So, I don’t normally talk about the writing/publishing biz here on the blog — this is supposed to be for the readers — but I wanted to write this for any of my readers who also might happen to be smut slingers like me:) This post covers a few things I’ve learned as I’ve gone along, as well as a handful of observations on the erotica genre in general.
1. Don’t do this (unless you don’t care about sales)
My fourth release, a novella titled Night Beach initially had a cover that I thought was sexy, but still within the boundaries (as well as anyone can guess — but that’s another story) of Amazon’s content guidelines. That initial cover is shown below:
At first, all seemed well. The book was selling, a few readers said they loved the cover — so we’re rollin’, right?
The dreaded Adult filter was applied to the book’s listing on Amazon within a few days of release. This filter normally spells the death of sales for a title on Amazon, for a couple of reasons:
- First, the book is difficult, if not impossible, to find in general search — even if you search for the book’s title and the author’s name.
- The second, and much more insidious (and damaging) reason, is that the book will no longer be shown as an also-bought for any other non-Adult filtered titles. So, rather than have at least the chance for your book to show up as an also-bought for “50 Blinds of Bestseller”, you show up as an also-bought only for other Adult filtered titles.
I contacted ‘Zon customer service about it, and they confirmed that the book cover did indeed violate their content guidelines. They were very nice (as usual) and understanding of my plight, but they were firm that the Adult filter would remain until a new cover was added. Now, me being me, I shrugged my shoulders, muttered a “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”, and just went on with my business of writing the next book.
This was a serious mistake. Within about two weeks after release of Night Beach, my third book, a novelette titled Maintenance Night, took off, going from selling 5-6 copies a day to 20-30 copies per day. I still have no idea why. That part was RAD (and to those readers who bought the book, I can’t thank you enough), but the problem was that there was no new release that built upon that sales momentum. You see, since Night Beach was languishing under the The Scarlet Adult Filter, readers who bought and loved Maintenance Night wouldn’t see that others had picked up Night Beach. It was as if it didn’t exist.
Now, all this being said, Night Beach did still sell … some. In November, Night Beach sold 80 copies, more than 75% of that number selling at the mighty ‘Zon. But it’s likely that it would have sold significantly more, had it had the much improved visibility it would have enjoyed sans Adult filter. Is there any way to know for sure how many sales were lost? Of course not. BUT, one thing I’ve learned is this: make your books as convenient as possible to buy. Always give your reader an uber-easy way to spend money on you.
To bastardize a quote from Sun Tzu:
“Build your reader a golden bridge to your books.”
2. What can I take away from this?
My experience actually calls for being somewhat conservative with the content of covers. There is a price for pushing the envelope (though really, I don’t think the first cover was that edgy), and when you do, sometimes that price is going to cost you sales/money. Be prepared for that eventuality.
Now, with regard to this specific instance, there is one aspect to this that I think really might help another writer who reads this. What follows are the commonly understood “no-no’s” vis-a-vis cover content:
- No female nipples or areolas
- No male or female genitalia or pubic hair
- No fully naked buttocks — there has to be at least a dental floss bikini or thong (this one appears to be sporadically enforced, as some do get through the review process with bare nekkid asses:)
- No profanity (this one appears to be only sporadically enforced as there have actually been erotica bestsellers that had f-bombs … in the title!!)
- No excessive gore (very subjective, so err on the side of caution)
Here is one that I got nailed on — and one that has snagged other authors too:
- No grabbing/squeezing/clutching of the naked breast(s) or even covering of the naked breast with a hand.
Now, a case could be made that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the original cover for Night Beach, BUT it’s Amazon’s site, and they can do what they want. I’m not going to sit here and tell them how they should run their business, nor what content they can or can’t accept on the covers. I can take it or leave it, and if I want to sell ebooks, I’m going to be taking it:)
That said, I really do wish that they would release a short list of definitive no-no’s, rather than leaving us poor authors/publishers to stumble around in the dark. I know why they don’t release any specifics — they want to keep their options open, and want to be flexible in case of any changes to the legal or regulatory environment. It’s smart business, but it is a bit of a pain.
But oh well — what the mighty ‘Zon wants, the mighty ‘Zon gets:)
Other Erotica Observations
There is a flood-tide of erotica on the market right now, presumably due to authors seeking to ride the (already rapidly receding) 50 Shades wave, and it’s only going to get worse. For those new erotica writers who are wondering why their sales are not those of the Land of (Breast)Milk and (Alien Pussy)Honey that the erotica genre is purported to exist, you can blame an excess of product for this … mostly.
One of the things I’ve observed is a large number of low word count, slapped- together titles in almost every conceivable sub-genre of erotica (I know a lot of them — yeah I’m a perv, I read a lot of smut). I render no judgement on those writers that are following the “quantity is king” philosophy. It works, and it will make you money — for now.
But for those new erotica readers just coming online now, I implore you to do one thing: think long term. At some point, the wheat does get separated from the chaff, and no matter how many titles you have published, if the quality of the writing is shoddy, if the story isn’t compelling, and the packaging is unappealing (read: unprofessional covers and flat, lifeless blurbs), those books will cease to sell. Why is this?
Word of mouth.
This is the single most effective way to sell books and to build a career. Word of mouth trumps everything, and will buoy a book no matter what. This is very, very important because in this new era of publishing, the traditional gatekeepers (editors, agents, publishers) are steadily being replaced … by readers.
This fact should feel both freeing and terrifying. To those erotica writers who concentrate on releasing well-written, edited, attractively packaged books on a regular basis (e.g. not less than once per quarter, and preferably more frequently), you will succeed. It may take 5 books, 20 books, or more, but eventually, if you put out quality, the readers will find you — and reward you.
To those erotica writers out there who are only concentrating on publishing as much product as you can, as fast as you can, you should be terrified. If your product is shoddy, readers will call you on it — and they’ll do more than leave you bad reviews on Amazon.
They’ll tell their friends.
The gold rush of 2009-2011 is absolutely over, and the days of being able to throw up any old cover and first draft of a smut book are long gone. Many, many readers have been burned over and over by just plain shitty indie smut books. If your product is rushed out, haphazard, sloppy, readers will notice it — and run the other way. Please, please don’t be that writer!
Whichever type of erotica writer you are, your challenge, above and beyond continuing to publish good books, will be discoverability. The volume of erotica is incredible, and as many others have pointed out, discoverability is going to be the irreducible problem faced by all authors, especially in a genre overwhelmed with a tsunami of new content every month. Worse, traditional publishers have (by and large) awakened from their comas and are changing their tactics. They are lowering prices, targeting sub-genres with more narrowly focused story lines, and greatly speeding up things like submission response times and time to publication. Contrary to what you hear some self-pub evangelists say, trad publishing is not stupid, and it’s not going away. Not by a long shot.
What does this mean for the lowly indie smut slinger like me? It means things are going to get much, much harder. It means in order to survive, and increase your visibility/discoverability, you will need to make your product the best quality you possibly can. Keep writing, but do take the time needed to make the book a good quality book. You need to acknowledge that a significant portion of your potential readership is likely to look askance at anything written by an Indie. Accept that, then set out to prove them wrong. Sloppy indie authors have hurt the rest of us, of this there can be no doubt, so for those of us that are in this for the long-haul, who will be making careers of this, our job is to win those readers back, one by one. I’m still working on this myself, and my own products aren’t yet where I want them to be, so I’m constantly improving them where and when I can. You should too!
Make your product as indistinguishable from trad products as you possibly can (this is where great covers, blurbs that snap, and professional-looking, clean formatting comes in). Don’t give these skeptical readers any reason to pass over your book at a mere glance. Make them “pick it up” and read those first lines. That’s where your quality writing will get the chance to do its work. And this is how you win back those burned-by-indies readers.
Yes, taste is 100% subjective, but that’s beside the point; a quality product needs to be noticed, and read (which will increasingly become the most difficult hurdle to jump) before taste even figures into the equation. THEN, if it’s well-written, compelling, at least some of those readers will tell their friends, who in turn will tell their friends. Again, word of mouth.
But you need to give them a reason to look at your book. More important than this: don’t give the reader a reason NOT to look at your book.
Smut readers are voracious, the demand never-ending (and we LOVE you for that), and if you push their buttons, and if the books you have for sale are fairly priced, they’ll snap up everything you have on the market. And they’ll keep coming back for more, as long as you keep publishing good books.
Contrary to all the doom and gloom you are seeing of late in indie circles, I think this is only the beginning … for those indies who are willing to put in the work, and to fight for every one of those readers. Those readers will take a chance on a new author, but increasingly they will demand quality — and they deserve nothing less.