Cream doesn’t rise: the state of UK erotica

Publishing has a reputation for being pretty cushy: reasonable working hours, long, boozy lunches, fannying around with the press releases…

Last week, I took my full lunch break twice. I went out with colleagues, and had wine with my meal. Why? Because a new Carluccio’s had opened round the corner and you could eat on the house while they trained their staff. And who wouldn’t say yes to free pasta, right?

It’s not the done thing. I have colleagues who never take lunch. Most people stay late. Publishing is, in theory, as commercial and competitive as any other industry.

Why ‘in theory?’ Because it’s also astonishingly reactive. And not in a good way.

Of course, things move forward. But god, they move slowly. We’d been listening to music on portable devices, using digital cameras and buying increasingly sophisticated mobile phones for years before the Kindle came along. Many publishing companies are struggling to come up with a long-term digital strategy: those that have are often big companies buying up smaller companies with both the entrepreneurship and the agility to push the envelope. The rest wait and see what they do and then follow in their footsteps.

Why is this? Honestly, I don’t know. Perhaps because people in the industry – myself included – often have a deeply romantic view of books. We do what we do, partly at least, for the satisfaction of advance copies landing on our desks – that fresh off the press smell, those uncracked spines, that sense that you’re still part of something that makes something tangible, something precious.

I wish, in fiction publishing, that that translated into the right books being published, the right books making it to the top of the bestseller lists. It doesn’t seem to, sadly. Fifty Shades of Grey (which was obviously where this post was going), is a very good example of increasingly commercial publishing: Vintage acquired the rights in March 2012, and the book was released for sale a month later. Given the hype around it at the time, the speed with which they turned it round makes much better business sense than what most people wish they’d done with it: given it a decent edit.

When I first started thinking about this post, a few weeks back, I was planning a different angle. I was planning to defend FSoG.   Because so much of the backlash against it is aimed not at the publisher, nor at the retailers who gave it prime position in their stores, but at the women who chose to read it. When a film comes out and the whole world goes to see it, you don’t hear people saying, for example, ‘Oh, God, you went to see Bridesmaids?!’ The same can’t be said of books. Those of us who wrote FSoG off as both poor fiction and poor erotica, have often been guilty of shaming those who genuinely enjoyed it.

In the autumn after it came out, a friend and I went to a panel discussion at Cheltenham Literature Festival called Fifty Shades of Blue. The session was billed as follows:

Join Brooke Magnanti, author of the Belle de Jour books and The Sex Myth, poet Ruth Padel, author Bel Mooney and journalist Bidisha as they discuss the Fifty Shades phenomenon and each choose their own favourite erotica. Which pieces of erotic fiction do our panel rate and which do they hate?

I don’t recall a lot of what was said during that hour, but I do remember that the bit where the panel discussed their favourite erotica was pushed to the very end. And all but one of the panelists cited a ‘classic’ as their favourite: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O… Even the one person who didn’t pick something literary (and I honestly can’t remember who said what) chose a Jilly Cooper novel.

Granted, by that point Black Lace had shut up shop and, I think, was yet to reopen for business. But I was still buying and reading good BL titles that I found in service stations and online, and it felt shortsighted of the panel to completely dismiss anything that classed itself as pure erotica. It was literary snobbery – a reluctance to admit that you got off to anything that you wouldn’t happily have on display in your living room. I felt, and I still feel, that attitudes like that are as harmful to the genre as low quality, high volume titles like FSoG.

Recently, similar discussions have been popping up again. Many erotica writers are being shoehorned towards a particular model designed to mirror FSoG: if they’re not writing erotic romance, it’s hard for them to place their book with a traditional publisher. Which is crazy. It’s been over 2 years: when will longer erotic fiction start to reflect the fact that erotica doesn’t have to ≠ BDSM-themed romance? I like my erotica BDSM-flavoured, and it still drives me crazy!

When I first started learning to write, one of the things my writing teacher was keen to emphasise was that it’s hard to sell a book which classifies itself purely as contemporary fiction. A book is easier to market if you can compare it to something else: whose work is it like? What genre is it? Is it the new Fifty Shades, the new Gone Girl, the new Twilight? It bothered me, and it still does, a bit, not so much in relation to my own writing, but in relation to my own reading: how would I ever discover truly original new authors if everyone was being forced to compare themselves to someone else?

Part of the problem with erotica, perhaps, is that it hasn’t yet learnt to compare itself with books which, while not erotic, nonetheless share a sub-genre. Last Christmas, Kristina Lloyd recommended Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner to me as a holiday read. I loved it, and when I came back I told her that, via Twitter. The author, copied into the tweets, joined the conversation.

Then, a few months later, she followed and DMed me to say she liked my blog. Obviously, I was thrilled: the author of a bestselling novel was enjoying stuff that I’d written. We had a couple of conversations and I ended up recommending Kristina’s second novel, Asking for Trouble, as I do to anyone who bothers to ask me what my favourite books are. A few weeks later, she tweeted the following:

It is, as Kristina said at the time, pretty unusual for someone outside of the genre to lavish praise on an erotic novel, no matter how good it is. But to me, this is how it should be: authors and reviewers of genre-fiction (and non-genre fiction) recognising erotica as they would any other genre, erotic novels being sold on the shelves alongside all other fiction, rather than squirrelled away in a dusty corner under the escalators (no matter how much that dusty corner turns me on), being part of the 3 for 2s, not having their designated shelf space slowly eroded over time. Only then will things start to change.

Cream doesn’t rise, said someone (non-euphemistically!) in a discussion about erotica the other day. No, perhaps not. But I sure as hell hope we find a way to make it float.

35 thoughts on “Cream doesn’t rise: the state of UK erotica

  1. oh gosh, ANOTHER book i have to read! but at least for now i am happy with Kristina’s book so…and i hate that damn dusty corner & sneezing to get an erotic novel. the cream does float though, it does…

  2. I had this big long comment written out about how society seems to revile and revere sex at the same time and then my browser crashed. And after expending all that mental energy, I’m too tired to try rewrite it.

  3. Super post – so much to think about here. Totally agree with you on the FSOG issue, and I think it’s fairly typical for women’s interests to be castigated, mocked, ignored etc.

    I think many of the problems in FSOG reflect the problems of our culture, and it would be beneficial for criticism to be leveled at those bigger issues rather than at the book. I’m sure that one of the reasons behind the book’s success is Ana’s lack of sexual agency and desire. In a culture which denies women their agency, and which shames female desire, it’s hardly surprising that millions of women feel comfortable reading such a book. It simultaneously permits and disavows their desire.

    I try hard to create female protagonists who have ownership of their sexuality. But take a look at the book blurb for ‘Undone’ ( and you see the subtle ways that gets negated and made more palatable: Lana isn’t tempted into a threesome – she initiates it; she has no regrets on the morning after and actually is pretty freaking stoked (um, until the dead body); and Sol ain’t the only one who wants to continue their kinky game.

    Your points about genre classification, and the lack of cross-genre engagement, put me in mind of a great post on the problematic classification of LGBQT romance as a subgenre of romance, with the default being hetnormativity: As on our shelves, as in our culture.

    But wouldn’t it be interesting if the hierarchy of labeling was changed? I’m not sure if erotic romance constitutes a sub genre of romance or if it now exists in its own right. But what if, for example, ‘psychological thriller’ was the lead category, and erotica a subgenre within that? And so on with fantasy fic, sci-fi etc Again, this is partly about publishers but it’s also about culture, and the insidious ways in which sex and the erotic are ‘boxed off’ and rendered safe.

    Thanks for writing this – and thanks too for the mention!

  4. Fabtastic post. You hit it right on the head. This a well written post that demonstrates the fact that there is still that “nudge, nudge. Wink, wink” attitude surrounding erotica.

    In a way 50 shades did help bring publicity to the genre as a whole, it also kind of made it only acceptable because Ana was the inexperianced one in the relationship. Christian was the one who awakened her to this other aspect to sex. Since then there has been numerous authors being, i don’t want to say pushed, but maybe persuaded to go down the similar plotline. Where are the female characters who own their sexuality? As you pointed out Kristna Lloyd has books out that defy convention. I’ve read Thrill Seeker and am reading Undone and its refreshing to have this “new” type of female character.

    I could go on, but the fact is this type of shoehorning is nothing new with publishers doing the same when harry potter, twilight and the hunger games became money makers.

    I know i rambled on a bit but i have so much to say. Lol

    Anyhoo awsome post

  5. Having worked in Strategy for one of the UK’s two biggest high street booksellers, I can tell you that the erosion of shelf space – and the positioning of erotica within store – is 100% market-driven. Erotica simply doesn’t sell, and even in the railway/service stations a pure sales-based analysis of the different fiction categories would see it lose its space to other genres – a fact I conveniently neglected to draw out in the report I wrote for the Board!

    The category does well on Kindle/Kobo, for fairly obvious reasons, but even after the FSOG ‘bounce’, giving it more physical space in stores did not generate the sort of incremental sales needed to justify adding the extra titles.

    If any of that is going to change, it has to start with the publishers, for the various reasons listed above (and in the comments). Retailers are not afraid to list or promote erotica – quite frankly, in the current books market they’ll happily get behind anything that actually makes money – but it will take publishers who are willing to invest in the product, and to treat it in the same way they do Crime, Sci-Fi, Romance, etc, for it to be a viable commercial proposition on the high street.

  6. This is the most intelligent post I’ve read exploring the marketing of erotic fiction. I’d like to write erotica but I also want to SELL erotica and I’ve been torn about which direction to head in: the tried-and-true formula with a young heroine, or a more literary book featuring an older heroine (I’m 51 and kind of tired of reading about 25-year-olds). Regardless, I think writers have much more creative control self-publishing, and erotica finds its audience through electronic sales.

  7. I guess I am partly guilty of this. When one of my colleagues said she had bought Fifty Shades of Grey, I bought for her Story of O; I argued that if she wanted to read BDSM fiction, she should read *good* BDSM fiction.

    She read both and enjoyed both.

    I wish erotic books were given the same prominence as non-erotic books. There are so many good books I’ve read that come under erotica it makes me cry every time I see a large prominent display of Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown in my local bookstores. That effort could go somewhere so much more deserving.

  8. That was a really good article about how and why what kinds of books sell, and what it takes to be published.

    I’ve pretty much always had my erotica out on a bookshelf in the living room, or when the kids were younger, in a huge stack next to my bedside table; but I’ve always have been a bit unconventional all my life. I love real books and that book smell and it bugs me to read them on my iPad or on the computer. Dark erotic fiction has been a favorite of mine, and one way or another I found good books to read before the internets.

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