If you write it, they will come: the lucrative, titillating and wildly strange business of self-published erotic fiction

Sometimes arousing, usually typo-filled, and almost always strange as hell, the burgeoning e-book revolution proves there’s big money in cheap thrills. But who’s writing it? Who’s reading it? And what’s with all the sexy dinosaurs?

*Almost all links decidedly NSFW, depending on where you work. 

When Virginia Wade’s daughter left home for college in 2010, the stay-at-home housewife decided to try her hand at a long-held interest – writing and self-publishing romantic fiction novels.

While Wade (not her real name) enjoyed the process – writing, editing and uploading her work to Kindle Direct – the novels themselves were not popular, with sales stalling in the single digits and attracting sometimes scathing reviews.

As despair set in, Wade’s husband proposed she try something in a similar vein to his current reading selection – a collection of short, kinky science fiction stories. While Wade had no interest in erotic space opera, the suggestion got her thinking: What if she tried her hand at more transgressive, camp subject matter?

So she did. Though generating more interest than her more previous attempts, none of the titles – including an erotic Jane Austen send-up, Pride and Penetration – took off, until one night Wade decided: “I'm going to write something totally freaky and crazy.”

And she did.

By 2012, Wade was known as ‘the Queen of Monster Sex’ and was earning around US$30,000 a month.

Wade's success was about more than shrewd genre choices, market gaps or dumb luck however. The author’s triumph coincided with something of a perfect storm happening in the publishing industry.

Publishing production and consumption has changed radically over the last 15 years. The endless title options offered by the internet, affordable shipping and the rise of e-reading technology has seen traditional book retailers forced to either radically downsize their operations or close their doors altogether. While some smaller and online publishers still manage to eke out a living, monolith online distributor Amazon has, for all intents and purposes, captured the market.

But, every broken egg is an omelette-in-waiting, and in this case, that omelette is the rise (or perhaps return) of the vanity publishing industry Wade so successfully exploited.

How big is the self-publishing market? Huge. In 2014 self-published books accounted for 31% of all e-book sales from the Kindle store, last year 40% of all e-book revenue went to indie authors and 25% of the books making Amazon’s e-book bestseller list were independent titles.

And what makes up the majority of those e-book sales? Romance and erotic fiction. Romance alone is responsible for around $1.3 billion in sales worldwide. Romance readers are attracted to digital formats particularly, with e-book sales of romance titles doubling in the year between 2011 and 2012.

Where has this hunger for erotic fiction come from? Who's reading it? And who’s making all the money?

The precursor to the erotic e-book is surely the crude fan-fiction of the early internet, or, more specifically, slash-fiction, amateur literature based on popular characters and story lines, often with highly sexualised elements added. In the mood for short novel in which members of the Power Rangers get it on? Slash-fiction’s got you covered. Love Lord of the Rings but wish there was more sex scenes with Frodo and Legolas? Slash-fiction. Spock and Kirk as lovers? You betcha.

Then there’s fan fiction’s wayward golden child, 50 Shades of Grey. Starting life as a fairly unassuming (though fairly kinky) piece of slash-fic based on the characters and themes of the hit tween novel Twilight, author E.L. James created, from those humble underground origins, an empire, kick-started the e-book phenomenon, ushered in a worldwide (yet fleeting) vogue for light S&M, and ultimately, brought the term ‘mommy-porn’ into the popular consciousness.

Image: 50 Shades of Grey author, E.L. James (via Hachette)

If 50 Shades of Grey proves anything it’s that there is, indeed, ‘riches in niches’. Genre fiction – especially that of the amorous variety, but also science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/thriller/suspense – dominates the e-book market. For a shrewd would-be author, combine two or more of those genres, and with a little luck, you just might be onto a winner. It’s been done before.

So just what is out there? And how strange does it get?

Brace yourself.

There’s money in dinosaurs

After trying unsuccessfully to replicate the success of 50 Shades-style S&M erotica, aspiring authors and college roommates Alara Branwen and Christie Sims (both pen names) embarked on an experiment to see just which strange erotic genres would generate them most money.

To their horror/surprise, that market was dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs.

Dinosaur erotica is the deviant fiction du jour, with hundreds of titles clamouring for attention on the Amazon store and a vocal and dedicated readership.

While hesitant to discuss actual numbers, Branwen says that the twosome earn “more money than [their] friend who has been working as an engineer at Boeing for a few years”, making them “the dynamic duo of monster porn!”


Image: Author Christie Sims (via Amazon)

Key titles include Taken by the T-Rex, Ravished by the Triceratops and Taken by the Pterodactyl (though technically, pterodactyls aren’t dinosaurs).

The fellows get a look in too of course, and the author leading the pack in male-on-prehistoric male fiction is one Chuck Tingle (again, not his real name).  

According to his Amazon biography, Tingle is “an erotic author and Tae Kwon Do grandmaster (almost black belt) from Billings, Montana”.

Tingle only began his career as a self-publisher of gay-themed dinosaur writing at the end of last year but has quickly expanded into even more bizarre territory, both campy horror (Scary Stories to Tingle Your Butt) and absurdist anthropomorphised inanimate object-oriented territory (I'm Gay for My Living Billionaire Jet Plane).

Other utterly insane-sounding must-reads include Gay T-Rex Law Firm: Executive Boner, Chuck's Dinosaur Tinglers: Volume 1, and, of course, Dr. Chuck Tingle's Complete Guide To Romance.

Cryptozoological

One thing both online erotica fans and their concerned families understand is this: Bigfoot is big business in the erotic e-book world.

The big titles? Boffing Bigfoot (The Alien Sex Chronicles Book 1), Lusty Bigfoot Runs Amok, and My Mom Married A Horny Bigfoot!: A Taboo Bigfoot On Brat Story.

Among the hottest names in the genre is the aforementioned stay-at-home mother turned literary titillater, Virginia Wade, whose first title, Moan for Bigfoot, sold more than 100,000 copies in 2012 alone.

Other authors doing great things include Raven Blackbird, Soichiro Irons and Lacey Noonan, the latter the unique mind behind I Don't Care If My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her.

Yup, even the mythical beasts of the classics get a look in with every imaginable classically-oriented deviance receiving the treatment: Centaurs? Check. Golem? Double check. Minotaurs? Oh my.

And the list goes on

If the mind and genre-bending categories of self-published erotica prove anything, it’s Rule 34: if you can conceive of it, there’s pornography of it, no exceptions.

Don’t believe us? Suggested further reading includes titles dedicated to mind control, gargoyles, cave men, cuttlefish, unicorns, orcs, even Jewish humour.

Oy vey.


Illustration by Jessie Marsh
Give it a go yourself

So what’s the secret to making some of this filthy literary lucre yourself? Self-publishing is a relatively simple process, however here are four tips for navigating the ins-and-outs of the grubby ebook market:

  1. Pick a genre, any genre

Don’t get all precious about what you’re going to write about. New genres pop up weekly and become saturated soon after. It’s all about novelty so simply come up with something new and write.

  1. KISSS: Keep it short and sexy, stupid

Most erotic e-books clock in at just few thousand words, so don’t get all Tolstoy on it. A good ratio, according to successful author Dalia Daudelin, is “2000 words of story and 1000 words of sex”. Not a bad way to spend a rainy weekend.

  1. It’s all about the cover and the title

Buying an erotic e-book is not a long term investment. Most sit around the US$2.99 region so don’t worry if your cover doesn’t look like a Modigliani. In fact, as long as it’s ‘sexy’ (by whatever standard you care to measure that by) and you can read the title from a thumbnail, you’re golden.

  1. Avoid euphemisms

Or don’t. It’s not Shakespeare.