Having interviewed just over 130 authors of erotic fiction, this article tackles their experience of working with publishers, and of self-publishing, of the role of marketing, and the importance of releasing well-crafted work. Does erotic fiction remain publishing’s ‘dirty secret’: a genre without due recognition or respect for authors?
As ever, this article is intended as a starting point for discussion. All comments are welcome.
Around 20% of respondents to this survey have worked with larger houses, such as Penguin, Harlequin, Orion, Random House, Harper Collins, Hachette, Simon & Shuster, Little Brown, Pan McMillan, and Nexus.
Some have published with mid-sized houses, such as Cleis, Myriad and Serpent’s Tail, while the overwhelming majority have worked with smaller presses, such as Go Deeper Press, Stupid Fish Productions, Circlet, Little Raven, Stormy Night Publications, Totally Bound, House of Erotica, Accent, Riverdale, Two Dame Productions, Sweetmeats Press, Xcite, Baronet Press, and Blushing Books.
Around half have explored self-publishing with some of their titles, often in addition to having worked with a small press.
A handful have received readership only via their own website or other online platform.
Authors report most of their sales taking place in e-book format, regardless of short story/novella/novel form, while several note that audiobook sales appear to be taking off. Rose Caraway advises, “Make sure that you story works equally well in audio as in print.” She notes that most of her audience (for the KMQ Podcast) listen at work, or at home while doing chores and ‘prefer the privacy and intimacy of audio’.
While it’s well-known that some writers enter the erotic fiction market hoping to earn ‘easy money’, the majority within this survey write, primarily, from creative impulse, with financial reward as a secondary consideration. However, a small number do rely on their writing as their main source of income.
As Wade Esley admits, “Initially, I chose to write erotica for a terrible reason. I thought it would be an easy genre to break into, because, in my mind, there was so much poorly written erotica. How hard could it be to climb to the top of that dung heap? However, the more I read, the more I discovered truly talented writers, and became determined to write quality stories myself.”
Vanessa Wu warns against tailoring your craft purely with sales in mind. She asserts, “If you want to be mediocre and feel luke-warm about yourself and what you do, write for a market. If you want to free your subconscious, touch people and be radiant with pleasure, write for yourself. All the works I like have one thing in common. They capture moments of intensity with clarity and focus. You feel something when you experience them.”
Naturally, where the creative impulse is strong, we write for reasons other than significant financial gain. We write because the impulse cannot be ignored, or because we seek to share our voice.
Kay Jaybee stresses, “Don’t expect significant financial return. I’ve been blessed with many private messages, via FB and my webpage. Readers have thanked me, saying that I’ve saved marriages, stopped them feeling lonely and generally improved their personal life. That sort of thing is priceless. Write because you burn to do it. If you are in it for money or prestige then you’ll be disappointed, whoever you publish with.”
Rose and Dayv Caraway note similar satisfaction from receiving listeners’ feedback on their erotic fiction online podcast (more from them here).
Sessha Batto comments, “My expectations were high, as most people’s are when they start publishing. It is no surprise that they were dashed almost immediately. Without a following or much targeted promotion it is unrealistic to think sales will be high. As my work is niche at best, those odds are even higher. My best advice is to take a long-term view, grow your audience one reader at a time, and view the work, not the sales figures, as the reward. If you get bogged down in numbers you will always be dissatisfied.”
Brantwijn Serrah tells us, “I’ve put out stories I love and have received feedback from people who’ve loved them too; being a ‘storyteller’ has made me incredibly happy. Financial reward is icing on the cake.”
Speaking of her blog, Molly Moore states that her focus is upon ‘pushing boundaries’. She asserts, “If I never made a penny I would still do it.” She notes that having her own online platform enables her to share work without concern for publishing restrictions.
Rose Caraway tells us, “It’s good to look at your intent. Whatever that is, give it your undivided attention. Remember that it’s ridiculous to imagine that you’ll become a millionaire.”
A Living Wage?
While recognizing the pleasure that writing brings of itself, more than half of the survey respondents also mention their desire to earn some form of income from their efforts (modest though that may be). Accordingly, they lament online publishing platforms’ expectation of authors contributing content in return for ‘exposure’ and the low rates offered by some publishers: a position that writers perceive, reasonably, as devaluing their craft.
As Tobsha Learner notes, the Internet has been ‘a mixed blessing’. She says, “On one hand it provides (theoretically) a much larger readership, on the other hand the notion of not having to pay for intellectual property is virtually pandemic in anyone under the age of 35. This basically is suggesting that professional writers do not merit a living wage.”
Laura Antoniou notes that, being commissioned to write short story erotica for men’s magazines in the late 1980s-early 1990s, she received $50 per story. She notes wryly that ‘three decades later, the rate remains the same’.
The reality is that few authors can rely solely on their writing income to maintain a roof over their head; the majority have other employment (or are of retirement age).
Following on from this, Tobsha Learner notes the creative compromises authors are often obliged to make, saying, “’Commerce versus the artistic soul’ is the dilemma all working creatives have to face. In the last ten years, the publishing industry has changed remarkably. Most mid-listers have been wiped out to the point where the advances do not allow enough income to live, so established and highly skilled writers are forced to compromise their work (writing part-time or churning out a book a year to maintain readership and publishers’ expectations).”
One of the most prominent comments by authors within this survey was the expression of disappointment at traditional publishers’ lack of risk-taking. Jonathan Kemp notes experiencing censorship in 1999, having written an academic article about John Addington Symonds’ homosexuality. He tells us, “My article quoted some graffiti that Symonds writes about in his memoir: ‘Prick to prick, so sweet’, written next to a crude drawing of two pricks. The editor of the volume asked me to remove the phrase.” He felt obliged to concede, being a young academic and this being his first publication. He asserts that he would not do so today.
We might imagine that, of all publishers, those specialising in erotic fiction would be most open minded, and most willing to ‘push limits’ in offering readers diversity. However, being primarily in the business to make money, few wish to take commercial risks. They tend to play safe, either within the realm of romance, or on well-worn ‘trope’ paths. Where does this leave us as authors? Writing repeatedly down the same avenues? (more on this here).
Siri Ousdahl comments, “The erotic books they’ve embraced in recent years had proven track records… so the risk hasn’t been significant. When Random House or Penguin ‘take a chance’ on erotica, the works are far from transgressive.”
Even independent erotica publishers are prone to request ‘light and fun’ stories, with the accent on ‘happy endings’, which are thought to have more commercial appeal, ignoring the huge potential of the genre to take us into the deeper, darker (arguably far more compelling and fulfilling) spaces within the human psyche.
Patrick Califia tells us, “I’ve had publishers tell me they would take my books if only I would not be explicit about sexuality, or stop writing about gay sex, or stop describing kinky acts.” Kristina Lloyd notes, “I wish more publishers would take risks instead of chasing the latest bandwagon.”
Maxim Jakubowski (known for writing crime and science fiction under his own name) makes note that his publisher advanced the use of a female penname for his co-written erotic-romance series, citing this as a sensible commercial move in the wake of the ’50 Shades’ phenomenon. As his female alter-ego ‘earns five times the level of advances’ he cannot afford to jettison her.
Donna George Storey muses, “I’ve published in over 80 print anthologies and, over the past twenty years, I’ve seen several market cycles. Mainstream publishers solicit erotica in the hope of making money (because that’s what they are about) and when they don’t make as much as they’d like, they blame erotica rather than themselves. But there is always an interest in intelligent, sexually explicit writing among human beings, if not business folk, so the wheel turns again and new editors seek out projects.”
Jonathan Kemp notes, “Getting ‘London Triptych’ published was quite difficult because of the sexual content. Rejection after rejection from mainstream publishers praising the writing but admitting it was just too risqué for them. A small, Brighton-based independent publisher, Myriad Editions, finally took it on, courageously, some might say. He recalls the surprise of a friend’s younger brother, upon hearing that ‘London Triptych’ was available to buy from bookshops, ‘positioned there on the shelf without any warning of its scandalous contents!’ Kemp notes, “That both amused me and made me feel a little bit proud.” He adds that Myriad ‘also brought out ‘Twentysix’, knowing it would be harder to sell than ‘London Triptych’, which was definite bravery’.
Speaking of risk-aversion, Will Crimson emphasizes that, if an author expects a third party to disseminate their work, then ‘their skills as a writer had better be commensurate with their subject matter’. He believes, “The responsibility of the writer isn’t to avoid censorship but to survive it by writing persuasively and beautifully.”
The majority of authors believe that publishing houses should invest more effort in effective marketing. Lizzie Ashworth comments, “Publishers want a big chunk of the profit while expecting the author to market the work. To me, the only benefit of a publisher is the promise of reviews, which many small presses don’t bother to solicit.”
Tobsha Learner emphasizes that publishers expect authors to take on much of the responsibility of marketing, despite authors often lacking the skills of ‘natural performers’, so that they ‘struggle to brand their personalities’. She notes, “One of the first things a publisher will now ask a wannabe novelist is how big their ‘platform’ is – this is of far more importance than the actual manuscript.” Tobsha warns, “Do NOT expect ANY publisher (large or small) to market you aggressively – unless you’re already branded. This is an irony and a vicious loop; they will only market you if you are already branded.”
Janine Ashbless finds, with exceptions (naming Sweetmeats and her work with Cleis some years ago), that larger publishers ‘just churn out books as a production line and you can get lost in the noise’.
Meanwhile, KD Grace comments, “I suppose the thing that has shocked me most about the publishing industry is just how abysmal communication is between publishers and authors. There’s a huge disconnect, bringing misunderstanding and lost opportunities. The right hand often doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Ashe Barker tells us, “Not all publishers are as collaborative as I’d like, i.e. not consulting me when deciding to covert all my books to US English, or being rigid on pricing policy to the extent that books are not competitively priced and are difficult to sell. Overall, I’d suggest working with more than one publisher even if you do have a favourite. All eggs in one basket is never a good strategy.”
Asserting his ‘extremely positive experience’ with his publisher, Myriad, Jonathan Kemp comments, “I’m consulted on cover images and they push their books and authors out into the world effectively, as well as organising great events.” Other praise was notably directed at Go Deeper Press (run by Lana Fox and Jacob Louder), and at Stupid Fish Productions (run by Dayv and Rose Caraway), particularly for work in promoting anthology contributors. Several writers working with Blushing Books and Stormy Night Publications also emphasized effective marketing and professional conduct.
Alexis Alvarez shares, “I started out self-publishing, and then published one with Stormy Night. Despite being of similar quality and content, the edition with Stormy Night sold far better, I assume because of their marketing machine and client base.”
Jay Willowbay warns of investigating a publishing house carefully before signing your contract. He relates, “My only full-length publication to date was a horror novel through a small press. It was a disaster. There was so little editorial work done that it went on sale within a week of me submitting it. I should have smelled a rat. They did no promo and the company quickly went bust.”
Sue Lyndon echoes this, underlining, “I highly recommend that writers do their research…. Look on Absolute Write to see what other writers are saying. Email a few of their authors, and look at the sales rankings for their recent releases on Amazon. If a publisher doesn’t have a good readership, happy authors, eye-catching covers and catchy blurbs, reasonable contract terms, and a reputation for paying royalties on time, you’ll want to move along and look elsewhere.”
In offering advice, a great many authors warn against giving away rights arbitrarily. However flattered we are by the attention of a publisher, remain level headed, and read contracts carefully. Be wary of signing off on all your rights in one fell swoop. Separate payments can be negotiated for print, e-book and audio rights (and for print rights across various global regions).
It’s also wise to have a clause in the contract limiting the duration of exclusivity (anything from 3 to 12 months is typical) so that you retain the right to resell your work, or compile within your own anthology.
Moreover, ensure there’s a clause stating that, if a publisher fails to use your work within a specific time period, or ceases operation, that all rights revert to you, as author. Molly Moore warns that, due to her contract terms within anthologies, a number of stories ‘remain unpublished and therefore have not earned any money or gained readership’.
Contracts do vary, and sums offered for short story submissions are often negligible, while royalty payments (where given) may have relatively high thresholds, and only become payable once editors have received their payment share. Sign with your eyes open.
Adrea Kore urges, “Read your contracts thoroughly – don’t be afraid to ask questions, seek legal advice and re-negotiate clauses if you feel something really doesn’t suit you or impedes your own vision of your work. Respect your own intellectual work and rights as a content creator and, as much as possible, only sign your work with publishers that appear fair, professional and respectful.”
Decide what’s important to you in handing over your work. Do you simply wish your voice to be heard? Is financial recompense a guiding factor? Or are you content with the commercial exposure you believe a publisher can offer you?
IG Frederick feels strongly that authors should ‘walk away from low paying offers’. At US$25 for 3,000 words, she points out that the author is receiving barely 1/10 of a cent per word, ‘while 6 cents per word is considered a professional rate’. She adds, “If you have a royalty share arrangement, be wary of how the prorating is distributed and when payment is triggered. Restricting the rights you sell (particularly the term) allows you to make money on reissue of your work in the future.” IG is desirous of more authors refusing to write for a ‘pittance’ or for exposure, or to sign ‘restrictive contracts’, noting that ‘it would be easier for all of us to make a living’.
Around half of the writers taking part in this survey have experience of self-publishing, with most voicing satisfaction at the level of control, being able to choose their own cover, make decisions on final edits, steer their marketing strategy and set prices. Moreover, in undertaking this work themselves, they maximize royalty payments.
Jaye Peaches stresses, “The big advantage of self-publishing is total control over the creative process. I’ve been able to publish books quickly and build my audience in the space of two years. Whereas big publishers move like snails and the lack of momentum is frustrating.”
Self-publishing offers writers the opportunity to make their voice heard, regardless of being viewed as too ‘edgy’ or ‘niche’ by traditional publishers. It invites liberation from compliance with a ‘commercially successful’ formula. In this way, authors are creating their own flavour, outside of genre stereotypes, accessing niche readerships otherwise ignored.
Siri Ousdahl tells us, “I have an extensive career under another name as a traditionally published writer of genre fiction. I was much happier with the indy press that put out one of my recent books than the big NY publishers I had worked with previously. This got me thinking about self-publishing as a legitimate venue for experimental and transgressive works. So far I have loved it. I have total control and have published a book I could not have done through conventional avenues.”
Cecilia Tan suggests using traditional publishing to access readers and marketplaces otherwise inaccessible, while using self-publishing ‘to build access to an audience that you’d be disconnected from if you relied on publishers alone’.
In most cases, authors note the ease with which self-publishing is possible.
Will Crimson states, “If the author’s only goal is to be disseminated and read, and if the author is protected by anything like the First Amendment (US Constitution), then times have never been better. He or she need only start a blog. Publishing (or self-publishing) is as simple as writing a post─-instantly and easily available to hundreds of millions of readers. In that respect, the dissemination of erotica has never been easier.”
Cara Bristol echoes this, saying, “This is one of the best times to be an author because there are so many opportunities to be published and to market one’s books (although there are still no guarantees). For the first time in the history of publishing, self-publishing is a financially viable, socially-accepted option.”
A common frustration voiced by authors is that the ease of self-publishing has encouraged some to believe that there is little more to launching a book than replicating another writer’s commercially successful idea, creating a first draft, giving this a cursory read through to check for errors, and choosing a stock-photo cover. The resulting glut of low quality editions has, in the eyes of most, devalued authorial craftsmanship and given self-published works a poor reputation.
Unsurprisingly, creating a polished work and engaging a significant readership involves discernment and persistence. It takes time, focus and certain talent (whether inherent or learnt). As Cecilia Tan notes wryly, “If you’re a terrible cook because you don’t have the skills, you either need to develop the skills or rely on someone else to do the cooking for you. Now replace the word ‘cooking’ with ‘publishing’ in that sentence.”
The foremost advice offered by authors is to invest in the services of a good editor: not only a copy-editor (to correct such issues as grammar and repetition), but a developmental editor, to help the author explore deeper aspects of their work: characterisation, and a compelling story arc, as well as building tension and creating layers of meaning, to fully engage the reader.
Finn Marlowe underlines, “Self-publishers need editors, end of story. Every writer needs another set of eyes, and not just beta readers [early readers of a story, who offer informal feedback to the writer]. If you’re going to publish unedited crap, you might as well not bother, as you will ruin your reputation and your brand before you even get started.”
Writers repeat time and again the necessity of ruthless editing, cutting away the dead wood of redundant detail.
Adrea Kore, emphasizing that every word chosen by the author should serve a definite purpose, underlines that words are like ‘breaths that keep the blood of the story pumping‘ and that ‘no word should be wasted’. Additionally, that the skilled writer ‘knows what to conceal, what to reveal, and the vital relationship between absence and presence on the page’. (more from Adrea on editing here)
Jaye Peaches admits, “I struggled to recover the start-up costs of editing etc. However, I learnt a lot from the editing process.”
Rose Caraway adds, “Spend time on your skills and, when you believe you’re ready for someone to offer feedback, pass it to them to read and critique. Choose someone you trust, with a good eye for detail. It’s impossible for you to see everything in your own work. Do read aloud to yourself too, as part of the editing process (or have a friend read to you).”
The aspect of self-publishing most commented upon with dislike is the necessity of marketing: an activity essential to the visibility of books. Writers are, often, not natural extroverts, and find the immodesty of ‘blowing their own horn’ excruciating.
Tamsin Flowers comments, “I wouldn’t recommend self-publishing unless a writer is already established in the market and is willing and able to put in a huge amount of time and effort on marketing. It’s really hard to build visibility as a new writer, particularly in erotica.”
Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to the traditional and independent routes of publishing, with each offering its own allure.
K L Shandwick states that being self-published allows her to avoid constraints, while ‘the down side is the amount of work that goes into trying to make the books visible’. She asserts, “My advice to new authors would be to ensure you have built a brand before you set out. Know the image you’d like to portray to your followers and work hard to build on what you’ve achieved.” She also warns against expecting ‘instant success’.
Speaking of ‘brand’, Tobsha Learner expresses regret in her chosen path of marketing herself as an author, telling us, “I have made the mistake of writing in several genres and not settling in one and exploiting that genre as a franchise. The concept of genre and placing authors into rigid boxes differs greatly from territory to territory. However, particularly in the UK, once you’re in that box, it is extremely difficult to break out of the way you are perceived. First-timers should not be naïve on this front. Be clear as to what you want to write, how you wish to be seen (not just by the reading public but also by the publishers).”
Finding Your Voice and Your Readership
The creative impulse is not borne of desire for financial gain. Any writer will tell you that there are easier (and more lucrative) ways to earn a living. For many, the art of writing and that of generating income make uncomfortable bed-mates; they compromise one another; they compete for attention; they thwart each others’ success. And yet, there is an argument for an author’s work receiving recognition not simply through praise, but through financial reward. Meanwhile, for those dedicating their days to writing full-time, monetary recompense is often essential.
Speaking of her desire to write with readers (and sales) in mind, Cari Silverwood comments, “Some people love to read about the bizarre, wanting to be taken to new places. However, the vast majority of readers want entertainment and they want a happy ending. You can choose to forge a trail that veers off the beaten path a little, and your readership may be willing to accompany you. Veer too far, and you lose readers. Veer a long way, and…crickets.”
Meanwhile, Sessha Batto is an advocate for placing writing craft above the pursuit of meeting reader expectations. She would rather remain true to her vision, and write for her niche. She reminds us, “There are thousands of formulaic books in every conceivable genre, but the ones you remember are the ones that are more, that push boundaries, that sing their own song.”
I believe in the value of our genre, and am keen to see its profile raised, bringing with it greater recognition of authors’ talent.
Write boldly, write proudly, write with passion.
Editing services tailored to erotic fiction
Adrea Kore: creative consultancy, developmental editing, writing workshops, and copy-editing services
IG Frederick’s Pussy Cat Press: editing service
Articles on effective editing:
Workshops to develop writing craft:
LitReactor (Rachel Kramer Bussel)
Coming in 2017
- Author Influences
- Writing Craft
- You may like to view this post, on the ‘Male/Female Hand’, in which readers are challenged to identify writers’ gender.
- ‘Men Reading Erotic Fiction‘ – looking at why men seek out fiction in this genre, and their preferences for style and content.
- The Erotic Vein: the male pen – on trends in men’s authorship of erotic fiction.
My thanks go to the following authors for giving their time and for their candid answers; my thanks also to authors who contributed their views anonymously.
Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou, Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea Kore, Kristina Lloyd, Jonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George Storey, Kathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Raziel Moore, Will Crimson, Sorcha Black, Cari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. Bey, Zander Vane, Tamsin Flowers, Krissy Kneen, Zak Jane Kier, Jade A Waters, Ashley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya Rawlyns, Terrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose Caraway, Allen Dusk, Tabitha Rayne, Marc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi Ansevi, Nicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina Morata, Finn Marlowe, Elsa Holland, Elizabeth Schechter, Aleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis Alvarez, R.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily Harlem, Thomas Roche, Madeline Moore, Ria Restrepo, Scarlet Darkwood, Wade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane Gilbert, Jim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee Savino, C.P. McClennan, Elizabeth Black, C.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette Hugo, Frank Noir, Amelia Smarts, Nobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra Shaw, Ardent Rose, Sylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Charlie Bee, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen Bradean, Jay Willowbay, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Vinnie Tesla, Emma Jaye, Dennis Cardiff, Dee Maselle, Frank Lee, Christina Mandara, Big Ed Magussun, Sue Lyndon, T.J. Vermillion, David Flint, Delores Swallows, Vanessa Wu, Ian Smith, Rebecca Branch, Jaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.