed and began publishing other writers.

She started selling e-books in 2001, well before Amazon came to dominate the marketplace, and expanded into a full-service publishing house, Blushing Books.

Some of its titles, which usually sell for US$2.99 to US$4.99, were typical bodice rippers, but most readers and writers flocked to Blushing for the edgier erotic categories - including stories that featured spanking and bondage.

Wills bought many books as "work for hire", meaning Blushing bought them outright and no royalties would be owed.

For others, she offered a seven-year term to license the work, but in some contracts, she claimed permanent and exclusive rights, meaning Blushing could sell the books forever.

To attract new writers, Blushing promised some a large cut of royalties - 50 per cent, or 60 per cent if authors agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing - far more than the typical 25 per cent.

Those royalties were to be paid quarterly, but Blushing's most successful authors were offered monthly payments.

By 2016, the company's operations and output had grown to some 200 authors and about 30 new releases a month.

Wills had a handful of full-time employees who worked out of her basement.

For a while, she was able to keep authors from speaking about the company through non-disclosure agreements in their contracts.

But in 2019, a group of writers rebelled. The author organising the uprising was Addison Cain, one of Blushing's top sellers.

She got embroiled in a copyright dispute with another author after she claimed that her books had been plagiarised, then discovered that Blushing had never copyrighted her books, a standard service that many publishers provide and that Blushing's contracts said they would cover.

Cain told some other authors, who learnt that their books, too, had never been copyrighted. Some found their books on piracy sites, but Blushing said it could not do anything and discouraged authors from seeking to have them removed.

"Blushing was risking the livelihood of all of their authors," Cain said.

The group - seven authors - hired a lawyer to send a demand letter to Blushing for breach of contract and reached a settlement with Blushing to get their rights reverted, but some had to file copyright-infringement notices with retailers to get Blushing to take down their books.

The departure of many of Blushing's best-selling authors was disastrous for Wills, who faced mounting legal bills and shrinking profits, and had just spent US$135,000 on an office building in Farmville, which was later sold at a US$20,000 loss.

The conflict escalated in February last year, when some routine financial paperwork caused everything to unravel.

That month, the seven authors who got their rights back received tax documents from Blushing. One of them, Zoe Blake, said she believed the form incorrectly labelled her earnings. In seeking to have it corrected, she was sent e-mail correspondence that Blushing said was from an accountant, explaining no error had occurred. Blushing's production manager, accounts manager and editor-in-chief all promptly resigned.

The next day, Wills filed a police report claiming that her production manager had embezzled from the company. A few weeks later, the former employee was arrested in her home and taken before the magistrate. A group of Blushing authors raised money for her legal fees and Wills' estranged husband and one of her children also offered to help.

The charge, which was filed in the wrong jurisdiction, was later expunged, according to the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office.

After the arrest, many joined a private Facebook group for current and former Blushing authors where they could share information.

Some of them had built their careers because of Wills, getting their start on Bethany's Woodshed. But they were ready to move on.

They named the group "Out of the Woodshed" and it now has nearly 70 members.

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