Monday, September 15, 2014

Contrary

By Lisabet Sarai


Market? Do I have a market?

I suppose I must. I mean, not all the rows on my monthly royalty statements are zero. However, I suspect that the people who buy my work don’t fit easily into any category, because my writing doesn’t either. They don’t constitute a Market with a capital M. I’m not particularly popular with Erotic Romance Readers, or Suspense Readers, or BDSM Readers, or Science Fiction Readers, or Steampunk Readers, though I’ve written in all those genres. Actually about the only identifiable group who seems to consistently like my work is the community of other erotic authors.

Definitely not what you’d call a large market, though I’ll admit it’s one I respect and for which I’m grateful...

The funny thing is, to a very large extent, I understand what’s popular in the different genres where I dabble. I believe that I could write exactly what the market wants, if I set my mind to it. Another lusty virgin seduced by a dark, seductive, haunted dominant? I cut my literary teeth on that trope, in my very first novel, fifteen years ago. (Okay, Kate wasn’t exactly a virgin, but she was a total newbie as far as BDSM was concerned.) Been there, done that. Although tales of power exchange push my personal buttons more than almost any scenario, the world now has more than enough books with that basic plot. I have little desire to write another.

In fact, I’ll admit that when it comes to my writing, I have a contrary streak a mile wide. I love to experiment with different genres. When I do, my first thoughts involve ways that I can give the genre an original twist. For example, I wrote a feline shape shifter romance in which the hero was originally an ordinary cat. I wrote another shape shifter romance about Quetzlcoatl the feathered serpent. I’m working on a story now where the bossy billionaire is a woman and the virgin is a guy (a nerdy professor who is borderline Asperger’s). I’ve already discussed here at the Grip the BDSM romance I’m contemplating, in which the hero is quadriplegic.

In my multi-genre opus Rajasthani Moon, I challenged myself to include the classic elements of as many genres as I could. I ended up with a steampunk/ BDSM/ multicultural/ menage/ werewolf/ Rubenesque/ Bollywood tale that I personally think is pretty brilliant (or at least, a huge amount of fun), but which readers have mostly shunned.

These narrative choices do not endear me to the capital M erotic romance market. What about pure erotica, though? There are millions of readers looking for stroke fiction and thousands of authors publishing it. I can write fuck-and-suck stories with the best of them (with correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, too!) Perhaps that should be my target market.

Alas, sex for the sake of sex bores me, almost as much as love for the sake of the happy ending. If I were desperate for money, I’d probably try my hand at hard-core porn, and I suspect I’d be at least moderately successful, but writing as I do mostly for the pleasure of the experience, I want more than just the mechanics. I’ve received reviews from folks who bought my erotica collections, complaining that the stories weren’t sufficiently graphic. Yes, I know. They had characters. Conflict. Plot.

On the other hand, I find myself struggling to tone down the raw sex in my romance. I make my editors squeamish. Then there’s the problem that my characters always want to have sex with the wrong people, instead of staying focused on their soul mates.

I could write popular erotic romance or utterly filthy smut if I forced myself to do it. I’m quite certain. Despite my contrariness, I’m actually good at taking direction. (I am a sub, after all.) The commissioned stories I’ve written for Custom Erotica Source have been highly praised. Clients have sent comments thanking me for bringing their (for me, sometimes odd or even distasteful) fantasies to life, exactly as they imagined.

I understand how fiction works and how language can manipulate emotion. I feel as though I have decent control over the tools of my craft – better than the majority of published authors today. I’m confident I could bring those tools to bear in order to construct, if not a best seller, at least a series of books that would sell much better than what I write now.

The bottom line, though: I don’t want to do that. Unlike some of you here at the Grip, I’m not trying to make my living at this. I can write what I feel like writing – even if only a few people share my tastes. My true market consists of the relatively rare individuals who care about originality in fiction and who appreciate the way a story is told as much as the story itself.

I know you're out there somewhere.

40 comments:

  1. What about pure erotica, though? [....] I want more than just the mechanics. I’ve received reviews from folks who bought my erotica collections, complaining that the stories weren’t sufficiently graphic. Yes, I know. They had characters. Conflict. Plot.

    Yes, and this is the kind of erotic literature that so many of "us" write (especially in the short-story format)—non-romance erotica with character development, plot (or at least what could be called a narrative, even when it's strictly the erotic encounter in and of itself that constitutes the story), stylistic originality, and artistic depth. "Sex" as not just the mechanics, but a multifaceted experience. And it's the kind of erotic literature that the market, the media, and even sometimes voices from within the field largely deny the existence of (insisting on a dichotomy between erotic romance, on the one hand, and mindless strings of porny sex scenes on the other). This blindness to the possibilities of (and the reality of) quality erotic literature per se has, in my perception, intensified in recent years and is very detrimental to our field.

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    1. And in my analysis the problem goes way beyond the "happy ending" issue, which seems often to be the focus when frustrated authors touch on this issue. That's certainly an issue for many quality authors, but as far as what I'm describing I don't think it's the issue. We're talking about an entire genre of fine writing being categorically dismissed as nonexistent (or misrepresented), not simply because of how the story ends (which isn't always non-HEA—and in any event often isn't even a germane element in a short story with no novel-scale resolution), but because of what its entire artistic raison d'etre is.

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    2. Do you really think the situation has gotten worse?

      Actually, you may be right, thinking about the books Cleis has been putting out lately.

      Makes me feel grateful that I'm not trying to make my living doing this, and awed by Giselle, who is.

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    3. I do think it has gotten worse, starting about five years ago as erotic romance surged (well before FSOG). We still have editor Jakubowski, thank goodness, but Susie Bright's annual is long gone and Clean Sheets, I believe, publishes quite irregularly now; and though one shouldn't put too much weight on any one editor or venue, I feel those developments represent a wider phenomenon. Editors Tyler and Bussel and Green (thank goodness) still compile what I would call fine erotica per se with Cleis, but (to run with your point) even Cleis increasingly packages and markets things as erotic romance, even where a significant number of the stories might be better described as erotica—so it's almost like erotica has to be snuck in under the banner of romance, which was not the case in 2007. Xcite Books was an erotica publisher from 2007 into 2010 and then (as far as their most visible products) to some extent reinvented themselves as erotic romance. Others have written about the shift in focus at Black Lace. There are various micro-publishers doing erotica, of course, but how many of them reach more than a handful of readers?

      Meanwhile, when FSOG brought a lot more media attention onto "erotica," we had all this proverbial wisdom about contemporary "erotica" (i.e., erotica romance) being distinct from "porn" (i.e., everything else, with no distinction made between the most hackneyed confessional fuckfests and the beautiful erotic masterpieces penned by literary virtuosos), with both ill-informed journalists and authors and publishers who should know better perpetuating and further disseminating this awful dichotomy I'm talking about.

      I'm generalizing and, of course, this is all my own interpretation, subject to much debate, no doubt. But, fwiw, this is basically the analysis I've come to.

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  2. Lisabet:

    I've read enough of your stuff to agree wholeheartedly with your self assessment.
    "I understand how fiction works and how language can manipulate emotion. I feel as though I have decent control over the tools of my craft – better than the majority of published authors today."
    That's a great place to be.

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    1. Yeah, Spencer, that and a dollar fifty will get me a cup of coffee! (But thanks! As I said, my biggest fans are my fellow authors.)

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  3. Lis

    Great post and thought provoking. I too have struggled with what genres to write in and like you this is not my day job thankfully, I write basically stroke material and would like to think there is somewhat of a plot weaved in between the fucking and sucking. I have basically decided that until I'm forced to write themes that will keep the wolf away from the door, I will write what turns me on and hopefully there are similar perverts out there who enjoy my style also.

    I try not to delude myself that I'm writing "The Old Man and The Sea" but masterpieces more suitable for home alone reading, with a free hand. The feedback I've received has been completely contrary to what I thought I'd get. I always assumed that my audience would be mostly male but have been pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of my readers are women. It turns out, at least among the women who write me, that there are a lot of women who enjoy fantasizing about NSA sex, without the bother of love or romance. But being in the Lifestyle, that is the "norm" and not the "exception".

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    1. Hi Larry! Thanks for visiting the Grip.

      I do think there are plenty of women who enjoy hard core, graphic sex.

      You should write what comes naturally and what you enjoy. One advantage of the cyber-revolution is that physical distance is no barrier to finding a community of like-minded individuals.

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  4. I love your writing style, Lisabet. You write engaging characters with very real sexual needs, who seek out ways to satisfy themselves. Your novel about the shifter cat earned a 5-star rating from me. I even enjoyed Bangkok Noir, though I'm still uneasy with the idea of enjoying pain until it becomes pleasurable. But I've read books written by men about men, and by lesbians about lesbians, and enjoyed them too, although I can't picture myself in them either. A good book is a good book. Well-written is well-written.

    Re: Larry, "there are a lot of women who enjoy fantasizing about NSA sex"...of course there are! But there are even more women who can't admit that even to themselves. For them there must be love and romance in the story, so they can assuage their conscience about enjoying the "naughty bits". We all learn from an early age that women who enjoy sex, who actively seek sex, who engage in sex with many partners, are sluts, whores, take your pick of all of the names "bad girls" get called. Yet men who openly seek sex with many partners are perfectly acceptable.

    Men's Health Oct. issue had an article written by a gay man quoting the statistics that prove that gay men are happier with their partnerships...most are also quite happy they don't have to deal with straight women. They suggest straight men should incorporate some of their practices into relationships: talk more about sex, about what you want and how to have more of it. Watch porn together to stimulate variations. Etc.

    What I'd like to add is that men should share not only THEIR porn, on video, with their SO, but also HER porn, which is romance/erotica. Most women assuage their guilt over reading about sex by caring about whose penis is penetrating whose orifices, and why it's so meaningful that it's happening. Then they can enjoy it. Read her books, talk with her about it, and suggest you try some of the hotter scenes. Flattery and novelty should help a lot. And 2--men, stop seeking out inexperienced or virginal gals! If you know a woman has "been around", likes sex, has had it with many men, and actively seeks it out, why on earth would you NOT want to have some with her yourself? Performance anxiety? Get over it! You just might find your soul-mate. That's how my husband found me!

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    1. Hi, Fiona,

      Despite the popularity of the situation in fiction, I wonder how many men actually seek out virgins. Sure there's a small caveman contingent, who like the thought of "taking" a woman for the first time, but most men, I've found, do appreciate a sexually honest and sexually experienced woman.

      And thanks for the kudos for The Eyes of Bast. It was orphaned when Books We Love decided to stop publishing erotica, but I've sold the book to Totally Bound and it should be out in March of next year.

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  5. I'm one of the guilty party that writes erotic romance with the emphasis on romance. I've often had the urge to write pure erotica without the mandatory HEA, just having the characters move on to the next round. Just have to find the right publisher.

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    1. But you LOVE happy endings. You're not forcing yourself to write them, that's what comes naturally, right?

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  6. As Jeremy says, "it's almost like erotica has to be snuck in under the banner of romance." That's exactly what's happening, as publishers see how hinge the market for romance is. And true or not, some folks trying to analyze the success of FSoG latched onto the explanation that women decided it was acceptable to read a sexy book (leaving aside our opinions as to whether it's actually sexy) because "They were in love."

    I may have some of the blame for Cleis turning toward erotic romance. I mentioned a couple of years ago that there's a staunch core of lesbians who buy books by the armload at events like Women's Week in Provincetown and some similar gatherings, as well as through ordinary channels, but they're not buying all that much erotica. Romance, mystery, and to a lesser extent historical fiction are what sells, and that's probably as true of the heterosexual buying public (mostly women) as well. Then there are the many women who write and read M/M erotica and romance and don't want the least hint of women in their books.

    I guess it's fair to say that publishers these days have to pay even more attention to "the market" than we do. My first anthology was with a press that published quirky, creative, sometimes brilliant work, without regard to mainstream sensibilities--and they folded several years ago.

    One problem I see, or at least theorize, is that only a small sub-set of the population actually buys books these days, and readers of erotica are more likely to settle for what they can find free online.

    Self-publishing may become the only way to get non-homogenized fiction out there, that or a few publishers with deep pockets and devil-may-care attitudes. If I had the deep pockets...

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    1. Hi, Sacchi,

      From what I've heard, book buying is actually up, not down.

      And I do blame the publishers. If something sells, all they want is more of the same.

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    2. I don't expect fine non-romance erotica to be popular at the level that erotic romance is (and, just to be clear, I'm not dissing erotic romance)... but I think the market/media/pundit tendency to deny its very existence makes it that much harder for the audience it does have, the authors who want to write it, and the publishers who might be willing to publish it to connect. Readers who want it are discouraged from seeking it out (because it "doesn't exist") and bookstores might not even have a place to put it. To me, there's a big difference between "erotic romance sells hugely, while erotica per se, no matter how well written and interesting, is more of a small niche"; and "there's erotic romance and then there's just vulgar junk that insults the reader's intelligence." File under "adding insult to injury."

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    3. A belated note to say that I very much agree with Jeremy's point. I've been at one too many readings of erotica written by authors who've never heard of the ERWA, don't seem to have bothered to see what else is out there, and yet feel comfortable declaring that all that's out there is junk.

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  7. Fiona

    We have both gay and lez friends and I agree that they seem to be happier sexually than most straights. My take is that with the smaller selection set available to them (less than 5-10% gay/lez?), gay/lez try not to let an opportunity slip by is another reason also. People born & raised in the US tend to have puritanical views on sex and this is especially true with Catholics (I married one). One of the reasons we like our lifestyle so much is that everyone is always more relaxed and open about things in general.

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  8. Maybe stroke material doesn't have to be great literature because readers never read more than a few pages at a time?

    And why would I know that??? :>)

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  9. It gets even tougher, Lisabet. I've been told that to sell books to bookstores, sales reps require some "hook" with which to seduce the customer, such as "Readers who love (insert name of some very successful book or author) will be crazy about this one!" (This was said when I proposed editing non-LGBT anthologies. LGBT books, at least, do get their own shelves in most bookstores, whether they're erotica or not.) If the sales reps won't take it on and promote it to their customer list, pretty much all that's left is Amazon and other online vendors, where ebook sales are much higher than paperback ones. I don't mind that, but bookstore sales are a large part of my publisher's business model.

    So far my anthologies have not been specifically romance-oriented, but the one I'm working on now, The Princess's Bride, is. (And the title itself is a "hook," which was my intention.) I was so eager to get a fantasy theme approved that I went with the erotic romance angle.

    I admit it. I'm a hard-copy book whore, and addicted to having my books widely distributed. But I see many tempting opportunities coming along out there, and if I could manage to save enough of my royalties to swing it I might force myself to learn the tech associated with self-publishing, and pay for good cover art and book design.

    Better cut this short and save my own rants about restrictive market forces for my post next Monday.

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    1. But let's be clear about this, because I think there are a lot of dangerous misconceptions out there about self-publishing: Self-publishing is a good option if you already have a sizeable following (which you, Sacchi, presumably do, because you've been editing terrific anthos for years, which have earned you an audience who will follow you to Amazon and scoop up your self-published books). Am I right? What I fear too many authors don't think through is that without that kind of loyal, established audience, self-publishing a book, however good (or, for that matter, publishing with a micro-publisher), is basically like buying a lottery ticket. With no means of attracting readers in the vast Amazonian Ocean other than the very dubious mechanisms of user reviews, search rankings, promotional blogs read only by the promoters and rarely the public, and closed-circuit social-networking squee, I have to imagine it takes quite the rare stroke of luck to be that book that actually clicks on Amazon.

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    2. Jeremy, for my own work, there's not much of a following. I did a collection with Lethe Press a couple of years ago, and, while it was a Lambda Finalist and a GCLS winner, it didn't sell much at all. For anthologies, I do have some following--probably mostly people who want to write for them--but I'd have to save up quite a bit to pay the contributors whether the book sold much or not. Well, we'll see.

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    3. Sacchi, who is publishing The Princess's Bride?

      Jeremy - Self-publishing is definitely a crap shoot, but I think some people who do not start out with a big fan base still succeed. In erotica, I think this is because they hit on a subject area that pushes many readers' buttons. Like the Bigfoot lady!

      I'm looking to experiment with self-publishing short stories. I've got a raft of them, but my collections didn't sell particularly well. Maybe people want them a bite at a time.

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    4. Lisabet, Cleis is doing The Princess's Bride. (How does one do italics here?) They used to say "no science fiction/fantasy," but then fairy tale themes got popular, and Kristina Wright has done three of them, so they finally approved my proposal.

      Cleis still puts out non-romance erotica--as Jeremy said, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Alison Tyler (and Mitzi Szereto and now Tenille Brown, with Can't Get Enough) are editing that. But they've expanded into erotic romance as well, with Kristina and Delilah Devlin.

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    5. I just finished reading (for review) "Hungry for More" edited by Rachel. The subtitle? "Romantic fantasies for women."

      Actually very misleading. Some of the stories are romantic, but many are not. I can't see even a hint of romance in Greta Christina's chilling "Craig's List"!

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  10. Jeremy why do you think self publishing is a crap shoot? While I'm one of the crap shooters, everything I read about hard copy publishing is rejection. So why isn't hard copy publishing a crap shoot? At least with self-publishing, you have some control over your destiny, whereas with print you have to somehow convince a publisher that your masterpiece is better than the other 10,000 stacked on his desk. Certainly once you've "made it" then they are beating down your door waving checks with lots of zeros at you but like professional basketball players, there is a limited number of the slots available.

    I read all the time about authors ranting about what a "crap shoot" all the self publishers are while they run around bragging that they received a one time $50 payment for something they slaved months over. Assuming a $2.40 profit on every story, it only takes 20 copies to blow past $50.

    While I hope that you stay out of self-publishing as that's one less competitor for me LOL still I think if you step back and look at the two self-publishing has advantages over print.

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    1. Jeremy - Sorry this post sounds like a rant after I read it and that was not the intent of the post. I was just trying to understand why self-publishers are always beat up by people trying to get their work in hard copy.

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    2. Hi, Larry. No worries! I didn't take it as a rant. And I just finished responding to it, below.

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  11. That's a good question, Larry, and of course it's a complicated topic. I'll try to explain the particular type of comparison I'm making (with apologies for talking so much in this thread).

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that, unless one has a true fan base seeking out the work, one can write the best book in the world and put the best cover on it, and if there are—what?—10,000 other titles in the same category at Amazon, the odds of any reader, let alone the right reader, even seeing that cover for a fleeting instant, even having the slightest idea the book exists, are absurdly small. The slush pile may be a rat race, but I feel that self-publishing is one step beyond that—because it's not just that the book is being judged against a large number of other contenders, it's likely not being judged at all—because for the most part it's invisible. Granted, "rat race" versus "lottery ticket" is not a very good set of choices for a talented author.

    Also, I should also explain that in terms of what I've been saying, I'm primarily thinking in terms of readers, not dollars. A $50 flat-fee contribution to an anthology published by a well-distributed conventional publisher, supported by some advertising dollars, mainstream-media relationships, trade shows, and maybe some hot B2B action will, I imagine, probably sell into the thousands even if it's not a "success." And if a lot of those sales are at "real" prices (i.e., not 99 cents for a full-length book), especially in print rather than the out-of-sight-out-of-mind e-books, hopefully a high percentage of those purchasers will actually read the book, being invested in it. By a conservative estimate, any one story will probably have been read by hundreds of people. Whereas that $50 in your self-published single-story model represents, at most, twenty readers.

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    1. Anyway, I think the important thing is just that people make well-informed choices with realistic expectations—which I'm sure all of us in this conversation do, though in the writing population at large I worry about the concept of self-publishing as a panacea. A writer who knows the lay of the land and says, "Hey, 20 copies and I come out ahead, better this than the publisher rat race" is a success. It's the self-published people who sell 20 copies after expecting to sell 200 or 2,000 that I worry about.

      By the way, though I've never self-published, I do have some personal experience with these sorts of visibility challenges, because at various times I've been "micro-published" (by which I mean published by tiny publishers who were basically working from the self-publishing model in terms of available resources, outlets, and strategies).

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  12. I agree that you're fighting for space with 10,000 (?) other authors but at least you have a dog in the fight. I think we also need to separate smut writers from all the rest and consider how much advertising you actually get from a publisher selling your porn. With non-erotic books, they all get pushed but with smut IMHO it's kind of like buying Hustler from under the counter at the 7-11. That in my opinion is one reason I think marketing smut is much different than "normal" publications.

    I don't consider myself a successful writer "yet" and so my theories might be all wet also. Self-publishing is free and why not try it? After all you can't win if you don't buy a ticket. For self publishing I have to do my own editing and get people to proof my work. You are going to have to write it no matter what and so that is no different. The only additional time is spent is creating a cover so in my way of thinking my outlay is minimal as I work cheap then I have to push my work on blogs, which I understand the publishers want you to do also, so that's no different.

    Once I've finished another one of my masterpieces (no applause please) then in typically a few hours it is published and I'm just waiting around for the checks to arrive. If I pitched the story to a publisher, I would assume that it would be 6-12 months before it hits the street. My self-published book has been on the electronic book shelves for months before my hard copy shows up. Then if the hard copy is not an instant hit, within a few months, the book store has pulled it off the shelves and replaced it with another book. Then returned the unsold books for a refund, which hurts. When you electronically publish, the story is technically available forever and you never have to worry about the book being pulled.

    That's my rationale and if you see me drive up in my new Range Rover then you will know that I was right. Otherwise if I'm standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign, then don't pay any attention to me.

    Speaking of street corners, the other day I'm driving in Sin City when I come across a homeless person holding up a sign which read, "I WAS HOOKED ON PHONICS", which struck me as the funniest thing I had ever seen. So he got a donation from me for being honest.

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    1. Well, taking Cleis as an example (and, granted, Cleis is to some extent sui generis), the books really are marketed and made visible (some of them, at least). Apart from being physically on the shelf in countless B&N and indie stores (and sex-toy boutiques and some public libraries), Cleis erotica books that I or my colleagues have appeared in have shown up in Publishers Weekly, USA Today, MSNBC radio, Oprah's TV show, magazines like Bust and Mojo, the Museum of Sex in NYC, booths at Book Expo America, and well-attended public events. I'm sure none of this guarantees sales, but it's a far cry from invisibility.

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    2. Interesting to know, I didn't realize that Oprah pushed smut books. Obviously this works for you and so soldier on.

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    3. Well, there are other problems, of course, as the whole "market" topic here explores. (And, as for me personally, I'm not as active in the field as I once was, hence my annoying "elder statesperson" routine. (:v>) But I do think the significant reality of a conventional publisher's "reach" (assuming the publisher is serious about using that reach) needs to be recognized, whether or not one chooses to go that route.

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  13. Hi Lisabet!

    33 comments???

    Man, SOMEBODY'S reading your stuff . . .


    You remind me in these moments of Anais Nin. If you have a chance to read her introduction to Delta of Venus, her short story collection, she explains why she wrote them. There was a collector of pronography who commissioned her to write to write them and of course she wrote them in a literary manner. But he complained. Although VCR's hadn;t been invented yet he wanted to skip the talking part and fast forward to the humping and gasping on the floor part. She said writing stories in that way dried her out. She loved erotica and hated porn it turned out.

    In the end we write what we would love to read. The greatest thing in the world is when you knock yourself on your own ass with something you wrote. Not that we would admit it when we do.

    Garce

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    1. Hi, Garce,

      We all do love to discuss our frustrations, don't we?

      "Thanks for reading my stuff."

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    2. Garce

      "Although VCR's hadn;t been invented yet he wanted to skip the talking part and fast forward to the humping and gasping on the floor part." struck me as really funny. I know a guy who is exactly like that and spends most of his time with his DVD player running at 2X to get to the good stuff. Of course as a guy I can also buy into that. LOL

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  14. Belated comment to say that, aside from being somewhat relieved at not having to jump into the thick of this conversation while it was still hot, I've thought a lot about the case where it's mostly other erotica writers that seem to appreciate one's work. Have you heard about how bass players get called "the musician's musician?" To me, there's a parallel here.

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    1. I think that's a worthwhile parallel, and the fact that our audience often seems largely to be limited to other (erotica) writers is something that I, too, have thought a lot about. It's a mixed blessing because, as we've discussed in the past, writers are often too busy to read their colleagues' work (and will often intentionally read outside the genre when they do have reading time).

      The poetry community, I suspect, would look at us with bulging eyes and say, "Huh? You're writers, and you expected to have readers? You expected to sell books? Where did you get these insane ideas?" (:v>

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    2. Heh. I have a dear friend who's got a poetry MFA, and I think from talking to him that writers of poetry exceed readers of it by a fair margin. Many readers are also writers, and I think that's fine--there shouldn't be embarrassment when, at a reader conference, everyone's hand goes up when someone asks who's also a writer. It is embarrassing, though, if writers wind up talking to no one at all, the bass player performing in an empty room. And that's part of why I believe in making the time for reading.

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