"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 started—figuring 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
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'!