This article was written in 2004, when e-publishing was just getting going and so was a new publishing venture called Ellora’s Cave. I was one of their earlier writers and I have spent the fifteen years since trying to shake off the “erotica author” tag, primarily by trying to teach the difference between erotica and romance with steamy content. Even Amazon gets it wrong.
I’m reproducing the article here to demonstrate how subtle some of the sub-genre differentiations can be in concept–and how getting it wrong can make a huge difference to your success as a writer (for example, writing a book full of sex and trying to market it as romance will get you black-balled in the romance world. Spy Thrillers and Cozy Mysteries, both subsets of the mystery & suspense genre, have nothing in common). If you aren’t 100% certain about the expectations of your chosen genre, make learning them your very first priority. –t.
I’m sure you’ve heard of erotica, “romantica” and of erotica authors making fabulous amounts of money. If you haven’t, you must be so new to popular fiction you don’t know dick about it.
Did “don’t know dick about it” make you blink a little?
Erotica is shocking, if you’re new to it. But if you think it’s just pornography with a pretty tag, think again. The quote I just used and others like it are found in erotica, but that’s a tiny glimpse of the big picture. Read on and discover the rest of it, for erotica is different.
A clear definition is difficult. Erotica has tentacles in a dozen genres. It’s also a genre of its own. It’s not sufficient to say erotica is a story with explicit sex. Nor is erotica only about sex, unlike its gutter-cousin, pornography. At its purest, the new erotic novel is a brilliantly-written story with super-nova sex that compliments the caliber of the writing, and is fundamental to the plot and characters. In other words, if you remove the sex, the story can’t be told.
“Romantica” is used for romance + erotica, a huge category. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find traditional romance there. Erotica authors inherently don’t like boundaries — they’ll throw suspense, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, or paranormal into the mix. Some of the most popular romantica out there feature vampires, shape-shifters and elves.
You can head to the other end of the spectrum and find “big-scale novels in which the women and men are larger-than-life, the stakes are high, the stories are layered, and the sexual heat is a few degrees less than the surface of the sun.” (Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writers Digest Books.)
Unlike pure romances, erotica doesn’t use poetic euphemisms. The story is laced with sexual imagery and language. Sex acts considered taboo in romance can be a feature. The novel is charged with sexual tension.
However, even erotica has a vast range of explicitness, types of sex, and even quantity of sex. Erotica publishers such as Ellora’s Cave (www.ellorascave.com), who offer primarily romantica, rank their books according to the amount and type of sex, and the language used.
Similarly, print books (e.g.: the Brava imprint by Kensington Books) offer degrees of sexuality, but not all rank their books. As these lines are new and still experimenting, you may be surprised by what you find …er… between the covers.
How successful is the erotica genre? Enough so that Ellora’s Cave, an e?publisher of romantica, has gained recognition by the Romance Writers of America as a legitimate publisher (which makes them one of the first e?publishers to meet RWA’s stringent requirements). Dozens of Ellora’s Cave regular writers have moved to full time fiction writing. A Brava author netted the first one-million dollar advance in romance writing. Many erotica authors are achieving break-out status with their novels—they’re reaching very large general audiences who read the book for story and for whom the sensuality enhances the reading.
Erotica, to further differentiate it from pornography, is primarily a woman’s market, and unlike romance, there’s a bigger percentage of men writing and reading erotica, and male writers can write under their own names.
Ready to dive into your first erotic novel? Wait, there’s a downside you should be aware of.
Drawbacks to writing erotica
1. You may not want to show your mother.
Pseudonyms blossom in this industry like flowers in June. Despite their pride, many authors hesitate to share their success with friends and relatives who may not understand.
When I was boasting about my first erotic novel, a male friend commented: “it’s erection material, right?” I could have explained how erotica is so much more than erection material, but his knowing expression told me I’d be wasting my breath. So I simply agreed and encouraged him to buy a copy — which is both the perfect revenge (sure, I’ll take his money) and the perfect education tool. Once you’ve read an erotic novel, you get it.
2. Sex, sex and moresex
One erotic publisher has a vocal readership who constantly cry “moresexmoresexmoresex!”
You can get sick of describing sex, even when enhanced and made new by the characters and situations. Depending on whom you’re writing for, you may be asked to add more sex scenes or sensuality or both. If the market you’re aiming for isn’t a perfect fit with your own comfort levels, you may find yourself describing sex acts that make you uneasy.
Although I haven’t heard of a publisher who forces their authors out of their comfort zone, most will coax you to meet their readers’ expectations. Do match the market with your own tastes, otherwise your story will emerge flat and the sex insincere.
3. Extended and different story lines
This is also a positive (discussed below). It can be a negative, because you have so many possibilities. If you’re used to writing within a well-defined genre, you’ll get lost in that sea of potential. These readers want super stories, big characters, sub-plots, and sexual sub-plots.
4. Difficulty getting impartial reviews
Although resistance is crumbling, it is still a problem — especially for e-books, which fight reviewer prejudice against the format. But there are reviewers who will review erotica, and websites devoted to the genre. Just don’t expect your book to be reviewed by, say, Kirkus Reviews, or for all reviewers to treat your novel fairly. The genre is misunderstood even within the industry.
5. Success means more piracy
Even for print authors, electronic piracy drains revenue. Novels are scanned and distributed on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa, or by email. The more readers love your books, the more eager they are to give copies to all their friends.
There’s also for-profit pirates who sell their illegal copies, and look like legitimate e-retailers.
6. Be prepared to market AND educate
A lot of your promotion time will be spent explaining why erotica isn’t pornography, or romance. If you don’t like pushing yourself or your books, the added burden of dealing with resistant people may be daunting.
The good news
1. To market, to market
There’s dozens of markets for every type of erotica. Every day publishers launch erotic imprints, scrambling to secure shares in the gold mine. With the constant change, any list of markets would quickly be out of date. Do a search on your favorite search engine, using terms you’ve heard here: romantica, erotica, sensual romances. You’ll unearth a cornucopia of possible markets. Don’t limit yourself to just print publishers. E-book publishers are just as well respected and successful.
Yep, there’s gold in them thar novels — especially if your natural style fits the popular sub-categories. Plenty of authors have moved to full time writing, and I’ve already mentioned the one-million dollar advance, but I’ll mention it again as it has such a nice ring.
But. Don’t write erotica just for the money. You’ll hate yourself by the third novel. And if you can’t or won’t write in the popular sub-categories, then you won’t make as much money which, if you’re writing for money, is self-defeating.
3. Gaining professional respect
Erotic novels are reaching the New York Times Bestseller list (try Jennifer Cruisie’s Tell Me Lies as a cheering example). As more novels achieve the same success the “erotic” tag fades and the authors become “mainstream”.
4. Extended & different story lines.
It’s not just for sex that barriers tumble. For any subject, you can show things as they really are, and deal frankly with issues that get kid-glove handling elsewhere. That’s true freedom. This is so different from other popular fiction genres, it’s little wonder erotic novels are reaching wide audiences.
5. High writing standards and tough editorial standards
This is a positive until you’re facing your first edit. I was humbled by the thorough, relentless editing I received. I learned a lot — and this was my fourteenth book!
Should you try erotica?
If you don’t love the new erotica, or swiftly grow to love it after your first read, then consider well if you want to write it. You can try a novel and you may even get it published. That’s where you’ll hit trouble, because your readers will demand novel after novel. You’ll reach burn out very fast indeed. Writing erotica is demanding.
You must be willing to promote yourself and your books, and if you feel any trace of discomfort about the genre (were you repelled by the reference to “cock” earlier?), your promotion efforts will be weakened, and your insincerity will show in your writing.
Erotica embraces all the technical aspects of break-out fiction (fiction that sells well enough to be considered mainstream), and is creating its own genre.
It’s also leaving its mark on other genres—opening up the novel world to more explicit sex, and teaching writers to deal unflinchingly with other aspects of humanity. And that’s a good thing.
First appeared on Writing World, 2004.