Erotic romance took center stage in the world of fiction when Fifty Shades of Grey became a bestselling phenomenon. Now that several years have passed and we’ve seen the closure of businesses that specialize in publishing erotic books, is the erotica/erotic romance market still flying high or has this genre lost its sizzle?
Is it still a good genre to write and publish in?
Last year, Samhain Publishing and Ellora’s Cave Publishing, both of whom had been publishing erotic fiction for over ten years each, announced plans to shut down. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in erotic romance publishing long before Fifty Shades. Then came the sudden news that All Romance Ebooks, a boutique retailer specializing in romance and erotica, was also closing.
A number of authors I had interviewed said that after seeing an initial bump in sales thanks to Fifty Shades, the numbers have definitely leveled off since then. One author said she is focusing on contemporary romance as a result, while another described recent sales as “abysmal” compared to what she was seeing a few years ago.
Supply and Demand for Erotic Romance
Some authors attribute the downturn to the glut of erotic romance books now available to readers.
Erotica is the subgenre with the most number of books within the romance offering. At the time of this writing, a browse through Amazon’s Kindle book categories show over 282,000 books offered under erotica, not including LGBT romances, which have their own categories. The second largest subgenre is contemporary romance with over 146,000 books.
Erotic romance hasn’t been around nearly as long as contemporary romance, so how does this genre have nearly double the number of books?
Although Samhain and Ellora’s Cave are no longer around, there are still many publishers of erotica and erotic romance. They include digital publishers like Loose ID and imprints of traditional publishers such as Kensington’s Brava. And the largest publisher of erotic content? The indie-author.
Smashwords is one of the larger distributors of indie books, and, aside from Amazon KDP, produces more books in the erotic romance genre than anyone. In a random sampling of a week in March, the company posted just over 200 new books in the erotica/erotic romance genre.
There are only so many books consumers can read, and though Fifty Shades brought new readers to the genre, the numbers suggest that supply has outstripped demand. Back in 2014, All Romance Ebooks said they saw a 10% increase in the production of erotica and erotic romance while sales were up only 6%.
Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, noted in 2015 that “ebooks as a percentage of the book market has been increasing exponentially, but it hit a brick wall in the last two years. Markets can’t double or triple every year. They eventually reach an equilibrium.”
Censorship of Erotic Books
One consequence that is more unique to the erotica/erotic romance genre is censorship or the suppression of material considered controversial or inappropriate. A number of authors and publishers have complained that the adult filter on some retailer websites make it hard for readers to find erotic romance. Certain books, even if the title is typed in word for word, will not show up. Or, if it does show up, it is further down the list of results. These authors feel their books have been relegated to the retailer’s “dungeon.”
“Amazon’s adult filter has greatly impacted discoverability of the 2013 edition of The General’s Wife,” said author Regina Kammer of her Maggie Award nominated historical erotic romance. New York Times Bestselling author Jasmine Haynes redid the covers of her books, fearing that steamy covers might get caught up in the adult filter.
October 2013 saw a significant crackdown on erotic content by some of the largest retailers of ebooks. This was largely in response to heavy public criticism that WHSmith, which is powered by Kobo, and other retailers were selling books that included, according to the UK’s Daily Mail, “violent pornography, rape, incest and bestiality…right next to children’s literature.” Since most of the erotic content came from self-publishers, one retailer responded by pulling all self-published books.
One of Haynes’ novels, Somebody’s Lover, was a casualty of the crackdown. The book was completely removed from sale at Amazon because the retailer thought her book contained pseudo-incest. In reality, the heroine of the story falls in love with her deceased husband’s brother—three years after the passing of her husband. Luckily, Haynes was able to get the book reinstated.
I did a recent search of “BDSM erotica” in the Amazon Kindle store and had no trouble finding books with racy covers, though the nudity level might be less than what it used to be.
Although the public relations firestorm around erotic content has settled, some retailers might still be proceeding with caution. Books with erotic content are sometimes less likely to receive merchandising or promotion opportunities from retailers, especially those wanting to expand their business into countries that are more socially conservative.
Certain advertising opportunities, like Facebook ads, are harder to get approved for erotic fiction. A number of book promotion sites, like Pixels of Ink, will not accept books with erotic content.
Erotic Romance is Still Steamy
Despite the challenges described, erotic books can still do well. At the time of this writing, the 100th book in the Kindle Bestselling Category for Erotica is ranked #8,637, which means it’s getting about 417 Kindle eBook sales per month. The 40th book on the list is ranked #4,068 (837 sales per month), and the 20th book is ranked #2,224 (1,425 sales per month).
Note: You can calculate the sales for erotic romance books or any kind of book on Amazon using our free Amazon Book Sales Calculator tool.
Amazon’s overall bestseller list also often includes books with erotic content, though some of them may not be categorized as erotica. Fifty Shades, for example, is categorized as Romance or Women’s Fiction. In other words, there are a lot of bestselling erotic romance books that aren’t listed on the erotic romance bestseller lists on Amazon.
Erotic books aren’t going away. Publishers and literary agents are still taking submissions for erotic fiction. There are many review sites, book blogs, and reader groups devoted to erotic books.
The demand is still there, though the competition may be stiffer.
According to Coker, “With the growth of books outpacing the growth of readers, each book will sell fewer units. It used to be an erotic romance book would do well just because there were so few options five years ago. Now, it’s not enough to publish a book. Good isn’t good enough. Successful writers will be the cream of the crop with ‘WOW’ books that earn 4.5 to 5 stars. Competition motivates authors to stay at the top of their game and not take their readership for granted. Success for the author is determined by reader word of mouth, by superfans. You’ve got to earn those fans by taking readers to emotionally satisfying extremes and by touching their souls.”
Although it may be harder today than it was years ago, it’s still possible to make a profit writing in this genre. It’s still possible to find readers if one focuses on the right strategies. And, in this author’s opinion, if it’s fun to write, it’s worth it!
** This is an update of an article previously published in Romance Writers Report.