Major publishers have finally discovered what erotic romance and erotica authors have known for years, which is that some female (and male) readers enjoy stories that explore the realms beyond the typical suburban bedroom, if, indeed, that's what Fifty Shades of Grey does. There's still some lingering doubt about where it fits and if the relationship portrayed in it borders on abusive or not. We leave that to readers to decide, but for the purposes of this post, we'll pretend that the trilogy actually contains something close to what readers can buy as a believable premise, even if they have to suspend belief and give the author the benefit of the doubt throughout the book to do it. We'll be discussing more how this book typifies the reticence or inability of major publishers to recognize what readers want or need in satisfying entertainment (whether their authors are capable of giving it to them or not).
This is not news to anyone who served as a literary agent representing romance in the last decade, because the romance genre encompasses a wide variety of categories ranging from mainstream with romantic elements to erotic romance to highly literary erotica. However, it just shows how little major publishers know about their readers.
Five or six years ago, one of our literary agents approached all these same publishers with a non-fiction piece written by an actual dominatrix. Although intrigued, most who were approached blushed and rejected it because of the subject matter not being mainstream enough. They clearly had no idea of the growing interest in this area and many had no idea about what it even was.
So it's laughable that the majors actually think they've stumbled on to something hot. The fact is that erotic romance readers, a huge target demographic, have been enjoying kink for years. There are publishers and publishing imprints dedicated to books with this angle. However, most majors dragged their feet in this area or simply didn't take the time to properly build a line of books that would appeal to readers with this interest.
A few years ago, one editor at a major who had been delegated the unenviable task of ramping up an erotic romance/erotica line at her publishing house mentioned that she was really tired of having to read "those kinds of books." You see, it wasn't her area of expertise. She couldn't tell good from bad, nor did she have the stomach for the exotic tastes of the characters she encountered. In typical major publisher fashion, her house had assigned someone to build a line of books as more of a token effort than a serious response to the reading needs of their potential audience.
I'm often amazed that publishers don't remember what saved the movie industry. I've wanted to scream in their ears the word VIDEOTAPE, or more exactly, SEX ON VIDEOTAPE. The fact is, whether we like it or not, VHS stories with graphic sex, poor quality and all, paved the way for this medium and later made other genres of movies on tape and, still later, on DVD, acceptable. Without sex in all its many assorted variations, the movie industry would have disappeared and the VCR along with it. But we don't talk about this because such things are deemed to be inappropriate or smut. Sex, no matter how it's wrapped, to some folks is bad.
Well, except to millions of readers, it appears.
So it now seems that maybe the nearly dead dinosaur has awoken; major publishing has finally discovered BDSM sells. Hoorah!! But is it soon enough to save them? Doubtful. I'm glad to see this change, though, because I'm tired of every writer in the world querying me with The Hunger Games rip-offs. My Inbox is a much more interesting place now. ;)