The Rise and Fall…and Rise of Erotica

Ever since the meteoric rise of Fifty Shades of Grey began, I’ve been watching the publishing industry’s response with a combination of bemusement and dismay. The dismay comes mostly the form of me shaking my head every time a book is marketed as being “for” readers who loved Fifty (hm, guess it’s not for me, then, huh?) or given a monotone Fifty-lookalike cover. I’m sure, like everything else, both of these unfortunate trends will pass, but in the meantime, I can’t stop myself from heaving a sigh every time it happens. (Yes, I’m sighing a lot these days!)

What bemuses me, however, is the peculiar timing of Fifty‘s rise and the corresponding rush of publishers to embrace “erotica” as the next big thing in fiction. The thing is, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Back in the early to mid-2000s, Ellora’s Cave and other epublishers began publishing edgier, sexier books than the big New York publishers were willing to tackle. And those publishing houses became very successful. We could have a lot of discussion about whether erotic romance and erotica took off the way they did because of the discreet digital format, but the bottom line is that the traditional print houses looked at what the small epublishers were doing and decided there must be money in it. A lot of new, erotic imprints were formed, and publishers started snapping up erotic romance manuscripts in droves. Many authors who previously had been rejected by those mainstream publishing houses were picked up and became big name bestsellers–Lora Leigh, Cheyenne McCray, Sarah McCarty, etc.

The growth of erotica in mainstream publishing built to a crescendo that probably crested around the middle of 2008. And then, like most other bubbles, the market burst. Erotic lines were being cut left, right, and center. Aphrodisia (the line that published my novella anthology, Behind the Red Door) cut back from four titles a month to two. Black Lace, a British division of Random House that published erotica for 16 years, closed its doors. Avon eliminated its Red line. And, just a few months before Fifty burst onto the scene, Harlequin shut down its Spice line and rolled the books it had contracted for the line into Mira. In a matter of about a year and half, the traditional print market went from “can’t get enough erotica/erotic romance” to “don’t bother submitting erotica/erotic romance because no one’s buying it.” (Now, of course, that’s an overstatement; New York houses didn’t stop buying erotica/ER altogether, but their appetite for it definitely did wane.)

And then, along came Fifty and suddenly, it seems we’re back where we were in the mid-2000s. Erotic lines are being resurrected (Black Lace is relaunching with reprints of several classic titles, including one by Portia DaCosta). Publishers are actively pushing any book with BDSM elements as Fifty analogues and actively seeking new manuscripts that are “like” it. It’s the gold rush in erotica again, and life is good. Or it will be until the next crash.

And honestly, I think that crash is inevitable. I don’t say that because I’m a pessimist, but because it’s the way of these things. Everyone decides that X kind of book is hot because one exemplar of that genre becomes a huge bestseller. Publishers decide they must acquire mass quantities of X kind of book to meet the obvious demand. Except that demand turns out to be softer than anticipated because, while a lot of people enjoyed that one exemplar of X kind of book, one (or three or five or ten) of X is enough. The market becomes so saturated with X books that none of them has a real chance to gain a foothold. They all begin to look alike and nothing distinguishes one from the other. And then, the publishers cut back their lines and stop acquiring as many X books, and everything goes back to the way it was before.

Bottom line: I don’t think the proportional desire in the book-buying public for any particular genre changes just because one book in that genre breaks out and becomes hugely popular. Yes, I think a small proportion of readers will be “converted” to romance, erotic romance, and/or erotica by Fifty Shades. But in the final analysis, the popularity of Fifty Shades is not a signal that the proportion of readers who will regularly and religiously buy book in any of those genres has changed dramatically. We don’t need more of it to feed the existing appetite. We could, however, do with better.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss!

It’s Not Always the Cream that Rises

I know I’ve been talking a lot about the self-publishing revolution on the blog lately, but it really seems to be the hot topic in writer circles and I think it OUGHT to be one in reader circles as well. Why should READERS care?

The answer is that readers should care MORE than authors because they are being saddled with the role of gatekeeper. And that means, like the gatekeepers of old (agents and editors), they are probably going to wind up reading a lot of crap to find the gems. Readers/consumers will be slogging through the slush pile in place of the agents and editors, and although I’ve never been an agent or an acquiring editor, I’d done enough copy editing and read enough unpublished contest entries to have a sense of just how unpleasant that can be.

Now, I suspect many readers will say that they are discerning enough that they won’t actually buy books that are poorly written, poorly edited, or just plain not ready for prime time. I’ve certainly heard many authors who advocate self-publishing say that with sampling on Kindle/Nook, no reader should ever wind up paying for a book that has serious mechanical errors (unless, of course, the author manages to edit them out of the sample and forgets to fix the remainder of the book). Moreover, there’s a belief that the market will “punish” authors who can’t get it right–even if they sell a lot of copies, word-of-mouth and poor ratings on Amazon/B&N will quickly tank their numbers.

Or…um…not.

I hate to pick on anyone in particular, but yesterday, I learned on the Kindle boards about a book that is currently riding in the 2-3k range overall on Amazon and in the 20s-30s on the bestsellers in the Books | Regency list. It is a historical romance priced at $3.99 (although the cover looks more like erotica than historical). The cover copy is poorly written (and all in past-tense, which for me is like nails on a chalkboard) and the sample begins with one of the most egregious examples of a dangling participial phrase I’ve ever read. It doesn’t get any better after that. Although there probably were a few sentences in the first few pages that were grammatically correct and appropriately punctuated, it was only because they were too short for the author to get anything wrong. And let’s not even get into the story itself. This isn’t an Amanda Hocking style book, with occasional editing issues but a great story that overcomes its minor mechanical flaws. This is a train wreck from the first sentence on.

In short, this book was clearly never even looked at by a copy editor (even one of the most minimal competence) and if the author had any critique partners, I suspect none of them was over the age of 10 (my 9yo has a better grasp of sentence structure and punctuation, for heaven’s sake!).

And yet…this book is selling very well. Getting into the top 2-3k overall on Amazon is no mean feat. Hitting the top 100 on the Books | Regency list is tough, too. I know from my own self-published short story that being in the low thousands in the rankings means you are selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 copies per day. (I was in the 7-8ks when I was selling 10-12 per day, so I’m extrapolating.) How on EARTH is this possible?

The answer is…I have no answer. It’s not as if I’ve seen any promo ANYWHERE for this particular book. No reviews on blogs, no ads, no buzz on Twitter/Facebook. I’d never even have known it existed if it hadn’t come up on the Kindle boards. It doesn’t have one of those low, low prices that entices impulse buys. The cover and title might be enticing some people to buy on the belief that it’s erotica, but even then–wouldn’t they SAMPLE it, discover what a horror show it is, and choose to spend their $3.99 on four 99-cent erotica titles that had actually SEEN an editor (there are PLENTY of them)? Perhaps they are lulled into a false sense of security by the reviews (12 overall, 2 1-star and 10 5-star) and the fact that it’s on a bestseller list, but if I’d spent that much money on this garbage, I’d go back and write a scathing review rather than letting other people fall into the same trap I did. But my greatest fear, honestly, is that many of the people who are buying this book don’t even REALIZE it’s bad. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but given the gross grammatical errors in most emails I get from my (intelligent and mostly well-educated) coworkers, I’m not sure I can discount the possibility.

By the way, I’m not going to name the book here, not to avoid hurting feelings but because it’s kind of irrelevant to the point I’m making. The fact is, this is ONE self-published book that’s selling well on Amazon despite being poorly written/edited but I’d bet there are dozens more that would make just as salient an example of my premise.

And that premise is–the market doesn’t ALWAYS punish crap. It equally does not always reward diamonds. Many objectively BAD books will sell well, relatively speaking, while many truly wonderful books will labor in obscurity for reasons it is nearly impossible to fathom.

The free market is just that–free. And like any free entity, it makes mistakes.

So What If It Is Porn?

I’m sure this post is going to bring me quite a bit of accidental traffic, but oh well. Sometimes, things have to be said, even if they bring in the wrong sort of crowd!

We all know the truth. Romance is the Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction: it just can’t get no respect. Those who write it and those who read it are regularly sneered at as having no talent (“anyone can write to a formula”) or no taste (“how can you read that trash?”). We do what we can to combat this sort of prejudice, of course, but in the final analysis, we all know it’s ultimately a waste of time and breath. People who are anti-romance aren’t going to change their minds no matter what we say any more than people who read Glenn Beck and watch Fox News are going to wake up tomorrow morning and think, “OMG, I was so WRONG about Obama!”

But the one charge against romance that is absolutely certain to raise both hackles and heated responses is to call it “porn” (with or without the phrase “for women” tacked on). The defenders of romance rush into the fray whenever this charge is raised, because, they insist, romance is not pornography. Romance novels do not exist for the sole purpose of exciting sexual arousal, even when they include explicit sex scenes, and there are plenty of romances that aren’t explicit at all. Romance isn’t about sex, per se, but about romantic love, with sex as one of the many lenses through which that emotion can be explored.

The thing is, this is something you don’t have to tell people who read or write the genre. We know it already. I’m just not sure that arguing against it helps improve anything. Because as I said earlier, people who don’t like romance aren’t going to change their opinions no matter what we say. Moreover, I know plenty of romance writers out there who joke that they write “smut” or, yes, “porn.” I’ve been known to say it myself on occasion.

What it boils down to for me is this: I don’t care if people who don’t read romance consider it “porn.” I’m not ashamed to say that I write books that I hope will engender a whole range of emotions in my readers, up to and including sexual arousal. The sex isn’t the ONLY thing in the book, of course, but it’s a huge component of a romantic relationship, and if I can convey that part of my characters’ relationship well, I generally feel the rest will come along for the ride.

In other words, I’m all about word appropriation. You want to call my book “porn?” Fine, I’ll embrace that label the way some in the LGBTQI community have embraced the word “queer.” My books ARE intended to arouse my readers, and if they don’t, I’m not doing it right. And I’d rather spend my time doing it right than convincing the anti-romance crowd to use a different word. Because whether they do or not won’t change what I write and how I write it. Or, for that matter, what I love to read.

Now, go ahead…tell me why I’m all wet!

What Do Your iPod Listening Habits Say About You?

So, I’m sitting here this morning listening to my iPod and just really getting a kick out of my music. (Partly, this is because the darn thing wasn’t working for months. I thought I was going to have to take it to the Apple store to get it fixed, but my 12yo son figured out how to reset it manually, bless his heart. I must say his efforts on my behalf validate my decision to continue to feed, clothe, and house him.)

Because I have the iPod set on shuffle–and I have almost 600 songs loaded on it–I have no idea what’s coming next (except that it can’t be anything I’ve already heard). To start this morning, I got Thriller by Michael Jackson, then True Love Travels on a Gravel Road by Nick Lowe followed by A Day in the Life by the Beatles, Fame by David Bowie, and now, Shoebox by Barenaked Ladies. I’d never have CHOSEN to listen to those five songs in particular if I’d been scrolling through my music, but they’re all awesome songs.

My husband, though, hates it and complains vigorously when he has to listen to my iPod in shuffle. Some of that is that we don’t completely share musical tastes, but mainly, he hates NOT knowing what’s coming next and that it might be thematically/musically out of sync with whatever he just heard. When he plays his iPod, he always chooses either artists or albums and plays them straight through. He talks a good game about creating playlists, but I’ve never actually known him to do it except for specific circumstances (i.e., a Cub Scout meeting/event).

Anyway, it occurred to me that this difference in our iPod listening habits pretty well describes the primary difference between our personalities. I’m incredibly unstructured in my approach to life–one of the hardest things about having kids for me was the whole notion of having a schedule…or even a routine. I like spontaneity and unpredictability–to the point that some might consider me flighty or flaky (or both!).

My husband, by contrast, likes everything just so. If anything comes along and pushes him off his well-thought-out path, he gets cranky. Predictability and routine is the name of the game for him, which probably explains why we’ve managed to stay married for almost 20 years. A guy who likes variety and spontaneity a whole lot is probably not the best bet for husband material, after all :).

All in all, I think it’s a good thing that I married someone who is my polar opposite in this regard. He keeps me from flying off in fifty directions at once (keeping me to a solid 20 or so at a time, lol). And I keep him from being way too rigid and plodding. It’s a good match!

Anyway, this got me wondering about you all. What kind of iPod listener are you? And what, if anything, do you think your iPod listening habits say about you?

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