So I came across an article on Digital Book World that plugged some content analyzing software and spoke of some sort of “Literary Darknet’ in independent publishing. Have you heard of this “Literary Darknet?” Because I sure haven’t. I sell and market my erotic books by regular old “Lightnet” means, like Amazon KDP and this lovely little white-hat website of mine.
“Literary Darknet” is far too melodramatic of a term to describe what it is we erotica authors do and the type of stuff that we produce. It implies that we’re doing everything covertly and that our stuff is “invisible” because it has “no reliable meta-data” or reviews. I… what? Everyone loves a conspiracy theory, I guess.
I’d like to see these article writers do some actual research into the erotica market before trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist or make a point when everything that supports it is bad journalism or lacking research. As an erotica author in the know about all the crap that went down, I can tell you that the writer of the aforementioned article and creator of the content analyzing software, Aaron Stanton, is lacking in his research. He’s drawing conclusions from sorely incomplete data, making bad observations (“no reliable meta-data” my ass), and making incorrect assumptions about how the online retailers actually handle erotic content. Might be a good idea to not base your entire sales pitch on incorrect assumptions.
I’m also quite disappointed that Mr. Stanton interpreted the sensationalist, libelous garbage pooped out by The Kernel, a nasty tabloid masquerading as a technology blog, as journalistic fact. There was never underage erotica for sale at any of these online retailers. Even the most disturbing books featured included “all characters are over 18″ notices. And then this disingenuous slipshod reporting spreads and infects the reporting in other news outlets and blogs because journalists are too lazy to vet their information, I guess. In a similar article in a similarly sleazy British tabloid, one of the books called out as bestiality was in fact a sweet romance in which one of the characters happened to be a dog trainer. Just because there was a cute dog on the cover. That’s not journalism, that’s libel.
The erotica market is not nearly as dark and shady as one might think. Amazon and all the major online book retailers have categories for erotica. So what do erotica authors do? We fill those categories with erotica. Any online shopper in need of a steamy read can search for their kink on Amazon, whether it be minotaurs or billionaires, find an intriguing title, and read it discreetly on their Kindle. Amazon knows exactly what it’s selling, and all it’s concerned about at this point is the presentation of the content it sells. It doesn’t need content analysis software to alert it to the presence of content it knowingly permits. Self-published erotica authors haven’t built some “Literary Darknet” under the noses of unsuspecting shoppers and retailers, we’ve built a regular old literary market right in the open. Even Kobo knew exactly what it was selling. It even provided a bunch of dirty sub-categories within its Erotica section, including Taboo. Kobo’s CEO just threw self-publishers under the bus and lied through his teeth while cowering before some shitty tabloids and WHSmith’s knee-jerk reaction. There was no “scandal”, just scapegoating and backpedaling. Yes Kobo, we know you were totally fine making money off our dirty filthy smut until the media made a stink out of it. We know.
I’m secretly a huge nerd when it comes to the inner workings of business and marketing, so I find the erotica market as a whole absolutely fascinating. It’s a beautiful example of the free market and entrepreneurship operating in their basest, starkest forms, both the good and the bad. Mr. Stanton seems very unsure about the nature of this market. One of his thoughts based on his software’s data (emphasis mine):
There are no sales numbers in this data. As with any long tail, it’s likely irrelevant how many books on a topic are available compared to how many people are reading them. After all, does it matter that there is really objectionable content in the long tail of the book market if no one ever sees or purchases it? As a percentage of sales volume, they could be virtually invisible. They could also be one of the few categories of the market that’s filling a niche not already addressed in traditional publishing. The answer to that would require additional data I don’t have.
Really, dude? Do you really think that people publish this stuff solely for shits and giggles? And do you really think that there is even the remotest possibility that erotica makes up a “virtually invisible” portion of book market sales volume? The data is right in front of your face. In order to chart on Amazon’s Top 100 list in Erotica, your book needs to have an overall Kindle Store rank of at least #2,500. In order to chart in, say, Cooking, Food & Wine, you only need a rank of #13,900. And given that rank improves logarithmically with a linear increase in sales, that erotica book sitting at rank #2,500 is moving way, WAY more copies than the cookbook at #13,900. The reason you need such a high ranking to chart in Erotica is because Amazon is moving a MASSIVE volume of it.
What’s happening is indeed the filling of a void that traditional publishing never bothered filling. I took some business classes in undergrad. One of my professors, a serial entrepreneur, explained that entrepreneurship was essentially the act of finding a void in the market and filling it. That’s what we’re doing. We discover what people like to read and we write it for them. And then they buy it and we make money. I love writing to begin with, but I also needed extra cash, so getting into erotica was a no-brainer for me. If there was no money to be made erotica, I’d be writing something else, and so would many other erotica authors. So what of all those ghostwritten rape and incest books? Why do those exist? Because people buy them. Lots of people buy them, actually. If people didn’t voraciously consume this sort of stuff, it wouldn’t be economical for an internet marketer with few scruples and a strong stomach to hire ghostwriters and pump out hundreds of these titles, now would it? That’s the free market for you in all its elemental glory. And a dark, unnerving side of human sexuality that no one seems to want to acknowledge or talk about, but that’s not here or now.
In the erotica market, we get to contend with some interesting market forces. The internet marketers churning out hundreds of low-quality titles have a stronger influence on on the market as a whole than people would think. If it weren’t for them, chances are we’d be putting out books with coy titles and sexy but discreet covers – and nothing so “shockingly” presented. But the internet marketers needed to make up for the poor quality of their content, because laughably terrible writing doesn’t make for any sort of loyal readership. They resorted to aggressive SEO (blatant, explicit titles, for example) and in-your-face, overtly sexual imagery for covers. This earns them more views and more sales and takes those views and sales away from other authors. So what do those other authors do? They ramp up SEO and utilize increasingly overt imagery to compete for those views and sales. Selena Kitt wrote about this SEO arms race in an eerily prophetic 2012 blog post. It’s finally reached its tipping point and the equilibrium is being reset.
I think we’ll see a return to “classier” erotica, or at least erotica in a far classier package. That’s what Amazon wants. I don’t believe they actually want or need to scrutinize the interior content of erotic stories (as long as it doesn’t directly violate KDP’s terms of service). As clumsy and inconsistent as the execution has been, their process of forcing authors to clean up the presentation of their catalogs is, at its core, a very sensible way to handle things. Much, MUCH more sensible than Kobo’s idiotic decision to purge all self-published titles, whether erotic or not, or WHSmiths’ idiotic decision to close their entire online store. If anything, I think the legitimate, high-quality authors will win in this new environment and that internet marketers trying to enter the game will have a much harder time without their smutty titles and attention-grabbing, “shocking” covers. Hopefully people will figure out once and for all that erotica is just a fiction genre in which real writers write real stories for real people and not some vast dark web of fly-by-night darkness. And hopefully, online retailers can develop ever better ways to work with us and our (and their) readers that doesn’t involve censoring content and lets everyone (except black-hat internet marketers) win.
Aside from the moral outrage over “shocking” and “offense” content, there’s nothing illegal, deceptive, or “darknet”-like about what self-published erotica authors do. We’re running honest businesses out in the open for the world to see. All we’re doing is selling books that people want to buy. Even the black-hat internet marketers whose books were responsible for this shitstorm in the first place were merely selling books that people wanted to buy. They went about it in a cavalier, less-than-ethical way that ultimately cost them their accounts and us a lot of our stability, but that’s the thing about this market. The rest of us are still here, playing by the rules as best we can, representing our content as accurately as we can, making readers happy and making ends meet, and we’re doing it out in the open.
So really, what the hell is this “Literary Darknet”? It’s a bullshit assertion based on bad data, that’s what it is. We are not the “Literary Darknet”, but literary entrepreneurs out not only to make those sweet, sweet smutbux, but to do what we love and share what we do with those who appreciate it. It’s business as usual.