market pressures

Muse versus Market

By Lisabet Sarai

A few nights ago I woke from a vivid dream with an idea for a new story. Consumed with excitement, I grabbed the notebook I keep on the shelf in my headboard and scribbled down a synopsis, in the dark. When the next day dawned, I was delighted to find that (a) I could actually read my notes, and (b) the story premise still struck me as really promising.

Having just released a novel, I’ve been wondering what project I should tackle next. This new concept—a scifi tale that resonates with a lot of contemporary issues—really got my mental wheels turning. Though the dream was little more than a single scene, with hints of a back story, I could see how to expand it, and how to focus its harrowing emotional intensity. Tragically romantic—intellectually challenging—distinctly different—the idea really sank its claws into my psyche.

Then I realized that although what I’d envisioned was a love story, it definitely did not have a happy ending. So if I wrote and published it, I couldn’t sell it as romance. And at this point in my publishing carreer, romance is what I know how to promote. The readers on my 300-odd mailing list, the daily visitors to my blog, the people who enter all my giveaways, are readers of romance. They crave an ending where the characters ultimately get what they want, not a finale where the hero dies. Yet that’s the natural way my dream would play out, if I spun a story from it.

Could I make it into a romance with a HEA? Probably, though finding a believable solution to the hero’s impending demise would take significant creativity. As a romance, I suspect this would sell, at least among the readers who have come to appreciate my unconventional approach to romance tropes. Did I want to turn this notion into a happily ending tale, though? Wasn’t that a betrayal of my midnight vision?

I could always keep the original ending and market the book as erotica, of course. Although the thematic core of the tale is not primarily about sex, I expect it to contain a significant amount of carnal activity, since the hero is a prostitute. Even erotica readers tend to shy away from dark endings, though. They might not require the characters to make a commitment, but they like it when everyone ends up satisfied. Heartbreak, injustice, terror—these aren’t favorite topics in erotica.

In any case, I don’t know how to market erotica these days, at least not stuff that would probably be more literary than smutty. Blue Moon is gone. Cleis (and just about everyone else) wants romance. In the old days, Circlet would have been the perfect publisher for this tale. But even Circlet seems to have largely climbed on the romance bandwagon.

What about turning the dream into mainstream fiction? Tragic endings are always welcome in literature. Or genre science fiction? But then what would I do about the sex? Play it down? Leave it out? I’d probably need to create a new pseudonym, too, to avoid being tarred with the opprobrium of also writing “porn”. I’d be starting from scratch, in an environment about which I know very little, at least as an author.

Let me be clear. I don’t make my living from my writing. Heaven forbid. I don’t write primarily for the money. On the other hand, I have very limited time to write, so I try to produce books that I think people will actually read. That’s the payoff, for me—emails like the one I received a few weeks ago, from a guy who absolutely loved Rajasthani Moon, or gushing reviews like I’ve been getting for The Gazillionaire and the Virgin. I write to be read. So I don’t want to put effort into creating something that will go over like a lead balloon.

It’s a dilemma. Do I follow my muse down a barely-trodden path, or divert her onto a more well-traveled highway? I go back and forth about this. Is it principled or foolish to stick to my original notions? Or maybe a bit of both?

A lot of authors read this blog, so I’ll ask: what would you do? Which would you choose, the muse or the market?

Resisting Homogenization

By Lisabet Sarai

At the moment I’m in the throes of
editing stories for my upcoming charity anthology Coming
Together: In Vein
Despite my hatred of all things Microsoft,
I’ve decided that using Word’s Track Changes functionality (as all my
publishers do) is the most efficient way to communicate my suggested
modifications to my authors. Anyway, last week I was working on a
submission from a well-known and respected writer and found myself
breaking up her sentences: deleting conjunctions, inserting periods,
and adding initial caps. My intuition (which I rely on at least as
much as more analytical processes when I’m editing) told me her
sentences were too long. Paragraph after paragraph, she would string
three or four or even five independent clauses together with various

Her sentences weren’t exactly what I’d
label “run-on”. Normally there was a close logical relationship
among the clauses. However, they were certainly much longer than what
I’d write, especially lately. (My earlier work tends to be a good
deal more prolix.) Before long the pages of her story were a mess of
red and blue, cross-outs and insertions.

I worked at this for a while, then went
back to read over the edited text. When I did so, I realized my
changes had done some violence to the rhythm of the author’s prose.
Much as the long sentences bothered me, they were part of her
personal style. If she followed my suggestions and hacked the long
sentences into pieces, that might make the story “better” in some
formal, grammatical sense, or at least more readable. However, it
would be less distinctive – more like my own work, and probably
more like the other stories in the collection.

I went back and used “undo” to
reverse most of the edits. In my opinion, variety as one of the most
critical attributes of a successful anthology.

The experience started me thinking
about all the other pressures toward homogenization we authors face.
Genre conventions, for instance. Readers select a book in a
particular genre with strong expectations about its plot, characters,
and even its style. A murder mystery that ended without revealing the
identity of the killer would generate a lot of reader complaints.
Indeed, one could question whether the genre label even applied.

The conventions for erotic romance are
equally if not more stringent, as I’ve discovered over the past six
years writing in the genre. The main characters must be appealing
individuals who are at least somewhat attractive physically. The
narrative must focus on their relationship; the protagonists should
not have emotional or sexual attachments to other parties. The story
must hinge on some barrier, internal or external, to the characters’
mutual love, and ultimately that barrier must be removed, so that the
story ends happily.

I’ve got nothing against love, but I
don’t read many romance books, because honestly, I find too little
diversity for my taste. (There are, of course, exceptions.)

Unfortunately, I feel that erotica has
also become more homogenized over the past half decade. Genre
conventions aren’t so strict for erotica, but there are other forces
reducing originality and variety in the genre. One problem is the
fact that relatively few publishers command most of the market.
Several of the more adventurous and controversial erotica publishing
companies (e.g. Freaky Fountain, Republica) have folded. To the
extent that new companies have arisen, they seem to be trying to
imitate the few imprints that have remained solvent. I suppose this
is a rational business decision, but it reduces the diversity of the
erotica gene pool.

Naturally a particular publisher will
produce books with commonalities of style and content. Thus, a
limited set of publishers tends to push the genre in the direction of

Now, you may be jumping up and down
right now, because it seems as though a new epublisher opens its
virtual doors every week. So how can I say that the number of erotica
publishers is limited? If you check the fine print, you’ll discover
that about ninety percent of these new companies publish exclusively
or primarily erotic romance, with all the attendant literary strings.

Furthermore, rather ironically, this
flood of new publishers seems to reduce rather than enhance
diversity. Many are founded by refugees from other publishing houses.
They bring with them the preferences, assumptions and house styles of
their former companies, and tend to be rather heavy-handed in
enforcing these styles, sometimes with limited understanding. I’ve
had editors strike out every single use of “that” to introduce a
subordinate clause; replace every single one of my semi-colons with
an em-dash; insist on the total elimination of passive voice; require
that I rewrite a first-person story in third-person. Sometimes I
resist these changes, but many authors will not, especially the
thousands of brand new writers who are joining the authorial ranks
every month to feed the public’s massive hunger for romance.

Market forces are perhaps the most
powerful homogenizing agent. When a particular book succeeds, for
whatever reason, publishers (naturally, I suppose) look for other,
similar works. I remember the first couple of spanking anthologies,
which were wildly popular. How many spanking collections have hit the
shelves since then? I don’t even bother to pick them up anymore,
unless I’m working on a review. Give me something different!

But instead we see a flood of vampire
books, or a slew of BDSM romances featuring naïve heroines and
sadistic, damaged heroes. I encounter volume after volume of gay
erotic romance, featuring well-hung young hunks who seem to live in a
world where there are no heterosexuals and there’s always lube close
at hand. The same well-thumbed plots and characters appear again and
again. I started posting a shape-shifter romance serial on my web
site last year. After a couple of chapters, as an experiment, I asked
my readers to tell me what should happen next. Reader after reader
outlined essentially the same plot – the same story they’ve read in
a hundred other books about were-wolves, were-tigers, were-bears,

Do I sound like I’m whining? If you
think you detect a note of frustration, you’re correct. I don’t want
to read the same thing over and over. And I don’t want to write it,
either. These days, though, sameness sells.

I know my work has some distinctive
stylistic properties, but I consciously try to produce something new
every time I sit down in front of my keyboard. I’ve written a lot of
BDSM, yes – because that’s what interests and arouses me – but
I’ve also written gay and lesbian stories, menage and polyamory,
science fiction, paranormal, historical, steampunk, fairy tales, even
a bit of horror. I’ve never written a sequel or tried a series, at
least partly because I don’t want to revisit the same
characters, setting or theme. I want to try something different.

Originality lies close to the top in my
hierarchy of literary values. Nothing thrills me like a story with an
uncommon premise or an unusual point of view. My favorite authors are
the ones who surprise me, with their fertile and outrageous
imaginations. And I dream that there are at least a few readers out
there who pick up my books because they’re looking for
something new and different.

I’ll continue to resist the pressures
toward homogeneity to the extent that I can.

It’s certainly a good thing I don’t
dream about being rich and famous.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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