Not Naughty, Not Nice

by | December 21, 2012 | General | 20 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Warning: rant alert.

I had planned this month to blog about
symbolism, allegory, allusions and archetypes, and how these can add
depth and substance to erotic writing. However, then I read a book
I’d agreed to review (without knowing anything about it), and found
myself so massively annoyed that I just had to vent.

I haven’t encountered such dreadful
writing in quite a while. Malapropisms (“intangibly bright eyes”,
“moved in perfect synchronicity”). Point of view that wanders
from one character’s head to another within a single sentence.
Stereotypically extreme descriptions of anatomy,with every cock
enormous and every breast and ass “large, round and firm”.
Typographical errors (“nearly identikit paths”) and grammar
gaffes (“grinded”) that suggest no editor ever came near the

The novel does offer a great deal, and
considerable variety, of sex. Some scenes definitely deserve the
label “gratuitous”, in the sense that they involve minor
characters and are completely irrelevant to the plot. Other scenes
are so extreme that they struck me as ridiculous. I suppose that if
one is looking for pure sexual fantasy, realism doesn’t matter, and
I’m sure there are readers who would buy this book for the sex alone.
The sex, though, is just as poorly written as the rest of the book, a
strange mixture of sterile physical descriptions and romance-tinted
purple prose. (I’m sorry, but I can’t read the word “manhood” in
a gang-bang orgy scene with a straight face.)

This novel was not, as you might
suspect, self-published. On the contrary, it comes from a well-known
publisher, a publisher that I would have expected to have higher
standards – or at least better editors.

Why am I so upset about this? It’s only
one book.

The crux of the problem is – it’s
not. I’d like to believe this particular novel is an anomaly, but
the last three books from this house that I’ve reviewed have
exhibited similar, though perhaps less extreme, problems.
Furthermore, I’ve encountered the same issues in recent books from
other high-profile erotic imprints.

This book is symptomatic of a
unfortunate trend in the erotica publishing world, namely, a willingness to
accept and release pretty much anything, as long as it includes
plenty of sex. Publishers are choosing quantity over quality.

In fact,
this might be considered a rational business decision, because they
have very little to lose.

Ebooks have radically altered the
economics of bringing books to market. Authors no longer receive
advances, so if a book doesn’t sell, the company doesn’t need to pay
the writer anything. There’s no risk involved in accepting practically every manuscript submitted. Meanwhile, production costs for ebooks are minimal.
The only expenses a publisher shoulders are the labor costs involved
in editing, formatting the manuscript and submitting it to sales
outlets. (It appears that some companies are deciding to skip the
editing process, in order to improve profits.)

In the days of print,
publishers had to bear the financial consequences of bad decisions
regarding who to publish. This tended to make them at least somewhat
selective. Now, from a publisher’s perspective, selectivity has
almost zero advantage. The more books they release, the more money
they make, especially since readers’ appetite for sexually-themed
ebooks appears to be insatiable.

What about reputation? That’s a good
question. Have these companies no shame? I’d be horribly embarrassed
to put my name on a product like the book in question.
Apparently such considerations doesn’t enter into the equation for
these companies, at least when balanced against cash.

Maybe I’m just an elitist snob. Perhaps
an author’s writing skill doesn’t matter at all. A survey of the
Amazon reviews for the book in question suggests there’s some truth to this
theory. The ratings are pretty much divided between five stars and
one star, but quite a few readers claim to have loved the novel. Why
should my opinions be any more valid than theirs?

Well – I am an author, an editor
and a reviewer, who has been involved in erotica publishing for more
than a decade. Although it’s commonly believed that anyone can write
an erotic story, I know that it takes serious effort and determined
practice to capture the elusive nature of desire. Perhaps it is true,
though, that almost anyone can write a story that includes sex, if
all that’s needed is the tab-A-in-tab-B nuts-and-bolts (or the
nuts-and-cunts, if you will). It may be that this is all that readers
want, after all – not insight, not joy, not surprise – just plain
old down-and-dirty sex that they can wank to.

I’ve got nothing against wanking. But
that’s not enough to satisfy me as a reader – or as an author.

Publishers used to act as gatekeepers.
Authors would lament that fact. We all complained about how our opus
languished in the slush pile, ignored or rejected by those who had
the power to turn us into best-sellers. The gates are wide open now;
the slush-pile gets simply shoveled out onto Amazon and iTunes.

This is bad news for those of us who do
care about quality writing. Our creations, the children of our souls,
drown in the vast sea of (often terrible) quasi-porn that is now
called erotica. It’s trivially easy to get published and nearly
impossible to get noticed.

I’m tempted to publicly take the
publishers to task here, to broadcast the fact that they’re putting
out shoddy products. Unfortunately, I suspect it would make no
difference. The only kind of protest I can make is resolving not to
submit my work to them. But of course they couldn’t care less. They
have hordes of eager wannabee writers sending in their stories,
dreaming of fame and fortune. They don’t need me.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Rachel Green

    name and shame, dear lady. Save your readers from wasting their money.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Rachel,

    I don't want to trash anyone in a public forum.

    (*I* am nice…!)

  3. Maggie Nash

    Hi Lisabet

    I know exactly what you're saying. I too have had a similar experience with a few books from a particular well known publisher. As an author, I'm annoyed by the poor writing and editing, and as a reader I feel cheated. It's not doing our industry any favours. Good for you for saying it publicly, and I totally understand why you prefer not to name names.


  4. Kathleen Bradean

    It's bad enough that most of the world looks down on erotica. Must publishers give them another reason? In the short run it seems that poor editing and writing is a good business model, but they won't have many repeat customers, and repeat customers who praise your product are the foundation of any long term business plan. Whoever that publisher is, they won't be around long.

  5. Naomi Bellina

    Is there ever really a good place for 'manhood?' 🙂 Sadly, the name of the game seems to be numbers now, put out as many books as possible. Good post, if a sad subject.

  6. Elizabeth Black

    I thought a big problem was simply poorly written books but I've seen in recent months problems with poor editing and ugly book covers. Scratch that – non-existent editing. Many of the self-published books have these problems. Yes, I've been told to get out as many books as possible but it's next to impossible to come up with a quality product when you're rushed like that. No wonder so many people ridicule erotica, romance, and the people who read and write both.

  7. Donna

    I totally agree. Publishing is a bit of a Wild West right now, with everyone scrambling to figure out how to make money with the new possibilities. Not too many seem to care about the quality. I think Elizabeth makes an excellent point that encouraging writers to produce stories as quickly as possible leads to rushed, shoddy, spiritless products. Sex has been demeaned and degraded for thousands of years, but even in our relatively enlightened age, it's almost as if people still want it to be stupid and low-class to keep it properly in its place.

    I wish there were something we can do. Avoid these terrible publishers, definitely. Otherwise, stay true to ourselves and write as well as we can. Resist the pressure to crank out something because that means the publisher will sell more books, even if it's just a few dozen of each title. There are certainly challenges to this, but what about a "Jane's Guide" type of review page for publishers, applauding high-quality work as well as particularly sloppy books? I also resist naming names, it feels like bad karma, but there may be braver types who manage it?

  8. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Maggie,

    It appears that the majority of readers do NOT feel cheated. This really makes me wonder.

    Of course, I don't know anything about the sales numbers for this or similar books. One can't necessarily draw any strong conclusions from the Amazon reviews. since so many of such reviews (both positive and negative) are not from legitimate, disinterested readers.

  9. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Kathleen,

    "Whoever that publisher is, they won't be around long."

    I'm not sure you're right. They've been around for at least four years, and are getting bigger rather than smaller. Somehow I got on their mailing list. I started receiving newsletters on a weekly basis, each one highlighting half a dozen new releases. (I just unsubscribed.)

    Now, it's not impossible to put out that volume and still keep the quality high. Total-E-Bound manages six new releases a week. However, they have a crowd of editors (at least a dozen), and each book goes through at least two rounds of edits, one for content and one for final copy editing, each reviewed by the author.

    Takes work, organization and commitment, however. I don't get the feeling the publisher in question has nearly as much as TEB.

  10. Lisabet Sarai

    By the way, Kathleen – your point about the world looking down on erotica is painfully true. From the outside, there's no difference between a publisher like Cleis (who puts out near-perfect books) and this publisher. Both are considered "erotic publishers" and thus the reputable imprints will be tarred with the same brush as this trash.

  11. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Naomi,

    It used to be that if you could write one full-length book per year, you were viewed as prolific. Sigh.

    However, I think one needs to resist the pressure, and focus on the quality, if only to preserve one's self-respect.

  12. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Elizabeth,

    Oh, I hear you! Editing is NOT optional. No author, even a grammar and spelling purist like me (LOL) can write a perfect book, and many authors appear to assume that fixing nuts-and-bolts problems is the editor's job. The author's job is to be creative.

    So, take away the editor and what do you get?

    I'm not going to use a curse word here, but you know what I mean!

  13. Lisabet Sarai

    "Sex has been demeaned and degraded for thousands of years, but even in our relatively enlightened age, it's almost as if people still want it to be stupid and low-class to keep it properly in its place"

    Now there's a conspiracy theory, Donna! However, there's a lot of truth in what you say.

    Maybe EAA can do something. Come up with an EAA certification – this erotica is worth reading. Unfortunately, that would be totally subjective.

    One could come up with a certification of competent editing, though. That at least could be judge according to specific criteria.

    Thanks for your comments.

  14. Jean Roberta


    It's brave of you to post this during the "holiday season," when jollity & puffery abound, but it needed to be said. You are so right, and I'm glad you DID name a publisher with high standards (Cleis). As a reviewer, I don't think every story in a Cleis anthology is equal to every other, but the covers always look tasteful and the copyediting is probably the best I've seen (even compared to that of academic publishers).

    The publisher you don't name may not think they need your work, but it's their loss.

    I think the Erotic Authors Ass'n should definitely do something – set up an honest guide to publishers in the field, and/or maybe a panel at the next EAA conference.

    – Jean

  15. Craig Sorensen

    Thanks for posting this rant. There are a few ebook publishers that hold some high standards, but I fear they don't do so well. Many don't last because the investment taken to produce a quality product isn't sufficient.

    About the only erotic epubs that seem to last are the ones that put out high volumes, and since the model is working, why change it?

    I truly hope this is, to borrow from Donna's comment, like the wild west. Maybe we could get a new sheriff in town to clean up this mess. The covers are beyond terrible. Some of my stories have landed in collections with covers that have downright embarrassed me, and that isn't an easy thing to do.

    I don't know which publisher you're talking about. Several could fit the bill, and that unto itself is discouraging.

    I don't know the answer, but I share your indignation.

    So let me put in my vote for "Lisabet for Sheriff." 🙂


  16. Lynne Connolly

    If the publishers had any quality control, the comments would be relevant. But you're talking about a well-known house.
    In the past, the big houses put out lots of badly edited, formula crap. Tons of the stuff. I'm just now clearing a lot of it from my bookshelves which is reminding me that the good old days weren't always that good.
    If the big publishers really wanted to make a difference and give themselves a good marketing position, they'd go all-out for quality. Historical romance with some real history in it. Paranormal romance with consistent world building. And great editing, both content and copy.
    Instead, they're leaping in to the epub fray and quality is going down, if anything. Agents are throwing their clients' backlists against the wall. Advances are so far down they might as well not be there.
    It's a new world and sooner or later we'll sort out how to cope with it.

  17. Jan Irving

    I read for character and story first. Occasionally an erotic premise might intrigue me but that's rare. Lately I've found I either read only 'tried and true' writers in romances or I don't read at all. Sex alone, no matter how inventive, I find rather boring after years of reading it. Now, sex with intriguing characters in a well-realized setting with compelling feeling…that I will always read.

    As I writer I think you have to try to put everything you have into your work and that is the best path. Hey, if the work doesn't sell so well, at least you felt fulfilled. And if it does, then it's a double win.

    I think there will be a backlash to badly edited material. Readers are sooner or later going to get tired of the emptiness of just the sex in books.

    I did read a badly edited self published YA series lately. It is very popular and a very, very good series, but I wanted to write the author and tell her to get a decent editor to look over the books. Good editing is essential. It can be more than just periods and word choice, it can be about filling out a scene, avoiding reader confusion and so much more.

  18. Sophie Angmering

    I've been meaning to read this post for a while now – so true, if rather depressing. I'm such a slow writer that I will always have to stick to writing stories I'd like to read else I'd get no entertainment at all!
    Thank you for a great post Lisabet.

  19. Lisabet Sarai

    @Craig – no way I want to be sheriff!

    @Lynne – Interesting. This is not a big NY publisher (in fact it's a UK publisher) but they've been around for at least five years, and they have fairly well known people on their staff, as well as writing for them. (And I HAVE read some good books they've released – I chalk that up to the individual authors, though.)

    @Jan – Thanks for dropping by. It makes me wonder on what basis a publisher can take its 50-70% cut of profits. I mean, we use a publisher, rather than self-pubbing, BECAUSE we want the editing services (and art, and to some extent marketing, or at least fulfillment). These guys aren't earning their percentage, in my opinion.

    And although I'd like to believe there will be a backlash, I wonder. Sometimes I think literacy has declined to the extent that readers don't even notice bad writing.

    @Sophie – Great point! We write so that we can entertain ourselves. Because I have to admit, I enjoy my own work more than at least 50% of what I read!

  20. Amanda Earl

    i like to wank to erotica, but it has to be well-written. if it's full of malapropisms & poor grammar, i can't get off. there's a skill to writing erotica that is sexually stimulating.

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