Last week, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) announced that the $341,000 Roberts owes the state makes her Maryland’s top individual “tax cheat.” The state, which has been trying to collect back taxes from Roberts since 2003, outed her along with 24 other individuals and 25 businesses in an effort to shame them into paying.
“Publishing her name on the Web is one of the last steps we take in a very long process,” said Christine Feldmann, a spokeswoman for the state comptroller’s office. Her agency cannot file criminal charges to collect the debt, Feldmann said, but can work with the attorney general’s office to investigate.
Zane, the author of more than 30 books whose titles include “Zane’s: The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth,”
“Zane’s Addicted,” and “Zane’s Succulent Chocolate Flava II,” did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails for comment. Her attorneys and publicist at Simon & Schuster also did not respond to calls and e-mails.
On her Facebook page, where she and more than 685,000 fans dissect everything from child abuse and police brutality to women who date younger men and couples who sleep in separate bedrooms, Zane ignored the news of her financial difficulties.
“Whew! Finished my novel,” she posted on Jan. 27, the day of Franchot’s news conference. “Now I get to take the rest of the day off but I have to go right back to editing another book coming out this year tomorrow. It never ends but I love it. LOL.”
The real-life twist on Zane’s success has left some of her readers wondering how Roberts — a well-known businesswoman who is publisher of Strebor Books, an imprint of Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, and creator and producer of two Cinemax television series, “Zane’s Sex Chronicles” and “Zane’s The Jump Off” — could end up in a financial mess worthy of a character in one of her novels.
Roberts didn’t set out to become an erotica novelist. She was born in the District, the daughter of a retired teacher and a well-known theologian. From 1984 to 1986, she attended Howard University, where she majored in chemical engineering.
On her Facebook page, Roberts describes 1997, three years after the birth of her third child, as the year she “became Zane.”
She began writing out of boredom. She was living in North Carolina and working as a research assistant for her father, who was teaching at Duke Divinity School, when she wrote a short story titled “First Night.” She sent it to a few people she had met in an AOL chat room, she said in a 2012 interview with Time magazine, and received a huge response.
“‘I started getting e-mails from all these people, like, ‘That’s the hottest thing I’ve ever read. Have you written anything else?’ ” she told Time. Publishers began offering her deals, which she initially refused because she didn’t want to “tame” her content.
In 1999, she decided to create her own publishing company, calling it Strebor Books Int., which is based in Upper Marlboro (Strebor is Roberts spelled backward). She self-published “The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth,” a collection of 40 stories, which became a huge success. The next year, she self-published “Addicted,” and in 2001, “Shame on It All.” In 2005, Simon & Schuster acquired Strebor.
In an author’s note in “The Sex Chronicles,” Zane makes no apologies for writing raw, juicy stories that grab readers from the first page. “I will be the first to admit that none of my novels are what one would consider mainstream,” Roberts wrote. “They are controversial. I intentionally made them that way. I want people to finish one of my novels, put it down and say, ‘Dammmmmmn!’ ”
“For those of you that tried to stop this and yet are sitting here reading every word I write as usual,” she added, “please don’t step to me with your judgments.”
Her own life in the Washington suburbs sounds tamer than the X-rated fantasies in her books.
“I get up in the morning, take the kids to school and go to the office,” she said in a 2006 interview with The Washington Post’s Express newspaper. “But when I go home, I’m a mom. Cooking and cleaning for me is a stress reliever. I have 10 bathrooms and no maid. No one can believe it because I could easily get somebody else to do it. But to me, I’m supposed to do it.”
She explained to Express: “I also set aside certain times of the day when I am pure Mommy. . . . I do most of my writing at night, or I have to isolate myself in order to complete my work.”
She dedicated “The Heat Seekers” to her then-husband Wayne T. Stewart, calling him her “boo” and soul mate.
“While I realize that it is not easy dealing with an ambitious workaholic sister like myself — on business calls after midnight, writing at three in the morning — you do it with ease.”
They were divorced in 2006, according to court records, which forbids them from discussing personal information about each other. The decree awarded Roberts two houses (one in Bowie, the other in Upper Marlboro), a 2006 Hummer, and sole ownership of any contracts with Simon & Schuster and Lionsgate, which acquired the rights to Zane’s novel “Addicted” in 2006. The movie, which stars Sharon Leal, Kat Graham and Boris Kodjoe, tells the story of a character whose addiction to sex ruins her life and is set to be released in March.
Roberts has been adamant about maintaining her privacy and sometimes refuses to give interviews using her real name. “She hates it when her real name is published,” said an author who has been published by Zane.
She moved to a new house after people began showing up at night for autographs. “I’m careful about that now,” she told Express. “My current neighbors don’t know who I am.” The house sits behind a grand black fence and up a hill and is partially obscured by trees.
Although she tried to guard her identity, Zane began making more public appearances as publisher of Strebor Books, which has published more than 30 authors across genres.
“Zane is a tremendous businesswoman. She found a loophole in what women wanted to read about, and she ran with it, and she has not relinquished that position,” said Omar Tyree, author of the coming book “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.” and a friend of Roberts’s. “Zane is the queen of African American publishing.”
Linda Johnson, co-founder of the Go On Girl! Book Club, which has hundreds of members in chapters throughout the country, said that although her club has not included Zane’s books on its list of titles to read, Zane is popular with many book clubs.
“For most people, it’s like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ” E.L. James’s huge bestseller, Johnson said. “This is the black version of it.”
Sharon Lucas, founder and president of the Reading Divas, a Maryland-based book club, said she has seen Zane at a number of book readings at local libraries and at a New York book expo.
“She is giving a lot to emerging writers who might not otherwise be published,” Lucas said. “She appears to take care of the authors who write for her. They certainly speak highly of her.”
In a 2010 interview with Express, Zane said that her books often portray flawed characters dealing with real-world issues, including homelessness, unplanned pregnancy and domestic violence.
“All of my characters have a part of my personality in them,” she said, “some to a greater degree than the others.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.