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Erotica Ignited Book Sales, But Trend is Tough to Sustain

Fifty Shades of Grey is a phenomenon, but erotica is more than BDSM and is still tricky to sell, say authors, booksellers and publishers.

Suzy Spencer is the author of the recently published book "Secret Sex Lives"

By Suzy Spenser

In the spring of 2010, Brian Alexander (America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction and co-author The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction) wrote for MSNBC.com that the erotica market was booming and helping keep the struggling publishing industry afloat. He specifically noted the hundreds of thousands of books sold by urban erotica author Noire, a writer who was then published by One World/Ballantine, as well as the fact that San Francisco’s Cleis Press, a publisher of erotica, had seen it sales increase by more than 56% over the past three years.

Just two years later, Fifty Shades of Grey, the E.L. James trilogy of erotic novels that began as self-published fan fiction, exploded onto the New York Times bestseller list, reportedly selling more than 35 million U.S. copies. Print sales for the Vintage/Random House trilogy were aided by family-friendly stores such as Target and Barnes & Noble devoting multiple rows of prominent display space to the series.

Erotica is Big, but is the Boom Already in the Past?

According to bestselling author Beth Kery, “women are becoming freer about expressing their sexuality”

In August 2012, Barnes & Noble retail CEO Mitchell Klipper told analysts that Fifty Shakes “had the biggest impact on its numbers,” meaning the erotic romance had helped reduce B&N’s losses. That hinted that once again, erotica might help save the industry. But when B&N released its most recent numbers in late November 2012, Klipper made no mention of Fifty Shades of Grey. Has the erotica trend already flamed out?

Not at Penguin. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series of erotic novels experienced an upswing in sales, which motivated Plume/Penguin to repackage and reissue the bondage, domination, sadomasochism (BDSM) trilogy last August. “They approached Target and Walmart, and were pleased by a good reception, and so the books went out with a big push,” Rice said, resulting in the decades-old series hitting the New York Times bestseller list for the first time. “And sales have been brisk ever since. Right now the boxed set is on sale at Target.”

At Berkley Books, a division of Penguin, Executive Editor Cindy Hwang stated that Fifty Shades — and Berkley’s own Sylvia Day Crossfire series — created a “dramatic increase in media attention,” which in turn attracted new readers to erotic romance, resulting in an increase in sales for Berkley’s backlist and new titles. When Day’s second Crossfire book, Reflected in You, came out last October, 286,000 ebooks and 100,000 trade paperback copies sold in the first week, Hwang reported.

Despite such success, Hwang does not plan on increasing Berkley’s erotic romance schedule beyond the current rate of one to two books a month.

But at Kensington Publishing, the current home to Noire, it is a different story — and was even in 2010. Kensington’s erotica sales peaked in 2007–2008, said Audrey LaFehr, Kensington’s Editorial Director. After reaching that peak, Kensington decreased it erotica title output. It has no plans to increase that output, even though the house is hoping for a second boom. “But so far sales have not climbed back…with very few exceptions,” LaFehr said. Those exceptions are contemporary BDSM books — books like Fifty Shades and Day’s Crossfire series.

And that too shows a change in the post-Fifty erotic publishing industry.

Readers and the Industry Are Now More Confident

“When I first published the Sleeping Beauty trilogy,” Anne Rice said, “feminism was not all that kind to S&M erotica. It was passionately concerned with political correctness, and with gaining respect for the liberated woman. Only my gay readers were eager to celebrate the Beauty trilogy in reviews and articles. For them the sexual revolution was still going on. And I understood that, but it wasn’t a great time to be selling these books. Now we’ve seen a generation of fully empowered and emancipated women, and they have no hesitation about declaring their love of S&M fantasy…And that is a marvelous development.”

New York Times bestselling InterMix/Penguin author Beth Kery (Because You Are Mine) also believes “that women are becoming freer about expressing their sexuality, and even more comfortable in exploring issues of dominance and submission — in the bedroom or in the privacy of their own mind, not in everyday life necessarily. There is a difference. It seems that one of the unexpected results to women’s liberation is that women now have to do everything — work, take care of the children, manage social and family schedules. They also were told to be vigilant about not being seen or used as a sex object. As women become more confident in the sexuality, those old strictures of right or wrong fade away, and they are freer to play a little — discover what does or doesn’t work for them based on their individual needs, not society’s.”

InterMix/Penguin author Lauren Jameson (Surrender to Temptation) didn’t write BDSM before Fifty Shades of Grey. “But now I love it because it allows for deeper insight into a heroine’s psyche. I know a lot of people think that feminism is taking a backward swing with the upsurge of BDSM in erotic fiction, but I don’t see it that way. In a BDSM romance, the heroine submits to the hero, certainly, but in the end, it’s about the compelling, enigmatic hero submitting emotionally to the heroine, giving her power over his heart. What woman doesn’t enjoy the thought of that?”

Erotica is More than Just BDSM

The success of the BDSM books concerns some erotic romance authors, though.

Kensington writer Kate Douglas laments that Fifty’s sales numbers make publishers think erotica readers only want BDSM-themed books. “But the story I get from the readers following my various series is completely different.” Douglas’ books are paranormal erotic romances with polyamorous themes, i.e. many loves. And that theme of love as the most powerful emotion, along with acceptance, is what keeps her readers coming back for more, she believes.

Still, Douglas knows she’s benefitting from the James and Day successes. “The series I’m writing now, which is a spinoff of my original “Wolf Tales” series, was originally intended for a different imprint within Kensington that was not erotic,” she said. “In fact, my contract specifically spelled out the fact that I could not include same-sex or polyamorous relationships in my stories.” Then, about the time Fifty Shades of Grey was garnering media attention and setting sales records, she was asked to redo the book — it was half written — and make it erotic.

“It is also my hope that more people step outside their comfort zone and read something outside the norm,” says author Pat Tucker.

Similarly, Tracy Ames, the author of Make Her Want It (Atypical Publishing) and two other interracial erotic novels books, has experienced a 20% sales increase since Fifty and several publishers — large and small — have approached her “specifically looking for Kink based manuscripts.”

And there is a difference in kink as in erotic romance and Kink as in erotica. Erotic romance is novel like Fifty Shades of Grey, author Laura Antoniou explained — “inexperienced, blank slate girl and brooding, dark man, blah-blah.” Erotica is like Antoniou’s own Circlet Press Marketplace series — “an elite and secretive world organization, dedicated to the auctioning and overseeing of the world’s finest lifestyle slaves,” as described by Libido magazine.

“To say The Marketplace series is like Fifty Shades of Grey is like comparing Memoirs of a Geisha with Shogun because they are both set in Japan,” Antoniou added. Her agent begged her to write a romance novel like Fifty Shades of Grey, she said. “And I just couldn’t. It’s not to my taste, and it’s not to my style.”

Rachel Kramer Bussel is known for writing and editing both erotica and erotic romances for Cleis Press (Best Bondage Erotica 2012). She appreciates that Fifty has increased customer and industry awareness. It’s gotten her more press. She’s been on radio shows, quoted in The Globe and Mail and The Wall Street Journal, was on an erotica panel at the Texas Book Festival, and was scheduled to do a reading at Posman Books in New York City. “And that’s something that I don’t think we would have seen pre-Fifty Shades, from such a mainstream, if independent, bookstore.”

Fifty Shades Helped by Understated Cover

Bussel also noted that she believes Fifty’s success was due in part to its understated cover. Indeed, that’s something that everyone from publishers to author noted. And Douglas, for one, loves the change. “I had readers who said they really wanted to read my books but didn’t want those sexy covers where the kids could see them…Plus, a large number of booksellers complained to me that they couldn’t display the books where children might see them.”

Then there were the men who complained. Despite the fact that many in the publishing industry state that men don’t read erotic romances, Douglas said she has many male fans, one of whom was stationed on a ship in the Persian Gulf. “And I finally sent him a cloth book cover for my books after he emailed me and complained that one of the other sailors had come on to him, thinking that he must be gay if he was reading books with naked men on the front.”

However, LaFehr, Douglas’ own editorial director, sees these understated covers as a trend that won’t last. When all the covers start to look alike again, LaFehr stated, publishers will look for something new.

Sales Tapering Off

While Barnes & Noble is still devoting significant — though significantly reduced — display space to Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as giving prominent space to Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series, independent booksellers such as Jeremy Ellis with Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas, and Kathy Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas (as well as founder of the 500 chapter Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club) both say that Fifty Shades of Grey is no longer selling at their stores and, try as they might, they can’t entice their shoppers into buying and reading any other erotica.

That’s a shame, according to Zane Presents/Strebor Books writer Pat Tucker (Daddy’s Maybe). “I believe that shining a light on issues considered taboo by [the] mainstream helps to foster a greater understanding across the board. And while I still believe that everything isn’t for everyone, I think all readers can benefit from more of an open mind. It is also my hope that more people step outside their comfort zone and read something outside the norm.”

Hardcore BDSM erotica author Antoniou thinks that just might happen. E.L. James is going to write another book, and there’ll be the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, she pointed out. And New York Times bestselling author Anne Rice predicted, “We’ll see more books go mainstream. We’ll see more erotic behavior in films. There will be a leveling off but I think we’ll see a healthy environment for erotica for some time.”

Suzy Spencer is the author of several bestselling true crime novels and Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, recently published by Penguin.

SURVEY: Has the Erotica Phenomenon Flamed Out?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 17, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Erotica was in a ghetto. Now it’s in another ghetto. The fact remains, a good deal of it is simply mediocre. The recent attention is sparking yet more mediocrity to hit the bookshelves in an effort to cash in. The trend will eventually die out, but it may damage the reputations (and sales) of a lot of writers who are actually good at what they do as opposed to simply being assembly lines of smut and silly fluff.

    For years I fought to change the image and perception of the genre, pioneering erotic writing workshops at literature festivals and in academia to help elevate the genre into something more than a one-handed read. Now I wonder why I ever bothered. Sure, the genre is getting attention and maybe it is becoming more mainstream, but it isn’t improving the literary quality. Just the opposite, in fact.

    And therein lies the problem – at least in this humble scribe’s opinion.

  2. Edward Nawotka
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    @Mitzi, I think many have the same fears as you do. It’s a valid category, particularly when written by pros who know what they are doing. What we don’t need are more “one-handed reads,” or at least books that are as stimulating to the mind as they are to the body.

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