Erotica blossoms as publishers turn on to sexy sales figures

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A NEW magazine pitched at "sex-loving cosmopolitans" will take its place next month in Britain's burgeoning market for erotica, its launch a clear sign that the nation's appetite for sex remains unsated.

Pure will be followed by new erotic fiction imprints from two of Britain's leading publishing houses - Virgin and Little, Brown - which will focus on lesbian erotica and fetishism.

Pure will provide design-led erotica principally for the heterosexual male, according to its creative director, Mike Lake-Macmillan, and "not all that tits-out-for-the-boys Loaded, FHM stuff, which seems to do nothing more than put an actress in a bra and pants".

The magazine, he said, is looking to take advantage of an apparently increasing desire to indulge sexual whims. In November, Olympia, in west London, hosted Erotica 98, the second national fair devoted to what some are seeing as a fin de siecle surge in hedonism. "The fair was very successful," he said, "because it presented sexuality to Middle England, and Middle England came out to play."

Erotica is one of the publishing sensations of the decade. Erotic Review began life as an occasional and meagre newsletter from the Erotic Print Society with a print-run of 4,000 copies. In the 12 months since Rowan Pelling, a former contributor to Private Eye and GQ, took over as editor, it has metamorphosed into a monthly selling 30,000 and numbering Auberon Waugh, design consultant Stephen Bayley and poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley as contributors.

Virgin's success with the male erotic fiction imprint Nexus prompted it in 1993 to launch Black Lace, a list written by women for women that has sold around three million books. In May, Virgin will complete its portfolio with a lesbian imprint called Sapphire.

Little, Brown, whose imprint X Libris has topped half a million in sales, is planning a new list, X Rated, specialising in fetishes.

The driving force behind the sector's growth has been young women. X Libris and Black Lace feature dominant females who - after graphic encounters often beginning on page two - end up more powerful and self-aware. "The enlargement of the market is parallel to the growth of cigarettes in the 1860s," said John Sutherland, a professor in modern English at University College London. "It started out as a male preserve but, as with Virginia Slims in America, it has been repackaged once it was found that pornography appeals to women."

Ms Pelling does not believe the growth in erotica and erotic fiction signals a mass awakening in the nation's primal urges, simply a growing acceptance that it is normal - healthy even - to act on those instincts: "The interest in sex has always been there. It's just that now it can be explored in an above-board way."