Sex Sells, Right? Maybe Not. Why you Might Want to Rethink those Steamy Scenes in Your Novel

When my publisher asked me to remove the explicit sex scenes from my upcoming novel, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner I thought he was nuts. Sex sells, doesn't it?

Maybe not so much anymore.

That screeching sound you hear is the abrupt U-turn the publishing industry is taking away from erotic material.

A number of factors have contributed to the change:

1) Erotica Fatigue

After the breakout success of Fifty Shades of Grey, there was a surge in copycats, and the industry seems to be suffering from overload.

Agent Ginger Clark tweeted from the Frankfurt Book Fair that she was seeing a lot of "erotica fatigue" in traditional publishing.

2) The Global Marketplace

As we reported here last month, the marketplace for ebooks is now global, and as Smashwords' Mark Coker says, "Major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable."

3) Apple has No Erotica Category

More and more people read books on their iPads and iPhones, but Apple steers clear of anything that could be called porn. Perhaps with the global market in mind, the Apple store banned hard-core erotica over a year ago. The heavy-handed purge removed entire publisher accounts from the site because of a few offending titles. 

4) Amazon's "Erotica Ghetto"

Beginning last spring, Amazon, too, has sought to rein in the hard core stuff. It has created an "adult filter" that has been separating erotica from other books for suggestions and also-boughts. Authors find when they're put in this "erotica ghetto" it greatly reduces their sales.

5) No Sex, Please, We're British

In July of this year, the UK's Conservative government announced a "war on porn" that among other things, requires "family friendly" filters on computers and has made it illegal to possess material depicting rape.

6) The UK Tabloids' "Epidemic of Filth" Brouhaha

Worries about "An Epidemic of Filth" in the book industry escalated a couple of weeks ago, when UK tabloids brought up the problem of unvetted self-published porn, which can veer into illegal territory. The Daily Mail used it as an excuse for an anti-Amazon diatribe and the online magazine, The Kernel attacked even venerable UK retailers like W. H. Smith, Foyles and Waterstones. 

Retailers blame indies: 

Of course there's a lot of traditionally published erotica that gets into the wrong searches, too. But the tabloids chose some particularly vile examples of illegal porn that was self-published or put together by low-rent marketing companies, and people were disgusted.

Amazon simply removed the offending books immediately.

W. H. Smith, however, "solved" the problem by shutting down their entire website and not going back online until they had removed ALL self-published and small press books. Permanently.

Kobo, the mega-retailer that supplies W. H. Smith and many other bookstores worldwide, followed suit and removed all indie books from their UK site.  Kobo has since returned most of the books. They seem to have worked out an algorithm like the ones at Amazon and Smashwords to filter offending books. If your book hasn't been returned, you can contact them at

What this means for authors: 

Although the handful of books presented in the complaints were obviously offensive and illegal, the nuclear response sent a chill through the industry. You can read indie author Michelle Fox's take on the whole mess at the Indie Reader.

As Ms. Fox points out, aside from the question of censorship, the big problem is that algorithms are never 100% accurate. In fact, she reports some of the "offending books" mentioned in the Daily Mail article  weren't offensive at all.

She says Amazon's erotica filter sometimes labels a book cover as porn just because it has a face on it. It seems the algo measures pixels of skin tones, so a baby's face will show as large a percentage of skin as hard core porn and can be labeled as such. And I've also heard that Amazon's algo originally put Fifty Shades of Grey into "Christian fiction" because the protagonist's name is "Christian". That may be an urban legend, but anybody who's received Amazon's title suggestions knows they often get things comically wrong.

Amazon's algos are constantly being revised and updated. They may get more restrictive following the recent bad press. 

Smashwords' Mark Coker thinks they will.

Mr. Coker said this on his blog on October 15th: "Smashwords erotica authors can now assume that erotic fiction where the predominant theme, focus, title, cover image or book description is targeted at readers who seek erotic stories of incest, pseudo-incest or rape will find that their content is not welcome at the Kobo store. I've heard multiple reports that Amazon is cracking down on the same." 

Smashwords was one of the first retailers to deal with the erotica filtering problem, when PayPal refused to deal with them unless they censored hard-core erotica. Erotica was banned for several weeks in 2012 until Mark Coker installed a new filter and made a deal with PayPal, so they're now ahead of the game.

Now it seems the Smashwords filter developed for PayPal isn't restrictive enough for Kobo and Apple, so Coker is working on a "two tier" system for erotica.

He says: "Smashwords is considering adding new metadata fields for erotica authors so they can voluntarily tag their books as NSFAK (not safe for Apple/Kobo), but because these titles meet the Smashwords Terms of Service they are allowed at Smashwords and other Smashwords retailers. This will allow us to omit certain books from certain distribution channels while maintaining the flow to the Smashwords store and others."

There's no question that some filtering was needed. Parents were understandably freaked when their kids got suggestions to read wildly inappropriate books. And not every adult is into kink. The "romance" category is a huge umbrella these days, and cover images can be pretty shocking to people who aren't used to looking at contemporary erotica.

But because the filtering is done by robots, a lot of mistakes happen. And the algos are secret, so nobody knows what words and images will tag your book as porn.

If you write erotica and want to know what might trigger the algos, there's a breakdown here at Smutwriters.

But what if you don't write erotica? It's bad enough for an erotic book to be shifted off to an "adult" section, but if your novel only has a few sex scenes, erotica buyers will think it's totally lame, but nobody else will see it.

This means that being flagged for adult content could kill your book dead.

That's why publishers like mine figure it's better to be safe than sorry. If you can tell your story without explicit language and descriptions of body parts, you might consider leaving them out, since those are most likely to trigger the algos.

I've deleted "f" bombs as well as explicit scenes from my new novel. It was too long anyway, and I don't think the story loses anything.

But does this herald a return to the Puritanism that banned books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita? Are we going to return to something like the Hays Code and let algorithms become the new Catholic Legion of Decency?

I don't think so.  

Michael Tamblyn at Kobo wrote in the Writing Life on October 25, "Many of our readers have no problem with an erotic title in their library next to their romance, literary fiction, investing or high-energy physics books. And we are here for the readers, so erotica stays, a small but interesting part of a multi-million-title catalogue, in all of its grey-shaded glory."

But, he cautions, "…if your dream is to publish "barely legal" erotica or exploitative rape fantasies, distribution is probably going to be a struggle for you. We aren’t saying you can’t write them. But we don’t feel compelled to sell them."

If you need another reason to avoid explicit sex scenes, consider this quote from Julian Barnes, "Writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones: that the writer might be giving him or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sexual act, that it must already have happened to you in pretty much the manner described."

For more quotes from famous writers on the subject, check out the great post from Roland Yeomans called "Sex, Must We?" at Writing in the Crosshairs.

And good sex scenes are awfully tough to write well. If you don't get it right, you could be shamed by the "annual bad sex award" from the UK's Literary Review. Here's a link to this year's nominees. They're pretty bad.

With so much explicit "mommy porn" available to peruse discretely on our e-readers, maybe the time has come when we no longer need to sprinkle our mainstream books with those titillating scenes that became de rigueur in the heyday of "steamy" novels by authors like Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. (As Spock called them in Star Trek IV..."the giants.")

At the moment, I think writers need to treat sex scenes like adverbs. We should always ask ourselves, "is this necessary to the story?"

What about you, scriveners? Have you been affected by the recent erotica purge? Do you think sex scenes are necessary in mainstream novels, or would you prefer that authors leave things to the imagination? And do you remember that scene in Star Trek IV? 

Coming up: Next week we'll  have a great guest post by Melodie Campbell, Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. She teaches writing as well as being a bestselling author of comic fiction. She's going to give us a hilarious lesson in humor writing.

A note to my Canadian readers: My boxed set of Camilla comic mysteries has been selling briskly in Canada (and had reached #2 in women's fiction) until I got a sock puppet one-star review on the Amazon CA buy page this week. This now registers it as a one-star book, in spite of 50 good reviews in the US, so Canadian sales have screeched to a halt. If any Canadian reader who enjoys comedy would like to give it a fair review, contact me for a free review copy at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com.


Okay, Halloween is over, but it's a nice spooky cover for this time of year
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Set at a Writers' Conference in Central California, Ghost Writers in the Sky is #2 in the Camilla Randall series of comedy-mysteries, but it can be read as a stand-alone. 

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Tin House Shirley Jackson Story Contest. This is a fun one. The prestigious litmag Tin House has acquired an unfinished Shirley Jackson story. They invite readers to finish it. Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Entries should be sent, with the text of the story in the body of the e-mail to Winners will be published on the Tin House website and be awarded some Tin House swag and the collected works of Ms. Jackson. Deadline November 17th.

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

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Boomers: The Huffington Post's Huffpo50 is publishing short fiction! The rules: You must be 50 or older to enter. Writers can submit only one story per year, and all pieces must be 5,000 words or less. Send your original submissions, as well as your contact details, to

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

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