"People are at their most vulnerable when they're naked together": The rise of erotic romance

"Fifty Shades" may have popularized the sexier variant on traditional romance, but now it's here to stay

Published January 4, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

In green pajamas, I rushed through the elegant lobby of the Westin hotel near Seattle and followed the sound of pop music to a large, dim room, with balloons, streamers and sparkly confetti. I hovered at the entrance to the Jammies Jewels Soiree as attendees of the Emerald City Romance Writer’s Conference mingled and danced in comfy pajamas, feather boas and bunny slippers. A woman I didn’t know in pigtails and white flannel gave me a friendly smile. It turned out she was an agent and a top dealmaker in digital fiction. She and the other women at her table were some of the most powerful editors and agents on the romance scene today.

All agreed there’s been a tectonic shift in the romance market toward erotic romance since “Fifty Shades of Grey” sold over 70 million copies in 2012. But as wonderful as the increased demand for these books was, they commiserated over cookies and milk about the huge number of badly written copycat manuscripts. One woman was unpleasantly surprised by a recent submission: the BDSM-themed "novel" was unique, both for its unwanted graphic illustrations, and the fact that the author called it nonfiction.

Yet while there’s been a glut of bad writing following “Fifty Shades,” more deserving books found their way to the pinnacle of popularity in its wake. Published in April 2012, a few weeks after “Fifty Shades” skyrocketed, Sylvia Day’s “Bared to You” ended at #4, after the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, on Amazon’s 2012 list of best-selling print and eBooks combined. Like E.L. James, Day tells the story of a young woman beginning her professional life and falling for an “impossibly gorgeous,” damaged and dominant billionaire. He initially wants only a physical relationship and says, “Romance isn’t in my repertoire, Eva. But a thousand ways to make you come are. Let me show you.” Like the hero in “Fifty Shades,” he develops a controlling and obsessive desire for the heroine and tells her, “I must’ve wished for you so hard and so often you had no choice but to come true.”

But, unlike “Fifty Shades,” Day’s hero never tries to coerce Eva into doing something for his pleasure alone. Furthermore, even though she’s often submissive, Eva, with her own dark past and insistence on her own sexual and psychological power, is a stronger and tougher character than James’ less experienced heroine.

While outsiders call many of these books "mommy porn" or "smut," their authors sharply differentiate between erotic romanceeroticasexy romance and porn. In erotic romance, sex is necessary for plot and character development; without it the story wouldn’t make sense. To qualify as a romance, a book must have a Happily Ever After (HEA) for the two main characters. Erotica focuses on a single person’s sexual journey and doesn’t need to have an HEA. In sexy romance, there’s a lot of sex but it’s not inherent to the plot; this genre may also use less graphic language than erotic romance. On the other end of the spectrum, porn focuses exclusively on sex and lacks a well-developed narrative.

Within the romance industry, erotic romance is the genre that fits into all other genres because it’s characterized by the use of sex in plot and character development, rather than its temporal setting (as in contemporary or historical romance), or other unique plot elements (like mystery in romantic suspense or fantasy in paranormal romance). It can be difficult to identify when a romance gets hot enough to tip from sexy romance into erotic romance, because not everyone defines "explicit" in the same way. Additionally, because most romances have sex, how do you determine when it’s crucial for the plot and when it’s not?

For years, erotic romance has been the poor orphan sibling of more reputable genres within romantic fiction. Erotic romance writers have been lobbying the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Board for their own category in the prestigious RITA and Golden Heart contests, and this year they finally succeeded. The board voted 8-7 to give erotic romance its own category. According to former RWA president Jill Limber, now an editor at Burroughs Press, the RWA didn’t create this category before because of the difficulty of identifying erotic romance. Others have said that the RWA resisted because erotic romance is uncomfortably close to its less reputable cousin, porn. Tiffany Reisz, bestselling author of "The Siren," known to some as "Fifty Shades" for adults, said she and other erotic romance writers had been prepared to leave the RWA since they felt their genre wasn’t represented.

But is erotic romance all about the sex? According to Vivian Arend, the bestselling and prolific author who always wears a cowboy hat like the cowboys she writes about, “Sex is only one part of a journey to Happily Ever After and something better be happening other than just orgasms.”

So why make sex so important? Some say it’s all about writing better characters. Anna Alexander, author of novels about superheroes finding love, who at Jammies and Jewels wore a black boa, and topped her mass of dark curly hair with a rhinestone tiara, explained, "People are at their most vulnerable when they're naked together, which leads them to admit their true feelings even if only to themselves.”

Some of the women I interviewed had no intention of writing any sex scenes when they began. Lainey Reese, former banker and bestselling author of "Table for Three," a ménage erotic romance, said she initially meant to write an inspirational Christian romance without sex but felt frustrated by constantly running into that closed door. Rebecca Zanetti's first book was a young adult romance. An agent commented that Zanetti didn’t have a young adult voice, because after reading the book she just wanted the characters “to go do it.” Zanetti realized she was naturally drawn to writing hot sex scenes, and never looked back. This November, she quit her job as a law professor to write the spicy contemporaries and vampire paranormals that bring in four or five times as much money as her professor’s salary.

For Lynda Aicher, more subversive sexual situations allow her to explore the theme of personal acceptance. Her stories are about people learning to accept what they want even if their desires are rejected by society as a whole. She challenges her readers as much as her characters by creating a different sexual dynamic in each book. Her “Wicked Play” series features a submissive heroine, a dominant heroine, a male/male/female ménage, and even a male/male storyline. While she recognizes she might lose some readers by writing a male/male novel, she hopes she’ll also gain some from the relatively new and growing market of male/male erotic romance written by women for women. Besides, that was the story her characters demanded of her.

If erotic romance has such a strong basic appeal, why has it taken until now for it to go mainstream? People have written erotic romance for hundreds of years, and even before "Fifty Shades" in 2012, erotic romance was a solid and slowly growing market.  What is it about these past few years that made that market skyrocket?

While recent changes in technology transformed all forms of media, they have been particularly kind to erotic romance. Erotic romance’s electronic sales are many times greater than its print sales, and the genre didn’t really take off until the eBook became popular with the Kindle around 2010. Many authors make a good living without ever being in print. EBooks changed erotic romance in three important ways.

First, there’s an emotional convenience to the eBook. Even though romance dominates the fiction market with over $1.4 billion in sales last year, nearly twice as much as any other fiction genre, much of society continues to frown on it as foolish, escapist drivel. Ironic that the genre that makes the most money is the most reviled, and this is even more true of the lucrative erotic romance market considering that many people view it as no different than porn.

The eBook changed everything by creating a kind of public privacy. People can read whatever they want, whenever and wherever they desire. Even the act of buying is anonymous. The erotic romance in digital form becomes a different kind of cultural object through which the reader’s desires are now hidden rather than immediately exposed. The woman taking the bus to work can now read about people having really good sex with no one drawing conclusions about her sex life from her taste in reading.

Second, eBooks are physically more convenient than print books. Readers who live in rural areas without a convenient bookstore, or without a bookstore that sells erotic romance, can instantly buy whatever they want to read. The virtual bookshelf is infinite and people can finally access niche books that wouldn’t previously have been published or carried in the average bookstore. It allows books to find their readers, when their readers are ready for them.

Third, the eBook makes self-publishing on a large scale economically feasible, and encourages the growth of mainly electronic publishers who can take greater risks and focus on erotic romance in particular, such as Ellora’s Cave or Samhain. Previously New York publishers acted as a gateway and often rejected romances they thought lacked enough marketing appeal or were too controversial. Day originally chose to self-publish "Bared to You" because she didn’t think a traditional publisher would accept an erotic romance about two survivors of child abuse. After the book became enormously popular, she accepted an offer to publish it traditionally. Bonnie Edwards, who writes stories about working-class girls, wasn’t published until 15 years after her first submission in the early 90’s. Editors told her she wrote great sex scenes but she had too many of them. They objected to her heroines, who had unglamorous jobs as pawnbrokers or used-car saleswomen. Edwards, who now exclusively self-publishes, said that with epublishing and self-publishing today’s writers don’t have to wait for years just get their work out there.

According to "The Siren" author Tiffany Reisz, erotic romance is a “way to show women acting like normal women in 2013.” The genre is particularly popular now because it feels more realistic in an era of frequent casual sex. Reisz explained that in erotic romance the couple usually has sex early on and the question is when they will fall in love and admit it to each other. In traditional romance, on the other hand, the characters form an emotional attachment and the focus is on when they will have sex and when they commit. As Lainey Reese asked, "if the morning after the man you were with looked at you not like you were a slut, but like you just blessed him with the most amazing night of his life and he couldn't be more grateful or greedy for more, wouldn't you just dive right in?"

Aicher says there’s nothing new about one-night stands, what’s new is the way we talk about them. Shows like "Sex and the City" paved the way for people to talk freely about casual and edgy sex, which meant being more comfortable with reading and writing erotic romance.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is a key part of this new discourse. According to Limber, no one can say exactly why a book of dubious quality that languished for two years suddenly burst onto the market and sold one million copies in eleven weeks, faster than any book ever before. For whatever reason, "Fifty Shades" was the book that tapped into a latent mainstream hunger for erotic romance. Even if, like Reisz, they strongly dislike the book, writers recognize that it’s enormously increased the popularity of their genre and even their own book sales. As Arend, the bestselling author of westerns and parnormals, who back at Jammies and Jewels wore not only her cowboy hat but also leopard pajamas, a gun holster and Ugg Boots, said, “'Fifty Shades' opened the library doors for all of us.”

So what’s next for erotic romance? At Jammies and Jewels, an editor for an imprint for the publishing house Hachette passed me a chocolate-chip cookie and commented that there’s going to be a huge demand for books like "Fifty Shades" up until the movie comes out, and after that readers will be looking for the next new thing. But everyone agrees there’s no going backward. Whatever form it takes, erotic romance is here to stay in our libraries and local bookstores — and, for many of us, on our Kindles.

By Chloe Carson

Chloe Carson is a new author of tasteful and edgy erotic romance. Find her at http://chloecarson.com/, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/chloecarsonwriter or on Twitter @chloewriter.

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