The rise and rise of erotica for women

Once saucy fiction could only be found on a top shelf tucked at the back of a bookshop or given away shrink-wrapped on the cover of a women’s magazine but demand for it today shows no signs of slowing.

Few people were surprised when EL James was announced as the world’s highest-earning author in August by Forbes magazine. She earned the mind-blowing sum of £62 million in the 12 months to June 2013 for her Fifty Shades of Grey erotic trilogy.

James’ success has launched the careers of many an aspiring novelist, keen to take advantage of the Fifty Shades phenomenon. It has also revived dormant paperback imprints, while specialist digital publishers of erotica have watched their sales rocket.

E-books drive sales in a market that, as James has proven, is worth millions of pounds. Amazon’s Kindle Store alone is reputed to have 75,000 erotica titles. You’d be unlikely to spot anyone on a bus reading a paperback of Pauline Réage’s 1954 classic, Story of O. But e-readers offer discretion to the women who devour them on the way to work and everywhere else.

Gillian Green, publishing director of Black Lace, which launched 20 years ago, says the imprint stopped commissioning titles in 2008 as high street sales declined. Ebury Publishing’s plan to relaunch Black Lace in 2012 with new authors could not have been more timely, with James dominating the bestsellers.

New titles are being published in both print and digital formats, and combined sales for 2012 were up 356% on 2011.

Green was keen to stress that Black Lace titles are erotic romances rather than a string of sex scenes held together by a thin plot. Women, it seems, still want their Mills and Boon-style happy ever after, just kinkier.

Claire Siemaszkiewicz, head of digital-only publishing house Totally Bound, concurs – romance underpins the sex and her titles are graded with “heat” ratings and a sexometer to guide purchasers on their raunchiness. “Our stories all have a proper ending and are heavy on plot and characterisation,” says Siemaszkiewicz.

Totally Bound was launched in the UK in 2006, developing a market that barely existed, particularly in the US.

Today it has more than 300 authors and publishes 500 titles a year. The books are on sale in its online shop or the Kindle Store and prices average £2.99. Siemaszkiewicz wouldn’t be drawn on exact figures, saying only that turnover had risen 60% in the last two years.

The iPad and Kindle have done more for our business than Fifty Shades has, although obviously EL James has made women more aware of what else is out there. E-books have definitely made erotica more accessible to readers.

After mothballing Black Lace five years ago, Ebury launched Rouge, a digital imprint for romance novels, once it was clear that it was readers who were driving the e-book market. At the same time, Ebury further tested digital sales by re-releasing selected Black Lace titles.

According to Gillian Green, “Erotic romance is the thing, but raunchy titles were still selling even before Fifty Shades. Since the Black Lace relaunch a year ago, our author Portia da Costa’s first title, In Too Deep, went to the top of the Sunday Times’ bestseller list and, like Fifty Shades, was stocked in supermarkets. It’s a far cry from our early days, when we used to give away shrink-wrapped books as cover mounts on magazines to push sales.”

Black Lace’s fresh success has enabled Green to commission non-fiction titles. Journalist Emily Dubberley has just had her book Garden of Desires published by the imprint. This exploration of contemporary women’s sexual fantasies is a revisiting of Nancy Friday’s seminal 1973 work, My Secret Garden, the first study of women’s erotic inner lives.

Green also plans to publish a series of erotic memoirs among the 24 titles a year they are currently releasing. Virgin Books, which was the original owner of Black Lace, is also returned to publishing erotica, when it relaunched its fetish and kink imprint Nexus last April.

HarperCollins is also after a slice of the market with its Mischief list of titles. Most mainstream publishers scour the digital lists to snap up self-publishers they hope will repeat EL James’ success.

As expected, women are the main buyers of erotic novels and the core demographic is 30 to 50 years of age. Women are also the bulk of new authors. Susannah Quinn self-publishes her erotic novels on the Kindle Store as SK Quinn and freely admits she cashed in on Fifty Shades.

The former journalist had already written three thrillers and quickly wrote The Ivy Lessons, the story of a steamy affair between a student and her tutor, in October 2012. It sold so well she turned it into a trilogy, just as James did. However, Quinn turned down deals when approached by mainstream publishers looking for the next EL James.

“I’ve sold 150,000 copies in the last year and made a lot of money, enough to write full-time. I don’t trust publishers to market my books as well as I can and they take all the rights. I’ve sold some foreign rights via an agent, but I still have control.”

Violet Fenn, who writes her erotic short stories as Indigo Moore, thinks it’s hard for most authors to make money.

Her nine titles to date are published digitally by a small publishing house, but she’s not given up her day job as a website builder and copywriter. She describes her stories as “spicy vanilla” and twice topped the Kindle charts in her first six months as a writer of erotica.

It’s pin money, it feeds my chocolate habit but that’s all. Amazon doesn’t give specific sales figures for e-books but you can get into its top 100 by selling just 100 copies a week.

“Only the top 10% of authors make money. However, Fifty Shades has promoted better quality, not just better stories but also better writing. Self-published authors are more likely to invest in their work by hiring proofreaders now and making more attractive covers.”

All publishers and authors agree that stylish covers are important for sales, as well as good proofreading. Green says she is always on the lookout for broadminded editors who don’t flinch at editing explicit sex scenes. Readers may want romance but in the end they also want the bedroom action that fuels their imaginations.

Creative Commons License

Also in this issue