Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Leah St. James - so is it erotica?

Leah St. James has written a book that spans the genres and is here to talk about the difficulties she has faced in doing so... hurrah, for The Wild Rose Press for taking a great book and letting the author express themselves however the story dictates.

"So, tell me about your book."

There they were, the words I'd been hoping to hear, the culmination of months of work. The chance to pitch my completed novel to a real live editor of a bonafide publishing company. Forget the anxiety that was causing my heart to hammer and my throat to close up as if I'd just ingested some deadly allergen. Months of painstaking work, of pouring over the selection of each word, of proofing and editing, came down to this moment.

I drew in a breath, tried to force a confidence I didn't feel into my voice, and expelled the sentence I'd been rehearsing for the last 72 hours.

"It's a romantic suspense about two FBI agents who go under cover as master and slave in a BDSM club to solve a murder at the Jersey Shore."

My heart resumed with a solid thud, the air that had been trapped inside my lungs released, and I crossed my fingers while I waited for her reaction. In my dreams it was a gleeful smile, a shouted "Yes!" followed by a furtive glance around the room to make sure none of the other editors at the conference had heard or seen her excitement. The editor of my dreams would want me all to herself, after all.

But the editor of my reality did none of those things. She sat back in her chair, twirled a pencil between her fingers and narrowed her eyes at me while she considered. Finally she said, "So it's erotica."

"Well, no," I said. "It's not erotica, but it does contain erotic content."

She shook her head, her forehead puckered now in a bit of a frown, and leaned forward to emphasize her point. "That's not possible. You can't have one without the other."

Now, this might have been my first agent/editor pitch, but I'd read all the books and articles. I'd learned all the rules, a cardinal one being Never Argue With The Pitchee. While you want to make an impression, you don't want to make the wrong one. So if the editor/agent isn't interested, simply thank him or her for the time and move on. But boy was I tempted. This editor was wrong. So wrong. You can have one without the other. I'd done it, after all.

Certain of the validity of my position, I moved on and pitched to an editor at The Wild Rose Press who happily agreed. I was vindicated! After another year of edits and other pre-publication tasks, my baby was due to launch, and that's when my really hard work startedfiguring out how to market to a readership I hadn't fully defined.

My book, Surrender to Sanctuary, is a romantic suspense with a plot that twists and turns its way through the search for a killer and the discovery of an ancient religion, while examining a sexual lifestyle (BDSM) that is rarely revealed to the outside world. It's a love story with steamy sexual content, but it's not erotica.

As I understand the definition of erotica, the goal of the story/plot is the exploration of one's sexual identity. In today's market, a specific writing style is used as well, one that's sexually graphic in content and language, language I'm not entirely comfortable reading much less writing. (After all, I'm a child of the seventies, when euphemisms reigned supreme!)

That's not to say that my book is in any way modest, or lacking in sexual specificity. No, my characters are much freer with their bodies than I am with mine! I mean, they go under cover in a sex club, and have to perform convincingly or risk discovery, and death! My bad guys are really bad too, having no trouble being explicitly evil.

My sister, who prefers to not read books with sexual content, especially when written by yours truly, told me, "If I were to write a review of your book, I'd say, 'If you like sex, buy this book. It's full of sex. Sex, sex, sex!'" I wasn't sure whether to feel complimented or insulted! And to be fair, that's the perception of someone who prefers to NOT read about such things. Conversely, someone who enjoys erotica might find the book on the mild side. We all have different tastes, different levels of comfort. To borrow the old adage: One reader's trash is another reader's treasure.

It's my experience that readers know what they like, and they typically don't wander too far off the pathways of their chosen genres. So when I finally realized that erotica, like porn, isn't so much about a dictionary definition, but about the reader's perception, I understood that long-ago editor's concerns. Yes, an author can write whatever she wants and mix genres to her heart's content. But how does she market a book that jumps genres or defies standard labels?

Should I label my book "erotica" because of the subject matter and sexually explicit content? Or would the lack of that specific language (the words that sometimes make me blush) and the story line that's not about sexual discovery, but about two people who fall in love while solving a murder, cause the aficionado of erotica to drop it with disgust? Do I call it "hot" for the reader who prefers a more mild content and "mild" for the reader who prefers scalding?

Either way, I thought, someone is going to be disappointed, possibly even feel misled or ripped off, and that thought was enough to paralyze me, marketing-wise, for the few weeks preceding the book's release. Here I was, a brand-new author, trying to announce to the world about the fruits of all my hard labor, but uncertain of my audience! So I did the worst thing possible: I tried to straddle the blurry line between the two.

I'd tell friends and co-workers who know me as quiet and shy that "It's definitely spicy." Or, "If you're looking for fluff, don't buy it!" Only if they seemed interested would I go into further detail, and usually it was pretty easy to tell who were the more adventurous in their selection of reading material, and who were not. After one such exchange, a woman from my church said, "Leah, don't you want me to read your book?" I answered, "Well, not unless you like reading explicit, uh, um…." My voice trailed off, my face flushed, and a look of comprehension filled hers. "Oh!" she said. "Oh! Well, uh, good luck with it!" And she scurried off to tell another congregant that choir member Leah had written (in her perception) a dirty book.

Luckily reactions like hers were outweighed by praise from those who loved the story, and it was those who kept me plugging away with my marketing efforts, albeit with some caution. I posted PG-level excerpts and blurbs, always with a disclaimer that the book contained language and content that some might find offensive, yet probably never with enough of a hint of the erotic nature of the book to appeal to the reader of erotic romance. Finally, sensing my somewhat schizophrenic handling of the book, one blog host said, "Leah, kink is in! Embrace the kink!"

And that was my epiphany. My book might not be erotica, but it sure does have kinky content! And that's a definition everyone understands, one I can work with. So now instead of telling people it's "spicy," I say, "It's kinky!" and leave it at that, letting people decide for themselves whether or not they want to read the book. More often than not, I'll get a smile and a maybe a wink in reply. It seems I'm not the only one to embrace the kink!

Happy reading, and writing!

Leah St. James

Leah's debut novel is available now at The Wild Rose Press. For more information, visit her at

Great post, Leah! You've certainly given us plenty to think about as both readers and writers. Do any of you guys write across the genres, or had the same experience as Leah. I can imagine that this happens quite often under the erotic banner. As for readers, why not buy the book and decide where it belongs on your shelf rather than Barnes & Nobles'!


  1. Thanks so much, Rachel, for having me today and for your kind words! I'd love to hear comments from other writers and readers!

    I'm going off to my life-sucking day job :-), but I'll check back in throughout the day.


  2. Let me first of all salute you for your courage in writing the book you WANTED to write! Well done!

    I used to feel embarrassed to admit I wrote romance and cringed when people asked if there were any 'naughty bits', but now, with my own debut novella out (and naughty bits included), I just feel damn proud! : ) We worked hard to get published, not everyone does.

    I love the sound of your book Leah, very intriguing and that is an awesome cover. The artist did you proud.
    I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy!

    Wishing you mega sales!

    LaVerne Clark

  3. I'm sorry I haven't read your book yet. (I have a pile of half read books in my bedroom), but I think there ought to be another category for books. Perhaps just name it "books" for lack of imagination. There are so many that are hard to put into a slot of one kind. Maybe just mainstream or mystery in your case. From the description I wouldn't call it erotica.

  4. Wonderful interview, Leah! Thank you, Rachel for having Leah visit. It's so hard for writers to even say they write much less that they write anything outside the conventional. Leah, your struggles and your triumph were empowering. We should take pride in our work--writing romance is HARD, writing sex is HARD, writing suspense is HARD. You deserve all the credit for your hard work and success. Hear hear! Best of luck from a VRW Chapter Sister! (hmm, maybe I should dial back the coffee, but I stand by my post)

    Denise Golinowski

  5. Erotica is in the mind of the beholder - so to speak. LOL

  6. Wow, thanks everyone! I'm sitting here at my desk (at my life-sucking day job), sneaking a peek and feeling so energized! :-)

  7. Great comments, Leah. I am glad you stuck to your guns. I understand your comments about writing beyond your personal comfort zone fully. I struggle with this and my editor discusses this with me all the time.  I write for TWRP as well, but hang out, just barely over the fence, in the wilder side of the garden. As an author of erotic romance let me clarify that there is a distinct difference between straight erotica and erotic romance. TWRP (even the wilder catalog) does not accept erotica without the emotional element –no sex for the sake of sex. My work walks the edge between erotic romance and sensual romance and could probably exist on either side. I have had readers qualify my work as too explicit and way too mild, so erotic is definitely in the mind of the beholder as P.L. said. Your book sounds intriguing. Thanks for sharing your journey and keep writing. Perhaps others will pursue their dream from your encouragement.

  8. Super great blog! Leah, I understand your angst over revealing the steamy side of your book. I've shared this story many times of how I wrote my first sex scene in a local restaurant. My husband likes to read thru dinner and I write. The waittress came over to refill my iced tea. When she inquired as to what I was writing, I told her it was my first sex scene. She leaned over my shoulder and read. "Oh my!" Her breathing got heavier. "MY Gawd! You go, girl!" She bustled off. Later when I went to the dessert bar--hey, what can I say, some people somke a cigarette after great sex, I go for the chocolate cake. I overheard our waittress talking to her co-workers. "I'm telling you she was writing hot-standing-up-against-the-wall sex!" My ego balloon inflated and I smiled. Then I heard, "And she was OLD, too!" My sixty-two year old deflated ego hobbled back to the table--two pieces of chocolate cake in hand.

    I agree: embrace the kink! Can't wait to read your book.

  9. Very well said and congratulations on your book! I've always said that writers are the leaders of the pack when it comes to breaking the rules or working outside the box. Boxes are what create blocks.

  10. Thanks, Becca, for that clarification. I guess there are even more "shades" than I knew! Which is a good thing for the reader! And you're right, Liz, that writers do lead the pack.

    Too funny, Vonnie! Just remember that my 92-year-old aunt would have called a 60-year-old a "spring chicken"! Age too is a matter of perception!

    This is a fun (and validating) discussion! Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

  11. Leah, yay for tackling this subject! It is so hard to explain books like this (mine are also) that are suspense with romance with sex, explicit sex. Trying to tell the suspense reader that it has a great plot, or the mystery reader that it's a mystery. Then there's the romance reader. I want to warn them that the sex in my book is a tad more explicit than a traditional romance, but not by much, and it's an awesome romance. And then there's the person who wants something erotic and actually finds a couple of my books too tame. In my case, thank God for Liquid Silver Books and Loose Id. I'm so glad WRP went for yours.

  12. You definitely have a dilemma here, Leah. But I'm sure you'll figure it out. I get so tired of people asking if I write those smutty romance stories. Everyone automatically assumes that if there's a bare-chested man or half-clothed woman on the cover that there's nothing inside but raw sexcapades and no plot. It takes a talented writer to weave together a steamy romance AND a talented writer to successfully handle erotica. If the author doesn't know what they're doing, it sounds like the directions to putting together a dollhouse: insert tab A into tab B and twist until it clicks! Best of luck to you. You're book sounds intriguing. :-)

  13. Thanks, Shara and Maeve -- I think the romance genre might be one of the more difficult genres. First you have your "action" story line, but you have to incorporate the love story, plus character development for both the heroine and hero (or whoever). And then we have to learn how to sell it! There's a learning curve, like anything else in life.

    I have to laugh at your comment (Maeve) about covers. I had the opportunity to give my "vision" for mine, and I remember writing, "Please, NO bare-chested men, or men whose hair is longer and prettier than mine!" I lucked out with Kim Mendoza (TWRP cover artist). She's amazingly talented. :-)

  14. Hi, Leah, what an awesome job discussing the difficult job of trying to straddle two "genres". After reading your book, I can say that you have done a most awesome job! All themes flowed flawlessly together and no one "aspect" of the book jumped out as a particular theme--you wove them altogether into a wonderful page turning story that held my interest from beginning to end. I SO wanted to be the female "heroine" which to me means you have created a likable character living a life I would love to live!

  15. Wow! I thought i'd check in to see how Leah's blog fared yesterday, only to find an amazing discussion going on. I love it!

    Great post, Leah - I am so glad to have hosted you so people could comment and give you the kudos you deserve.


  16. Hi, Rachel - I've really enjoyed the discussion! Many thanks to all who stopped by and to those who took a moment to comment. And of course many, many thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to share my frustrations! :-)