Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Erotica Sustainability

There are plenty of midlist authors out there who have faded into oblivion. Not many authors can look forward to a career life-span of someone like Stephen King or James Patterson, or even Anne Rice. Some say epublishing is going to change all of that. Now books won’t ever go “out of print.” They’re all going to be on the virtual shelves forever, competing for the attention of the reader.

In an epublishing world, this seems to be true. Many midlist authors are finding a new audience for work that was previously out of print, making money off books that were unavailable for years. Most genres, especially those with big reader-return and high book-read counts like romance, mystery/thriller and horror, will sustain this kind of boom.

But what about erotica?

The good news is that erotica readers (and erotic romance readers) are as voracious as the readers in the genres I’ve already mentioned. The bad news is, as any of us who write in the genre can tell you, we are often the subject of round-about corporate censorship, something most other writers don’t usually have to deal with. I’ve been writing in the erotica genre since 2006, and I can tell you that things have changed exponentially since then, and I imagine they are going to continue to change as the ebook market shifts.

When I first started writing erotica, there was a lot of erotic romance in the market—where the story or book followed one relationship to a happy conclusion, with lots of sex sprinkled in along the way. But there wasn’t that much true “erotica,” where the emphasis was on sexual exploration that didn’t necessarily focus on one couple and didn’t always end happily. The largest romance ebook publisher at the time, Ellora’s Cave, had just started their “exotica” line, focused solely on erotica, and they were the first.

Fast forward to 2011 and the Amazon erotica bestseller lists have changed considerably. No longer dominated by the erotic romance market, it now looks like a shelf in the back room of your local video store, with titles like Virgin Cumsluts in Space Suits Get It On With Daddy. What happened? Nothing except the sale of more Kindles. Kindle readers discovered erotica and their demand for more created a huge supply of it from self-published authors. Nothing wrong with a little free-market capitalism!

Readers are buying and consuming these stories like popcorn, faster than writers can keep up, and authors are making a living writing erotica. It’s a win-win situation! There’s just one wrench in the works—Amazon doesn’t like erotica. How do I know this? First of all, they make it very difficult to find. The “erotica” category is hidden within “fiction” and there are absolutely no sub-genres, so readers can’t hone their search. Secondly, Amazon bans certain “taboo topics” it doesn’t like. Things like incest and bestiality. Sometimes topics like rape for titillation. They remove titles at their discretion, without warning or recourse. And lastly, Amazon “filters” adult titles based on their covers. If the cover is too risqué, Amazon will mark it “ADULT” and that title will no longer be searchable in their main store.

So how can an erotica writer make a sustainable career in a world where the subject matter they write about is often the subject of controversy and corporate censorship?

All erotica writers walk a fine line when it comes to this genre. We need to make it sexy and appealing, without stepping over the line into "porn." Unfortunately, too many writers recently have ignored that line altogether, moving into more extreme territory when it comes to titles, covers and blurbs. I understand that it isn’t easy, as a newcomer in the genre, to get yourself noticed when there are so many new voices calling out in the wilderness of erotica. A lot of writers have heard that you can make a ton of money “writing sex.” And many of them think it’s a gravy train and have jumped on board with both feet.

But it seems to me that the more mercenary folks tend to push the boundaries. They want to get noticed as fast as possible, to make as much as possible. They want a shortcut. They want the big bucks, the gold-rush. I think these newcomers truly believe that without the risqué title and description, no one will buy the book. The belief is that titling books with porn-keywords garners more sales. Maybe that's really true, maybe it isn't. But, unfortunately, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they also garner a lot more negative attention.

The kind of attention Amazon and other distributors don’t like.

The question is—is that a risk you’re willing to take? If you’re in it for the short-term, maybe it is. But if you’re looking to build a long-term sustainable career in erotica, I’d advise against it.

We’ve already had one distributor axe Indies altogether after these kinds of extreme titles flooded their bookstore. We’ve had another draw up restrictive guidelines about what they will or will not accept. The larger venues like Amazon and Barnes and Noble haven’t taken these steps. Yet. But how long do you think they’re going to let it go on without doing something about it? Indefinitely? Based on their past behavior of corporate censorship, I just don’t think so.

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s true—titles with porn-keywords do garner more sales. But at what cost? In the short-term, you have money in the bank. In the long-term, what have you gained? A fan base? I’m afraid not. If you are not putting out quality, professional product, you aren't creating a fan base. Your readers are drive-bys. Drive-thru fast-food eaters. They may get addicted to burgers, but if they can't find you easily in the top 100, any old burger will do.

My readers seek me out. My readers are loyal. They don't want just any old meal—they want a Selena Kitt feast. And I sold 500,000 books in 2011 without one porn keyword (that I can think of...) in my titles. If you consider me an "exception," then I can tell you that Excessica made over a million dollars last year, and we have the word "fuck" in just one of our titles. I would argue that you can garner sales without titling with porn-keywords. And you don't have to go all sunsets and vanilla. We've got "excess" in our name, for pete's sake. We're known for pushing the boundaries. But for the sake of all our authors, we walk the line, because all of us want to have a sustainable career in this genre.

So what else does this strategy of putting porn-keywords in your titles and description get an erotica author? Negative attention in the media perhaps? A lambasting on some snarky podcast show or review site? The loss of distributors and vendors? Not such a pretty picture. So a writer makes a few more sales than they would have—all impulse buys. Most of them won’t actively seek that author out again. And what was the risk in the meantime?

And please don’t think I'm talking about censoring content in erotica. What I'm talking about are covers and descriptions and titles. Inside the book, pretty much anything goes (as long as it's—please and thank you—proofread and spellchecked!) in terms of creating a quality and professional product. For me (and I think for most readers) titles run toward the extreme when they start adding porn-keywords like cumslut and cornhole and gangbang. The same rule applies to book descriptions and blurbs. Erotica authors are already self-policing their covers, because we all know Amazon will mark your book “ADULT” if you cross the nudity line.

Of course, there's a fine line there too. "Hotwife" in a title might not catch attention. Or "Cuckold." But they're borderline. And I think we're all adults. We write erotica. We know what might be deemed offensive. The trick is walking the line. Having porn-keywords in their titles and descriptions seems to be what books have in common when they become the target of the kind of corporate censorship we’ve seen at Amazon, Smashwords, ARE and Bookstrand.

The truth is, only you know if what you are selling is a quality, professional product, since self-publishing has no gatekeepers. Except, of course, the market. But that market is tricky. Everyone keeps saying, "People want this, and it sells, and I'm just writing to the market." That may be true, but you have to factor in the distributors. Even if the market will bear the current influx of extreme titles, the vendors aren’t going to let the market be truly “free” in the case of erotica.
If there was a longer, say, five-year stretch of evidence that Cumsluts Doing Daddy in Outer Space With Werewolves Parts I-XII were great long-term investments for you, as a writer, I'd say so. That isn't the case. I’m encouraging erotica authors to look at their current investments and decide whether or not they're going to pay the dividends you want. If not, you might want to consider changing your investment strategy.

The problems at ARE and Bookstrand were directly related to the influx of extreme titles, blurbs and covers that flooded the virtual shelves. Most of them were written by authors thinking with short-term views and goals, many of whom were trying to compete with one another for spots on the Amazon erotica Top 100, so they attempted to one-up each other with more and more ludicrous and extreme titles. It was a gamble, and in the case of two distributors, it didn't pay off. It's still paying off well at Amazon and BN and Smashwords. For how long? Maybe forever. Maybe not. I'm betting on "not."

I could be wrong, but there's no way to tell the future, either way. If you want to think in a mercenary way about your work, then it makes sense to hedge your bets.. If you're going to post extreme titles or covers or blurbs, I suggest making sure you've got a backup in case that content gets slammed. And having been around for six years, I've been through enough censoring cycles to know it's going to happen, it's just a matter of who and when. And the main identifying factor will be your titles, covers, and descriptions, because no one has time to read that much erotica!

So it stands to reason that the more extreme your titles, blurbs and covers, the bigger target you paint on your forehead. Is that really part of your long-term business plan? Unfortunately, the “free-market” doesn’t necessarily apply in this genre. The distributors will only allow things to go so far before yanking the chain. They’ve proven this over and over. So even if the readers want it, a long-term career in erotica doesn’t involve writing short stories with porn-keywords in the title and description. Only you, as a self-published erotica writer, can decide if the long-term risk is worth it for short-term gain.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Writing twelve 3,000-word short stories a week about vampire werewolf daddy cumslut gangbangs and charging $2.99 for them isn't going to make you rich, or famous, or give you any sustainability in this genre.

Even if you have 100+ stories in your catalog, as the market becomes more saturated with writers who want to jump on the bandwagon and as ebooks tip the scale toward a majority of readers, even the drive-by readers are going to disappear. The glow of the “new Kindle” will fade, and the idea that you can read “naughty fiction” on it and no one will know will become passé.

Eventually practically everyone will have an ereader and the people who always read erotica will still be reading it—and those readers will turn their tastes toward known quantities. The erotica writers who delivered quality, professional product, again and again, will be the ones still standing.

Ultimately, it's up to you. You decide, you make the choice. Are your goals short-term or long-term?

What kind of erotica writer are you?

And what kind of erotica writer do you want to be?

Selena Kitt  
Erotic Fiction You Won't Forget


  1. Wow Selena.. I have to agree with you here 100%. If anything the titles I'm seeing make it to the top are not the "extreme" ones. If anything it seems like the more forward thinking erotica and e-rom writers are going for tamer covers. Stuff with cross appeal. I think the one thing that FSOG has done for all of us, is make erotica palatable to the mainstream. Great article