The Man Who Was Willing to Die for Porn

Once there was a man who was willing to die for porn. Steve Stewart talked to him on the phone. The man wanted to buy some books of gay erotica—you know, the kind of stories that, while they are always tastefully crafted, you still flip through one-handed. And Stewart is the publisher for Companion Press, the Laguna Hills outfit that gave the world such anthologies of gay erotica as Casting Couch Confessions and Gym Shorts. The man lived in Bosnia, however, then in the throes of its civil war, where they'd kill you if they found you with a copy of, say, Hollywood Hardcore Diaries. But he wasn't going to let that stop him. All he and Stewart needed to do was figure out a safe place to ship the books. Then one day, the phone calls stopped coming. Was the man dead? Trapped in a refugee camp? Shackled in porno prison? Stewart can't say. But, man, he wishes he had customers like that now.

"With the Internet now, you can not only go read stories but also get thousands of photos and even live video streams of people having sex," the soft-spoken Stewart explains. "And you wonder if someone has all that, why would they just want to read a book? It is so quaint, and it is so outdated, and people have changed. I wonder in 10 or 15 years what the market for books will even really be?"

Like a lot of us, Stewart had his first electrifying brush with erotica when he sneaked a peek at one of those lurid truck-stop paperbacks in which everything is either engorged or throbbing. We wouldn't call it lust at first sight, but for Stewart, it was something of a subtly transformative experience. By nature, he has always been bookish—before his erotica publishing career got rolling, he was a journalism major and wrote a book called Positive Image: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America—so he has always had a special spot in his heart for a tale well told. And in the age of the masturbation superhighway, he'd still rather just curl up with a good book.

"I love books," he says. "I grew up with books. I love stories. Personally, I would rather read about it. I don't know if it's because I'm older or if there are just people like me." He laughs the laugh of the silent-movie buff, the blues 78 collector, the Civil War re-enactor. "I guess someone will probably do a study on people like me."

And if they did, what would they find? A decade or so ago was the golden age: people had loosened up enough to buy their naughty books at Borders, but they hadn't yet figured out how to swell their hard drives with porn. And web sites like Literotica.com ("Really a great site," says Stewart) weren't yet giving it away for free. You could write a salacious story, have a little fun, and even make a few bucks. Stewart even remembers turning down submissions that were just too good.

"The books we do, we include the explicit sex, but there has to be an interesting story and the characters have to be likable," he says. "And there are some writers—actually very famous authors—who write under pen names. I was surprised—I had to reject some stories because they were too well-written, but they weren't very exciting erotically."

But now he's turning down hundreds of writers every month—secretly famous or no—simply because the market isn't there. Too many gay-oriented presses like Companion have disappeared; Stewart has survived by cutting back (you won't find his books in stores anymore—it's easier to run a mail-order-only company) and branching out. What's selling best now is the erotic nonfiction: the adult-video guides, the educational and historical work, the interviews with porn stars. "People love porn stars," says Stewart.

And then you've got the perennial headaches: the prudish pressmen who refuse to print his material, the hyperconservatives in OC who won't sell him a barcode, even the millennia of evolutionary conditioning that make men much more likely to respond to big-as-life visual stimuli than some teeny little words on a page. But that last one has always been part of erotica publishing, he says.

"Video companies make a hundred times more than publishers," he says. "Men are definitely much more visual—gay or straight. Guys would much rather buy a video than a book; books are a niche within a niche within a niche. And it's getting smaller every day."

He's a trooper, that Stewart. But he had to get a day job again—porn doesn't pay the bills like it used to—and he figures once someone manages to get live video onto a Palm Pilot, his erotic-fiction days are numbered. You can't help but think of how all those movie stars must have felt when Al Jolson blackfaced his way across the suddenly not-so-silent screen, and you ask Stewart how it feels to be, well, kind of obsolete?

"I sort of ask myself the same questions," he says. "And I'm not sure I can give you real answers." He laughs that laugh again. "Who is really reading this stuff?"

Companion Press, P.O. Box 2575, Laguna Hills, CA 92654; www.companionpress.com.
 
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