So, I don’t normally talk about the writing/publishing biz here on the blog — this is supposed to be for the readers — but I wanted to write this for any of my readers who also might happen to be smut slingers like me:) This post covers a few things I’ve learned as I’ve gone along, as well as a handful of observations on the erotica genre in general.
1. Don’t do this (unless you don’t care about sales)
My fourth release, a novella titled Night Beach initially had a cover that I thought was sexy, but still within the boundaries (as well as anyone can guess — but that’s another story) of Amazon’s content guidelines. That initial cover is shown below:
At first, all seemed well. The book was selling, a few readers said they loved the cover — so we’re rollin’, right?
The dreaded Adult filter was applied to the book’s listing on Amazon within a few days of release. This filter normally spells the death of sales for a title on Amazon, for a couple of reasons:
– First, the book is difficult, if not impossible, to find in general search — even if you search for the book’s title and the author’s name.
– The second, and much more insidious (and damaging) reason, is that the book will no longer be shown as an also-bought for any other non-Adult filtered titles. So, rather than have at least the chance for your book to show up as an also-bought for “50 Blinds of Bestseller”, you show up as an also-bought only for other Adult filtered titles.
I contacted ‘Zon customer service about it, and they confirmed that the book cover did indeed violate their content guidelines. They were very nice (as usual) and understanding of my plight, but they were firm that the Adult filter would remain until a new cover was added. Now, me being me, I shrugged my shoulders, muttered a “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”, and just went on with my business of writing the next book.
This was a serious mistake. Within about two weeks after release of Night Beach, my third book, a novelette titled Maintenance Night, took off, going from selling 5-6 copies a day to 20-30 copies per day. I still have no idea why. That part was RAD (and to those readers who bought the book, I can’t thank you enough), but the problem was that there was no new release that built upon that sales momentum. You see, since Night Beach was languishing under the The Scarlet Adult Filter, readers who bought and loved Maintenance Night wouldn’t see that others had picked up Night Beach. It was as if it didn’t exist.
Now, all this being said, Night Beach did still sell … some. In November, Night Beach sold 80 copies, more than 75% of that number selling at the mighty ‘Zon. But it’s likely that it would have sold significantly more, had it had the much improved visibility it would have enjoyed sans Adult filter. Is there any way to know for sure how many sales were lost? Of course not. BUT, one thing I’ve learned is this: make your books as convenient as possible to buy. Always give your reader an uber-easy way to spend money on you.
To bastardize a quote from Sun Tzu:
“Build your reader a golden bridge to your books.”
2. What can I take away from this?
My experience actually calls for being somewhat conservative with the content of covers. There is a price for pushing the envelope (though really, I don’t think the first cover was that edgy), and when you do, sometimes that price is going to cost you sales/money. Be prepared for that eventuality.
Now, with regard to this specific instance, there is one aspect to this that I think really might help another writer who reads this. What follows are the commonly understood “no-no’s” vis-a-vis cover content:
– No female nipples or areolas
– No male or female genitalia or pubic hair
– No fully naked buttocks — there has to be at least a dental floss bikini or thong (this one appears to be sporadically enforced, as some do get through the review process with bare nekkid asses:)
– No profanity (this one appears to be only sporadically enforced as there have actually been erotica bestsellers that had f-bombs … in the title!!)
– No excessive gore (very subjective, so err on the side of caution)
Here is one that I got nailed on — and one that has snagged other authors too:
– No grabbing/squeezing/clutching of the naked breast(s) or even covering of the naked breast with a hand.
Now, a case could be made that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the original cover for Night Beach, BUT it’s Amazon’s site, and they can do what they want. I’m not going to sit here and tell them how they should run their business, nor what content they can or can’t accept on the covers. I can take it or leave it, and if I want to sell ebooks, I’m going to be taking it:)
That said, I really do wish that they would release a short list of definitive no-no’s, rather than leaving us poor authors/publishers to stumble around in the dark. I know why they don’t release any specifics — they want to keep their options open, and want to be flexible in case of any changes to the legal or regulatory environment. It’s smart business, but it is a bit of a pain.
But oh well — what the mighty ‘Zon wants, the mighty ‘Zon gets:)
Other Erotica Observations
There is a flood-tide of erotica on the market right now, presumably due to authors seeking to ride the (already rapidly receding) 50 Shades wave, and it’s only going to get worse. For those new erotica writers who are wondering why their sales are not those of the Land of (Breast)Milk and (Alien Pussy)Honey that the erotica genre is purported to exist, you can blame an excess of product for this … mostly.
One of the things I’ve observed is a large number of low word count, slapped- together titles in almost every conceivable sub-genre of erotica (I know a lot of them — yeah I’m a perv, I read a lot of smut). I render no judgement on those writers that are following the “quantity is king” philosophy. It works, and it will make you money — for now.
But for those new erotica readers just coming online now, I implore you to do one thing: think long term. At some point, the wheat does get separated from the chaff, and no matter how many titles you have published, if the quality of the writing is shoddy, if the story isn’t compelling, and the packaging is unappealing (read: unprofessional covers and flat, lifeless blurbs), those books will cease to sell. Why is this?
Word of mouth.
This is the single most effective way to sell books and to build a career. Word of mouth trumps everything, and will buoy a book no matter what. This is very, very important because in this new era of publishing, the traditional gatekeepers (editors, agents, publishers) are steadily being replaced … by readers.
This fact should feel both freeing and terrifying. To those erotica writers who concentrate on releasing well-written, edited, attractively packaged books on a regular basis (e.g. not less than once per quarter, and preferably more frequently), you will succeed. It may take 5 books, 20 books, or more, but eventually, if you put out quality, the readers will find you — and reward you.
To those erotica writers out there who are only concentrating on publishing as much product as you can, as fast as you can, you should be terrified. If your product is shoddy, readers will call you on it — and they’ll do more than leave you bad reviews on Amazon.
They’ll tell their friends.
The gold rush of 2009-2011 is absolutely over, and the days of being able to throw up any old cover and first draft of a smut book are long gone. Many, many readers have been burned over and over by just plain shitty indie smut books. If your product is rushed out, haphazard, sloppy, readers will notice it — and run the other way. Please, please don’t be that writer!
Whichever type of erotica writer you are, your challenge, above and beyond continuing to publish good books, will be discoverability. The volume of erotica is incredible, and as many others have pointed out, discoverability is going to be the irreducible problem faced by all authors, especially in a genre overwhelmed with a tsunami of new content every month. Worse, traditional publishers have (by and large) awakened from their comas and are changing their tactics. They are lowering prices, targeting sub-genres with more narrowly focused story lines, and greatly speeding up things like submission response times and time to publication. Contrary to what you hear some self-pub evangelists say, trad publishing is not stupid, and it’s not going away. Not by a long shot.
What does this mean for the lowly indie smut slinger like me? It means things are going to get much, much harder. It means in order to survive, and increase your visibility/discoverability, you will need to make your product the best quality you possibly can. Keep writing, but do take the time needed to make the book a good quality book. You need to acknowledge that a significant portion of your potential readership is likely to look askance at anything written by an Indie. Accept that, then set out to prove them wrong. Sloppy indie authors have hurt the rest of us, of this there can be no doubt, so for those of us that are in this for the long-haul, who will be making careers of this, our job is to win those readers back, one by one. I’m still working on this myself, and my own products aren’t yet where I want them to be, so I’m constantly improving them where and when I can. You should too!
Make your product as indistinguishable from trad products as you possibly can (this is where great covers, blurbs that snap, and professional-looking, clean formatting comes in). Don’t give these skeptical readers any reason to pass over your book at a mere glance. Make them “pick it up” and read those first lines. That’s where your quality writing will get the chance to do its work. And this is how you win back those burned-by-indies readers.
Yes, taste is 100% subjective, but that’s beside the point; a quality product needs to be noticed, and read (which will increasingly become the most difficult hurdle to jump) before taste even figures into the equation. THEN, if it’s well-written, compelling, at least some of those readers will tell their friends, who in turn will tell their friends. Again, word of mouth.
But you need to give them a reason to look at your book. More important than this: don’t give the reader a reason NOT to look at your book.
Smut readers are voracious, the demand never-ending (and we LOVE you for that), and if you push their buttons, and if the books you have for sale are fairly priced, they’ll snap up everything you have on the market. And they’ll keep coming back for more, as long as you keep publishing good books.
Contrary to all the doom and gloom you are seeing of late in indie circles, I think this is only the beginning … for those indies who are willing to put in the work, and to fight for every one of those readers. Those readers will take a chance on a new author, but increasingly they will demand quality — and they deserve nothing less.
Kayla Stonor says
Trent, an excellent article and I am forthwith redoubling my efforts!
Thanks for reading, Kayla! I hope it helps a newbie writer just venturing into erotica (though I think the advice really applies regardless of genre). Maybe they can learn from my mistake;/
Hi Trent, couldn’t agree more with all you’ve said. I didn’t know Night Beach existed and I loved Maintenance Night!
Looking at your original cover, it’s a hell of a lot less ‘adult’ than some things I see on Amazon without the filter. As good as the writing is, I believe luck (or lack thereof) has something to do with getting noticed by the buyer or by the Amazon police!!
Question for you – at this point in your writing, do you see a value in participating in Amazon’s KPD program again? I think it’s great for a start, but for myself, I don’t think I’ll do it again.
Thanks for the article, looking forward to reading Night Beach. Continued success to you.
I didn’t address luck specifically in the article, but your point is well taken. Luck plays a huge role in selling books. I did address this fact obliquely when I said it might take 5 books, or 20 or more before you start selling. Essentially, as certain indie luminaries have already noted, the more books you write, the greater chances you have of getting lucky. I see many authors sneer at this as akin to buying tickets to the lottery, but I just shrug when I see this. Call it lottery or call it creating your own luck, random chance and good fortune play a very significant role in success at writing. My main point is to be ready with plenty of good books when (not if) that luck strikes:)
So, when you refer to “KPD”, I assume you are referring to going exclusive with KDP Select? If so, I guess my answer would be: it depends.
In my opinion, for a new indie author just starting out, there is no better/easier way to expose your work to many eyeballs than to go with Select. The ability to go free for up to five days and availability in the KOLL increases visibility/discoverability, which as I said in the article is (along with learning the craft of writing) is going to be the greatest challenge. I suspect there may also be some favorability in also-bought placement for Select titles as well, but nobody has been able to produce any definitive proof of this.
Right now, I plan to release new books into Select initially, then release to all the other outlets after the 90 day term is up. I may revisit this strategy if sales start to really pick up at other outlets. BN, Apple, and All Romance (in order of sales) combined are only a fraction of what I sell at The ‘Zon. Until that changes, at least one run in Select for new titles makes sense. The only real caveat I have to this is that I don’t think anything shorter than novella length really benefits from Select at this point — shorts and novelettes are rarely borrowed, and they typically have a fraction of the freeloads a novella or novel would see during a Free promotion in Select. YMMV.
Thanks for commenting, and I hope you like Night Beach:)
This was helpful information. I went to my titles as soon as I read this. The ‘Zon (which cracks me up) hasn’t noticed the stray nipple in one of my covers.
How did you know it was listed under the super secret squirrel adult rating?
I didn’t see anything strange with my titles, but I should probably correct that before they go on nipple patrol and catch me.
Hi Tessa. Glad to hear this helped someone! Yes, probably better to conceal that nipple on that cover before the Prude Police slap you:)
Selena Kitt was the first person I’d seen kind of bring up this issue in a meaningful way with regard to erotica writers (early last year).
One of the best ways I’ve found for determining whether or not your titles have been slapped with the dreaded Adult tag is to go over to Sales Rank Express. On this site you’ll be able to see which of your titles might have the Adult label. Any titles so labeled will show ADULT (in bold red lettering) listed right next to the title of the afflicted book:)
It’s actually a very handy site, and helps cut down on writers hitting their own Amazon book pages too often to check rank or reviews (excessively checking your own book listing can negatively impact the sell-through data for your book listing on ‘Zon).
Though I like a good slap on the nipple, this isn’t the good kind! I went to the website and checked. I have the dreaded adult tag on my Office Rules title. The one with the nipple.
I wish they sent a message or something to say they’ve slapped an adult rating on a title. Thanks to you I can now fix it, I hope. Do they remove the Adult tag once you change the cover?
I did not know that about checking the pages excessively. Not that I would do such a thing. Nope. Not me.
I’m sorry to hear that! Fortunately, it’s a fairly straight forward process to fix it:
1. Upload a new “cleaner” cover keeping in mind the points I laid out in the blog post.
2. E-mail the KDP folks, apologize for the offending cover (this is important — be nice:), notify them that you’ve updated the title with a cover that conforms with their content guidelines, and then ask them to please review and remove the Adult tag.
3. After a few days (it will likely be at least a couple of days before they even read the e-mail), go back to Sales Rank Express to see if the tag is still there. If they’ve removed it, your title will now show the tag: “NOT ADULT”. If it’s still tagged ADULT, but you have not received a response from KDP, it’s fine to send them a friendly reminder/status update request e-mail.
Once the tag is removed, you should see a slow rebuild of visibility in the also-bought lists for other books (and hopefully some increase in sales) — but if your book was so filtered for any appreciable amount of time, it can take many months to undo the damage the Adult tag can cause.
Alas, sometimes the damage is mortal; Night Beach never did recover, though it’s also quite possible readers just didn’t like that book as much!
I was extremely nice in my e-mail. The fault was really mine. I’d heard they didn’t like nipples. That they were nipple haters, and I went ahead thinking, “Hmm. They’ll never see that nipple.” I was wrong.
Thanks for all your help, Trent. We’re indirectly erotic competitors in the Amazon Marketplace. You could have said, “I don’t know. Sorry about your nipple fiasco. Tough luck, kid.” and went on your merry, cackling way, but you didn’t and that’s much appreciated.
Ha! “Nipple haters” gon’ hate:)
But seriously, regarding “competition”, I don’t see it that way. Writing is not a zero sum game; one writer’s gain does not mean another writer has to go without.
I view other erotica writers as colleagues (and a few of them as friends), rather than adversaries or competitors. Smut slinging is difficult enough as it is. Helping each other is not only the right thing to do, but it’s just plain good karma (if you believe in that sort of thing).
I’m glad I was able to help!