Writing by Numbers

Have you done your homework? So demanded the subject line of an email falling into my inbox a few days ago. Not a question I’d been asked in over a decade. Okay, in over two decades.

In this case, my ‘homework’ was the investigation I should have done before writing and attempting to sell books as an independent. Research demand, find out what’s selling, identify the tried and tested market… Then produce more of the same thing. It makes hard-headed sense, aligning with the fundamental marketing adage of give them what they want. Books are now pretty much like any other commodity. Let’s not kid ourselves, whilst the occasional risk may be taken on a fresh and original voice by literary agents and established publishers, for the most part it is about what will sell. Or who will sell. And if you are publishing independently, that’s the sort of forward thinking you have to undertake for yourself.

Only Oh dear, I did it the wrong way. I wrote what I wanted to write, which relates to what I want to read, and guess what? I’m not rich.

Without buying any of the market research tools on offer, I took a look at what I should have been doing in order to sell more successfully. I considered the covers, titles, sub genres, and book descriptions of the top 20 paid books in the erotica genre on Amazon.com on one day (10 February 2018). I took out EL James’s Grey and Beauty’s Punishment by Anne Rice writing as Anne Roquelaure (on sale at the time), because those are established best-sellers that move in and out of the ‘top’ lists. Then I looked at the 18 rest.

So here’s what I should have been doing to produce erotica books that sell, based on my highly unscientific “research”.

1. Sexuality – write about hetero-sex, at least primarily
Judging from the descriptions, all but one of the books focused, exclusively or at least mainly, on heterosexual relations and (in most case) love.

Inspiration for a future cover?

2. Cover – feature a bare-chested muscly, stubble-chinned white guy. Possibly enfolding a slim white women.
Fourteen of the 18 covers featured naked male torsos (one revealed by an open suit jacket, another peeping out a crisp but unbuttoned shirt), with 17 naked torsos in all, five of these tattooed, plus one burly naked back. All but one of these chests were muscular and ‘ripped’. Six-pack city! Three covers featured men in suits (including the unbuttoned one). Nine featured women with ‘their’ men, whether single or multiple partners, only one a woman alone. All the women were slender. Everyone appeared Caucasian. Need I add that everyone was young, especially the females? Given contemporary Western ideas of “beauty”, zero surprises there.

3. Length – keep it (fairly) short. Or at least bundle up short stories.
Three were short-story collections, seven novelettes (i.e. 7,500 – 17,00 words) or novellas (17,000 – 40,000 words), and the other eight appeared to be full-length novels (based on stated page length, which is not always reliable).

4. Sub-genre – make it romance, adding a healthy dose of suspense, a piquant spicing of BDSM, and garnishing with a dash of humour.
Yes, the world’s best-selling genre wins out, six books putting themselves in the erotic romance category, three under suspense and romance, one crossing paranormal and romance, another science fiction and romance, two in the BDSM sub-genre (plus others suggesting ‘light BDSM’ involved), and two in humorous erotica.

5. Relationships – maintain a ‘traditional’ domineering male / tractable female power balance.

A word picture based on texts of the book descriptions (characters’ names removed) is not that revealing with such a small sample (see below). Words appearing frequently you would expect from erotica and / or romance came up a lot – man, woman, want, heart, crave / craving, pleasure. Also the urgent use of frequency adverbs such as never, always…

Still, perhaps enlightening are the uses of the words alpha, rich, boss/bosses, leader, bad… all used in relation to the males. In addition ‘strong’, used mainly with reference to the men, particularly to describe their hands or touch. Then to some extent ‘sweet’ (in three blurbs) and ‘trust’ to describe females. Unsurprising is the occurrence of ‘control’, ‘BDSM’, ‘spanked’… ‘Dom’ or ‘dominant’ or a variant thereof appears about nine times and ‘sub’ or ‘submissive’ etc. eight, though often multiply in one description. Evidently the power of the Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon (perhaps considered yesterday’s wonder in print, but not in e-books), has unbridled our bondage fantasies for the long term.

6. Number – make it a series.
Nine of the 18 books were one in a series.

7. Be professional; keep writing and publishing.
Not the point of this exercise I know, but well worth adding that all the writers had published multiple books, some many multiple. Most authors stuck to the sub-genres they’d clearly been successful at. Typically, the covers looked slick and professional, the descriptions carefully thought through and written. These people know what they’re doing, and most of them keep doing it to stay on top (I know, suddenly everything sounds like a double entedre).

So. Okay, I haven’t missed every mark here in my writing, but a fair number of them. I’m not pretending this has been a reliable investigation, and I cannot claim it threw up any real surprises. However, it provides food for thought. Should I – indeed could I – put aside what I want to write, trying to offer an alternative within the genre, and try writing for the market instead (obviously with no guarantee of success in terms of either product or sales)?  Good question.

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