Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
From dinosaur love to pregnancy fetishes, self-published erotica authors are basically only limited by their imaginations (and Amazon). But the profession isn't as fun—or lucrative—as many make it out to be.
Three years ago, Sarah Sethline, a 30-something living on the West Coast, was a freelance writer, making the kind of non-spectacular money freelance writers make. One day, she happened to see a Reddit post written by a guy who claimed to be making good money writing erotica. Sethline had read smut now and then, and she'd even volunteered as an editor for some erotic stories years before, but she hadn't considered the idea that it might be a way to make a living.
"I wasn't even aware that Amazon sold erotica before getting into writing my own, and I'd been shopping with them for years," she told me over email.
Today, Sethline (a pen name) is the author of more than 100 stories and bundles of stories that you can download from Amazon onto your Kindle. Her work covers a lot of territory: bikers, pregnancy fetishes, gay BDSM, adult diapering, and lots and lots of near-incest (Amazon bans the real thing). There's "Cheating Sluts MEGA BUNDLE: Eleven-Book Horny Hos Collection," "Accidental Forbidden Pregnancy," "Black Woman, White Knight," and "Spawned to Save the Alien Race." By self-publishing around ten titles a month—and doing everything from designing the covers to writing blurbs and optimizing keywords—she now makes a decent living.
"It definitely trumps anything else I've done in the past from a financial standpoint," she said, "but honestly, I miss the days of writing about things besides sex."
Amazon, by far the dominant platform for self-published e-books, sells around 19,000 of the titles a day, according to data compiled for the publishing data site AuthorEarnings. That adds up to $9.7 million a year. The writer behind the site estimates that 80 percent of erotica downloads for Kindle are written by self-published authors. (Sethline said her readers, including those buying the gay titles, are overwhelmingly women.)
The market for self-published erotica has drawn a lot of people into the work, both those just looking for easy money and others who find the stories stimulating themselves. But most see nowhere near the success Sethline has.
"It's tough to make money if you don't look at it like a ruthless businessman," Randy Johnson, the moderator of the subreddit eroticauthors, said in an email. (Yes, that's also a pen name.) "You're probably going to have to write a kink you don't personally enjoy, and you need to spend a lot of time editing, making covers, managing social media, etc.—not just writing."
Johnson said erotica readers who start writing for fun don't typically keep doing it for long. "Over on my subreddit, it always seems that virtually everyone there is talking about how they love the field but have only been doing it for 30–60 days," he said. "It's been that way for years, so obviously most of them are dropping out and being replaced by yet more newbies."
It's tough to make money if you don't look at it like a ruthless businessman.
Johnson himself has been writing erotica for four years, publishing over a thousand stories under more than 50 pen names. He puts in ten-hour days; if he really pushes himself, he can write two 4,000-word short stories or a 10,000-word novella in a day.
So much volume requires variety. Johnson is a gay man, but like Sethline, he writes stories with all kinds of gender configurations. "It's not really that different," he said. "The niche matters more than the gender. I find it hard to write ABDL [adult baby diaper love] erotica, whether gay or straight, because it seems so silly and pointless—I can't even pretend to think diapers are sexy. But most other hetero erotica is easy as pie, even if I have to pretend I have a vagina."
Still, Johnson said he does sometimes try to write about topics he actually cares about—if not in a sexual way. He's interested in Polynesian culture, so he just published a story about a fa'afafine, a member of Samoan society's "third gender."
"Obviously there's not a huge market (or any market, really) for that, but it's nice to do something different once in a while," he said. "And of course you never know when something like that becomes a flash in the pan—maybe a fa'afafine will become a major Hollywood star and thousands of people will start googling about Samoa."
Despite what you may have read about dinosaur erotica, Johnson says there's not actually much of a market out there for authors like Chuck Tingle (moderately famous for absurdist classics like "My Ass is Haunted by the Gay Unicorn Colonel," "Slammed in the Butthole by My Concept of Linear Time," and the newly Hugo-nominated "Space Raptor Butt Invasion.") Johnson says there is indeed such a thing as dinosaur porn—apparently a genre created to evade Amazon's ban on bestiality, which only applies to living species—but it doesn't have a lot of readers.
"The vast majority of sales (which are very few) [for dinosaur erotica] are people interested in the novelty of it," he said. "If you don't get some media scandalmongering about it, you'll probably get close to zero sales."
Nevertheless, the dinosaur bestiality loophole represents a real issue for anyone trying to make a living in self-publishing: the control that Amazon has over the market. Apple and Barnes & Noble do sell some independently published e-books, but the AuthorEarnings site owner estimates that 85 percent of e-book sales—in all genres, not just erotica—come from Amazon. The company has cornered the market partly by requiring authors to sell exclusively through it if they want to be included in Kindle Unlimited, Amazon's Netflix-style subscription service.
"Kindle Unlimited is about 50 percent of my income, so it would be likely the same with other authors," said Amy Cooper, a 30-year-old Cincinnati resident who's been writing erotica, and publishing other writers' work, for about a year and a half. (Incidentally, Cooper is a guy writing under a female pen name, something that's extremely common since female readers seem mostly disinclined to buy writing published under a male name.)
Last summer, Amazon proved just how easily it can alter the dynamics of self-publishing when it changed its payment system. In addition to getting a significant percentage of simple sales of their e-books—up to 70 percent if the book meets certain guidelines—authors who use the Kindle direct publishing system are paid a small percentage from a pool of money that the company sets aside each month for Kindle Unlimited reimbursement. In the past, each author's share was based on the total number of times a Kindle Unlimited member downloaded one of their books for free. Under the new system launched last summer, payment is now based on the number of pages a member reads after downloading a title. At the time, Amazon said the change was a response to authors of long books, who were annoyed at being paid the same amount for a 500-page download that a short story writer could get for 50 pages. But for erotica writers, many of whom depend on publishing lots of short stories, it was a disaster.
"An awesome email to wake up to was last year in June when I was told that I was going to be paid 75–90 percent less on my erotica stories starting in two weeks," Scarlett Skyes, a 35-year-old New Zealander who moved from a sales career to erotica writing in 2012 and now also writes novels under different pen names. "I was lucky in that I'd already started to diversify my catalogue by then, but this change wiped a lot of people out."
Skyes, who declined to disclose their real-life gender, has also hit bumps when Amazon changed rules on content. Skyes specializes in "kind of barely legal/virgin/rough sex/dubious consent/pseudo-incest" content and once found three-quarters of their stories—which had previously been approved—suddenly pulled from the site for violating guidelines.
Skyes said it seems like online sellers are willing to profit from erotica but not to stand behind authors when they get complaints about stories they find unsavory. "Retailers are happy to throw erotica writers under the bus by claiming to have not known what content was being uploaded to their storefronts," Skyes said. "I never know if the next insane email I wake up to is going to be the one that means yesterday was my last day of writing for a living."
Erotica is now the baby step to romance.
Ally Enne, a California writer in her mid-20s, said Amazon's change in pay structure pushed her to move out of the short erotica genre and into longer-form science fiction romance novels (Auctioned to the Alien, The Water Alien's Captive Mate, volumes 1 and 2—that sort of thing). Fortunately, Enne said, she decided she preferred romance anyway.
"With erotica, you're basically writing the same kind of sex scenes in every story with only slight variation," she said. "With novels, I get to build entire worlds in my stories and create characters that I love."
Romance has a much larger readership than erotica, and with Amazon's new pay structure, Enne said, it's far easier to make good money in the genre, particularly if you've already built up an audience. "Erotica is now the baby step to romance," she said.
Still, even romance is not a job for slackers. Enne said she typically writes two novels or novellas every month; in the past 30 days, she wrote almost 100,000 words while also doing all the work of publishing and publicizing her e-books.
Regardless of the hard work and the uncertainty involved, erotica self-publishers get other things out of it. Skyes said one perk is a highly flexible work schedule.
"Recently an aunt became very sick," Skyes said. It was a Monday, and it wasn't clear how serious the illness was, but Skyes still called their father and drove him two hours for a visit. It turned out to be the aunt's last coherent day. "Because of my job, my dad was able to say [his] final goodbye to his sister. Would I have even been able to make that decision if my boss expected me at my desk making cold calls that morning? Honestly, probably not."
In matters less life-and-death, there's the satisfaction of connecting with an audience eager to read stories like "His Little Princess Again" or "I Was a Billionaire Wereteen 3."
"I've found my readers to be the most wonderful, respectful, and normal people you could hope for," Skye said. "I had an email from a nice lady who lived in a rest home with her husband, and she loved to read my stories to him. The people enjoying even the most explicit erotica—some of which I'm responsible for—are everywhere."
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