Erotica Sustainability

There are plenty of midlist authors out there who have faded into oblivion. Not many authors can look forward to a career life-span of someone like Stephen King or James Patterson, or even Anne Rice. Some say epublishing is going to change all of that. Now books won’t ever go “out of print.” They’re all going to be on the virtual shelves forever, competing for the attention of the reader.

In an epublishing world, this seems to be true. Many midlist authors are finding a new audience for work that was previously out of print, making money off books that were unavailable for years. Most genres, especially those with big reader-return and high book-read counts like romance, mystery/thriller and horror, will sustain this kind of boom.

But what about erotica?

The good news is that erotica readers (and erotic romance readers) are as voracious as the readers in the genres I’ve already mentioned. The bad news is, as any of us who write in the genre can tell you, we are often the subject of round-about corporate censorship, something most other writers don’t usually have to deal with. I’ve been writing in the erotica genre since 2006, and I can tell you that things have changed exponentially since then, and I imagine they are going to continue to change as the ebook market shifts.

When I first started writing erotica, there was a lot of erotic romance in the market—where the story or book followed one relationship to a happy conclusion, with lots of sex sprinkled in along the way. But there wasn’t that much true “erotica,” where the emphasis was on sexual exploration that didn’t necessarily focus on one couple and didn’t always end happily. The largest romance ebook publisher at the time, Ellora’s Cave, had just started their “exotica” line, focused solely on erotica, and they were the first.

Fast forward to 2011 and the Amazon erotica bestseller lists have changed considerably. No longer dominated by the erotic romance market, it now looks like a shelf in the back room of your local video store, with titles like Virgin Cumsluts in Space Suits Get It On With Daddy. What happened? Nothing except the sale of more Kindles. Kindle readers discovered erotica and their demand for more created a huge supply of it from self-published authors. Nothing wrong with a little free-market capitalism!

Readers are buying and consuming these stories like popcorn, faster than writers can keep up, and authors are making a living writing erotica. It’s a win-win situation! There’s just one wrench in the works—Amazon doesn’t like erotica. How do I know this? First of all, they make it very difficult to find. The “erotica” category is hidden within “fiction” and there are absolutely no sub-genres, so readers can’t hone their search. Secondly, Amazon bans certain “taboo topics” it doesn’t like. Things like incest and bestiality. Sometimes topics like rape for titillation. They remove titles at their discretion, without warning or recourse. And lastly, Amazon “filters” adult titles based on their covers. If the cover is too risqué, Amazon will mark it “ADULT” and that title will no longer be searchable in their main store.

So how can an erotica writer make a sustainable career in a world where the subject matter they write about is often the subject of controversy and corporate censorship?

All erotica writers walk a fine line when it comes to this genre. We need to make it sexy and appealing, without stepping over the line into “porn.” Unfortunately, too many writers recently have ignored that line altogether, moving into more extreme territory when it comes to titles, covers and blurbs. I understand that it isn’t easy, as a newcomer in the genre, to get yourself noticed when there are so many new voices calling out in the wilderness of erotica. A lot of writers have heard that you can make a ton of money “writing sex.” And many of them think it’s a gravy train and have jumped on board with both feet.

But it seems to me that the more mercenary folks tend to push the boundaries. They want to get noticed as fast as possible, to make as much as possible. They want a shortcut. They want the big bucks, the gold-rush. I think these newcomers truly believe that without the risqué title and description, no one will buy the book. The belief is that titling books with porn-keywords garners more sales. Maybe that’s really true, maybe it isn’t. But, unfortunately, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they also garner a lot more negative attention.

The kind of attention Amazon and other distributors don’t like.

The question is—is that a risk you’re willing to take? If you’re in it for the short-term, maybe it is. But if you’re looking to build a long-term sustainable career in erotica, I’d advise against it.

We’ve already had one distributor axe Indies altogether after these kinds of extreme titles flooded their bookstore. We’ve had another draw up restrictive guidelines about what they will or will not accept. The larger venues like Amazon and Barnes and Noble haven’t taken these steps. Yet. But how long do you think they’re going to let it go on without doing something about it? Indefinitely? Based on their past behavior of corporate censorship, I just don’t think so.

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s true—titles with porn-keywords do garner more sales. But at what cost? In the short-term, you have money in the bank. In the long-term, what have you gained? A fan base? I’m afraid not. If you are not putting out quality, professional product, you aren’t creating a fan base. Your readers are drive-bys. Drive-thru fast-food eaters. They may get addicted to burgers, but if they can’t find you easily in the top 100, any old burger will do.

My readers seek me out. My readers are loyal. They don’t want just any old meal—they want a Selena Kitt feast. And I sold 500,000 books in 2011 without one porn keyword (that I can think of…) in my titles. If you consider me an “exception,” then I can tell you that Excessica made over a million dollars last year, and we have the word “fuck” in just one of our titles. I would argue that you can garner sales without titling with porn-keywords. And you don’t have to go all sunsets and vanilla. We’ve got “excess” in our name, for pete’s sake. We’re known for pushing the boundaries. But for the sake of all our authors, we walk the line, because all of us want to have a sustainable career in this genre.

So what else does this strategy of putting porn-keywords in your titles and description get an erotica author? Negative attention in the media perhaps? A lambasting on some snarky podcast show or review site? The loss of distributors and vendors? Not such a pretty picture. So a writer makes a few more sales than they would have—all impulse buys. Most of them won’t actively seek that author out again. And what was the risk in the meantime?

And please don’t think I’m talking about censoring content in erotica. What I’m talking about are covers and descriptions and titles. Inside the book, pretty much anything goes (as long as it’s—please and thank you—proofread and spellchecked!) in terms of creating a quality and professional product. For me (and I think for most readers) titles run toward the extreme when they start adding porn-keywords like cumslut and cornhole and gangbang. The same rule applies to book descriptions and blurbs. Erotica authors are already self-policing their covers, because we all know Amazon will mark your book “ADULT” if you cross the nudity line.

Of course, there’s a fine line there too. “Hotwife” in a title might not catch attention. Or “Cuckold.” But they’re borderline. And I think we’re all adults. We write erotica. We know what might be deemed offensive. The trick is walking the line. Having porn-keywords in their titles and descriptions seems to be what books have in common when they become the target of the kind of corporate censorship we’ve seen at Amazon, Smashwords, ARE and Bookstrand.

The truth is, only you know if what you are selling is a quality, professional product, since self-publishing has no gatekeepers. Except, of course, the market. But that market is tricky. Everyone keeps saying, “People want this, and it sells, and I’m just writing to the market.” That may be true, but you have to factor in the distributors. Even if the market will bear the current influx of extreme titles, the vendors aren’t going to let the market be truly “free” in the case of erotica.
If there was a longer, say, five-year stretch of evidence that Cumsluts Doing Daddy in Outer Space With Werewolves Parts I-XII were great long-term investments for you, as a writer, I’d say so. That isn’t the case. I’m encouraging erotica authors to look at their current investments and decide whether or not they’re going to pay the dividends you want. If not, you might want to consider changing your investment strategy.

The problems at ARE and Bookstrand were directly related to the influx of extreme titles, blurbs and covers that flooded the virtual shelves. Most of them were written by authors thinking with short-term views and goals, many of whom were trying to compete with one another for spots on the Amazon erotica Top 100, so they attempted to one-up each other with more and more ludicrous and extreme titles. It was a gamble, and in the case of two distributors, it didn’t pay off. It’s still paying off well at Amazon and BN and Smashwords. For how long? Maybe forever. Maybe not. I’m betting on “not.”

I could be wrong, but there’s no way to tell the future, either way. If you want to think in a mercenary way about your work, then it makes sense to hedge your bets.. If you’re going to post extreme titles or covers or blurbs, I suggest making sure you’ve got a backup in case that content gets slammed. And having been around for six years, I’ve been through enough censoring cycles to know it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of who and when. And the main identifying factor will be your titles, covers, and descriptions, because no one has time to read that much erotica!

So it stands to reason that the more extreme your titles, blurbs and covers, the bigger target you paint on your forehead. Is that really part of your long-term business plan? Unfortunately, the “free-market” doesn’t necessarily apply in this genre. The distributors will only allow things to go so far before yanking the chain. They’ve proven this over and over. So even if the readers want it, a long-term career in erotica doesn’t involve writing short stories with porn-keywords in the title and description. Only you, as a self-published erotica writer, can decide if the long-term risk is worth it for short-term gain.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Writing twelve 3,000-word short stories a week about vampire werewolf daddy cumslut gangbangs and charging $2.99 for them isn’t going to make you rich, or famous, or give you any sustainability in this genre.

Even if you have 100+ stories in your catalog, as the market becomes more saturated with writers who want to jump on the bandwagon and as ebooks tip the scale toward a majority of readers, even the drive-by readers are going to disappear. The glow of the “new Kindle” will fade, and the idea that you can read “naughty fiction” on it and no one will know will become passé.

Eventually practically everyone will have an ereader and the people who always read erotica will still be reading it—and those readers will turn their tastes toward known quantities. The erotica writers who delivered quality, professional product, again and again, will be the ones still standing.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. You decide, you make the choice. Are your goals short-term or long-term?

What kind of erotica writer are you?

And what kind of erotica writer do you want to be?

Selena Kitt

Erotic Fiction You Won’t Forget

Selena Kitt (47 Posts)

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of erotica and erotic romance.


  1. I think you’re right about market saturation.

  2. TheOthers1 says:

    Good thoughts. I love your stories by the way. I think It was mentioned in a previous post how these get-rich-quickers saturating the market are doing harm to the genre because of their mercenary tendencies. I agree with that assessment as well. I think this short-sightedness on people’s part is ridiculous. Your assertion about them being fast food and therefore forgettable is accurate. You never remember those titles and if it’s not well written I won’t come back for more.

  3. JKBradley says:

    Truly excellent post, and I don’t even write Erotica.

  4. Amber Adams says:

    Another great post, Selena. Thanks for the business side insight.

    One thing I keep wondering about, though, is what is a porny title and what is an extreme cover? I have some covers and titles that are provocative, but for the most part I wouldn’t say they are porn. Maybe others will disagree with me. Of course, as Amber Adams I write pseudo-incest, so I’m already on shaky ground in some ways, and filtered by Amazon and banned by All Romance Ebooks and Bookstrand. Apple, too, unless Mark Coker pulls off a miracle and comes up with a compromise.

    Still, I think my stories are good ones and aimed to satisfy particular kinks. Fast food? Maybe. But, not junk food. A fine distinction, perhaps, but one that is important to me.

    I’m writing as a career, not a get rich scheme, even if I do write a lot of short stories priced at $2.99. I’d hope someone would tell me if I’m too extreme in covers or titles. Thus far, no one has said anything, so I’ll hope I’m not over the line.

    Keep up the great work you do as a writer and voice for us, Selena. Thanks again.

  5. Selena Kitt says:

    I think when you start entering into “porn-keyword-land” in your titles, you’re pushing the boundaries toward extreme. I hate to use the “I know it when I see it” definition of “pornography” but I think we all DO know it when we see it. The smart thing, I think, in this particular market as it stands, with corporations trying to push erotica into oblivion, is to tame down the covers and the titles. You can still keep the hotness inside, but advertising it on the cover is just going to paint a target on your book. And if you ARE going to push to the extremes (which will, of course, draw more reader attention to your title – I understand that) you should know those risks. Really, that’s all I’m getting at.

    • Amber Adams says:

      Thank you for your clarifcation. I’ll admit to having a mixed emotional response to it, but I appreciate your candor. Thank you. I appreciate it.

  6. Katie Cramer says:

    Great post, Selena. I am here for the long-haul, too, and consider myself someone who genuinely cares about putting out a quality product.

    What concerns me, though, is the subjective definition of “porny” titles. I’m shocked, reading above, to hear that words like “hotwife” and “cuckold” would be deemed borderline. I have a few titles with these words in, purely because they cater specifically for those markets. I would never have considered titles like “How To Be A Hotwife” or “Once A Cuckold” remotely offensive – especially as there is a marked difference between these types of stories and ones that simply depict, for example, infidelity or cheating wives. It is a very specific sub-genre.

    I would also say that words like this are meaningless to those who know nothing about those kinks. Most people I know have never even heard of the term “cuckold”, let alone are offended by it. Is “breeding” next on the hit list? Again, this is a sub-genre of cuckolding or hotwifing – but someone into these kinks (or even practising them) may not be into breeding. Just because a man’s wife practices “hotwifing” does not mean he is a “cuckold”. Again, there are very clear distinctions between sub-genres of the same kinks.

    It has me a little worried that corporations may be willing to censor terms which. in my mind, are mere descriptions. I think there’s a big difference between these and something that is clearly designed to shock and grab attention.

    • Amber Adams says:

      Another concern is that even if everyone reading this blog put bland covers and innocuous titles in place (assuming they don’t already), there are many others out there that would go right on pushing the boundaries. We could all tone everything down and see our revenue plummet (I do show some skin and have titles that I suppose are a little porny in some cases, so I’ll include myself in that we), and still be censored when the next purge comes along. If it does.

      That might be easier to do if I already had a following and income stream from my writing, but I don’t. I don’t make tons of money from what I sell, so it’s difficult to convince myself to emasculate the few titles I have that do sell over a possibility. Maybe if I had a lot more titles, it would be easier to make a call like that, because I’d still have a reasonable income coming in. But, I don’t. Yet. Perhaps my view on the subject will change if I make the transition from struggling writer to successful writer.

      A number of people that wrote pseudo-incest stories rewrote and repackaged them after the last purge. I didn’t, because I wanted to see how things settled. In the end, I still sell enough PI to keep me writing it.

      Honestly, I’m thinking that method has more merit. If I must adapt, I will. Until then, I’ll do the best I can to write good stories and sell them in a way that leaves my readers and me happy. If the platforms change the rules, I’ll do what I need to do to meet them. I just can’t justify strangling my income, such as it is, while others will fill that void.

      If another censoring is coming, it will come no matter what I do, because I can only control me. I’ll adapt when it does.

  7. Personally, I think if you have to worry that Amazon will filter you because of cover, key words, etc. or Smashwords will bounce you and say do it again, then you’re walking that line. It may be wrong of them to do that, but it’s their choice.

    I for one don’t want to spend even an hour working on something that as soon as I put it up on Amazon it gets filtered and lost into the abyss of non-sales.

    Besides as a reader I might want to read the story, but I’m not thrilled about having a cover that says ‘Hot Secretary Gangbang’ with some woman’s bare ass or tits front and center showing up on the bookshelf on my Kindle Fire for my kiddos or anyone who picks it up to see. Instead I’ll pass that story over for something that has a bit safer cover and title.

    My choice isn’t about being ashamed of what I’m reading, but more so to keep my 9 year old from seeing stuff she’s not ready to know about yet. It’s hard enough policing her television choices without her seeing these images on mommy’s kindle.

    • Amber Adams says:

      I suppose I was being naive when I wondered if I was one of the people walking the line. Of course I am. I write about subjects that I know will be filtered. Not that I think my covers or titles are the cause. It’s the subject matter. Still, I do show some skin and I have titles that I feel are better targeted at an erotica audience, perhaps even porny.

      I know it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t expect it to be. I expected going into this career that there would be people that liked what I did, or hated it. With lots in between or ignorant of me entirely. On reflection, it shouldn’t be a surprise that erotica writers look at one another similarly.

      The logical part of me acknowledges there are some points to what is being said here that I agree with (and some conclusions that I don’t), and that the topic and responses aren’t aimed at me, specifically. This blog post is professional and so are the comments to it. Everyone said how they felt and that’s as it should be. I’m not for muzzling any opinion.

      Still, the emotional part of me feels judged and has been fuming most of the day. That’s my problem. My feelings are my own responsibility and only mine. I never expected to be the “them” in “us or them.” Yet, here I am. It makes me sad, but here I stand.

      I probably shouldn’t post this, but I feel like I have to say how I feel. I’m an erotica writer and we’re all family. Even a black sheep like me.

      • Amber Adams says:

        My SO thinks I’m reading entirely too much into this and that I’m taking something personally that I shouldn’t be. If so, I apologize.

        There’s a reason I don’t usually respond to blog comments. I’m sometimes too passionate for my own good. Appologies to all.

  8. ekisjan says:

    Hey Selena.

    Great post with some great insights. Thanks for this.

    To all the writers/contributors on this blog: I do not always comment, but I just wanted to take the time to thank you all for doing a great job. This is surely one of my favorite blogs…

  9. Michelle Anthony says:

    Yes. There are so-called “authors” out there who write “erotica” and throw nekkid body parts on their covers along with keywords that would give the local prostitutes a coronary. They are part of the tsunami of crapola that came along with the ease of self-publishing.

    They should be more responsible. But they aren’t. They are out for a quick buck. And most can’t write worth a crap.

    Everytime a new way to make money comes along, there will be plenty of assholes & idiots to screw it up for everyone.

    Although I hate it when book sellers censor what is available for sale, but it is their business. It is their right.

    But when some 2 ton gorrilla, like PP and other financial institutions, come in and try to shove their dick face in my face, telling me what I can and cannot buy? THAT burns my butt hairs. It is tantamount to a bank teller refusing to give me money from my bank account because they are afraid of what I might buy.

    If they were to ask, I would tell them, “Cocaine and strippers! Gotta party with Charlie Sheen this weekend.”

    F*ck’em! It isn’t any of their business.

    The fact that there are users out there who buy the stuff and then return it after they’ve read it is bad enough, but we also have nimrods who decide that if they can’t get a refund, then they will just charge it back… which screws everyone again.

    They screw up wet dreams across the world.

    And as for those who complain on religious or moral grounds… “Move along! There’s nothing for you here. Take your money next door.”

    More wet dreams destroyed.

    It has always been my stance that one of three things most likely happened back in February of this year:

    1) Someone’s teenage boy (or SO) used their credit card to buy a ton of smut and the offended party complained;
    2) Someone’s kid (or SO) used the computer to look at smut and the offended party complained; or
    3) Someone was helping their kid do homework (or doing their own) and found the jackpot of smut and complained.

    Someone asked if they were crossing the line with their covers. After looking at them, I can clearly state… No, Babe. They are, without a doubt, some of the classier ones out there.

    As for the rest of ‘em…all I can say is…

    The mind is the largest sexual organ in the human body and the fuel to everyone’s fantasies.

    Quit being so blatant. Put some clothes on those girls (and guys). Leave something for the imagination. If your writing is strong enough, your work will sell.

    Hell, even the streetwalkers have to cover their cooch.

  10. Thank You for this article. As a newbie, this helped to frame out “good ethical” parameters which I can abide by. I also want longevity and not just drive by readers. My covers/titles will reflect this guides from here on out. Thanks.

  11. Reblogged this on lillianbendover and commented:
    Great guidelines!

  12. Carl East says:

    I try to make my covers as appealing as possible, without being explicit. I also never use extreme titles to get my books noticed and I’ve succeeded, yet, I still get banned at places like Apple. I’m now having to change the genre I’m working in to suit the market. Fortunately, I actually enjoy writing paranormal erotica so that’s worked out well. I agree with everything you said Selena, great post.

    Carl East

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: