Porn superstar Tera Patrick stands tall and poised behind the rear counter of Book Soup, signing copies of her new autobiography, Sinner Takes All: A Memoir of Love and Porn, in pink Sharpie and making charming, occasionally giddy small talk with her book-buying fans.

She is businesslike and well-spoken, with the demeanor of, say, a software company executive, and the ability to forge a genuine connection in conversation. But she seems nearly devoid of sensuality. Strong women can be feminine, indeed, but behind Patrick’s sharp features and exotic face was a woman who appeared numbed by her years in the sex industry.

To be triumphant in Patrick’s line of work today requires more than being born with the elusive “X-factor.” It requires considerable creativity and stamina, for she and her entire industry face what is perhaps a more immediate threat than social conservatives, Andrea Dworkin–style feminists and venereal disease combined: free online porn.

It’s no secret that for years now, free content on the Internet has been steadily decimating the print-journalism and music industries. But in a related development as ironic as it is dire, the same World Wide Web that once opened up a financial gold mine for porn players is now allowing for the cannibalization of said industry by none other than itself. Whereas just several years ago almost all X-rated online video content was confined to sites that charged considerable fees, a growing list of adult superportals now just give it away. How do some online stars — like Patrick — remain above the increasingly saturated and competitive fray?

A porn star today has to be “more in personal contact in order to stimulate me to pay for the site,” says hairstylist Richard Vasquez, a middle-aged gent with a bit of a Sedona, Arizona, hippie look (and the only Patrick fan to give his full name). “Generally speaking, I would [follow] just about anybody, probably, that I came into contact with and got to know a little bit, versus randomly just picking a site, which doesn’t interest me.”

Vasquez says he signed up for porn personality Sophie Dee’s $30-a-month site after meeting her through his work.

Patrtick has a unique look, explains Eric, a diminutive, enthusiastically talkative man in his 30s. “I’ve even had people like my mom see her on TV and go, ‘Who is that gorgeous model?’ ”

“She seems a little more realistic,” says Jennifer, in her late 30s and deeply tanned with long, black hair. “It’s a business. In interviews I’ve seen, she’s like, ‘Yeah, I love it, it’s what I do.’ But she seems just a little more realistic than some of these other girls. I’m not a huge porn person but I do like her.”

“You have people who are just specifically into up-and-comers,” says John — nicknamed Chief — one of a trio of affable, gregarious middle-aged friends happy to discuss the sociopsychology of porn while waiting in line for an autograph. “They go on a free site, they aren’t into any brand like Tera Patrick or Jenna Jameson.”

By that he means having the porn equivalent of a “matinee idol,” a strong, charismatic personality appreciated during a fan’s formative viewing years. .

“Videos nowadays are just so gonzo,” says John’s buddy Dave. “And I like a little bit more story.”

Michael, the third of the trio, describes meeting another porn star at an adult convention in Vegas a few years back. “She was just horrible … horrible. I would never, ever buy a video or a book of hers, or support her. Even if she was giving it away, I wouldn’t get it. She didn’t care about anybody.”

“I’d see Christy Canyon back in the day,” says John. “She was so personable, I’d drop everything to go see her. She was very communicative and affectionate.”

So is the key to success having a unique look? Or good business sense? Or personal contact with fans? Or the luck to have been a star in many well-produced feature-length films?

“I say I’m lucky,” says Ms. Patrick, whose voice and demeanor more resemble those of a software-industry executive than a porn star. “I have a very big fan base, so it hasn’t hurt me that much, but I think [online porn] is cannibalizing the industry, absolutely, because DVD sales are down. A lot of companies are going out of business, absolutely.”

She points out her complete control and ownership of her content, with Teravision, and although clips of her pre-2003 — when she still worked for other companies — are available on the free sites, the Tera brand is still, well, kicking ass.

“Fans who love you and who like you and who clamor for more all the time, they fall in love with you, who you are,” Patrick says. “A lot of companies that went out of business don’t have a star, it’s kind of faceless.”

What about the relatively recent development in porn of using an endless cavalcade of “real” performers, doing shorter, homemade-style clips with almost no narrative story line?

Patrick adopts a sultry, breathy tone that’s both dramatic and funny. “I tell the amateurs … to leave it to the professionals.”

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