Smut & Saleability: A Penetrating Look at eBooks and Self-Published Erotica

Erotica has always occupied a weird space in the publishing industry. Clearly, there is ample demand for books about “doing it”—the commercial success of the inescapable Fifty Shades trilogy has proved beyond a doubt the old adage that “sex sells.” But when it comes to the supply end of the spectrum, several factors can make putting out steamier titles an iffy proposition for most publishing houses. Happily for connoisseurs of the genre, self-published authors making use of digital distribution platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have stepped up to scratch the itch.

As a genre, erotica poses unique challenges to publishers. For one thing, they cannot count on advertising by word of mouth; for most readers, erotica is exclusively for private consumption. Though some titles (like the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey) have managed to plough their way into the mainstream, even mentioning erotica in public remains a taboo broken by only the most embarrassing of aunts. Many would-be erotica readers are deterred by the prospect of facing down a judgmental friend, relative, or bookseller. The stigma associated with both the buying and selling of “dirty books” is one that many established brands wish to avoid altogether.

Long gone, however, are the days of stashing naughty books under the mattress to hide them from prying eyes. The advent of the ebook has brought the genre into its own—and into readers’ hands. Discretion is the name of the game. Unburdened of embarrassing, Fabio-bedecked book jackets, the modern erotic book goes from the cloud straight to your phone, laptop, or ereader. Kindle in hand, you can peruse the ribaldry of your choice whenever you like—in the park, in the dentist’s waiting room, on the MAX line—and no one can prove it’s not War & Peace getting you all hot under the collar.

This has been a boon for the entire genre, and imprints like Xcite Books and Ellora’s Cave have seen ebook sales soar even as print sales flatten. But what self-published authors really offer to readers is a mind-blowing plethora of choice. The incredible variety of subgenres gives new meaning to the word “niche,” and titles that elsewise would have been immediately consigned to the slush pile have found eager—even voracious—audiences because their authors took a risk that no sane publishing house would. As a fledgling publishing professional, the mere thought of trying to pitch a book titled Moan for Bigfoot is enough to set me quaking in my boots. But author Virginia Wade has made a name (or pseudonym, as it were) for herself doing just that, and “cryptozoological erotica” continues to be a popular subgenre. Of the top twenty ebook authors listed by Amazon’s Author Rank, approximately half a dozen write erotica. That two of these specialize in bear shape-shifting erotica is, as far as I’m concerned, a triumph of the free market.

The genre is not, of course, immune to the common complaints lodged against self-published books. Poor cover design and substandard writing, while not universal, are in evidence as one browses the erotica section. But in the world of erotic fiction, content (coupled with reasonable pricing) trumps all. Good graphic design, for example, is never a disadvantage, but given its limited value as a marketing tactic (noted above), the most crucial task of the erotica cover is to alert browsing readers that it is, in fact, about sex—a goal self-publishing authors accomplish with varying degrees of subtlety in accordance with their branding. And though I’d not go so far as to suggest editing does not matter, I would speculate that the reader busy bestirring themselves with the latest gorilla shape-shifter sexcapade is a reader less likely to bestir themselves over, say, a misplaced comma.