Has E L James broken erotica?

Girl plus books

So, has E L James broken erotica? Why am I asking that question? A few weeks back, due to an extraordinary combination of circumstances—mainly involving the heavy discounting of a pair of anthologies in which I have stories—I found myself riding high in Amazon’s paid erotica author rankings. With huge excitement, I watched my rank climb to number four. It made me feel as if I were, for the briefest of moments, the fourth best erotica writer in the world! (Which, of course, I’m not. Because these rankings have absolutely nothing to do with writing quality.)

Naturally, I grabbed a screenshot for posterity. I usually rank somewhere around 300 and I doubt I’ll ever get that high again. But when I got over my own glee, the one thing that struck me most forcefully was not my presence on that page but someone else’s. E L James’s, in fact. There she was, grinning out from the number one slot with the original FSOG. And now that she’s released a FSOG spin-off from Grey’s point of view, she’ll probably remain at number one for a good stretch longer. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly don’t begrudge her her inexplicable success or the money she’s made, and I personally think that a lot of the vitriol levelled at her by other writers is born out of if not professional envy (because of course, no one actually wants to write like her), jealousy of her success. Yes, the books are utter rubbish, but, dare I say it, so are the vast majority of erotica titles. However, it made me feel incredibly sad that, three years after FSOG was published, she was still at number one. It made me sad for my—our shared—genre.

What’s happened to erotica since FSOG became a world-conquering phenomena? E L James was supposed to be its savior, but did she in fact break it? Certainly, very few erotica writers are making a living. Of the ones I know (of which there are plenty, many at the top of the profession), I can think of less than a handful who don’t have a day job or other source of income. Erotica publishing is in disarray. And, after briefly appearing in a book shop near you at the height of the FSOG frenzy, erotica has once more been retired to the invisible pages at the back of Amazon and other book retailing sites. The millions of women who bought into FSOG have not, as predicted, purchased very much more.

Erotica has always gotten a bad rap—it’s the genre all the other genres look down on. Recently, a writer friend was hugely upset when a family member told her she was “too good to be writing erotica.” My friend felt insulted and slighted, and was very defensive of erotica and her desire to write it. I totally sympathized with her. But I didn’t tell her I’d said virtually the same thing—”You’re wasted in erotica”—to a mutual friend just days before. I had meant it, and thankfully it had been taken, as a compliment. Because what I meant was this writer deserved a wider audience and greater respect for her work than she would ever get writing in the current erotica market.

For those of us who write smut, it sometimes feels like we’ve been herded into a ghetto, and that the rest of the literary world would rather disown us. A lot of erotica writers feel very aggrieved by this—and they have a point. There are some hugely talented writers in the field whose work deserves recognition and corresponding sales. But I would suggest there are a number of very valid reasons why my chosen genre is looked down on. Which is why I felt justified in saying to my friend that she was wasted in erotica.

First, I’ll tell you what I think the contributing issues are. Then I’ll deal with them in turn.

  • The reasons why people read erotica
  • The inherent problems with long-form erotica
  • The assumption by inexperienced writers that because they have great sex, they can write great sex

The first thing to consider is why people read erotica. Here, I feel there’s a mismatch between why people actually read it and why erotica writers think they read it. To put it bluntly, readers turn to erotica as a masturbatory aid. They want one thing from a dirty story and it isn’t fine words, tight plotting, good characterization or enlightenment on the human condition. They can get those things in other genres. I look elsewhere when I want those things. Readers don’t care about grammar when they’re getting they’re rocks off, which is why bad erotica sells as well as good. For writers who care about their craft, this is galling. But it’s an undeniable truth—the market for literary erotica, or even decently written commercial erotica is very small. And if your audience doesn’t demand a quality product, there’s no pressure in the market to provide one.

Books and glassesI know other writers will disagree with me. As a group, we read each other’s work, cross promote and review it. Erotica is the most friendly and supportive of ghettos. But we’re writers. Of course, we love well-written erotica. We love well-written everything. And in our insulated little bubble, I think we’re in danger of losing sight of the reality about the marketplace for our work. I don’t write literary erotica—my work is populist and I’m happy to admit it. But I’ve had a reader criticize me for spoiling their enjoyment of a story by using too many big words—and believe me, I really don’t. I’m afraid the vast majority of our readers are not looking for literature. They want written porn and they want it cheap or free. And they can get it in droves. In other words, the erotica market needs high quality writing like a fish needs a bicycle—and that’s why good writers struggle to make money at it.

My second point on why erotica seems so broken is the problems inherent in writing long-form filth. It’s incredibly difficult to make a full-length erotic novel work. For romance, the plot follows the usual arc of rising conflict and resolution, with sex the reward at the end. Not so erotica. Our publishers admonish us if there’s no sex in the first few pages. No time for our protagonists to meet, fall in love, fall out of love due to a misunderstanding, and then get back together before finally sharing body fluids. No, we need them banging straight away. This requires the use of plot devices—our protagonist is sleeping with someone else at the start or dreaming of having sex. Perhaps the characters have been a couple for a while or there’s some novelty reason why they need sudden sex. But it all constricts a writer’s freedom and leads to unsatisfactory story arc. One of the main criticisms levelled at FSOG as an erotic novel was that the reader had to wade through 100 or so pages before they came to any sex. Possibly one of the few realistic elements of the book—it takes time to reach point bonk—but no good for an erotic masterpiece.

However, let’s suppose we manage to get our couple (trio or whatever) into bed with an awesome opening sex scene, then where to next? More sex. It’s erotica after all, so even if the writing’s good and the plot’s decent, we need plenty of bonking. And that, unfortunately, becomes a little repetitive. If your reader has used the first sex scene as a masturbatory aid, well, the subsequent sex scenes might droop a little. This is why erotica is the one genre in which short story anthologies work so well. Sustaining erotic tension through a whole novel while producing a satisfying read is bloody difficult. In other words, in writing long-form erotic, you’re beset with the problems inherent in the form before you’ve even put a word on the page.

Finally, the I-have-great-sex-so-I-can-write-great-sex issue. Self-publishing is wonderful. It’s democratized the whole industry. We can all be published writers—yay! But that doesn’t mean we’re all good writers. Take this analogy. Suddenly the price of Stradivarius violins drops. I can afford one and I can book a concert hall, so why not put on a concert and play a couple of violin concertos? A ridiculous notion, isn’t it? A world class violinist spends years perfecting their art. So why do so many people think the first thing they write is worthy of publication? That they don’t need to work at it? That they’re a natural? Even the most gifted natural musicians slave for decades before they take to the world stage.

Writing is difficult. Writing well is even more difficult. Writing good sex? It’s very hard indeed. (No pun intended!) There are somewhere in the region of 5,000 erotica writers on Amazon. 5,000. It bears repeating. Most of their output is execrable. The output of our head girl, E L James, is execrable. So why would anyone want to dig deeper? I read buckets of erotica for professional reasons and I hate most of it. I really do. Certainly there are good writers out there, brilliant writers who leave me in breathless awe of their work (Remittance Girl, Malin James, J T Louder). But how is the sliver of the audience who care about quality going to find the smattering of writers gifted enough to give it to them? Discoverability for new writers is hard in any genre. In erotica it’s harder still, with the dreaded Amazon adult tag rendering one invisible in searches.

Good writers should be able to make a living from their writing but they can’t. Amazon is awash with free erotica. You can read a new story every day and never pay for one. For writers, it’s a Catch 22 situation. How will anyone know they want to buy your work if you don’t give them a free read first? I’m guilty of it myself, with free stories on Amazon and around the net, not to mention regularly on my own blog. You can probably read your fill of me without paying a penny.

Yes, erotica is a broken genre. Great writers aren’t getting recognized, the market’s flooded with crap, and even publishers can’t seem to make a go of it—witness the recent debacles at Ellora’s Cave and Cleis.  But it’s not E L James who broke erotica—her enduring position at the top of the pile is merely an indication of the deeper issues.

So what’s the solution?

To be honest, I can’t tell you. I would certainly like to see fewer writers in the market and a better standard of writing—but I’ve already explained why that’s unlikely to happen. For individual writers, there’s the siren call of other genres and that’s certainly a possibility for me.

But one thing struck me when thinking about how to solve these problems. Why should erotica be a genre at all? Given that sex is so fundamental to all our behaviors and motivations, so universal and yet so diverse, shouldn’t it be in every story, in every book? And to a certain extent it is, just not written as graphically. There are a few successful mainstream writers who include sexual detail in literary novels but not many. So here’s my idea: let’s leave badly written porn in its own little cave, but why don’t better erotica writers storm the barricades of mainstream writing? Don’t leave grown-up sex writing hiding in the shadows—bring it out into the light. Don’t attempt the great erotic novel. Just write a great book that deals with sex as it should be dealt with—openly and explicitly, but in service to the story rather than the story being in service to the sex. Don’t label your book as erotica just because it contains sex. Don’t give it a blatant erotica cover. In other words, if you’re serious about writing sex, stop writing erotica. Write about sex in the mainstream! Tag it as literary fiction, contemporary fiction, women’s fiction…

This is an idea that I’d like to open up a discussion on with other erotica—and non-erotica—writers. Could this be the way out of the ghetto for writers who actually care about what they write?

108 comments

  1. There are so many absurd caveats surrounding writing erotica – they want romance, they want HEA, they want sex right from the start, no cheating, etc, etc – and NONE of it is necessary. If there is sex in the first chapter, it goes in the bin for me. All of this highlights the need for another genre, something beyond sex for its own sake, something that realizes that erotica (and sex) is as much about the mind as the body. For myself, I prefer to use the transgressive category . . .of course, most of the retailers don’t recognize it. Still, I feel more comfortable there then in a world of ridiculous expectations.

  2. I agree – a new category is probably called for. But not all sex writing has to be transgressive to be good, while calling it transgressive suggests boundary pushing and things that are, well, transgressive. There has to be a place for good quality writing that features sex without the need to put it in a locked box in a dark corner.

  3. An interesting read, Lady Tamsin. Thank you for writing it.

    A few scattered thoughts/responses:
    I believe you could easily expand this discussion on the writing industry in general. Most of it would still be fairly valid. You have very good writers competing with very mediocre ones. Self-publishing being a double-edged sword no matter what genre you write in.

    Expand out of the microcosm of writing/reading as an industry now. Books are always competing with ‘faster’ form of entertainment. TV, movies, youtube, video games. In erotica’s case, (visual) porn viewing is a major competitor for time/dollars.

    So, if the argument that erotica is used mostly as a masturbatory aid is correct, it too suffers against ‘faster’ forms that can be freely obtainable. (Want to get drunk on a few shots of whiskey vs. want to get drunk savoring a few nice bottles of wine as a poor analogy.)

    Why buy it when I can get it for free (or in some cases, something where I don’t even need to use my imagination for free)?

    I do not personally believe FSOG has much to do with the argument on a whole. It is an exception to a rule. It was in the right place, at the right time. Would it have ever been as popular without the ‘Twilight’ saga as a precursor or primer? I am not so sure it would have. Will she have as much commercial success once she breaks from those characters and does something original? Only time will tell.

    I do believe you found an answer to your question though. For those of you out here that are talented and gifted writers, long-form stories in other ‘genres’ with momentary lapses of erotica or explicit sex is probably the way to go and perhaps there has never been a better time to write in that style. Think of ‘made-for-cable’ dramas as the parallel to this idea in the visual mediums. ‘GoT’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Homeland’, even ‘Braking Bad’ to a lesser extent. All of them add graphic sex to give the stories an extra facet.

    Final thought, even though erotica is and has always been looked down upon, those that write it well, are almost by default, gifted writers. Erotica, or to simplify it, sex is one of the most difficult things to write well. Many good authors ignore it not because ‘they are above’ such things, but rather they suck at writing sex well. Personally, my general writing, especially character interaction improves drastically, when I exercise at writing erotica.

  4. Thanks for commenting – you make a lot of good points, and you’re right about self-publishing having the same effect in other genres. xxx

  5. We’ve talked about this at length, but I’m not sure I’ve ever told you how much I admire you unsentimental, clear-eyed assessment of the market. It’s easy to get caught up in emotion when your genre has changed right under your feet (I certainly fall prey to that at times) but what you present here is concrete, incisive, practical way for writers to reframe how they think about the situation. It’s valuable and your timing couldn’t be better. *gush* xxx

  6. I don’t think of my longer form work as erotica, but rather romance with explicit sex. Siem Reap has plenty of sex, but at the heart of it we have a couple that broke up several years ago trying to figure out if they can move beyond transgressions in the past and give it another go.

    One of the reasons I have largely stopped reading mainstream romance is that I hate all the allusions to sex and body parts; why can’t a romance novel have explicit sex? And why do romance publishers think readers don’t want it? That said, I think my only choices are to pare back the sex scenes if I want to get a mainstream publisher or go with an erotica publisher if I want to leave it as-is.

  7. Thank you – you’ve bowled me over, M – and I’m gushing right back! xoxoxox

  8. Of course, erotic romance is a genre distinct from erotica – and would agree that Siem Reap (which I absolutely loved!!!!) would fall into erotic romance rather than erotica. I would certainly explore that genre if I was you – you shouldn’t have to pare back your sex scenes for the big publishers as most of them have imprints for ER that will carry quite racy stuff.

  9. Brava!

    I want to write: “basically, what Malin said? I second it” but maybe I should try to add something to the conversation.

    I’ve thought about this a lot, too. As a queer young adult who was starved for queer characters and queer sex, it meant a lot to me to be able to write those characters and that sex. In reality, I haven’t made much money from the endeavor and, realistically, I’m not even sure that the future-me’s (who are over 18, of course, yadda yadda) are even encountering my work. When I started writing I thought questions of audience were irrelevant if you were a good enough writer, but increasingly I’m getting the sense that maybe questions of audience are the only ones germane to 90% of writers.

    As far as ghettos go, I’m glad to have ended up in a supportive one, but some days it’s a bummer.

    I think you’re right that most of us need to start branching out and slotting our sex writing into more outward facing work, but it chafes to have to tone down the sexuality (or types of sexuality) of my work in order to make it more marketable. “Fuck the market” I yell, in my dreams, and everyone buys my books anyway.

    I’m rambling, but I really appreciated this post. I think you’re brilliant and I hope by now that goes without saying.

  10. i always love the way you think! My takeaway from this, was the write what you want to write aspect. this discussion is so timely, i have been having it with a lot of people who are not writers recently.

  11. Thank you, Benji, for reading it and for your lovely comment. I think that’s just it, more outward facing work would get us wider readerships – and regardless of the money making, for most writers that’s the point – we want our work to be seen by as many people as possible. And, for you, there’s a real relevance at making your work visible to young queers who need the reassurance of not being alone. And for the record, I think you’re brilliant too! xoxox

  12. Thanks – absolutely – write what you want to write and then resist the market’s wish to shut it away in a dark corner! xoxox

  13. OMG thank you for articulating this sentiment! I love well-written erotica, and there is a good amount of it if you dig, but bad erotica is like listening to a toddler bang a plastic wrench against the stove. I could ramble on and look like a crazy person, this post inspired me so much, but suffice to say you hit the nail on the head and so have the other commenters. 🙂 Thanks for opening up this discussion.

  14. Thanks – I know what you mean about the toddler – some of it is just painful to read, which may sound snotty but there’s a lot of really bad erotica out there and we shouldn’t be afraid to say that.

  15. I don’t totally agree with every point here, but the post is so lucid, well thought through and spot on in so many places that I’m not going to quibble the bits that bothered me.

    And I’m fully on board with your final point. Great piece.

  16. Thanks so much for your kind words, Charlie – you’re one of the people who’s good opinion I really value – though I’d love to know which bits you do and don’t agree with! xxx

  17. I liked your article very much and you have made a lot of valid points. I started writing non-erotic novels 12 years ago, and self-published, but struggled to sell many – partly because I didn’t understand about promotion, websites, FB etc. Like many people, I suspect, I read FSOG and thought that I could write at least as well, if not better, so I looked around and found a small publisher who accepted my first book, and am now about to publish my sixth book with them.
    It is very hard, however, hitting the right level of erotica for the market. Like you I find that some of the books on sale at Amazon, which have a lot of 5 star reviews, are absolutely awful. So clearly I am not a typical reader! Reviews of my books range from 1 star (in a badly written, mis-spelled review) to great 5 star reviews. I always write around a strong storyline (I hope!) and the sex is part of that, rather than the whole story. Sometimes it does not appear until quite a way into the book (although I sometimes put a ‘taster’ in the first few paragraphs, before jumping back to the beginning of the story.
    I have no idea if my books are any good (other people must be the judge of that) but I LOVE writing, and would probably do it even if I did not make money from it. Fortunately, being retired from my career I do not depend on the small income I get from writing. I would, actually, like to go back to my mainstream writing, but, with other things going on in my life, I don’t have the energy to start again with another publisher or to self-publish at the moment. (My publisher only sells Spanking/bdsm stories.)
    Great article.

  18. Erotica Romance is its own genre, but once you move away from contemporary settings and light kink you run into the same barriers as erotica. EC was one of the biggest paranormal erotic romance publishers and they are no longer a viable source. I write what I want, but I’m realistic that some pieces are more marketable than others.

  19. I’ve been on the side of ‘legitimizing’ erotica as a genre for years now, and hoping those great writers in the genre (many of the same ones you mentioned!) would be recognized not just for writing great sex, but great, well-structured, and immersive stories involving that great sex. The Baptism, by Remittance Girl, comes to mind; original, colorful, well-written, eerie, and thematic. I was really happy to read I’m not the only one who feels like there’s a legit point in treating erotica with the same importance as one does other genres and other crafts (as you point out in your comparison to the violin player).

    I think I’m with Delilah Night in the sense that I write more in the realm of erotic romance than pure erotica, but I know I at least (probably because I’m still very new to actually publishing my work) face some anxiety not explicitly stating how “explicit” my sex scenes get. I love to write very explicit sex and I love words like ‘cunt’, ‘pussy’, and ‘cock’ much more than flowery figurative prose. I love writing about characters who swear hard when they’re in the throes of good sex and I love describing physically erotic images and what streaming porn sites might call “hardcore” stuff… which I feel is just as legitimately erotic as your standard missionary M/F sex. So while my plots may take the reader through a sweeter romance and non-erotic story arcs like an assassination scheme, my sex scenes venture into themes of anal sex, group sex, tentacles, etc. I guess my anxiety comes from expecting readers to be offended if they weren’t explicitly given warning that the book contains graphic erotic content.

    I would both love to feel free in writing sex as graphically as I like–because I think explicit sex can be all sorts of gorgeous–in a mainstream genre novel, AND to see erotica itself legitimized as a genre and appreciated for its capacity to be just as serious, funny, compelling, and meaningful as mainstream. I wish it wasn’t considered outside the mainstream in the first place!

    In any case, I really enjoyed your article, and your points have really given me things to think about, as well as feel good about, in regards to what we write. 🙂

  20. “the vast majority of our readers are not looking for literature. They want written porn and they want it cheap or free. And they can get it in droves. In other words, the erotica market needs high quality writing like a fish needs a bicycle—and that’s why good writers struggle to make money at it”

    Amen. That’s the bottom-line truth. And those of us who have some other vision of the genre have a choice to make: either we find a way to band together and identify our writing as a separate breed of literary fiction, or we wallow away in a sea of textual porn.

    And just moving over to lit fic won’t cut it. The fashion in lit fic for showing sex as negative, alienating and downplayed to the level of a bowel movement is alive and well.

    We need to forge something new. And once I get over this doctoral hell I’m currently in, I plan to try and start something. Because before we can appeal to an audience, even as a movement, or a school, or a sub-genre – we need to have a cohesive sense of what the conventions of the thing we’re seeking to bring into being among ourselves. As Raziel Moore says – form a school of thought, and the genre name will arise on its own.

  21. A whole bunch of contemporary romance novels (in the romance category) are filthy and dirty and erotic and I’m always surprised at how explicit they are. But they are doing just what you said, writing a romance with explicit sex but just not labeling it erotica, and some of them are making a killing. Stepbrother romances started with a “mainstream” romance. That seems pretty kinky for mainstream to me, but there you go. Maybe we’re playing by the old rules.

  22. As a few others said, erotic romance isnt quite the same as erotica and actually requires a structured plot and a fairly long story. Fifty Shades of Grey sits squarely in the erotic romance genre, which renders the comparison of erotica with it fairly invalid, I’d think. It’s a billionaire romance (a popular romance trope) with kink thrown in.

  23. One of the issues you touch on here but don’t go directly after is that in the wake of 50 Shades there’s an utter conflation now of erotica and romance. This is a detriment to erotica because it’s essentially now forced to be a subset of romance (which is required to be long form HEA) and non-romantic sex-focused literature has all but disappeared in the current ecosystem.

    The reason Circlet Press publishes so many short story anthologies is because I believe the short story is ideal for erotica. But when we do venture into long form it often can be sold as romance. Interestingly enough our authors don’t seem to have trouble putting plenty of sex in which still advances the plot, such that it functions as jerkoff material AND good novel storytelling. But perhaps the addition of science fiction to the erotica helps in that regard.

    Thank you for this thought provoking blog. I will be sharing it!

  24. I’m a writer of blunt, vulgar and coarse romance. But I write about pirates, so I think that’s just they way they’d roll. I’ve had other writers tell me I need to put warning labels on everything. But it just isn’t something I think I need. I write real sex, which circles around romantic involvement. Sometimes the sex is just to feel good. Sometimes it’s hard fucking. Sometimes it’s making love. There’s room for all of it.

    I am so with you on this new genre thing. I honestly don’t know if I write erotica. I think I write real. Is my writing used as a masturbatory aid? Maybe…or maybe not. It’s a plot device and it moves the story forward.

    Great blog.

  25. This is an excellent article and, I think, pretty much spot on. So much so it explains why I have recently abandoned erotica and erotic romance, at least for now. I’ve written three 60,000 plus word novels (a trilogy), 11 short stories, a couple of anthologies and various flash things and I was pretty much was my own and only interested audience. I did have the novels professionally reviewed, critiques submitted, and revisions made, so I’m happy with their current state. All in all though, for me, even though my erotic content was pretty damn good and appropriate, getting any reads was, at best, difficult.

    Also, like you said, making some form of content mandatory can be rather restrictive. In the second novel, as a revision, I added a new first chapter that was a blatant sex scene–there only to titillate. I hated what it did to the story, so I deleted it again.

    The trilogy is now rated pg13/r, serialized, still pretty steamy (but not explicit) and, low and behold, I’m getting some sales and some word of mouth support. When they were rated X, I couldn’t get a snippet of recognition. The market has dictated the direction that I have taken my writing.

    I would like to add one comment that I think deserves reinforcing. The erotica writer’s community is very supportive and helpful. So far, I have not found that same level of community bonding in the romance or literary realms.

  26. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Rachel. I share your frustration with the arbitrary nature of some of the reviews out on amazon. Sometimes the reviews seem to have barely read the book! xxx

  27. I think certainly one issue with being able to incorporate sex and sexuality based stories into mainstream genres is reader expectation – of course, there are readers who don’t wish to read graphic depictions of sex, and their preference is perfectly valid. So when I suggest somehow moving erotic writing into other genres, I don’t really mean by hoodwinking the readers. It would be nice if, as a society and Amazon in particular, could be grown up enough to include books with adult content in other genres, and listing them with perhaps just a written warning at the top of the blurb saying that the book contains adult content/graphic sex whatever. Just like the BBC say at the start of a programme, this programme contains swearing/moderate violence/scenes of a sexual nature etc. They let people know in a dalm and sensible way and nobody freaks out about it.

  28. I like your idea of a more literary sub-genre – it could be one of a variety of solutions for writers. I would certainly want to read it. However, I don’t think my own writing would necessarily fit into it. The difficulty lies in how writers can group together in that way – how a movement could coalesce – writers are all totally unique and how would you set parameters for such a group – who would judge what works would fall within it or not? If the boundaries are too narrow, it’s too small to gain any significance. If they’re too broad, it waters down the concept and quality. There’s also the danger of becoming an ever smaller sub-niche that’s even harder to find. Naturally, it’s for individual writers to decide what’s going to work for them – trying to shift what they write into the mainstream or moving into a, for want of term, ‘transgressive literature’ genre. However, it’s safe to say that most writers who care about their work are fed up with being lumped in with the current dross passing for erotica.

  29. Thanks for reading and commenting, Normandie. Actually one of things that fed my thinking on this article was reading a blog post about a stepbrother story by an unknown writer that had become a runaway bestseller, even though they did virtually no promotion – and the one thing that struck me was that the writer had put the book out as YA rather than erotica – which seemed to automatically bestow much higher visibility on it, and got it away from the zillions of stepbrother series cluttering up erotic at the moment! (I don’t know how graphic the sex was, but they seem to have got away with it.)

  30. Hi Cecilia – thanks for reading and commenting. You’re right that erotica and romance seem to have merged – but romance, erotic romance, and erotica have always been a spectrum and where the edges touch, they’re sure to blur. The positioning of the dividing lines between them can seem pretty arbitrary. And I agree that one sees very little non-romantic sex-focused literature – the big publishing houses seem to shy away from it. Interestingly, though, the few titles that do come out, such as Tampa and Wetlands, are not sold as erotica and not marketed to the FSOG readers – for obvious reasons.

  31. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Jay. Visibility is a real problem once a book is tagged as erotica, which is why I make the suggestion to market in other genres. But I totally agree with you that the erotica community is supportive and friendly – it’s interesting to hear that other genres aren’t that way inclined.

  32. Slow clap! I have to repost this because its spot on, and so damn depressing. I think your conclusion is where I am at. I write novels, stories, women’s fiction, with plenty of erotic scenes. Having the lable of erotica has boxed me in, and then add to it that I do multicultural erotica and my work is pushed even further down. Amazon however, is the greatest enemy to erotica, it’s pimpage of 10 page jibberish and linking it to best selling titles has put a hit on the genre and the authors. I want to write full time. I need to be able to create. But I cannot if I stay in a genre that is so saturated and ‘one-note’. It’s time for a personal/professional change in my writing and I’m thinking hard on how to do it.

  33. Thank you – and sorry to be depressing! But look at it this way – the situation may be depressing, but recognising that and thinking of ways to move away from it are positive steps. Good luck!

  34. As a reviewer of erotica and romance, I need to express my opinion. Erotica has its roots in the Victorian Era and women were its prime consumers. It was meant to titillate, increase your blood pressure, and yes, “get your rocks off”. Swooning was the word of the day. Well-written erotica in my estimation need not be crude and raw. The anticipation and foreplay to the first sex scene is crucial for women. Which brings me to my point (a little late!) who are you writing for? If you write erotica for men, well, no anticipation needed. Just go for it and give it your all! If you are writing for women, then your style has to accommodate the fact women need the foreplay and the anticipation before that first rock-roaring sex scene. Must get the juices flowing first. Perhaps erotica is not broken, but that it has become more stylized to the audience it expects to attract. I think E.L. James hit a nerve with FSOG. Even though her first book needed a good editor and proofreader, the essence of her story brought together elements of the women’s Victorian style. Her success should make us wonder if perhaps erotica needs to be separated according to the audience it wants to appeal to. What do you think?

  35. I would like to promote the “divisions” as discussed here in my publication, RT Book Reviews magazine. But I cannot do it alone. If anyone has time to join me, please contact me.
    Message me at Kathryn Falk on FB or at Kathryn@rtroundup.com
    I think we need editorial, profiles and reviews under a title such as “Literary Erotica Recommendations” or “Meet the Literary Erotica Authors.”
    Then, perhaps, another one or two classifications for “titillating” ….

  36. Some more classifications would certainly make it easy for readers to find what they’re looking for… Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  37. Such Valid Points!!!
    I Really got into Reading after the 1st Twilight, Breaking Dawn Movie.
    I hadn’t Read the Books & Honestly had No interest in Reading them til the 4th Twilight Movie. I didn’t want to wait a Year to see what happened, so I Read All 4 Books and LOVED them. I Read the Trilogy Back to Back 5x in a row.
    Then I started to hear about a Trilogy called Fifty Shades of Grey…to Date I have Read it 13x. It is the Trilogy that got me into the Romance/Erotica Genre’s.
    It is also what gave me the Nerve to start Writing a Story that has been in my Head for Years. But taking my time because right now I write like EL James. No on wants that.
    Since I Read Twilight

  38. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Heatheranne, and good luck with your story! 🙂

  39. 6 yrs ago, I have Read A LOT of Books.
    I’ve Read straight Erotica and Yes got “Hot” from it but also realized I prefer Romance.
    If there’s Good Sex Scenes in it Great, if not that’s Ok, too.
    I admit the 1st time I Read FSOG, I was Severely Affected but after Reading it a couple more time I realized I Loved the Love Story in it more and kinda skimmed through all the Sex Scenes.
    Give me a Great Love Story with or without Sex and I’m a Happy Woman!!!
    There are Great Authors out there who are not getting the Attention they should because of the content in there Books and it needs to be Changed!!!

  40. Thanks Tamsin…Sorry I Posted in 2 parts.
    I don’t comment a lot so I accidentally Posted before I was finished…and couldn’t figure out how to Edit.

  41. Goddamn!!!!!!! I have waited 32 million years (poetic licence) to hear someone say what you just said. My lady, I could snog your face off and cheerfully have your babies (to the sounds of crashing waves and Albinoni of course) as your article mirrors My own feelings so closely I am tempted to accuse you of plagiarism *smiles sweetly*..which of course I won’t.

    Beautifully said, and your punctuation was immaculate.

    Scribe xxxx

  42. Thank you so much for this insightful post. I write what I call “smart steamy romance,” which is definitely erotic romance and very explicit sexually but also very plot driven and well-written. I began writing erotic romance because there IS a lot of crap out there and I thought women shouldn’t have to sacrifice good writing for steamy, explicit scenes. It has been very hard to get exposure in such a crowded market and I have been baffled by some of the success stories you referenced, and reading your comments about why people buy erotic romance (and consequently why they don’t really care how well written it is) was a true “ah-ha” moment for me!

    I would like to think there is a market for well-written erotic romance. Readers contact me all the time thanking me for giving them just that. The question is how to find them.

    I find your suggestions for marketing to contemporary romance instead of erotic romance interesting, as I have already kind of done this (with not so great success I must admit). My covers are not the typical erotic romance covers–they feature a hint of suggestive lace instead of the typical male torso–but I sometimes think that has hurt me. Fearless, the first book in my trilogy, was a RWA Golden Heart finalist in contemporary romance and was promoted by Heroes and Heartbreakers as contemporary romance, but other websites and Amazon have bumped it into erotic romance. I often feel like I’m not really fully in either camp, so perhaps a new category is just what we need! Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking read.

  43. Hi – thanks for reading and for commenting, Brynley. In fact, what I suggest is putting our books into any genre, not just romance…but contemporary literature, women’s fiction, thrillers… whatever suits the story. Anything to escape the confines of the current genre which is ignored and derided.

  44. What a great article. I’m a contemporary romance writer myself, but like you, I have a lot of friends in the business battling the supersaturation of the erotic genre everyday.

    “We can all be published writers—yay! But that doesn’t mean we’re all good writers.”

    That statement 100% sums it up, I think. Because lets be real, E.L James wasn’t the first self-publisher to make it big. Amanda Hocking was a millionaire thanks to her (then badly written) fairy (or elf) books when FSoG was still a Twilight Fan Fiction.

    It’s frustrating to see hundreds of new releases every single day with the same plot–take the Stepbrother craze for example–and the same shirtless man on the covers, all priced at .99 or free, and those are the books making the Top Amazon 100. It makes it almost impossible for any genre to break the ranks with books like My Stepbrother MC Billionaire Dom clogging the numbers.

    So, I don’t think it’s only an erotica problem, but a literary problem.

  45. Yes, your absolutely right about it being a literary problem – self-publishing has opened the flood gates… Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  46. You make a lot of good points. I personally hate the term “erotica”. It’s outmoded. I agree 100% that people read sex writing to get off. Long-form romance novels are boring mommy porn. As a female, I write for a largely male audience at A1adultebooks, and am proud of it. I’ve written about 20 titles, novella length, the longest being about 50 pages. I write what turns me on. I work at my craft and I agree, the hardest (pun intended!) thing to do is write good, hot, sexual scenarios. My motto is: if it doesn’t turn ME on, how in the world will it turn anyone else on? One of my best selling titles is “Exam Day”, a taboo story about a mother who takes her ( legal 18 of course ) daughter for her first pelvic exam. I don’t consider it “porn”, I consider it a taboo fantasy come to life on the page. So, who cares if the literary world looks down on what I write. Eff them. I don’t write for a “market”. I write (and write well), for a market that knows what it wants, and it doesn’t want 100 pages of glorified travelogue or boring, stilted dialogue. It’s an art form. I don’t agree that we need our characters to “bang” each other in the first two pages. I believe in “foreplay”….but it has to directly feed the fantasy, the scenario that flips the switch on the reader. I don’t care how artful you are in your writing, if your fantasy doesn’t match the reader’s, they will move on and find a writer and a story that DOES match their needs. We need not sacrifice quality to achieve that. Unfortunately, yes, there’s a lot of crap out there (mainly from the “erotica” romance novel crowd). I don’t read that junk. I do what I want. That’s my advice. Follow your own kink, find your own audience, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s all you can do. (and no, you won’t get rich doing it unless you know somebody who knows somebody, and then you can write crap like E.L. James).

  47. Great post and discussion. I prefer everything I read to be well-written (so-called smut to highbrow fiction), and to write well, the author must have mastered language and ideas at a certain level. Generally, this training is initially acquired at university, ideally in a field where heavy reading and lots of writing is standard practice, like in English or history. (There are exceptions, of course, because a true love of fiction and language can be self-taught if one reads enough well-written texts and holds his or her own writing standards to the same level). Since the majority of fiction readers are reportedly like me–educated and female–I don’t think it’s misguided work to write high quality erotica.

    The published field of erotica and romance is currently a morass of good, mediocre and awful, an overwhelming scenario for today’s busy reader. What I often bemoan is just how loooong it will take for the dilettantes (who do not appear to actually read books themselves) with little interest in the art and craft of fiction writing to give up on their fantasies of becoming famous, billionaire authors. If they ever do. Like Mary Elizabeth, I think this issue extends beyond erotica and erotic romance. What I see: these less-than-stellar “writers” mastering self-promotion, not writing. And how many times have I read forums where these beginning authors boast proudly that they make sure to hire a copy editor so they don’t have any punctutation errors in their books? As if correct punctuation is the be-all end-all mark of a readable book, when it’s actually the bare minimum. Forget even discussing ‘meaningful’ punctuation much less the semicolon (apparently the semicolon is the harbinger of evil in fiction and the sign of imminant lost readership).

    The best answer for good writers resides in meaningful exposure. Quality erotica and romance needs good, reliable sources of promotion. There are lots of review sites online, but few have a significant following, and most of them task themselves with reviewing new releases–good and bad. Other sites promote titles based on a minimum number of positive reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. We all know how problematic that standard is.

    Last year, I reserved a domain name with the dream of slowly building a site dedicated to analyzing the work of established, quality authors–sort of a lit crit approach to the genres of romance, erotic romance and erotica–discussing, analyzing the work of the best authors in these genres–but, of course, it will have to come after my day job and my own writing, and will likely require the participation of other reader-writers invested in promoting the production of quality fiction in these genres, so it’s probably a few years away…

  48. Oh please, please build your site – it would be so appreciated by so many readers. This is really needed so people who are looking for quality writing in erotica have somewhere reliable to turn to. As you say, good punctuation is nothing to boast about – it’s the bare minimum. Thanks for reading and for commenting. 🙂

  49. Wow! Not only was your post spot-on, but these comments have been wonderful to read! I write sci-fi erotic romance and sweeter contemporary and sci-fi under another pen name, so my stuff veers across the spectrum to ‘almost’ erotica. I have to confess,for some time I’ve held the same thoughts which you have expressed so well. As writers, we’re not encouraged to critique other authors abilities, or the genre’s tropes, or, heaven forbid, what the public wants for fear we’re ‘bashing’ someone or something. I think some of this hyper-sensitivity is a reaction to the general disdain publishing/the public has for romance/erotic romance/erotica. The mainstream world has some justification for denigrating what ‘we’ do considering the quality of most of the product out there. I’m frankly embarrassed to admit what I write sometimes, not because of my content, but because I’ll be grouped in with so much lackluster and derivative work. I like my big words and non-stereotypical characters and believable situations, so I’ll keep writing my stuff and hoping readers of like mind will find me.

  50. Thanks for commenting – I absolutely agree with what you’ve said. I’d been thinking about these things for a long time and I felt it was time to get them out in the open and try and start a discussion, which I’m happy to say is what’s happened. xxx

  51. I am precisely one of those my self as a writer of niche romances, which, while bearing their erotic qualities within them, it is not porn.

    A true romance doesn’t even need actual graphic descriptions of the act of sex to be erotic and titilating.

    Interestingly, my largest market is a secret group of people above the age of 40 and a few teenagers in the country of Israel who are being satisfied with my often 500 page plus romance novels paying 10$ just to rent a single copy.

    Why do I say this?

    To brag?

    No, I say it to let you who are serious writers to know that there is a way.

    I can not promise that each and every one of you will become NY Times best sellers on the romantic erotica black market, but at least I can assure you that there are indeed paying customers.

    Also, I must preface this with the fact that the person who is in charge of this is actually my fiance, so, she does not charge me any transactional fees to do this.

    I can not promise you that you will or can get the same deal from her, but I can ask her to market your works, if you are willing to work with her on it and see where it goes.

    The market is STARVING there for quality romantic erotica, mainly I suspect, because of the depth of the culture.

    I also believe that other nations with similar religious prohibitions will be ready markets, although 1, the dangers increase with more violent and less tolerant state religions, and 2, the revenue generated and number of paying customers will drop in more impoverished nations, as well as the risk of piracy.

    Okay I have thrown my 2 cents into the pot.

    [HUGE HUGZ]
    Yuri Futanari
    Futa-Yuri romance novelist

  52. What a wonderfully poignant assessment! While I think many of us agree with the points you’ve made what stands out for me in this piece is that you offer such a great solution–to be a writer, not simply pigeonholing ourselves into a hit or miss genre that leaves much to be desired. I am inspired to continue writing but with a new focus! Thank you.

  53. Thank you so much for your comment – you’ve distilled the solution in a nutshell – just be a writer! Wonderful! xoxoxo

  54. For a slightly different perspective… I’m a Romance author who would prefer to NOT include much sex in my stories. Not because I have any objections to sexy stories, but I just don’t really enjoy writing sex. Give me a nice angsty fight between lovers and I’m more than happy, but trying to find new and interesting ways to write about sex? Exhausting!

    And the thing is, I feel pressured by markets/publishers to include MORE sex in
    my books, especially when I’m writing m/m. Not so much that they want me to go all the way to erotica, but certainly in that direction.

    So what’s my point? I guess I’m supporting your suggestion that erotica writers may be able to find a profitable home in erotic romance. Not that there’s a shortage of poorly written work in that genre, either…

  55. I write in the romance genre, for a specific publisher. I, and some of my fellow writers, have been actively asked to tone-down sex scenes *for the American market*. Now, I don’t know if this just a particular sector of the US market at which our publisher is marketing our books, but for every romantic novelist who is crossing the genre-divide between erotica and romance, there are a lot of us who would like to, but can’t.
    Brilliant post, by the way, has made me think a lot about the whole business of publishing and targeting books to a specific audience!

  56. Thanks for reading the piece and for taking the time to comment. The solutions to these problems will likely be different for every writer, but they’re problems we all face and they need to be addressed. xoxox

  57. Kate I TOTALLY agree with you there!

    Instead of ‘situational comedy’ it has become ‘situational pornography’ and in the end, its just as cheap as a one liner.

    I love to build up to romance and establish ‘good cause’ why the characters should NOT want to love one another and then show them OVERCOMING all of said ‘good causes’ because it is the love developed in adversity which really touches the heart!

    I have literally in some cases made the issue of sex like a sideline event where I even mentioned it at all, so that it is not absent and yet it is noewhere near the focus of the romance.

    I’m sure porn addicts will find my work most displeasing.

    Jane, I think what you have encountered is the same thing I have: a TRULY ‘mature’ audience.

    Women, and older men some times do enjoy a romance where there is no sex or its as you say, ‘toned down’ because:

    1, they’ve been there and its never happened like that,

    2, they’re older now, often alone, and the possibility of ever doing that again is beyond even a reasonable fantasy,

    or

    3, they are alone and lonely now after years and years of that stuff and it has left them empty and unfulfilled, loveless and without the person [or persons] they once thought they would ‘share forever’ with because those people were not of the same take on long, romantic relationships, but were simply after the hot, smutty sex, and are now off some other place seeking more of the same.

  58. “Erotica” is just porn wrapped in a euphemized package so women can pretend they aren’t reading porn.

  59. This anonymous comment illustrates exactly why writers with any self-respect are looking for alternative ways of presenting their work.

  60. I’ve had books published and self published and in Erotica and contemporary romance. And I have to say the books in contemporary romance have done MUCH better there. These book had a clear disclaimer at the bottom of the product description and included such things as: graphic sex, anal sex, exhibitionism, figging, bondage and even pet play. These two books stayed under 10k for almost six months. Anyone who’s been in Erotica knows that generally the life of a book there is 5-8 weeks. Tops. Amazon didn’t give me any trouble putting them in that category either. It’s something to think about. The pool is much larger.

  61. Somehow, no matter how you package it, men are going to be looking for the ‘fap factor’ in it.

    Women may or may not, I’ve discussed it with various ones and depending on age and other factors, their answers varied, but with males, the answer was uniform across the board.

    As mentioned before, many are seeking [and getting] free fap material, so why pay for something which is more deep, complex or emotionally involved when one doesn’t even want any of that in their lives?

    It takes a truly mature minded reader to read a romance any more.

    What was once seen as steamy, back room content is now today shunned as extraneous dressing for the part they are truly seeking, so its left behind in facor for the hard core smut.

    As I have grown older I have toned down my erotic content while intensifying my emotional content.

    I find my more loyal, faithful followers appreciate this change.

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  65. Hi Tamsin. Thank you for one of the best expositions on the changes in the erotic writing genre I have read.

    Erotica has always been the naughty unnamed step-sibling, hidden in the basement, as people want to separate sex from literature. They like sex and getting off to be separate, something viewed periodically, versus heart-warming romance that makes them swoon and sigh.

    Isn’t the point of reading about sex to fire the imagination and the loins? True to our Puritan roots, we treat sex as something to be ashamed of, something that is subversive. Or insignificant, as we all have the same equipment.

    I can’t say I wish sex to be included in every novel-some novels don’t need it to drive or enhance the plot. I will say that good erotic writing should not be considered as silly, an idle hobby, shameful or something anyone can compose. It should be valued as it is–good writing about hot sexy interactions.

    Tastes are sculpted and shaped by what people see/hear/read. The biggest drag on good writing is the porn images that are prevalent (and free!). People can take the easiest route to satisfy the mental itch for sexual stimulation.

    Yet, we also are growing up with legions of people who read only for school assignments, not just for pleasure. They get text alerts on news headlines and not bother to read the actual article. They grab soundbites from talking heads and don’t investigate further.
    No wonder the public is listing toward pitiful erotic fiction, like a damaged ship on the sea.

    As someone reads a lot of everything, I have higher expectations that most in erotic fiction, be it books or blogs. I’m not alone. But as evidenced by the sales numbers on Amazon and Kindle, Iit is just not enough of us thoughtful readers running about, who want the substantial in sex writing, not the amuse-bouche. As an unknown blogger who writes here and there about kink and fetishes, I put the same expectation upon myself–make something useful of of my words.

    Audiences have tastes and they expect to catered to, as the next free e-book is a tap away. The technology is a boon and a curse. Authors are in a position of having to adapt to those tastes, if they wish to gain eyes. But hasn’t it always been such, when it comes to writing? From every Dickens and Poe, there were a multitude who couldn’t make a living writing.

    To address your FSOG point-yes, the whole FSoG success is a body blow for erotica, as readers will expect something similar.

    I have been taking about why FSoG appeals to readers with my friends over the past year. My take on it is that she was in the right place, at the right time. The writing is mediocre but she hits upon a common fantasy theme–rich sexy guy in need of the right woman to help him slay his numerous demons. That is just paint-by-the-numbers. She slapped the bdsm angle on it, as that shows he is a take-charge kinda dude. Not holding hands in the moonlight, not gently hoping for a shag after dinner. As he said, he wasn’t looking for a date but to get right to the sex.

    How does it change? It won’t. That is the new standard. Those who are writing have to navigate the ruins.

    As Rg and others have commented, it will take the writers to encourage readers, with good work.

    It is a saturated field but possibly, the truly bad writers will run out of steam and a few will fall away. Fingers crossed.

    Again, thanks for your excellent thoughts. This post is timeless!
    I apologize for the tardy response but I often step away from the fun stuff like this for weeks at a time, so I miss out and have to catch up.

  66. I’m way late to this party but I do want to thank you for making me feel less alone in this strange post FSoG world we find ourselves in. My own project, when I was writing, was to try to write on the cusp of romance and porn, to try to understand each as the other’s guilty secret, and therefore to allow my versions of each genre a little bit of breathing room.

    Actually, I didn’t know what I was doing while I was successfully doing it, but I knew that there was something going on there, perhaps akin to the paradoxes Foucault asked in his History of Sexuality, when he wrote about the weird fact that “what is peculiar to modern societies, in fact is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as THE secret.”

    Not sure where I’m going with this, but somehow EL James and Stephanie Meyer before her did something that undercut the power and the paradox. And that it has something to do not only with a banal triumph of the therapeutic as reification of innocence — Bella and the vampire boy with the big forehead frozen in eternal good-looking adolescence in a field of CGI flowers.

  67. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Pam. I think the post FSoG market has left many erotica writers confused and disillusioned – but at the moment there seems no easy solution, and I can’t really see where it’s all headed.

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