There’s that old advertising adage we’ve all heard several thousand times before: sex sells. You know what I mean. Let’s say somebody has to market toothpaste, so they whip up an ad with a gorgeous bikini-clad woman lounging on a beach in the Bahamas, with an enormous pink umbrella drink and a frighteningly large, white smile. Buy our toothpaste! The implication being, if babes like this brush their teeth with our brand, then you should too – because then you will become/get with a similar babe.
Of course we all know that’s bullshit. Nobody ever had their life changed because of their choice of toothpaste brand. (Dental care, now, that is another story!) Also, I can’t be the only person who finds these sorts of ads ridiculous. They are so common, it’s not even worth me finding links to pages and pages of them. Just do a quick search and you will find more of this crappy advertising than your brain can handle. (Incidentally, sex is almost always selling women, not men. That’s another annoying piece of reality, but not one I’m going to delve into now, even though it seriously pisses me off).
No, the reason I’m here today is to offer my thoughts on why sex doesn’t sell in the realm of published writing. I have no basis for this whatsoever, except for my observations, thoughts, and experiences. It might be complete nonsense, but if you’ve read this far you might as well stick around and see what I’ve come up with. Here is my thinking: sex doesn’t sell because, fundamentally, it’s boring.
Scandalized, you ask how an erotica writer could possible think sex is boring?!
Personally, I have had the great good fortune in my lifetime – with the exception of some ill-advised dates in college, and that one time overseas… neither of which I shall share in detail – to enjoy some pretty amazing sex. However, when you come right down to it, the mechanics are just about the same every time. (Unless you know something I don’t, in which case please share!) As a sex writer, then, I have to be careful. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of what is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the ol’ in-and-out. In order to make sex sell, there has to be more. This is what makes erotic fiction so much different than pornography.
First, you need a story. Yes, a real story, with beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, climax, strong ending, and all that other writer-ly stuff. If the story isn’t good, I don’t care how much sex there is. The way to test if a story is any good is simple: take the sex out. (Don’t worry, this is temporary!) Now read the story. Is it still interesting? Does it make sense? Do all the pieces come together? Great! Now you can spice that baby up, because frankly life is too short to plod through stories with no sexy parts in them. Sex is a major aspect of life, love, and happiness, and I want to read about it.
Next, you need characters. Keep in mind, you are asking your readers to jump into bed with these people. (Or aliens, or centaurs, or vampires, or tentacle-beasts, or whatever they are). These characters have to be real enough, detailed enough, and hot enough, that you wouldn’t mind spending a six-hour Greyhound bus ride sitting next to them. That’s a long bus ride, so these people had better have something worthwhile to say! As a rule, it’s usually polite to be introduced to someone before ripping their pants off. Depends on the situation, though. The characters should guide you to how they might behave, and the kinds of erotic encounters they would enjoy. Let them keep their pants on, as least until they’ve met the reader properly.
What makes sex really interesting, in fiction as in real life, is who you’re doing it with. Also where, under what circumstances, and in what environment. The “how” is the fun part, once you really get down to business, but the sexiest part of the “how” isn’t the mechanics. It’s the unexpected reactions, the wild emotions, the submission to uncontrollable urges, the teasing, the release. We read erotica for that, because those are the things that turn us on. (I wish a couple of those guys back in my college days had gotten THAT memo!) So, give it to your readers! Give them tension and frustration, uncertainty and triumph, because that’s what really keeps the pages turning.
Reading back on it, I really should have titled this post “Why Sex ALONE Doesn’t Sell.” Creativity sells. Great characters sell. Beautiful writing sells (though sadly not as well as it should, because not everyone appreciates it). In the end, it’s the story that sells. In this glutted market of e-erotica, self-published sexual fantasies, dubious editing, and limited readership, you really need to have something more to sell than mere sex.
At the end of the day, though, those are still my favorite parts. 🙂