Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Offensive Material

Over the past couple years, I had made it a personal project of mine to read through some older gay erotic literature from my local LGBT library. I thought it would be neat to see the evolution of the genre over the decades. Honestly, I thought I’d be reading fairly tame stuff that didn’t even compare to today’s modern smut.

Holy fuck was I wrong.

Hardball by T. Hitman, which remains the hottest book I’ve ever read, had non-stop sex that evolved into piss-play in the latter half of the book. Punk Chicken, which had an anonymous author, features a lead character who shits on guys’ chests after fucking them. And The Leatherman’s Handbook, by Larry Townsend, while technically not a novel, opened my eyes to new areas of the BDSM and leather culture that I didn’t even know existed. I also tried reading a couple other books from that library, but one was so full of shit play that I couldn’t finish it and another had content that just flat-out made me super uncomfortable.

Given the consistency of content from those books, as a few of them were from within the same decade or so, I can only make the assumption that gay erotic literature, in general, had that level of raunch and fetish. It was normal back then.

And then I look at today’s gay erotic literature and the tight bounds put on it by Amazon and other vendors, and I just see vanilla. Even the kinkiest thing on Amazon is still vanilla to what was in those books from a few decades ago.

With erotic literature, perhaps especially gay erotic literature, entering the mainstream market, writers had to tone it down. (In fact, in the backs of some of those books, it sounded like their primary way of making sales was by mail-order catalogue, not by local bookstores.) The general public has deemed erotic literature to be obscene, unless it fits within a vague, but very rigid, box.

Amazon has a reputation and a history of unilaterally deciding something is offensive and removing books, and sometimes an author’s entire catalogue, from their site. Other vendors, when media attention was drawn to the fact that they carry erotic ebooks, have cleaned out their website of “obscene” material. These vendors often act surprised that there is such “offensive” material on their website and decide to make a public showing of cleaning out the filth. But they knew it was there. They might not have known about the specific title or two that tends to spark these news articles, but they knew the quantity of erotica titles on their site and they knew the general themes of much of the ebooks. In order to save face, they have to act surprised when easily-offended people make a stink about the easy access to “porn.”

About a year ago, I embarked on a new writing journey. Knowing what gay erotic literature used to feature rather extreme stuff, and knowing that current day sales of rather vanilla erotica is likely fuelled by the fact that kinkier stuff simply isn’t available, I wondered what needs weren’t being met by the erotica-loving public. Just because several major vendor refuse to sell extreme fetish doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for it.

I set out a plan to bring back the level of kink found in those older books.

The first was to find a vendor that wasn’t so easily offended — which I found in Smashwords and Excitica. Both of them allow stuff that isn’t allowed elsewhere, but still have a few restrictions. I decided I wasn’t going to worry about making it into Smashwords’s distribution channels — all I wanted was to get it up on Smashwords, and didn’t care of iBooks or Kobo or Barnes and Noble decided they didn’t want to carry it because it was offensive to them.

Admittedly, I’m not comfortable writing everything I saw in those old books. However, I took what I was comfortable with and threw in a few other things. I’ve covered piss play, incest, and some BDSM that’s a little more extreme than one generally finds in the BDSM section of Amazon. (All characters are always over 18.) I put the books up and kept watch on sales stats.

Most of my books ended up being picked up by most of Smashwords’s distribution partners. These books would get my account banned on Amazon, but were acceptable on Barnes and Noble and Kobo. iBooks blocked some of my books, but took most of them.

The real mystery, though, was how sales dollars would compare. If this new pen name was going to depend almost exclusively on Smashwords, whereas Cameron D. James is on every major retailer site, would it even be worth my time and effort?

Surprisingly, this new pen name, despite not being on Amazon, the world’s biggest bookstore, immediately outsold everything I’ve written under any other pen name. With only a few titles and very limited distribution, this new pen name is fast becoming my bread and butter.

While I’ve always sort of accepted that one person’s obscene material is another person’s masturbation material, this experiment really hammered it home. I generally don’t talk about this pen name — indeed, I haven’t mentioned in this post what the pen name is — because in the few cases where I’ve talked about it, I see people cringing at the thought. But I’m not writing for those people. I’m writing for the people that are stuck reading poorly-written stuff over on Nifty. I’m writing for the people who want a piss play story by an author that can actually form a sentence. I’m writing for the people who have a secret fetish and are looking for a little masturbatory material.

I’ve always kind of snickered when someone tries to set up a new erotica bookstore website and makes loud statements about how major retailers tell you what is erotic and what is obscene. I used to think that these people were just bitter that they couldn’t play inside the little box that Amazon set out for them. Now, though, I agree with them. As long as it’s within the bounds of the law, no one should be telling a reader what’s obscene and what’s not.



Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Seduced by My Best Friend’s Dad (co-written with Sandra Claire). He is also the publisher and co-founder of Deep Desires Press  a publisher of erotica and high-heat-level erotic romance. He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.

8 comments:

  1. Back in the early 60's, when I started reading erotica, the most significant publisher was Maurice Girodias' @ Olympia Press, who first published the likes of Henry Miller, Frank Harris, Nin, Beckett, Trocchi, Donleavy, Durrell, Reage, Nabokov, Burroughs, Terry Southern and many others. Their 'Travelers Companion" series was made up of talented, accomplished writers. They also had a division, "Ophelia Press" that published more ... ahem ... adventuresome material? ... where it seems the literary qualities became secondary to more transgressive themes.

    These books were mostly heterosexual, wall-to-wall sex, but there were plenty of M/M scenes scattered throughout the series, mostly pegging or someone simply needing a hole badly, (usually during an orgy) and taking any port in the storm.

    Point is that sixteen was the average age for many female participants, and they indulged in sex (often dubcon) almost as a driving force, lending even more credibility to their wild affairs. People meet and fuck, then invite others over to fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

    But my theory is that in those early days, most of that sort of thing was illegal anyway. So if someone was looking to write something erotic, vanilla sex would get you in as much trouble as something over the top. So why not? may as well try and hit as many kinks as possible. Now there's a middleman who gets to tell us what to write.

    The only absolute law about sexual content is the universal age limit. All agents of arousal must be 18. The rest is kind of a 'politeness' or standards set up to protect the middleman from anti-porn fanatics. Since the only law is the age criterion, how can they legally chill a writer's free speech unless the characters are 18. Seems something wrong there. An entity that hasn't read the work, or has no legal basis to refuse to sell it. But who's gonna go up against them and their legal team?

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    1. Hmm... didn't think of the "in for a penny in for a pound" situation -- but that totally makes sense as a reason, at least for some writers. (I'm sure different writers had different reasons for going to their own extremes.)

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  2. Interesting, Cameron. I'm reminded of "Blue Light" by a guy with 2 pen names (late 1960s?). Apparently you have tapped into a market that isn't served by Amazon. You're probably right, Daddy X - if you know you're doing something currently illegal, you might as well go whole hog. That attitude used to exist in the "gay" (LGBT) community as well, re lifestyle - if you're already doing it with (gasp) other members of your gender, you might as well shoplift, beat up your enemies, sell dope, steal stuff and sell it, and drink, snort, shoot or smoke whatever is available, since life is short, especially in the social margins.

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    1. Yes, I knew a few gay junkies back in the day. Most of the guys I knew went with the first AIDS epidemic. It was certainly difficult times, not knowing the particulars of the condition. Some, knowing what was on the horizon, committed suicide. Nobody really knew what was happening, or exactly how it was transmitted the first year or three. It was known and feared within the gay community well before it made mainstream consciousness. What terrible, fearful times in the SF area. Isolated a lot of folks.

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  3. The first piece of erotica I ever read was required reading for a queer studies class I took at University.

    It was The Surprise Party by Patrick Califia.

    Look that one up! Talk about an introduction. No wonder so many readers found/find my stuff shocking. That's just what I thought erotica WAS.

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  4. This gives me such hope, Cameron! I really want to write the sort of stuff I don't dare do now.

    Of course, then I'd need a new pen name. And I can barely manage one.

    In any case, I'm thrilled to hear this is working well for you.

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  5. Wow how I love stories like this. I'm always really fascinated to read someone's empirical data, to whatever extent they'll reveal it. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    And I agree with you. I wish retailers felt less of a need to project respectability in the hypocritical way that seems all too common. Glad you've found an outlet for books that clearly have an audience, and that it's helping to pay the bills.

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