Erotica: Full-Frontal Shelving | Genre Spotlight

It’s never been easier to satisfy patrons’ desire for this hot lit


ljx130202webEroticCover1 Erotica: Full Frontal Shelving | Genre SpotlightSince E.L. James first released Fifty Shades of Grey almost two years ago, her erotic Twilight fan fiction has taken the world by storm. From Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album to the development of a movie based on the book to a licensed menswear line, you cannot escape the phenomenon. Worldwide sales of the trilogy now stand over 65 million copies, while Random House’s Vintage imprint has sold 35 million print and ebook editions in the United States. This past January, Doubleday released a collector-worthy hardcover edition of the trilogy with a combined first printing of 200,000 copies.

How has the trilogy’s popularity affected public perception of erotica? “Overall, I think people might be more apt not to be ashamed in the future about reading erotica,” says Megan Hart, author of the New York Times best-selling erotic novel Switch. And Kristina Wright, a writer (Dangerous Curves, Silhouette, 1999) and editor of erotic anthologies (Duty and Desire: Military Erotic Romance, Cleis, 2012), notes that James was able to take well-known tropes and bring erotica to global mainstream attention, introducing many new readers to the concept.

Librarians are seeing this acceptance with requests for more material “like Fifty Shades.” Kristi Chadwick, director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton, MA, has noticed an increase in holds for erotic materials. “I don’t think we have seen our copies of E.L. James’s or Sylvia Day’s titles on our shelf more than once since we acquired them last year!”

As erotic fiction is classified within general fiction, specific circulation statistics are not available, but Robin Bradford, collection development librarian with the Indianapolis-­Marion County Public Library, says that public service librarians at her system have reported high patron demand, and she receives a large number of patron-generated purchase requests.

If your library doesn’t already collect erotic literature, where should you start? How do you mine your collection for titles you may already have? How do you help patrons navigate the world of erotic literature and assist them in finding something they want to read?

Erotic literature today

The exploration of alternative sexual practices is a key feature of the genre. BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/maso­chism) has become a catchall term for a wide range of behaviors and is perennially popular with readers of erotica. While erotica classics like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O (1954) and Anne Rice’s 1980s “Sleeping Beauty Trilogy” (written under the A.N. Roquelaure pseudonym) have explored some of the more extreme aspects of BDSM, readers new to erotic literature have been introduced to these elements through James’s “Fifty Shades” trilogy.

While many embraced the three titles, there has been backlash from longtime erotica readers and practitioners of the BDSM lifestyle who argue, among other things, that it is an unrealistic depiction. “For many BDSM practitioners,” says Riptide Publishing editor Sarah Frantz, “BDSM is as much as part of their sexuality as their gender orientation.” So James’s depiction of Ana’s love “curing” Christian of his desire for BDSM does not in any way represent real-life practitioners, argues Frantz. She also points out that Christian’s demand for Ana’s acceptance of the contract “as is” is not considered “safe, sane, and consensual,” which is the credo for most BDSM ­practitioners.

Publishers are now repackaging and promoting their frontlist and backlist erotic titles to take advantage of the surging interest. This year Harlequin’s Mira imprint is reissuing Hart’s erotic backlist (Broken; Dirty;Tempted; Deeper; Switch; Naked; Stranger) with elegant covers that feature monochrome images of flowers similar to the understated and tasteful covers of the “Fifty Shades” books. Interestingly, Hart’s 2010 title Switch hit the New York Times best sellers list for the first time in September 2012; Harlequin senior editor Susan Swinwood is certain this was more than just a happy coincidence. “The timing and the new cover direction helped us to achieve strong sales of Switch,” she notes. “The new covers have just a hint of suggestiveness for clever women yet look benign enough not to embarrass anyone caught reading them in public.”

Day hits a hot trifecta

Sylvia Day [see Q&A at right] has arguably benefited the most from being associated as a read-alike to the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Last April, she self-published the first of her erotic “Crossfire” novels, Bared to You, as an ebook and print-on-demand title. Hearing the buzz from readers and reviewers, vice president and executive editor of Penguin’s Berkley Books imprint Cindy Hwang asked Day for a copy and was immediately hooked: “In the best erotic romances, you can’t separate the physical from the emotional, and that’s exactly what happened in Bared to You.”

Hwang bought the book, added a new Fifty Shades–style cover featuring a pair of cuff links, and released it as an ­ebook and trade paperback (with a 500,000-copy first printing). Bared to You is now a national best seller, hitting both the New York Times and the USAToday lists. Reflected in You, Day’s sequel released in October 2012, reached the number one spot on the New York Times combined print and ebook fiction list when it was still only available in ebook format; it also made news when it beat Fifty Shades of Grey in first-week sales in Britain, James’s home country. According to Nielsen BookScan sales figures for the first 50 weeks of 2012, James’s series—as individual trade paperbacks and as a boxed set—sold over 14 million copies. Trade paperback sales of Day’s two novels equaled nearly three-quarters of a million in sales in the same time period. The next  title, Entwined in You, will be released June 4.

M/M fiction comes to the fore

Another growing subgenre in erotica to watch is that of M/M fiction, which is shorthand for male/male and is usually written for a female audience by female authors. This type of erotic fiction has not quite made the leap to traditional print markets, but it is gradually making inroads with major mainstream publishers. In August, Grand Central Publishing’s print/digital romance imprints Forever/Forever Yours will publish their first erotic M/M romance, Rie Warren’s In His Command. Yet the current ebook market for this genre continues to be dominated by such LGBT market-focused publishers as Torquere Press and newly launched Riptide Publishing. Particularly popular authors are Josh Lanyon, K.A. Mitchell, Alex Beecroft, and Heidi Cullinan. [For M/M title suggestions, see Devon Thomas’s 2010 roundup, “Bodice Rippers Without the Bodice: Ten Male-on-Male Romances for a Core Collection”—Ed.]

In the last two years or so, there has also been a rise in the publication of female/female titles, while Cecilia Tan, founder and editor of Circlet Press, reports they have recently launched Gressive Press, a new sf/fantasy imprint specifically to address transgender and transsexual-positive stories. The LGBTQ erotica market is still very young but one poised for rapid growth, explains Riptide cofounder Rachel Haimowitz. “Society is catching up and not just accepting the LGBTQ community but also embracing them,” says Haimowitz. “Love is love, and people are people, and we can all relate to each other.”

Discreet ereading

Ebooks continue to be popular with readers of erotic literature, especially when the covers are sexually suggestive. “We know that there are still many readers who prefer to read erotic romance digitally—after all, the recent resurgence in the [genre] started digitally,” says Penguin’s Hwang. “So we’re publishing digital-first erotic romances in InterMix [Penguin’s new digital romance imprint].” So far the imprint has struck gold with its initial releases. Hwang reports that nine months after InterMix launched in January 2012, it enjoyed its first New York Times best seller with Beth Kery’s eight-part serialized erotic novel Because You Are Mine ( LJXpress Reviews, 8/3/12).

Many other traditionally print-first publishers are also venturing into digital-only or digital-first romance imprints. In 2010, Harlequin started Carina Press as a digital-first division and has created digital-first lines for short stories related to its print category lines. And 2012 saw the relaunch of Random House’s Loveswept imprint (a category line that closed in 1999) and the births of HarperCollins’s Avon Impulse, Grand Central’s Forever Yours, and Random’s “new adult” Flirt digital-only imprints. None of these imprints are exclusively for erotica, but erotic fiction is being acquired as part of their mission where appropriate. The emerging genre of “new adult” is one to watch for erotic content as it seems to be focusing on the coming-of-age exploits of characters in their twenties. However, the boundaries of this genre are still shaking themselves out among publishers, authors, and readers.

Readers’ advisory issues

As with any other readers’ advisory (RA) interaction, respect must be given to the patron’s reading preferences. The choice of which erotica and erotic literature a patron chooses to read is highly personalized as sexuality is an individual experience. According to erotica anthology editor Wright, “The key is finding the themes you enjoy and then discovering the authors who write what you like to read.”

A pitfall of erotica RA is assuming that it can be lumped in with romance. While a good chunk of such fiction can certainly be considered romantic, hot romance is not erotic romance is not erotica. The line differentiating them can be blurred, but the structure of the storytelling is fundamentally distinct. In a sexually explicit romance, the development of the emotional relationship drives the story. The sex scenes are integral to the story, but they are not the primary way in which the relationship develops. For erotic romance, the development of the relationship again is the focus of the story, but here the sex scenes are the primary way in which the development is revealed to the reader.

Erotica, on the other hand, does not require a love story of any sort. “Erotica is not a romance at all,” explains author Hart. “The content is graphic, and the plot has a sexual premise, but the movement of the story is not about the emotional relationship or ‘happy ever after’ of the characters.” Berkley’s Hwang agrees. “I think the difference is really about how the sexual component is used.”

An erotica story can be about anything, but the journey of the main characters is generally shown through the lens of their sexuality and sexual practices. Consider Molly Weatherfield’s 1995 Carrie’s Story (2d ed. Cleis, Feb. 2013). Dubbed “the American twist on The Story of O,” this is the story of a young woman who is invited into a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship and then given to another man as part of the sexual scene in which they are involved. The focus is on Carrie and her introduction to and acceptance of this lifestyle for herself. The man who originally brought her into the scene attempts to win her back, but Carrie rejects him. In this respect, Carrie’s Story is not a good match for someone looking for a read-alike for the romance aspects of Fifty Shades of Grey. It is a good choice for a reader wanting to explore more deeply the BDSM elements introduced in James’s novel.

Sexually graphic also does not automatically mean erotica. Street or urban lit is known for its sexual explicitness. Many of the characters engage the world by means of their sexuality, especially female characters. Again, a distinction must be made as to whether the main characters’ development is shown through the lens of their sexuality or sexual practices. For some characters, sexuality is only another tool with which they conquer the demons of their existence.

You will find a number of erotica readers don’t necessarily care about the characters’ motivations or the author’s storytelling choices. They just want to know if the book is sexually explicit. My favorite way of determining this criteria is by asking, “How hot do you like it?” This provides readers with a nonjudgmental opening to make their own decision. You may be surprised by how often the response is, “The hotter, the better.”

Marketing your erotica

Marketing your collection to readers of erotica is a balancing act. You want to give your patrons a sense of privacy with this most intimate of reads but also offer them an understanding that the library supports their reading interests no matter what they choose. Robin Beerbower, RA librarian with the Salem Public Library, WA, created a read-alike pamphlet to hand out to patrons looking for similar titles. Another subrosa technique with print books is to create bookmarks with read-alike titles and insert them into the listed books. This works for any genre. With ebooks, check to see if your delivery platform allows you to generate targeted “if you like this, then try these other titles” or “other patrons who borrowed this, also borrowed these titles” lists similar to online bookstores’ “people who bought this title, also purchased these titles” function.

Collection development issues

The first thing to realize when collecting erotic literature for a library setting is that you likely already have a couple of appropriate titles in your collection. Even if these books were not consciously purchased as erotic, you may find a few titles pop up when doing a subject heading search of “erotic stories.” Periodically checking these results is a good practice if your library does copy cataloging as you may find odd results, such as the time I discovered Meg Cabot’s YA title All-American Girl with that heading. It has since been removed from the record. Likewise, Williston Memorial Library’s Chadwick found the same subject heading on Cabot’s Princess on the Brink in their catalog.

To determine if your patrons even want erotic titles, consider your current holdings. Check the circulation figures on the titles with “erotic stories” as the subject heading. Look at the popularity in your community of authors like Zane, Lora Leigh, Joey W. Hill, Lauren Dane, Jaci Burton, Maya Banks, Victoria Dahl, Lisa Marie Rice, Beth Kery, Jacqueline Carey, Laurell K. Hamilton, Emma Holly, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Anne Rice. If you have any of the classic erotic literature authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, or ­Erica Jong still active in your collection, consider updating your old volumes with new editions. High circulation of these and similar authors is a strong indicator that a selection of explicitly erotic titles would be welcome in your community.

The popularity of James’s trilogy is actually not a good indicator by itself of the desire for erotica in a community. This is because of the added mega-best-seller influence, or what I call the Oprah Effect. A great many of your patrons likely requested these books, at least the first volume, because it was the book everyone was talking about. However, patrons who have finished the trilogy may ask for more titles like it, and if you can determine that they are looking for books with erotic elements, this is a solidly positive indicator.

The anonymous patron

Owing to the sensitive nature of expressing a desire for erotica, libraries may want to consider a method by which patrons can anonymously request particular titles and authors. This may be hard to balance if the collection development policy requires accepting purchase suggestions only from cardholding patrons.

Patron suggestions are a valuable source of collection development leads. Even if particular titles or authors are unavailable, by tracking what types of stories are being requested, you will have a better idea of the interests of the community and will be well positioned to spot trends.

The ebook versus print debate is probably best illustrated by the erotica genre. Many readers of this genre prefer to read electronically, especially if the cover is in any way lurid or if they have young children at home. In the October 2012 survey on erotic reading habits I conducted for a continuing education workshop, some respondents indicated a preference for erotic fiction in ebook format to avoid the possible embarrassment of checking out print titles from library staff. There are many options with publishers, especially smaller presses, when it comes to erotica in electronic format. When considering an ebook platform, look at which small presses are in the catalog, such as Carina Press, Ellora’s Cave, Samhain Publishing, Ravenous Romance, Total-E-Bound, Loose Id, and Cleis Press.

However, most readers new to the genre first stumble across it in print. This is usually because print lends itself better to noncommittal browsing. Reviews of erotic literature can be hard to find. Well-established print publishers such as Cleis will have their titles periodically reviewed in national publications. RT Book Reviewsh has a section dedicated to erotica and erotic romance. There are also a number of review blogger sites that include erotica as part of their regular coverage. [See sidebar for a listing of the best sites.]

If you’re buying in print to promote a browsing collection of erotica, I would recommend anthologies such as Susie Bright’s groundbreaking “Herotica” series, as they will give the reader the broadest possible exposure to a range of authors. Even single-author collections like Nin’s Little Birds will let the reader explore a broad selection of story types.

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Reconsideration requests

The first line of defense for reconsideration requests is having a strong collection development policy already in place. If your policy specifically bars the addition of erotica or erotic literature to the collection, it should also clearly define what is considered erotica or erotic literature. Choosing this route can eliminate a number of classic and highly popular authors and titles from the collection, however. To be effective, librarians cannot pick and choose to which titles and authors they apply the collection development policy.

A clearly written policy can help you avoid Brevard County Library System’s (BCLS) experience. The Florida system initially removed copies of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy from circulation in March 2012 due to media reports classifying the contents as pornography and then reversed its decision in May 2012 owing to patron demand for the titles. As of this writing in January 2013, 30 copies of the trade paperback of Fifty Shades of Grey, two copies of the audiobook, and five copies of the large-print edition remain in circulation, with all checked out, according to the BCLS public catalog.

The second line is to have a clear reconsideration request process in place and to have every staff member, pages and volunteers included, trained on it. If the library designates certain staff members to be responsible for initial acceptance of requests, make sure every staff member knows who the designees are. Staff members not designated to accept requests should be trained in proper responses to the patron’s complaint and how to transition the patron to a designated staff member. Many times, reconsideration requests can be handled informally by respecting and actively listening to the patron’s concerns.

If the patron wishes to file a formal request, the designated staff member should clearly inform the patron of the process of reconsideration and at which points the patron can expect to hear a response. The patron should also be informed of the possible outcomes of the request, which may include the library retaining the item precisely as it is. Should the patron choose not to proceed with a formal request, the challenged item should be immediately returned to the collection. It may be politic to wait until the patron has left the building to do this, but that should be the only delay.

Formal requests should include a form where patrons detail their opposition to the item, assert they have read, viewed, or listened to the item in its entirety, and acknowledge that they understand the process the library uses for reconsideration requests and the possible outcomes of the request. It is also useful to provide patrons with a booklet with all of the relevant policies when the challenge is made, including the collection development policy and any intellectual freedom policies the library board has adopted, along with a copy of the reconsideration request form. The provision of such a packet is often sufficient for patrons to feel their requests have been adequately heard. Once the items have been considered according to the process, patrons should be notified in writing of the resolution to the challenge.

Wrapping up

If you are not already familiar with the genre, I recommend you lay your hands on a number of erotica anthologies and pick three to four stories to read. See my starter bibliography on this page for suggestions. Get a feel for the lay of the land. The story may not be to your taste, or you may find your new favorite genre. Either way, you will have a better understanding of its appeal. Adding erotica when it is not your thing is the same as adding in any other specialized collection that is not your thing. You can do this and probably already have with other collections. If you are not in management, you need to ensure management has your back in case any challenges are made—either by the public or other staff members.

Ultimately, erotic literature is not going away, and it needs to be given consideration as part of a library’s collection. As the ladies of River City in Meredith Willson’s musical The Music Man say, “Chaucer! Rabelais! Balzac!”


Katie Dunneback works as a collection development librarian. She has been a reader of erotic fiction for 15 years and a published author of erotica under a pseudonym for more than five

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Comments

  1. Kathleen Bradean says:

    I’m surprised that you missed the review site Erotica Revealed.

  2. Sally Hawkes says:

    I hate to say this, but the romance market has apparently changed and developed without library awareness, if Fifty Shades is a librarian’s first experience at this level. I suspect that there are popular fiction titles on the shelves that aren’t any tamer, but the media hasn’t been elbowing each other in the ribs and giggling over them. A good percentage of the NYT and USA romance best sellers are probably as hot by more experienced writers using the same elements. The romances I wrote in the 1990s were considered fairly hot, and are now in the more tame category and being released at Retro Romances ebooks.

  3. Lilith Jordan says:

    M/M Romance is NOT a sub-genre of erotica. It is a sub-genre of Romance. Within M/M you will find all kinds of romance, from the very sweet, fade-to-black stories, to hot erotica. But please, please, don’t lump all of that in with erotica. It’s just not the same thing. You mentioned Josh Lanyon, read his books, they’re not erotica.

    And yes, more libraries need to include M/M Romance in their romance collections!

    • Katie D. says:

      Thanks for the clarification with regard to Josh Lanyon, Lilith! M/M, and other LGBT romances, definitely need to be considered by librarians. I do agree that there is a great deal of non-erotic M/M romance out there, but I also know a great many fans of the more erotic offerings :) Understanding the distinctions between what is hot romance, erotic romance and erotica will help no matter the sexual orientation of the characters.

  4. Marie Tuhart says:

    Great article, I’d also like to point out another e-publisher: The Wild Rose Press, they have both romance and erotic romance. They’ve been voted best publisher by Editors and Predators for the last several years.

  5. A publisher I am with has erotica and erotic romance, Phaze Books as it is an erotic imprint of Mundania Press. They have eBooks and also print, TPBs. You can check here: http://phaze.com

  6. I’m so happy that you mentioned The Erotica Readers & Writers Association! My stories are archived there as Valentine Bonnaire. It’s very much the top destination for the literary reader…
    xxoo!

  7. D. L. King says:

    I’m glad Kathleen mentioned Erotica Revealed as it is the only site solely reviewing erotic literature. We have been publishing thoughtful, literary reviews, non-stop since May of 2007.

    And, on another note, I was thrilled to meet so many librarians at BEA last year and sign copies of Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica for them to take back to their libraries. I’m looking forward to meeting them again this year with Seductress and hope to get a chance to hear about how erotica is faring in libraries across the country.

  8. That was really interesting. What I’d be fascinated to know is how many of these high sellers in erotic romance have the same type of storyline – BDSM – or at least very damaged heroes. I know that my sales for one of my books in particular jumped in a huge way after it had been compared to E.L. James’s trilogy which I haven’t read. I don’t read or write BDSM stories but I do write about damaged heroes. Maybe women like the nurturing aspect, the need to help men, make them better, make them into the sort of guys they want. Maybe the BDSM element is a reaction to the way women have become so strong in society. I suspect a psychologist would have a field day with this.

  9. Gerard Saylor says:

    The Lorelei James (Lori Armstrong’s pen name) erotic romances have proven quite popular in my library. We have six titles now but I think her new titles go straight to ebook first.

  10. Sally Hawkes says:

    Samhain Publishing (my current publisher) announced in Dec. that Lorelei James made the NYTimes & USA Today lists. Samhain is predominately ebooks but also has print copies of the authors with high sales.

    http://www.samhainpublishing.com/2012/12/gone-country-by-lorelei-james-hits-nyt-usa-today-bestseller-lists/

    • Gerard Saylor says:

      Good for James/Armstrong. I enjoyed speaking to her at Bouchercon in 2011 about her thriller and romance lines.

  11. Jenelle Hutchens says:

    I think this is a very information and true article. I read a rebuttal in the LJ today, but I think Katie is right. The erotica genre has grown exponentially in the last few years. Fifty Shades of Grey only helped push it into the public eye. I have taken several RA classes over the years and she definitely knows what she is talking about!

  12. irwin moss says:

    Blue Moon Books. Is there a backlist availability for BM titles, and if so where?

    PS I am looking for a copy of “The Erotique Professor” by Clive Murray, circa 1931. I own a copy with font too small to easily read.

    Thank you.

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