Anne Wills was a mother of four who doted on her children, was an active volunteer with a youth swim team, loved animals and was known to those around her as a generous, nurturing, motherly figure in her small town in rural Virginia.
When that life felt too tame for her, she became Bethany Burke, a bawdy, kink-loving erotica author who also made low-budget spanking films. She wrote them and occasionally even directed them.
She was an early online erotica entrepreneur with her subscription spanking site, Bethany’s Woodshed, and a hero 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, N.Y., who writes romance under the pen name Stevie MacFarlane and who, like dozens of other authors, is fighting Ms. Wills to reclaim the rights to the stories she created.
“These are the only things I’ll be able to leave to my grandchildren,” Ms. LaPointe said.
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, Ms. Wills, 63, the chief executive, 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 of finances.
Anne Wills, the publisher of Blushing Books, in 2014.Credit…Victoria Rouch
In December 2020, the Romance Writers of America, a trade group, announced that, following an ethics investigation, it had suspended the publisher’s membership for three years and barred Blushing from attending its conferences. The Authors Guild, an advocacy group, is representing 30 writers seeking to reclaim rights to their work from Blushing. So far, one of those authors has stopped Blushing from selling her books after filing copyright-infringement notices with retailers, showing that Blushing did not hold contracts for them. Umair Kazi, director of policy and advocacy at the Authors Guild, said that some of Blushing’s contract provisions and its treatment of some authors go against industry standards and raise “many red flags.”
In a statement to The Times, Ms. Wills declined to address specific allegations from authors, and said that 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 that it is now providing monthly royalty payments, and that since the first quarter of 2020, it has used an automated royalty tracking system to generate payments.
A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that she “believes she has fulfilled her contractual duties to her authors and continues to do so” and that “Blushing wishes to move on from this small group of past authors and disgruntled past employees and put its energy into focusing on the talented and passionate authors they have the privilege to represent.”
The enormous appetite for erotica, a nearly $1.5 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 the commercial and cultural juggernaut “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which brought hard-core erotica from the fringes into the mainstream. Romance readers — a majority of them women — tend to be voracious consumers who buy dozens of books a year. Romance accounts for nearly 20 percent of the overall adult fiction market, drawing the largest audience of any genre, according to NPD BookScan. Around 60,000 romance and erotica books were published in 2020, up from nearly 35,000 a decade earlier, according to data from Bowker, which tracks publishing trends.
On top of major companies like Harlequin, Avon and Berkley, which are owned by large multinational corporations, a constellation of smaller, independent romance publishers sometimes operate in a gray area between corporate publishers and vanity presses, which charge authors to publish their work. The independent presses tend to offer writers small advances of four to five figures but a higher cut of royalties, a share of profits. Often, they attract writers, mostly women, who have little professional publishing experience and aren’t represented by lawyers or agents who can help them evaluate a contract.
“Writers who really want to get published are so easy to take advantage of, and there are more and more people out there to take advantage of,” said Mary Rasenberger, chief executive of the Authors Guild.
While every creative field has horror stories about artists who are underpaid and exploited, the dynamics of the romance industry can be especially difficult to navigate. Despite the ascendance of erotica, there’s a lingering stigma attached to the genre, which is written largely by and for women, and is still sometimes dismissed as shameful or unserious. Many romance authors publish under pen names and keep their professional and personal identities separate, and some write in secret for fear of being judged for writing about sex, and more particularly about women enjoying sex.
Ms. LaPointe, 66, became disillusioned with Blushing after she discovered it had added clauses to her contracts without telling her. The additions included claiming rights to foreign editions, audiobooks, and film and television adaptations, according to contracts shared with The Times. Her royalty payments were erratic — she said she sometimes made $3,000 in a quarter, and other times Blushing would claim she owed the company money for advances that it hadn’t made back in sales. She recently started self-publishing and is making far more on her own, but Blushing still has rights to 31 of her books.
She understands now how many questions she should have asked when she began publishing with Blushing in 2012.
“At the time you’re so thankful that a publisher is going to take your book,” she said. “Looking back, you realize how incredibly naïve you were,” she said.
‘She was their savior’
Since the early days of Blushing, Anne Wills designed many book covers herself, sometimes photoshopping images she found on the internet. So she was well-practiced in the skills necessary to photoshop a fake badge for a romance writers’ conference.
“She made it known several times that she could do it and she was really good at it and you wouldn’t be able to know the difference,” said Kimberly Dawn Lamon, who worked for Ms. Wills for about a decade as her housekeeper and personal assistant until she quit in February 2020. Ms. Lamon said that she accompanied Ms. Wills to a few romance conferences, carrying luggage and serving food at parties, and that Ms. Wills created fake badges for Ms. Lamon so she could go to the conventions without registering.
“She liked to take people that had nothing and she was their savior,” Ms. Lamon said. “She treated us good until we questioned her.”
In 1998, long before “Fifty Shades of Grey” brought literary sadomasochism to the masses, Ms. Wills started the subscription website Bethany’s Woodshed and began publishing other writers.
She was an early adopter of digital publishing and started selling e-books in 2001, well before Amazon came to dominate the marketplace, and expanded into a full-service publishing house, Blushing Books, which she ran from her home in her small town, Farmville, Va. Some of its titles, which usually sell for $2.99 to $4.99, were typical bodice rippers — historical romances about a dashing 17th-century earl and a lusty lady-in-waiting, or contemporary Westerns about lonely, rugged ranchers looking for companionship on the prairie. But most readers and writers flocked to Blushing for the edgier erotic categories — including stories that featured spanking and bondage.
As she was building her erotica empire, Ms. Wills ran into legal trouble.
Under her married name from her first marriage, Anne Briggs, Ms. Wills was charged with embezzlement in Charlottesville, according to court records. In 2000, she pleaded guilty to embezzling funds in 1998 from a cafe where she worked as a bookkeeper and to credit card fraud in 1997. Around the same time, she was accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars from a youth swim team, according to reports in The Daily Progress, a Charlottesville paper, but she was never prosecuted. (A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that “the allegations regarding criminal charges are false.”)
In her other life as Bethany, she had grand ambitions for her publishing business, and recruited a large stable of authors. “She would wine and dine you,” said Victoria Rouch, a former editor in chief for Blushing, who writes under the name Ava Sinclair. “She always had this image of being extremely wealthy.”
She added: “She would get new writers and they would be the flavor of the month. She would treat them like queens.”
Ms. Wills bought many books outright 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 percent, or 60 percent if authors agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing — far more than the typical 25 percent that most authors make for e-books with mainstream publishers. 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 around 30 new releases a month. Ms. Wills had a handful of full-time employees who worked out of her basement. As the volume of books increased, she hired some writers who had published with Blushing to work as editors and cover designers.
Some former employees said that they found her endearingly scatterbrained, and that they tried to create automated systems to keep track of royalties and to try to make sure authors were paid on time. Former employees said that they had asked Ms. Wills to create an escrow account for author earnings to protect them until royalties were paid, but she declined. An informal policy was to make sure the best-selling authors, and the ones who frequently complained — called “the yappers” by employees —- were paid first, while others had to wait, according to former employees.
As an avalanche of self-published erotica arrived after “Fifty Shades of Grey” came out in 2011, the dark, edgy category Blushing once thrived in was flooded. Ms. Wills looked for ways to stay visible in a cutthroat online marketplace.
One of her workarounds was risky. Several former employees said that Ms. Wills had set up multiple Kindle publishing accounts on Amazon, around 10 at one point, a violation of Amazon’s one-account-per-publisher policy. Ms. Wills told employees that books performed better with Amazon’s algorithm when they came from accounts with fewer new releases. She also told them not to talk about the accounts — if Amazon learned of it, Blushing’s account could potentially be shut down, taking authors’ sales and careers with it.
But some former employees grew suspicious when they saw accounts opened in authors’ names, or when Ms. Wills used employee names, addresses and tax IDs to open an account, including Alta Hensley, a former editor in chief who quit after Ms. Wills tried to open an account in Nevada under her tax ID and address without Ms. Hensley’s permission. Ms. Hensley refused to sign the paperwork and later quit. Ms. Wills threatened to sue her if she said anything negative about the company, she said.
‘Oh we forgot to pay you’
At first, Wendy Weston, a clinical social worker who lives in Texas and writes as Alyssa Bailey, was ecstatic to see her books in print. “She published me first and I will always be thankful that she took a chance on me,” she said of Ms. Wills.
But nowshe fears she has signed away rights to her books forever. The company holds permanent and exclusive rights to 22 of her titles, including her historical romance series, “Lords and Little Ladies,” and her contemporary Western spanking romances. In 2019, her royalties fell to half what they once were. Once, when she received no royalties for eight months, she asked Ms. Wills why she hadn’t been paid.
“She said, ‘Oh we forgot to pay you,’” Ms. Weston said.
Some authors signed contracts that gave Blushing permanent rights to their pen names and series names, making it all but impossible for them to leave without sacrificing their careers and audience.
Ms. Wills also added a clause giving the company “permanent and exclusive rights” to titles, often without informing authors of the change, and instructed an employee to revert to the previous term of seven years only if authors noticed and asked for it, emails reviewed by The Times showed. “Based on what I’ve seen, some of these clauses read as predatory and not standard,” said the literary agent Kimberly Brower, who reviewed language in Blushing’s contracts at The Times’s request. “Some of these publishers count on the fact that authors do not have agents or cannot afford a lawyer.”
Maren Wilson, 48, who lives in Utah and often writes under the name Maren Smith, has published around 40 books with Blushing over the last 15 years, and developed a following for her “Masters of the Castle” series about an underground sex club catering to enthusiasts of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism — B.D.S.M. She and Ms. Wills had been friendly, and she never worried about her royalties until a few years ago, when she started studying her payments more closely and saw that some titles were missing, including her book “Meeting Marshall,” for which she said she received no payments for five years.
In 2019, Ms. Wilson learned that Ms. Wills had registered a trademark for “Masters of the Castle” under the company’s name, with no mention of Ms. Wilson as the series creator. When Ms. Wilson confronted Ms. Wills, she said she was planning to transfer it to Ms. Wilson’s name, and later dropped the trademark.
Ms. Wilson is now trying to recover the rights to her remaining books with Blushing.
“I’m not stopping until I get my books back from her,” Ms. Wilson said. “This is my entire life. I support my family off of this.”
Trying to branch out could elicit a threat.
Anya Summers, whose real name is Margaret Huth, is a former music teacher who lives in St. Louis and now writes romance full time. She started publishing her “Dungeon Fantasy Club” series, about a secret B.D.S.M. sex club, with Blushing in 2016. Her relationship with the company soured last year, when she ended her exclusive agreement with it and began self-publishing books on the side. Ms. Huth was alarmed when her royalty payments from Blushing subsequently plummeted, even though many of her latest Blushing books were ranking higher on Amazon than they had in the previous quarter, suggesting sales remained strong. Royalty statements from Blushing said one of her books had not sold a single copy, when Amazon reviews showed verified purchases.
When she emailed Ms. Wills last October to ask why her royalties fell, Ms. Wills replied that her Blushing sales fell because she was self-publishing, and said that unless Ms. Huth agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing, her payments would shrink even more, according to an email reviewed by The Times. Ms. Huth wouldn’t agree to the terms, and subsequently, she said her payments fell by nearly 70 percent, amounting to thousands of dollars a month.
Ms. Huth recently learned that in 2017, the publisher registered a limited liability corporation under her pen name, Anya Summers, and that it also opened a Kindle publishing account in her name without her knowledge or permission.
Ms. Huth stopped writing for Blushing, but the publisher holds rights to 35 of her books, and has the right of first refusal on any new books in two of Ms. Huth’s series, which led her to abandon them.
“It’s like starting over,” she said.
‘I knew these stories seemed familiar’
In a way, Blushing’s vast and growing catalog of erotica was itself something of an illusion, a fantasy in more ways than one. Blushing often treated its writers and their work as interchangeable, another kinky story to feed the bottomless appetite of Amazon’s algorithm.
To keep pumping out new releases, Ms. Wills padded inventory by taking older books and repacking them with new covers, sometimes under a different title and pen name, according to several former employees. One former Blushing author said Ms. Wills often rehashed older books as new titles and asked her to lightly rewrite some. “She had thousands of books by all kinds of authors that she claims she just owns and she can put other people’s names on,” the author, who writes as RJ Gray, said.
While Blushing can legally recycle books it bought as work for hire, the practice can trick readers into buying the same story twice.
That’s what happened to some fans of JoAnn Kinder, who started writing for Ms. Wills in 2001 and published more than 200 books with Blushing. When she died suddenly in June 2018, at age 67, many of her books did not have formal contracts.
She was in the process of finalizing agreements that specified that in the event of her passing, her royalties would go to her surviving family, including her husband, her two children and her grandchildren, according to her daughter, Christina Boes.
Ms. Wills told Ms. Kinder’s family that her books hadn’t been making much money and promised to send them a share of royalties, Ms. Boes said. “To say that she wasn’t making any money on her books is a complete falsehood,” said Ms. Boes, a home health nurse in Colorado, who added that her mother used to make $3,000 to $5,000 in royalties every quarter, though payments often arrived late.
Two former employees confirmed that Ms. Kinder’s books, which were written under 10 pen names, including Joannie Kay, still sold steadily.
Nearly two years after Ms. Kinder’s death, the company sent a contract to her husband, promising the family 10 percent of profits for her titles and claiming the right to revise and republish her work under new titles and pseudonyms. On the advice of a lawyer, Mr. Kinder signed the contract, a decision the family now regrets.
Ms. Boes said the family has not received royalties for her mother’s works, apart from $200 that Blushing sent for a chapter she submitted right before she died. The family and Blushing dispute the status of royalty payments. Beyond that, Ms. Boes is upset that her mother’s work is being revised and released, and that her mother would have been appalled by readers feeling deceived.
“They’re still selling all of these books and rewriting them,” Ms. Boes said.
RJ Gray said that in 2019, after Ms. Kinder’s death, Ms. Wills had asked her to add more explicit scenes to Ms. Kinder’s books, something Ms. Kinder had opposed, according to her family.
“She told me that she had access to Joanie’s material and she wanted me to rewrite it,” Ms. Gray said. “Joanie wrote clean, and she wanted to spice up her work and resell it.”
Ms. Gray said no, but Blushing pressed ahead with plans to keep Ms. Kinder’s books coming out posthumously.
In 2020, Blushing published a collection of her novellas with “2,000 words of new material” and republished older works by Ms. Kinder with new titles, including “Chosen by the Viking,” a historical romance that bills itself as the story of a “brash” Viking and his “feisty” bride.
“I knew these stories seemed familiar — they are republished from about 10 years ago,” one reader wrote in an Amazon review of “Chosen by the Viking.” “Unfortunately, the author doesn’t state that, nor did she revise them.”
‘Out of the Woodshed’
For a while, Ms. Wills was able to keep authors from speaking about the company through nondisclosure agreements in their contracts. But in 2019, a group of writers rebelled. The author organizing the uprising was Addison Cain, one of Blushing’s top sellers. Ms. Cain had gotten into a copyright dispute with another author after Ms. Cain claimed that her books had been plagiarized, and 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. (The accused author filed a lawsuit against Ms. Cain and Blushing, and received a judgment against Blushing, but the suit against Ms. Cain was dismissed after the plaintiff liquidated her company and missed court deadlines.)
Ms. Cain told some other authors, who learned that their books, too, had never been copyrighted. Some found their books on piracy sites but Blushing said it couldn’t do anything and discouraged authors from seeking to have them removed.
“Blushing was risking the livelihood of all of their authors,” Ms. 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 their books down.
The departure of many of Blushing’s best-selling authors was disastrous for Ms. Wills, who faced mounting legal bills and shrinking profits, and had just spent$135,000 on an office building in Farmville, which was later sold at a $20,000 loss. She worried that other authors might defect, and she registered trademarks for successful series that she thought she might lose in her company’s name, not the author’s, according to trademark filings.
The conflict escalated in February 2020, 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 labeled her earnings. In seeking to have it corrected, she was sent email correspondence that Blushing said was from an accountant, explaining no error had occurred. In fact, the email had been altered by Ms. Wills, according to email records and interviews.
Ms. Wills acknowledged in a phone call that she had changed the accountant’s email, but claimed she had only done so to make his meaning more clear, according to Ms. Lamon, who was on the call with two other employees. (In a statement to the Times, Ms. Wills said she had “never been contacted once by the I.R.S. informing us of any issues with tax documents.”)
Blushing’s production manager, accounts manager and editor in chief all promptly resigned. Before they left, the production manager paid herself and other employees their salaries and paid out royalties, including some that had been delayed, and she listed these payments in her resignation letter.
The next day, Ms. 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 in front of her husband, the deputy chief of police, and her children, and taken before the magistrate. A group of Blushing authors raised money for her legal fees, and Ms. Wills’s estranged husband and one of her children also offered to help.
Ms. Wills never provided any forensic accounting evidence of embezzlement, a lawyer representing the former employee said, and the charge, which was filed in the wrong jurisdiction, was later expunged, according to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Ms. Wills filed a new complaint against the former employee, but no charges have been filed. (The woman spoke to The Times about the events that led to her arrest on the condition that her name not be printed.)
As news of her arrest spread, it became a breaking point for some Blushing authors. They had, for the most part, been honoring their contractual agreement not to talk publicly or with each other about their financial arrangements with Blushing.
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 Ms. Wills, getting their start on Bethany’s Woodshed, that early subscription spanking site. But they were ready to move on. They named the group “Out of the Woodshed,” and it now has nearly 70 members.
Kate Andrews contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.