As an author, I’ve found the phenomenal success of the “vanilla BDSM” novella, Fifty Shades of Grey, at times either bewildering, astonishing, or encouraging.  At all times I have been curious to know why that book, rather than the staggering number of erotic romances — including some very good BDSM novels written by actual members of the BDSM community — that have graced the e-shelves for nearly ten years.

But if the publishing industry had ever figured out why one book breaks through to the top of a best seller list and not others, then it would have been able to ensure every authors’ income for the five hundred years since moveable type was invented.

The great thing about the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is that like Twilight and Harry Potter before it, it will open the general reading population’s minds and tastebuds to erotic romance, like Twilight and Harry taught everyone to gobble up anything to do with the paranormal.  Not everyone will find the BDSM in Fifty to their taste:  You are either hardwired for pain/pleasure or you aren’t.  But readers may turn to the other erotic elements in the novel as more appealing if the BDSM doesn’t do it for them.

And erotic romance will find a massive, new audience.  A mainstream one.

There’s plenty of titles for them to explore.  Thanks to ebooks, where erotic romance first found traction, there’s nearly fifteen years of titles still “in print,” and available, that have never left the virtual shelves.

But…some of those really early titles are likely to be disappointing, if these new readers are looking for hot, like hot hot, because the earlier titles aren’t as hot as what’s being produced today.

Romances in general are getting spicier by the year, to the point where what was once considered erotic, even ten years ago, is today’s average romance novel.

Consider this sliding scale.  If this is what was “hot” back in 2000:

I published my first erotic romance in 2003, and it was considered an averagely hot romance novel.  The hottest novels were really pushing the envelope, dealing with (gasp!) anal sex — Lora Leigh’s infamous hot August Brothers series were flying off the shelves at this time, for example.

Around 2003/4 erotic romance exploded all over the romance industry and really broke through in mainstream romance readers’ consciousness — but only within the romance industry for now — thanks to TV series like Sex and the City.  And suddenly everyone was writing erotic romance, or publishing it.  And everyone was clamouring for hot, hotter, hottest.

Spin through the years to 2012 as the envelope for “hot” got pushed harder and harder.  And here we sit:

What the romance industry considers “erotic romance” has shifted far to the right.  Just graphic sex won’t do it anymore.  Two years ago, Ellora’s Cave set the standard with its authors that all sex scenes had to include some sort of anal penetration of the heroine in order to be considered acceptably hot enough for Ellora’s Cave, which meant that standard MF sex had fallen off the radar as “erotic romance” as far as Ellora’s Cave were concerned, and tumbled into the merely “sensual romance” domain, regardless of how graphically it was described.

On the other hand, publishers of what used to be considered non-erotic romances have been steadily pushing their standards to meet reader demands, and now what they are releasing looks a lot like what was first being produced as erotic romance ten or twelve years ago, but is now labelled merely as “spicy romances”…and is, according to today’s standards.  Yet there are erotic romance publishers out there releasing exactly the same sort of novels, but under the “erotic romance” label.

This year, The Romance Studio did away with their “Erotic” category altogether in their CAPAs (Cupid and Psyche Awards), and combined the categories together.  There is no longer, for example, a CAPA for Best Erotic Paranormal and a separate one for Best Paranormal.  There is just a single CAPA for Best Paranormal.  This is a telling statement from one of the most influential review houses in the romance industry.  They clearly consider the erotic distinction to be no longer useful when romances in general have shifted ground so much to include elements of erotic romance.

In the next few years, as erotic romance boundaries keep sliding, I believe that erotic romances will shift completely to the right and become a highly specialized, tiny (but not as tiny as it used to be thanks to books like Fifty Shades of Grey) niche market catering to select readers with exotic tastes: BDSM, extreme sexual situations, and more.  The rest of us will enjoy our romances with frank open-door sex, menage, MMF and more, but it will all be one market again:  Romances.

Then we’ll be left with the pleasureable problem of sorting out which romances we want to read, out of the thousands now hitting the market each month, instead of the merely hundreds it used to be.

It’s a tough ol’ world…

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