Limits of the Absurd

by | October 21, 2017 | General | 11 comments

Detergent Ad

By Lisabet Sarai

Imagine that you’re the publicist for a company that makes laundry detergent. Your employer has just released a new version of their top-selling product. It’s your job to get the word out, design and schedule advertising, create a buzz and find ways to hook new customers.

However, the most influential advertising venues have placed significant restrictions on the ads they’ll accept. Specifically, you can’t use the words “laundry” or any of its derivatives. “Detergent”, and “clothes washing” are also banned. Furthermore, the guidelines state that visuals may not include pictures of washing machines or articles hanging on a clothesline.

How in the world are you going get anyone to buy your product if you can’t tell them what it is you’re selling?

As it happens, bath soap is not subject to the same rules. Hence, you can opt to call your product “soap”, hoping people will understand it’s really detergent. This approach entails a serious risk, though. People who really don’t want detergent may buy your product, and be seriously annoyed about being misled.

Sound like a silly scenario? These days, authors of erotica face exactly this situation.

Suppose I’ve written a new erotica novel, featuring BDSM and multiple partners. (Hardly a far-fetched supposition, as I’ve written many such books.) I really need to publish it on Amazon because, let’s face it, that’s where the vast majority of readers buy their books. If I want my book to be visible to those masses of potential customers, rather than relegated to the so-called “adult dungeon” where nobody will see it without specifically selecting adult content, there’s a long list of words I have to avoid in the title, blurb, and increasingly, in the keywords. In addition, I need to be extremely careful about the cover imagery. I mustn’t include even a hint of bare breast or bottom. I’m not allowed to show a hand holding a whip. Even a tastefully shadowed, artistic snippet of nude flesh may get my book banished.

Indeed, it has gotten to the point where you cannot be honest about the genre of your book. Categorize your opus as erotica (because that’s what it is) and off to the dungeon you’ll go. If you plead and grovel, maybe—just maybe—they’ll reconsider. The chances are slim, though, especially if you’re an indie author who’s self-publishing your inspired smut.

The rules aren’t nearly as specific as the ones I cited for detergent, though, and they’re not consistently enforced. Some titles may slip by the censors while others will get a red flag. Some covers that scream “sex” nevertheless remain visible to six year olds, while many less blatant images end up hidden behind the X-rated wall. Best selling authors seem to get more lenient treatment than newcomers. The Excessica executive assistant says the people who vet publication submissions on weekends are pickier than those on weekdays.

Maybe they’re in a bad mood because they have to spend Saturday or Sunday working. Is it really fair that they take it out on us poor, struggling authors?

One strategy for adapting to these ridiculous restrictions involves labeling your writing as erotic romance rather than erotica. Sometimes this works. In fact there’s not any sort of hard line between erotic romance and erotica. My own stories often include romantic elements. Much of the time I don’t feel too uncomfortable selecting the accepted instead of the proscribed genre. For some of my books, though, it’s just too much of a stretch. A happy ending is the sine qua non of romance. If I publish a story that lacks the traditional HEA or HFN but claim it is romance, I’m going to have seriously pissed off readers, and one-star reviews. They wanted soap, but they got detergent. In fact, they’re justified in being upset.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been busy editing and formatting the first ERWA anthology, Unearthly Delights. I had to ditch the original subtitle, “Paranormal Erotica”, because Selena advised that might land us in the dungeon. Okay, that’s not a big thing. I actually like our new subtitle better: “Tales of Paranormal Desire”. I’d suggested “Paranormal Lust”, but someone suggested that “lust” might grab the censor’s attention.

Got to be careful, don’t we?

We went over the blurb with a fine-toothed comb, eliminating anything even slightly contentious. I think we still managed to capture the feeling of the book—hopefully without triggering any objections—but it galls me to have to waste time on these considerations.

The ultimate absurdity, though, is the fact that we apparently cannot say that this is an “Erotica Readers & Writers Association Anthology”. Selena thinks this might guarantee a trip to the dungeon. We’re limited to using the acronym “ERWA”, even though many readers won’t know what this stands for. That’s right. We can’t get the full benefit of our brand because it includes the word “erotica”.

I’m both astounded and furious.

How did one company ever get so much power?

What can we do about it?

Should we really accept, with utter meekness, these increasingly absurd constraints?

Contrarian that I am, my reaction is to start writing the filthiest smut I can imagine. Because you and I both know there’s a market for that kind of thing.

I just need to find those readers. Somehow.

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. Larry archer

    As someone who has also been locked in Amazon’s dungeon, I read your article with interest. Besides a file in the cake there appears to be little you can do to escape.

    This post reminded me of a similar one which is not porn related but how Amazon sometimes kills an author’s rank.

    The only thing a business typically responds to is if it hits them in the wallet. While Amazon is certainly the 900# gorilla in the room, about the only thing you can do is try and hurt them (and not in a good way). Trying to urge your readers to alternative sites such as SmashWords, Excessica, etc. is about all we can hope for.

    Possibly one day, Amazon will realize which side of their bread is buttered and be more forgiving to the one thing which made the Internet what it is today, Porn!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Larry,

      Actually erotica–not erotic romance–is still big business. So if Amazon doesn’t want to sell it, so be it.

      I’ve been concerned by Smashword’s recent panicky attempt to force erotic authors to ‘certify” their work doesn’t contain forbidden themes, though.

      Meanwhile, in blissful ignorance (mine AND theirs), my erotic romance publisher TotallyBound has been selling my novel which includes aunt/nephew and cousin-cousin (adult) incest. Who knew, back then, that this sort of fantasy material would be banned?

      • Larry archer


        I might be wrong but I don’t think SmashWords decision to require authors to certify that their works contain certain categories was “panicky” but simply an attempt to protect authors. Since they push out your stories to other publishers such as B&N and Apple, they can now make intelligent choices before pushing your “family” story to a publisher who doesn’t allow that kind of smut. My feeling would be that if say Apple started seeing brother-sister stories they might blackball the author’s entire catalog of otherwise acceptable material.

        For instance, B&N has tightened their rules against erotica and SmashWords is just reacting to the industry. I haven’t seen any indication that they have changed their rules. SmashWords has always been very tolerant of the types of erotica they let in the door. I have always been amazed at them allowing the F-word in a title.

        To me the changes at SmashWords is a good thing as I’ve got a couple of story ideas which down the line publishers would likely object to and this way I can go premium and not have to worry about Apple getting their knickers in a knot.


        • Lisabet Sarai

          It struck me as panicky based on the shrillness of their emails and messages, as well as the really half-baked UI they developed for certification. In general I find Smashwords user interface to be really easy to use, so it seemed to me that they were really rushing to get this implemented in order to cut the flack they were getting.

          I’m not arguing with their policy, which seems quite reasonable. Just commenting on their implementation.

  2. Cameron d james

    With September 2017 being a bizarre exception, I’ve found that Amazon counts for fewer and fewer sales — and I’m increasingly getting sales through Smashwords and their third party vendors, particularly iBooks. Amazon counts for a third or less of my royalties in an average month. I despise Amazon. I do my best to play within the rules and I ensure everything gets put up there, but I would gladly do without it if I could.

    There have been grumbling among authors that Amazon seems to be putting fewer resources into selling ebooks and is instead putting resources into selling big ticket items like TVs, electronics, and their streaming video services. Authors have seen this shift and we can only hope that readers will soon see it too and choose to shop elsewhere.

    No big mega-corporation lasts forever. Here in Canada, the Hudson Bay Company was founded before our country existed and was THE place to go for anything and everything. Now, it struggles to survive. (Hopefully Amazon doesn’t have the same staying power — The Bay has been around for almost 350 years.) in a similar example, Sears, which once had the same dominance and prominence of The Bay, has declared bankruptcy and is currently liquidating all their stores.

    Although it can be hard to see, I do believe that Amazon will one day be the author of its own demise. Every big business waxes and wanes and I do believe that Amazon has begun its very slow wind down. Will they ever go completely out of business? No, I don’t think so, at least not for a very long time. But as they try to become the “everything” store, which offers every type of product possible, they will lose their appeal to consumers and they will turn to niche stores and sites. (It just occurred to me that Amazon is becoming a modern day version of The Bay and Sears. They both have strong histories as mail-order companies that offered almost anything a person or family could want, delivered to their door… sound familiar?)

    • Lisabet Sarai

      That’s very hopeful, Cameron!

      Just the news I need to hear.

  3. Rose B. Thorny

    “I’m both astounded and furious.

    “How did one company ever get so much power?”

    We gave it to them. (And by we, I don’t mean me because I don’t buy anything through Amazon. I’m referring to the general we.)

    People wanted to order books (and everything else they desired) on line, for less money than they would pay in bricks and mortar stores, they wanted them right now, or as soon as the upcoming publications were released, and they wanted free delivery, or instant access on their eReaders. They got everything they wanted. There is always a price to be paid for what you want, what you absolutely must have because you wish it. The company that gives you exactly what you want gets to make the rules and change the rules on a whim. There’s always a trade-off, but the trade-off is always a bad deal when one of the parties holds all the cards. Amazon gets to be the tyrannical parent, and you get to be the submissive child. The words, “As long as you’re living under my roof, you’ll play by my rules,” leap to mind.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying, Rose.

      In many ways, we are paying for our obsession with convenience. Look at the epidemic of identity theft for example, fueled at least partly by people who insist on using their (very insecure) mobile phones for sensitive transactions.

      I am, alas, guilty of buying stuff from Amazon occasionally. Sigh. We reap what we sow.

  4. Larry archer


    I agree with your comments about Amazon. My sales through Amazon are half or less what I get through SmashWords.

  5. Belinda LaPage

    Have you been a dirty girl? Long to have all your things cleaned unril they sparkle. With twice the cleaning power of soap, Brandex superior washy-flakes will banish the dirt from your fabricated garments and leave your…

    Oh fuck it. Wash your clothes with Brandex laundry detergent, folks.

    Correction so people don’t panic: naughty words like ‘erotic’ won’t put you in the dungeon, bit they will get you excluded from all Romance categories except Erotic Romance.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Belinda, are you sure about that? Selena wouldn’t even let us use “Erotica” in the series title.

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