Selena Kitt’s most recent book, Empty Nest, has a title that suggests women’s fiction and mid-life crisis. And it is sort of about those things. Except that the Baumgardners, Doc and Carrie, deal with their mid-life crisis by inviting a third person into their marriage — a trans woman and longtime friend of Carrie’s named Jody.
The novella is split about equally between discussions of relationship and family (“But today, thinking about Henry getting married, of having babies of his own soon, had made her think of what it was like to hold a baby in her arms again”) and X-rated trysts (“Now here she was, completely naked, a giant, realistic dildo on the bed, and Jody was still topless, resting her cheek on her arm” is one of the milder moments.)
That combination of emotional nuance and hardcore sex has made Kitt extremely successful. She began writing erotica in 2007, winning a $500 prize from Literotica. Her husband encouraged her to try to make a career of it, and she began to sell ebooks through her company Excessica. At first she was earning about $1,000 a month. But when the Kindle came along, she started making ten times that on Amazon alone. Since 2008 she’s sold two million books; for a while she was making $750,000 a year.
That’s dropped some as the market has gotten more competitive, and as Amazon changes the way ebook writers get paid. “But currently,” she told me, “writing and publishing is my day job and I expect it will be, for a long time to come.”
She continues to find new ways to market and promote her books; she recently opened a book store exclusively for Erotica and Erotic Romance and two promotion sites that cater to erotica readers and erotic romance readers.
In this Playboy Conversation Kitt talks about her writing, her readers, Amazon and the future of erotic ebooks.
Do you have a sense of what percentage of your readership is women?
Erotic romance and erotica readers seem to skew 80/20, women/men. That generally seems to be the case with my fans as well. The stereotype that men prefer their erotic content visually, versus women who essentially created the “Mommy Porn” genre, had to come from somewhere!
Do women like different kinds of erotica than men? I’m curious especially about your Babysitting the Baumgartners, which is one of your most popular titles. Babysitters are something of a standard male porn fantasy — so I guess I wondered how that resonated with your audience or how you work to make it resonate with your audience.
Individual preferences vary wildly in this genre. Erotica is interesting, because everyone has their own niche or kink. There are some readers who get off on cuckold erotica and some readers who simply can’t abide what they feel is “cheating” in any form. Or, another example, gay male erotica is dominated by women, both authors and readers. Might be an interesting correlation there between women who read gay male erotica and men who watch lesbian porn? With so many readers with varying interests, it’s not hard to find a niche as an author.
But because you’re writing primarily for women, emotions have to be involved. Detailed descriptions of sex are great — women like those, too — but the character’s motivation has to remain in the emotional realm, and the responses have to be explained emotionally as well. As with relationships, women want to experience a connection. I think that’s one of the reasons that I could take a “typical male porn fantasy”— an older couple seducing their babysitter — and turn it on its head. Because in my books, the Baumgartners really care. They’re emotionally invested in the various sexual partners they allow in their bedroom. That makes all the difference for women readers.
Are your books romances? Or what’s the difference between erotica and sexually explicit romance?
Some of my books are romances, in the true sense of the word, that involve a relationship between two people who overcome obstacles and end with a happily ever after. My latest, and longest, called Step Beast, is definitely a romance. But I also write a great deal of sexual exploration novels involving characters who are exploring the boundaries of their sexuality. I’ve done novels exploring anal sex (Unfolding) and a great many involving menage/threesomes, mostly between two women and one man (the Baumgartner series, Bluebeard’s Wife, The Nolan Trilogy) that probably wouldn’t be considered “romance” in the true sense of the word.
The major difference between erotica and explicit romance is the relationship of the characters. In a romance, love is the driving force. Two people meet. They have to overcome some sort of obstacle to be together, but in the end they get their happily ever after. In erotica, that isn’t necessary. You can explore a fantasy, like in “Babysitting the Baumgartners,” where the main characters are already married and have an established relationship.
The drama and focus isn’t about how the two come together. It’s on how they live and love together. It’s the difference between having a wedding and having a marriage. Romance is about the wedding fantasy. Erotica delves deeper into the complications of union and relationship, and it’s not bound so much by societal conventions and traditional roles.
I know the biggest erotica ebook market is Amazon. Have you had censorship problems with them? Or what is their attitude towards selling erotica?
Amazon is the biggest ebook market, period. Amazon’s market share has increased hugely, just in the past two years. All of the other retailers are lagging far behind, and it’s a shame, because someone needs to give Amazon a run for their money. As for censorship, yes, we’ve had many issues with Amazon over the years, starting with a complete ban on three of my books back in 2010 due to incest themes (Naughty Bits, Back to the Garden and Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed). Those books are now back on Amazon in a format they deem acceptable (“step” relations are acceptable but not actual, biological incest). They’ve banned bestiality as well, along with “nonconsent” or rape fantasies.
Unfortunately, Amazon isn’t very transparent or consistent when it comes to their policies surrounding erotica, making them very difficult to work with. I imagine, if Amazon didn’t censor our books, there would be far more erotic titles in their top 100.
Traditional publishers get preferential treatment. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey gets to be listed in both erotica and romance, but for self-published authors, that’s not an option. If you put your book into erotica, you’re stuck there. They don’t allow you out of the “red light district” to be listed in other categories.
Amazon’s made a number of changes to their ebook business model, including recently charging on a per page rather than per download basis. Has that hurt your business, or how do you expect that to affect you?
When Kindle Unlimited first came out, it didn’t take long for erotica authors to figure out that the erotic shorts they were already writing were a perfect fit for the program. An all you can eat buffet of smut? Readers loved it! And erotica authors could provide them with the content the wanted. A match made in heaven. Kindle Unlimited began to be called “Kink Unlimited” — a term Amazon probably wasn’t happy with.
Then Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited payout structure from paying per-borrow (it had averaged out to roughly $1.30 a borrow, and a borrow was any downloaded book read to 10 percent) to paying per-page-read. And when the per-page number was released it amounted to about half a penny per page—$0.0057.
That hurt erotica’s bottom line considerably, because we’ve always been able to write short for readers who love to read stories. In other genres, the novel is king, but in erotica, shorts are the norm. And I know quite a few Amazon Top 10 erotica-genre authors who took pay cuts up to 70 percent after the change. All with just two weeks notice from Amazon. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially since erotica authors are already at a disadvantage in the store due to censorship.
But I imagine the “subscription” model for ebooks, in some form or another, is here to stay. Amazon developed Kindle Unlimited to compete with Oyster and Scribd, but clearly their “success” or lack thereof shows that, so far, for books, the subscription model doesn’t make a profit. It isn’t a sustainable thing at this point.
However, we all know the subscription model changed the music industry, and it will likely change the book industry as well. It is going to make it harder to make a living as an erotica author, but we’re used to making changes when Amazon throws curveballs in our direction. Because we have to respond so quickly most of the time to what Amazon throws at us, we’re actually the mostly likely to adapt.
The next few years are going to be interesting in the ebook market. I’m hoping our fate as authors isn’t going to be a Dickensian existence, working for ha’pennies by the light of our laptops late at night. But we shall see!
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.