Erotical

Everyone is playing the speculation game over possible fates of the publishing industry, scrying the interweb for ebook and readership trends. Such divination is varied and seems full of either melancholic nostalgia or a barely suppressed Schadenfreude. It can get tiring reading about the iPad vs. the Kindle (like they’re Godzilla and Mothra biffing it out in downtown Tokyo) but it leads to an interesting substrate of literary reportage on smaller trends and how they may affect technology and readership habits. These trends, against the wishes of many looking at them, promise nothing of the future but may be able to teach the astute something about it.

A current favourite in the field of micro-trends is the erotica market. Its growth over the last year has been pretty phenomenal, rocketing upwards at a rate around 60% per annum, fast enough that blood would drain right out of your head for entirely appropriate reasons. It’s quite noticeable in the industry due to the proliferation of erotica imprints amongst the big boy publishers like Penguin, Hachette, Random House and HarperCollins, etc (identifiable by fractionally risqué names like Forever, Delacorte or the anti-eponymous Virgin) established in order to cash in on the escalating sales – sales one might very well call engorged.

On the bookshelves at your local store you’ll find various forms of erotica, the thin edge of the blade being ‘Paranormal Romance’ (though many prefer euphemisms like Vampire Porn or Bite & Bonk), which come in varied temperatures, from the angst-laden but fairly chaste Twilight novels to the Wolf Tales series, 8 volumes and counting, which is completely wanton and unquotably explicit.

But these are add-on sales; the true demographic growth in the erotica industry comes straight from no-fuss, get-on-down, purist erotica – the sales of which are huge and predominantly driven by women aged 25 to 40 with their blogs putting in the hard yards in terms of promotion. Their selections, be they Urban Fantasy, B&D, Paranormal Romance or more mainstream erotica, tend to have two things in common: 1. You won’t readily find them on your bookshop shelves, because almost everyone is too publicly embarrassed to buy them, bookshops and readers, and, 2. Good writing. That’s good writing, competent and engaging, not brilliant. A pastiche of sweaty encounters, described with florid prose, pounded out on a word processor isn’t going to cut it. Rather, well structured, engaging stories with believable characters that can be related to are the form that attracts attention. And, if done well, there is a lot of attention to be attracted. Erotic fantasies, after all, need to have characters, regardless of their fantastical situations, that one can place oneself in. But it is the genre as a whole that is worth paying attention to, rather than focussing on individual authors – mainstream authors like J.K. Rowling and John Grisham may sell squillions, but they are the aberrations that sustain a larger, barely profitable market. But the erotica market makes crazy money. The difference is the appetite. Feel free to read into that word.

Many erotica readers are moving from the pulp romance genre, your average Mills & Boons, to the more explicit, complex and intelligent erotica options (like the aforementioned Wolf Tales series) as readers become more sophisticated and less easy to please. The difference is greater depth of emotion, situation and exploration, layered, in this case, with more dynamic (or, at the very least, athletic) sex and relationships.

The really comforting thing for the smaller publishers who specialise in erotica is that their readers are quickly and efficiently embracing eBook technology, whose portability and pricing is a huge draw card, as well as the ability to read some pretty intense prose in public without anything other than a slight flush to give you away. No one can look at the cover and wonder what on earth that strange man is doing to that woman with his sword. (We must give honourable mention, at this point, to the recent audiobook formating of none-other than The Kama Sutra – put on tape so the blind or prudish can comfortably – or uncomfortably – experience it in the dark).

So, as people look to the future of great literature in the digital age, or even mass market authors like Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown, it may prove astute to pay attention to what genres people are reading more of now when trying to read the tea-leaves of publishing’s future, as that is where the interesting stuff is happening. For instance, the bizarre success of spin-off books from genre series – and I don’t mean Deidre’s Karma Sutra, I mean Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook. Seriously, an imaginary cookbook from a romance novel. Take that expected demographics.

What lesson might an industry learn from the all this?

Books, in whatever format, are always about readership. You can feed and profit off readership, you can try to respond and predict readership. But before that you have to notice readership, because readership is hungry.

Another lesson, a little more abstract, yet all the more meaningful for it, is that if publishers don’t try and generate readership, in whatever genre, they’ll be all carrot and no whip. And vegetables only tempt so much.

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3 thoughts on “Erotical

  1. Kate Douglas says:

    I do love Google Alerts, or I might not have seen your post–I’m the author of the “unquotable” Wolf Tales series–there are actually ten books and nine novellas to date, trade paperback rather than mass market, and the first book, which released in January 2006 is now in its tenth print run. There are two more books to come before I end the series–I’m currently writing Wolf Tales 12 and hearing howls from my readers who don’t want the series to end. It may not be “brilliant” writing, but it’s entertaining and sort of addictive–the same characters reappear throughout the series with readers growing attached to their favorites, and developing a strong connection with what is essentially a very strong family of shapeshifters.

    For what it’s worth, my sales through regular bookstores (they’re a bit too hot for Walmart and Target’s shelves) are higher than the ebook sales, though with the growing popularity of decent ebook readers that may change. Of course, all of publishing is going through a major metamorphosis, so it’s hard to say what’s coming next. One thing I’d add is that erotic romances didn’t really take off until the small, independent epublishers began offering the really sexy romances. Not porn–there really is a difference–these are sexually explicit romances, but the romance remains the focus, not the sex. (NY publishers kept telling those of us who like to write the hot stuff that women don’t want to read sexy books…imagine their surprise when a small epublisher called Ellora’s Cave began stealing all their romance readers and luring them over to the dark side…I started with EC in 2001)

    Wolf Tales launched Kensington Publishing’s erotic line–Aphrodisia–in January 2006 and sales have remained strong, even in the expensive trade format. However, readers are adamant about wanting good stories with strong plotting and well-rounded characters along with the explicit sex scenes, and believe me, it’s not easy to balance the two. Thanks, though, for your perspective–I really enjoyed your post. I’d only like to make one small correction–Debbie Macomber does NOT write erotica, unless you’re lumping all romances under the “erotica” imprint, which would be blatantly false. The genre is as varied as can be, and Debbie’s romances always close the bedroom door in the reader’s face.

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    1. vicbooks says:

      It’s quite exciting to get an author’s response, especially one that adds depth to our post’s information. Thank you for that. I’ve corrected the Debbie Macomber error you pointed out.
      The seed of this post was planted by my sister’s championing of romance, followed quickly by the more explicit erotica publications, demanding that I get off my high-horse and pay attention to its quality and popularity. I have since been keeping her informed of developments and new publications. It all cast doubt over a lot of commentary on book trends touted by many major publishers.

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      1. Kate Douglas says:

        Since romances are a genre favored by women (though, to my surprise, I have a really large following of male readers) we really don’t get much respect in the “literary” community, even though sales of romances account for a huge percentage of books sales nationwide. This link from the Romance Writers of America website will give you some interesting stats–what I like is seeing sales of romances in the billions of dollars–yep, with a “b.”
        http://www.rwanational.org/cs/the_romance_genre/romance_literature_statistics/industry_statistics

        For what it’s worth, in my opinion, the most redeeming factor of the entire genre is the fact that romances always have a happy ending–when you put that book down, no matter how many awful things have happened to the protagonists, the story will leave the reader feeling good and upbeat. In times like these, that’s a pretty nice guarantee when you pick up a book, knowing it’s going to leave you feeling good about the story.

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