When Red Phoenix first decided she wanted to try her hand at self-publishing erotic fiction, her husband had his concerns. So did Red.
"Basically, we were afraid that the stories would attract creepy old men,” says Phoenix, a Denver wife, mother, and former elementary school teacher whose pen name refers to the color of her hair and her self-described ability to rise from the ashes.
What Red Phoenix and her husband soon discovered, however, was not an audience of anonymous men on the hunt for digital titillation, but a loyal readership of mostly women looking for stories that were “not only hot but also meaningful.”
It’s an avid and voracious fan base that Red Phoenix, author of more than 30 erotic e-books, says she wouldn’t be able to properly serve without access to self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords. Oftentimes her readers consume her work—and demand more—faster than she can write it, as was the case with Brie, her bestselling nine-part series of BDSM-themed novellas charting the sexual awakening tale of a young submissive in training. The stories were later combined into a single novel-length collection.
“One novella might take about a month to write, get edited, and publish, and my readers get through it in three hours,” Phoenix says. “Brie is 452 pages and I have fans who read it in two days.”
Habits like those need to be gratified by a constant stream of new work, often in serial form—which wouldn’t jibe with the traditional publishing cycle. The freedom of self-publishing also allows erotica authors to sway with what’s popular. If a particular piece is doing well, there’s nothing to stop them from running with it. Phoenix’s Brie series started out as a one-off short story. Following its unexpected popularity, Phoenix was able to pivot and give her readers more of what they wanted—and fast.
And what readers want isn’t necessarily a happy ending or a sweet romance. “Women don’t just want to read about being swept into the arms of a hunky hero—I certainly don’t. Sometimes they want to be slammed against the wall or tied up... or fisted,” says Dalia Daudelin, a self-published author of numerous erotica stories—including Booty Call of Cthulhu, originally published under Daudelin’s previous pseudonym, Roxie Feurouge, and an advice book for aspiring writers entitled How to Really Self-Publish Erotica: The Truth About Kinks, Covers, Advertising and More!
Erotica readers aren’t shy in their tastes, and indie writers are more than willing to provide the product. While some subcategories in the overall erotic fiction genre might seem niche—paranormal, people in uniform, adult fairy tales, erotic science fiction, pseudo incest (sex between family members with no blood relation)—self-publishing creates an aggregate worldwide audience for them, says Smashwords founder Mark Coker. “Whatever turns you on, whatever you want to fantasize about, there’s something for you,” he says. “We tend to be extremely permissive in what we allow on our platform, although we have zero tolerance for anything underage; we’re always on the lookout for that.”
While self-publishing has inarguably given erotica authors the freedom to express themselves and, if they’re successful, to make a good living—prolific indie erotica author Selena Kitt can bring in more than $10,000 a month—it’s not without its struggles. Recent crackdowns have seen the wide-scale removal, and in some cases reinstatement, of thousands of erotica titles from digital shelves across the Web. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and e-book retailer Kobo have all removed many erotica titles from their sites.
In one high-profile case back in October 2013—following reportage by the Mail on Sunday that claimed to find what it called vile pornography on the websites of major retailers in partnership with e-book platforms—UK bookstore WHSmith, in what Coker calls a “major overreaction,” responded to the scandal by removing all self-published content from its website and from its stores—everything from hardcore erotica to “the sweet romances.”
“It caused a lot of bad feeling and animosity in the indie community,” Coker says. “Now Kobo has implemented a tougher standard. Although I suppose they never allowed erotica officially, it was always there—but a bright light was shone on them and it turned everyone’s complexion several shades of red. The damage of that whole experience is that retailers are now more conservative; no retailers want to be dragged through the coals.”
Amazon, Kobo, and Apple’s iBook platform have all essentially banned incest, pseudo incest, bestiality, and rape fantasy. But while those topics are ostensibly verboten—as Kitt put it, “Incest is off the table”—that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t there. Kitt, for example, has sold more than one million books—she’s topped both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists—and she never shies away from taboo subject matter. Her stories—among them the fan favorite Baumgartner series that catalogues the sexcapades and conquests of multiple generations of the insatiable Baumgartner family—tend more toward sexual awakening rather than typical happily ever after.
And according to Kitt, that’s what her readers, between 70% and 80% of whom she estimates to be female, are looking for—although the adult filter on Amazon’s site, which flags certain types of erotic content and segregates it from common keyword searches, sometimes makes even very popular or bestselling erotica a bit hard to find.
“Basically, they’re hiding our books on their site and it’s becoming harder and harder to find our audience,” says Kitt, whose incest-themed books were banned from Amazon. She has since released revised Amazon-only versions to avoid the filter, including Back to the Garden, a collection of four short stories centered on incestuous encounters. The original uncut book is available for sale on other sites, including Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.
“The problem is that Amazon isn’t listening to the throng of readers who want this material,” says Kitt, who also laments Amazon’s notoriously vague content guidelines. “They’re not the vocal ones, but they vote with their dollars.”
But despite last year’s backlash and the erotica indie author community’s continuing struggle to interpret what will and won’t fly for Kindle, there’s no doubt that self-publishing is scratching an itch that needed to be scratched. “The advent of self-publishing has exposed erotica as an underserved market in the book industry—underserved by traditional publishers and by bookstores,” Coker says. “But the move to digital has democratized the space completely.”
Democratized it for readers and indie writers alike. “Even with the crackdown, I’m still able to write for women in a kinky way,” Daudelin says. “Self-publishing gives me so much freedom, and not just in what I write about.”
Daudelin is able to make enough money with self-published erotica to support herself and her fiancé while he finishes college. She plans to have children, and when she does, she says she’ll continue to write so as to be able to home-school them without having to worry about losing a second source of income.
And a good story is just a good story, says Daudelin, who claims she doesn’t have to do much in the way of marketing to keep her e-books selling. “All I have to do is make a good cover, a good title, and include good keywords, and the people who are voracious for the kind of porn I write will find it,” she says.
While it can’t be denied that the wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey put erotica as a genre firmly into the mainstream, it’s the self-publishing realm that keeps it thriving. “There’s no more brown paper bag; the shame of that is gone,” Coker says. “You don’t have to look across the cash register at a snotty bookseller who’s judging you, real or imagined, for whatever you’re buying—you can browse, download, and read with total freedom and anonymity.”
While neither Red Phoenix, Daudelin, nor Kitt has any serious interest in traditional publishing—as Kitt notes, “Unless Amazon cuts its royalties [indie authors get 70%], I’m not sure a traditional publishing deal would be lucrative enough for me”—the traditional market does keep tabs on the self-publishing world.
Ellora’s Cave is one such publisher. Founded in 2000, it’s currently one of the largest digital and print publishers of erotic romance in the world.
“Our editors do keep an eye on what’s being self-published,” says Ellora’s Cave publisher Raelene Gorlinsky. “They read some of that stuff to see if they can find anything that looks good and if they might want to approach an author to submit it.”
Although Gorlinsky asserts that self-publishing hasn’t influenced what Ellora’s Cave publishes—”We’ve always been very willing to try anything,” she says—it’s made its impact felt in other ways. “We keep saying that the biggest competitor now in erotica and romance is not, in many cases, other publishers,” Gorlinsky says. “The biggest competition is the self-published authors themselves—that percentage of the erotica writing population who isn’t even going to submit to or approach a traditional publisher.” It’s a population of writers who have already carved out careers for themselves in the self-publishing world where they can write the kind of stories that, as Red Phoenix puts it, “make you feel as hot as you hope your readers will be.” “Erotica has to make you feel something erotic,” says Phoenix. “If I write a story and it doesn’t give you that juicy feeling, I feel like I’ve failed.”
It’s also a population that enjoys experimentation and shrugs its collective shoulders at the backlash. “I write erotica for a living,” says Kitt unapologetically. “It’s a genre with a huge audience, and I’m not ashamed of what I write—and I don’t think readers should be made to feel ashamed of what they’re reading, either.”