The Bedpost -- BDSM Support Clean Sheets: Visit the Bookstore

Erotica on the Rocks

By Debra Hyde

Memory Lane on Replay

Chances are, you've noticed that access to erotic literature has improved dramatically in the last several years. Borders and Tower bookstores have stocked their shelves with the stuff and, in some cases, are devoting more and more shelf space to the stuff each year. There's Amazon.com or QSM for those of us who are rural, prefer mail order, or simply don't like carrying risqué titles to the cashier. Today, we have more choices in both erotic fiction and vehicles for purchase than ever before. From the looks of it, you'd never know that erotica was in trouble.

Trouble? Yes, trouble. What the plentiful selection doesn't reflect is the fact that publisher after publisher is either selling off, suspending acquisitions, or scaling back. What's available today might not be there for you tomorrow. And it's all come to gel in the last few months.

Publish, Then Perish

The list of erotica publishers who aren't in good health reads like a who's who of good SM fiction sources. Each one is a case study in how things are falling apart. Often, it's not apparent to the casual consumer. For example, when I visit the erotica section in my local Borders, titles from Blue Moon Books take up almost two full shelves. Looks good, on the surface.

But underneath it all, Blue Moon Books -- best known for the Shadow Lane series -- declared bankruptcy some time ago. In the course of the proceedings, a publishing conglomerate bought its inventory and gave its editor new duties that have nothing to do with erotica. So don't let all that burst of Blue Moon titles fool you; the new owner is aggressively distributing the existing inventory and it's not at all clear that there's any interest in replenishing those titles -- or acquiring new ones -- once that inventory's exhausted.

Circlet Press, well-regarded for its ground-breaking successes with SF and fantasy erotica, reported that 1998 was a disastrous year, mainly because a major distributor went belly up. That Circlet survived is a testament to its publisher's tenacity; other small press ventures weren't as lucky. Distributors play a life-or-death role for small publishers. They are the vehicle for getting books into stores and for sales-generated cash flow. However, it's not uncommon for small press to receive money from sales only every six months. Thus, when a distributor goes under, small press is hit hard in both distribution and cash flow.

Those same distributor woes may have impacted Daedalus Publishing, home to authors Race Bannon, Guy Baldwin and other well-known gay SM authors. True, I'm speculating here... but the fact remains that Daedalus has suspended acquisitions of new works to focus on publishing an already-contracted backlog of new titles. Now, it's not unusual for a small press publisher to put acquisitions on hold now and then -- in many cases, it's a sound business decision -- but their move comes at the same time bigger publishers are financially distressed, and that worries me. What's more, they haven't released any new titles and they haven't yet resumed acquiring new titles, something they'd hoped to have underway at this point in time.

Most discouraging, Masquerade Books, among the best known publisher of SM erotica and nonfiction, is no longer acquiring new material and it has drastically cut its planned production by a whopping 75%. Industry rumors have speculated that Masquerade might even go under entirely, but the corporate line, for now, is that they're alive, afloat, and treading water. I'm personally distressed by Masquerade's dilemma. In many ways, this publishing house showcased some of the SM community's best talent. Think Sarah Adamson's The Marketplace trilogy (aka Laura Antoniou) and many of John Preston's leather works reissued after his death. Masquerade was, in my eyes, one of SM's best hopes for the continued growth of SM fiction.

Magazines Suffer Too

Magazines dedicated to the scene have suffered as well. Taste of Latex, among the best known fetish titles, ceased print publication in the last couple of years. Although magazines do come and go, Taste of Latex had a fetish stature similar to Secret and Skin Two, but it was unique because it was an American representative among these titles, and nothing's come along to take its place.

Another key publication, Paramour, died earlier this year despite the editor's attempts to finagle a cash infusion to keep it going. Paramour was, in my mind, a more fetished cousin to Libido. It provided a worthy avenue for short fiction authors, poets, reviewers, artists and photographers; it was a sound credential to erotica authors and served its readership well.

Fortunately, magazines haven't suffered as badly as books have, mainly because the Web's advent provided magazine publishers with an avenue that book publishers can't yet easily take advantage of. In some cases, magazines continue on in print format but also offer pay sites on-line. Skin Two and Secret have taken this route. Others simply use the web to advertise and sell their titles. DM International, publisher of the suspended Taste of Latex, does this with its remaining titles.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that magazines persevere and succeed, but I remain wary towards the chipping away at our fiction that I've seen in the last year.

Why Worry?

I worry about SM erotica's health because our fiction is a reflection of our community, our fantasies, and the essence of our passions. And it's part of our history.

On a personal level, these voices helped me shape and define my sense of self as I immersed myself in SM. These voices inspired me to write, to lend my own talents to our body of fiction and nonfiction. These voices matter to me.

On a professional level, I'm concerned about the lack of paying markets because it may well discourage established talent -- and new talent -- from dedicating their efforts to penning fiction. After all, few SM writers -- regardless of fiction or nonfiction -- make much money as writers. It's a much a labor of love as it is a profession, and it's becoming more and more of the former as market opportunities shrink. I don't want to see our body of fiction stagnate and possibly die.

Frankly, if the talents of Pat Califia, Laura Antoniou, John Preston (who lives on in posthumous releases), and John Warren cease to speak -- or choose to speak less often -- what will we have?

On the whole, I worry that someday you'll walk into Borders or Tower and you won't find SM erotica any more. Is that what we really want?

Don't Be Complacent

I bet you're anticipating a clarion call at this point, aren't you? Well, I won't disappoint you. Yes, I'm going to plead with you to buy more erotica. Buy a title every time you walk into Borders or Tower, or browse Amazon. (That goes triple for shopping at QSM, our very own on-line BDSM bookstore; they need your business and deserve it far more than the on-line big boys.) Buy a fiction title every time you buy a how-to book. Don't take erotica for granted. When you stand in your local bookstore and survey the titles on their shelves, remember that the books deserve space on your shelves, at home, in your personal library.

Every purchase heightens market demand, and if enough people buy enough erotica the numbers will shift for the better. If the numbers rise, maybe publishers will rethink things. Maybe Masquerade will attract new investors whose cash infusion will mean a return to more titles. Maybe the conglomerate that bought Blue Moon Books will assign an editor to handle reprints and new acquisitions. Maybe small press publishers will be able to speed forward and release new works. But it won't happen unless you exercise your purchasing power.

Remember, fiction titles are as much a part of our SM history as nonfiction titles. They put our fantasies and our desires into print. They arouse us, entice us, make us want to flex our SM muscles. They motivate us to embrace our version of sex with lust and delight. But if you don't embrace the fiction with your dollars, it might not be there for you tomorrow.

The Good News

That said, I don't want to leave you with a completely futile impression; that would be slanted of me. Not every publisher is in dire straits (only enough for us to be concerned) and I want to briefly share the silver lining with you as well.

Publishers who have concentrated on nonfiction titles are, by and large, able to come through rough times better simply because how-to books sell well, even in hard times. Indeed, Greenery Press is well positioned to pick up the slack as other publishers shed their titles; I fully expect them to acquire the works of known SM writers. Circlet Press is also expanding into nonfiction; it's quite possible that they'll provide a new avenue for established writers.

The gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender presses remain healthy and strong. Whether they'll acquire SM erotica remains to be seen, but I do know my gay friends who are writers have more markets to choose from that I do as a straight writer, simply because gays and lesbians have an established history of supporting their presses with their dollars. (And, yes, there's a lesson to be learned there.)

Magazines are doing reasonably well, with fewer death knolls tolled and a growing e-zine market. In fact, new BDSM-friendly Web zines are coming on-line all the time. Recent additions like Erotic Vox, Blood Moon Zine, Clean Sheets, and Scarlet Letters provide quality avenues for SM erotica. It makes sense -- it's far more affordable to bypass paper and print costs and go dot-com. Zines have more than earned a place in publishing and they often serve as stepping stones of credential building for writers, but they are, with only minor exceptions, non-paying markets.

Electronic books are poised for the mass market. The technology is clearly there, although its remains to be seen which format (HTML versus PDF) and which vehicle (regular computers versus e-book hand-helds) will become the industry standard. And consumers have yet to buy into the concept of downloading books and reading them in a new format. Once these two issues are settled, however, considerable financial resources could shift from paper, printing and binding costs to, hopefully, the editorial side of the business.

But Don't Forget...

Don't forget that a dark cloud goes with this silver lining. We're losing ground when it comes to SM erotica, written by knowledgeable and qualified people. It's entirely possible that you won't find John Preston's work once Masquerade exhausts its current inventory. Likewise with any one of the many SM authors Masquerade has published in the past. Sure, there's every chance that these authors (or in Preston's case, his estate) will look for new publishers to print and promote their work, but a shrinking marketplace mean less opportunity for everyone, established and emerging. And besides, should they have to?

Not if we put our money where our mouths are.

©1999-2000 by Debra Hyde

Reader Comments


This Leather and Hyde column originally appeared at James LiGate's bdsm.About.com web site where Debra still writes occasional pieces about BDSM. She also writes for Scarlet Letters and her fiction has appeared here at Clean Sheets as well. Currently, she keeps a sex-and-sexuality news weblog at her personal site, Pursed Lips. Her most recently published fiction appears in Y2Kinky, an electronic chapbook and in Desires from AmarMira Press.

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