Sex sells and always has in the world of erotic fiction. But how will it fare once the roaring, gushing, all-consuming passion for E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is finally spent?
On Saturday, a lively group of writers and editors on a Miami Book Fair International panel aim to explore the state of the genre, which appears to be more fertile than ever.
Erotic fiction has been around forever, though if you haven’t paid attention you could be forgiven for presuming it surfaced just last spring, when Random House imprint Vintage Books published the 5 0 Shades trilogy and all bondage broke loose. The novels, about the inexperienced Anastasia Steele and her billionaire, S&M-obsessed paramour Christian Grey, have sold 35 million copies in the United States in all formats — with worldwide sales of more than 50 million, according to Russell Perrault, vice president and director of publicity for Vintage.
The novels meld classic romantic formula — James was inspired by the fan fiction she wrote about Twilight — with explicit BDSM (that’s bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism to you), a clearly potent blend.
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“At another time in America, ‘erotica’ meant Henry Miller or Story of O, sexually frank literary fiction that changed U.S. obscenity laws forever,” author and activist Susie Bright said via email; she’ll be part of the book fair panel. “It was a First Amendment and intellectual breakthrough as well as steamy nostalgia. Shades of Grey by comparison is a triumph of ebook marketing — it’s a business story, the killer ap that happened to be a book. Shades also represents the dominance of fan fiction a la Twilight and the romance genre’s complete dedication to erotic storytelling. Romance for years has been as triple X as you can imagine, but it was the nice girls’ ... secret. No one’s pretending anymore.”
Indeed they are not. These days you can find an erotic fiction section in Target and prominent displays of 50 Shades knockoffs in airports across the country, though ebooks have made things easier for shy readers embarrassed to buy explicit titles. Heated fans argue all over the Internet about who should play Christian Grey in the upcoming film. Parodies are popping up, like Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin and Andrew Shaffer. James is mulling a fourth book, and copycats are no doubt cashing in on the wave. Meanwhile, longtime erotica writers — while pleased with the media attention — wonder if new readers will find their way to and stick with other, quality work.
For publishers, the success of 50 Shades has been a boon — according to Brenda Knight, associate publisher of Cleis Press, which has been publishing erotica for 33 years.
“We’ve seen an amazing thing happen,” Knight says. “We started hearing about 50 Shades last March. By May, Fifty Shades fever had kicked in. ... It really helped mainstream erotica. I think our sales went up something like 30 percent. It’s settling back down now, but when a fourth book comes out, we hope it happens all over again.”
Romance publisher Harlequin launched the erotic imprint Spice in 2006 (it has since been rolled into Harlequin’s other imprints), and Susan Swinwood, senior editor for the imprint Mira, says the phenomenon “kind of left you scratching your head.”
“It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time,” she says. “But on the other hand, it brings exposure to our authors, which is fantastic. Readers new to erotica want more to read, and we’ve got it. Our authors are seeing a nice boost in sales.” For example, writer Megan Hart had “a nice following,” but in the past year the clamor for sexually explicit titles prompted reissues of her earlier works. Even more fortuitous timing befell Tiffany Reisz, who had a trilogy featuring BDSM already set to publish when 50 Shades went viral.
May Chen, senior acquiring editor for the HarperCollins imprint Avon Red — which has been publishing erotic content for almost a decade — says the market for the genre is strong enough to allow publishers to acquire plenty of new authors. But she points out that “just because Twilight hit it big doesn’t mean all vampire romances will sell.”
“I think the eternal answer is that if the stories are great and the characters are great and the writing is great and it strikes the right chord at the right time, a book will sell,” Chen says. “And if people are talking about the books because [James] falls into the genre, it’s a good thing. The good outweighs the bad.”
Alison Tyler, who in more than 20 years of working in erotica has written 25 novels and edited more than 75 anthologies, say the effect of James’ books has boosted the profile of the genre’s writers.
“ 50 Shades definitely seems to have introduced a whole tidal wave of new readers to the wicked world of smut,” says Tyler, whose short stories have appeared in more than 100 collections. “I love it. In the past, I have to say that the romance writers often treated the erotica writers as if we were the bad kids smoking behind the gym. And now look! We’re front row center in all our porny glory!”
Some panelists are leery of the phenomenon. Local writer Ily Goyanes, editor of the lesbian erotica collection Girls Who Score, worries serious readers will dismiss the genre but admits the new wave of interest has changed how people view erotica and its writers.
“There’s such a difference in how I’m received,” she says. “The common question when you’re mingling at a party is ‘What do you do.’ I’d say, ‘I’m a writer,’ so then it’s ‘What do you write?’ When I said erotica people would get this blank look on their faces. They didn’t know what it was. Now it’s like, ‘Oh! Like 50 Shades of Grey!’ There’s recognition now that wasn’t there before.”
Mitzi Szereto, who has been writing erotic fiction since the late 1990s and is editor of Thrones of Desire: Erotic Tales of Swords, Mist and Fire, worries about bandwagon jumpers with questionable talent and isn’t sure James’ work really elevates the genre.
“We should aim high, not low,” she says. “Frankly I’m in the dark about why [ 50 Shades] has been singled out as some kind of example, but it has opened doors and made erotica more accessible. The one positive thing about it is perhaps it’s taken the stigma off erotic fiction and made it a less scary genre. It doesn’t look like an erotic book. ... I’ve been trying to say for years we need to take away this black sheep, wrong side of the fence atmosphere and give ourselves some legitimacy.”
The future seems positive, but Bright says there’s plenty of room to grow.
“I wish I could say that millions of American women are ready to run wild in the streets demanding hot female-centric sex and thrilling adventures ’round the clock, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says.