OpEd: The Challenges of Writing Erotica in Today’s Market
When discussing markets of any kind, consumers have to be involved. That is true whether it is the stock market, the grocery store, or book sales. Even free eBooks are part of a market of “buyers” and “sellers” because of the large variety of eBooks available these days. Just because you put it out there for free doesn’t mean anyone is going to download and read it. Especially the read it part. There are people–massive numbers of them–who download free books and never read them. Why not? Because who could possibly read every free book on the market? And yet when the price goes to zero, they get in line to get one. So a free book might make an author feel good, getting so many downloads, but it doesn’t regularly lead to sales of the writer’s back list, which is, ultimately the point of the exercise. It also leads to a marketplace bloated with free books. Writers have to have more confidence in their product and charge something. We don’t make this stuff out of thin air, it takes a big effort, and for good quality, it takes a team of writer, editor, cover artist, proofreader, and publishing professionals. All of us don’t come for free. I saw a cartoon on the internet the other day, and the gist of it was that other professionals charge for their best work, why not artists? If your doctor said, “Oh sure, I’ll give you a free face lift it you’ll buy that tummy tuck,” what would you think of the quality of his product? Would you have less or more respect for him?
Being a professional writer comes with the stipulation that you are selling something to a consumer, either for money directly (like retail sales) or for business consideration (like a secretary preparing a document for a boss who pays her), or as a loss-leader (as with a free book that’s supposed to convince the reader to pay for the next book in the series, which has very mixed results). Rarely are writers who only give away books (without expectation of monetization) considered professionals in the field. Free books are gifts, they are not sales. Therefore, we can say that a “professional writer” is one who produces written materials for money. Maybe we can call others “philanthropists.”
Having established that, it’s easy to identify the primary challenge facing today’s professional erotica writer: being paid! There is a huge market in non-professional erotica. Consequently, there is a natural difficulty in getting consumers to pay good money for their reading material. Quality is the difference. Readers recognize a quality product versus one that is unpolished. At some point, they’ll get frustrated by misspellings, grammatical errors and formatting glitches and want to read something produced by someone with something to lose—sales.
Publishers aren’t in business out of the love of their hearts. They’re not doling out contracts and professional services like editing and formatting because it gives them a thrill. They’re providing products to consumers and they expect money in return for those products. For obvious reasons, a publisher wants to start with a book that needs the least amount of expensive overhauling. So a writer has to produce a quality product. Consistently producing a quality product is likely to get the writer contracts with publishers and those lead to advances and royalties. The writer is paid!
What makes a quality product that leads to contracts with publishers? Hard work. This is as true of erotica as with any other genre. The characters have to be realistic and compelling, the setting has to be evocative, and the plot has to grab the reader and lead her along. The tale has to be grammatical, with good spelling, and a professional look. You could say this is true for any type of salable fiction. Erotica, however, has a twisty part: it includes a very intimate subject, sex, in greater proportion than other genres.
The writer has to take a good story, characters and setting, and add in the thing that changes an adventure novel into erotica. Here’s where imagination plays a part. It’s all well-and-good to read the Kama Sutra and describe what you see in the pictures, but there has to be a goal for the sexy parts. If a writer is writing sex for sex’s sake, in my opinion she’s writing porn. Porn has its place, of course, but the bulk of us want to write erotic romance, or erotic adventure, or an erotic thriller, etc. Avoiding that unwanted porn label, a writer has to use sex as a tool in her plot, a way to create intimacy between the characters or move them from Point A to Point B. If a writer has a good imagination and some skill at the craft, it all comes together.
When I started in 1992 with my first erotica sale, there were only a handful of legitimate erotica publishers, and none of them offered eBooks. That form factor was only a Star Trek dream. Although there are many more erotica publishers now than ever before, convincing a publisher to take the product isn’t any easier. For the writer to be paid—therefore meeting the number one challenge for a pro—she has to present a professional package that makes the publisher (or agent) say, “I can sell this!”
For me, being paid is the greatest challenge, especially since I do this full time. But it has been my experience that, like any other job, if you do it well, with persistence and patience, you will achieve your goal.