Friday, November 9, 2007

Guest Bitch: Sarah McCarty talks about erotic romance and explicit covers

Let’s be controversial. It’s almost Halloween as I’m writing this, assorted sonic booms are going off all over blogland, and I’m feeling feisty. And what better place to be feisty than here at The Book Bitches? And what better place to discuss Erotic Romance than among the free thinking souls haunting these virtual halls?

Pretty much since the day I sold to Ellora’s Cave I’ve been taking hits for one of the genres in which I write. Books unread, people get high nosed and all knowing, making grand pronouncements that what I write is just plotless garbage. Disgusting porn. The downfall of romance, etc. (Like I can’t fit some plot in a 130K book!) I’m sure you all can add a few more descriptive terms. This particular discussion has been going on for years.

Quite frankly, I find this amusing. (Yes, I am easily amused.) Especially when one considers how I sold the four series I have to the houses I have. Pretty much, I just wrote up a short standard series overview, a synopsis that focused entirely on the plot of a 100K book, and a partial. The only reference to heat comes in the query letter with the simple head’s up if the editor would prefer to have the story sell erotic, they need to add 30K to the word count. As a character driven author, it’s easy to adapt the structure to incorporate the love scenes into the momentum that drives the story forward. Just a tweak in the structure that creates a seamless blend of love and action.

So basically, I sell the story line and leave it to the purchasing editor to decide what line they want it for. So far, two series have sold as erotic romance and two as non erotic romance. And *sigh* I didn’t guess correctly once which way a series would sell, so it’s probably all well and good that I left that decision to the editor’s discretion.

Too often I think what makes a romance a romance gets overlooked in these discussions on whether erotic romance is romance, erotica or porn. As in real life, the speculating on what the H&H could be doing, might be doing or shouldn’t be doing, seems to have a high distractibility for the participants drawing them away from the bottom line: The level of heat in a novel has absolutely nothing to do with the romance of a novel. They are two different components of story structure. A well done erotic romance can steal a reader’s breath the same way a sensual romance can because those breathless moments don’t come from the love scenes. They come from the characters and how they interact. And more importantly, from the author’s skill in handling that interaction.

Obviously, reader preference as to what heat level they prefer to have their breath stolen will vary, but there is no direct correlation between heat level of a novel and a novel’s breath-stealing potential. That all takes place within that perfect dark moment when characterization, conflict and plot collide hopefully with enough emotional impact that the aftershocks linger in the readers minds long after they close the covers of the books.

That being said, just to complicate the issue and to add fuel to the fire, not every book labeled erotic romance is actually romance the same way not every book labeled romantic suspense actually contains romance. Publishers market books the way they think they will sell. An author has no input. I will wager, however, that when a reader finds a well written romance that steals their breath, makes their heart twist, and lingers in their memories, they recognize it, no matter what the genre label on the spine. So while it may not be easy to identify an erotic romance on the shelves, it’s pretty easy once you’ve read one to understand you just read a romance.

Now, to continue our controversial theme, and as you all were busting on my Ellora’s caves earlier, *G* lets talk covers. On the whole, I’m pretty oblivious to covers. Once in a blue moon a spectacular one will catch my eye, (Ie: Irish Devil) but mostly I shop from readers’ recommendations and online, so covers just aren’t on my radar. Unless they are too explicit.

Yup. I said it. Too explicit covers are a problem for me. You know the one’s I’m talking about. The ones that, in essence, catch naked people with body parts exposed mid coitus? *sigh* Chances are if a book has a cover like that I probably won’t buy it unless I can get it in e-form. I’m not a hypocrite. I write erotic romance and I enjoy reading erotic romance and I’m ashamed of neither, but those too explicit covers, no matter how beautifully rendered, simply don’t fit my lifestyle. I have children in my house. Other people’s children visit my house. Much of my time is spent at child heavy locales, pediatrician’s offices, dentists offices, football games, family events, etc. I like to take a book everywhere, but like a smoker wanting a cigarette, when I’m out in public, my views aren’t the only ones that need be taken into consideration and the same way I appreciate smokers not assaulting my lungs with second hand smoke, I tend not to want to visually assault someone else’s sense of propriety with the cover on my reading material. Yes, I know I could put a cover over my book, but it strikes me as wrong that I would even have to.

Since we’re on the subject there’s something else I have to confess. Something of which I’m not proud. I have to say, when I see an uber graphic cover, it does *hanging head in shame* land right on my one big fear when I reach for an erotic romance—that there won’t be a love story between the pages just sex scenes strung together. Now, that’s my knee jerk reaction which does almost immediately get tempered by logic and a second look because I do know authors don’t have a say in covers and publishers often explore marketing techniques, but while the highly graphic covers do grab my attention it doesn’t seem to be in a positive way.

I’m pretty sure this puts me in the minority, but how about the rest of you? Do you make assumptions based on covers? What cover types do you like? What covers have called you across the width of the bookstore and tempted you into a moment of indiscretion with a blurb? Seduced you maybe even into peeking beneath the cover? Right there in public? In front of everyone?


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20 comment(s):

Blogger Isabella said...

Clinch covers. What's worse, explicit clinch covers. Ugh!

I remember the covers on Liz Carlyle's Little trilogy. At the time I thought they stood out. Very edgy, quite pretty and it made me buy the books.

They say don't judge a book by its cover but that's all talk when the cover is the first thing you will notice.

I never liked people covers. Now the trend is people without heads. Funny that I like them more than those that have heads.

11/09/2007 01:10:00 PM  

Blogger Jordis Juice said...

Covers is a big factor in my buying of books. Would I be able to read this in public?

I know it's shallow but since I'm spending my money I will buy something that suits me.

I have to be honest here. Ebook covers - yuck. :S Most of them are horrible. Laughable. There are those who will look in an ebook author's website and when they see the horrid covers, they tend to focus on them instead of the synopsis. It's a damn shame because there are a lot of good ebook authors out there.

11/09/2007 02:15:00 PM  

Anonymous karamia said...

Great post! I agree with you about book covers. I don't give them too much thought unless they are inappropriate for kids. That said, I tend to read books that don't have people on the covers, though I have never really noticed it before. And some of the most boring novels have the best covers: mainly the "chick lit" genre. There are some great books there, but you have to wade through some that are a bit of a yawn.
I also agree that being left breathless has all to do with character developement and not much to do with the heat of a story. An extreme example for me is Jane Austen. Her characters leave me completely breathless, and she does it with no sex.

11/09/2007 03:31:00 PM  

Blogger Petra said...

Good explanation about erotic romance. To tell you the truth I'm still not sure what's the difference between erotica and erotic romance. I don't think I can differentiate them. But if I like a book, whether it's historical, erotica, erotic romance, paranormal, contemporary, or whatever it is, I don't care about the "label". Who needs labels anyway? I only want to know if it's good or not.

11/09/2007 04:36:00 PM  

Blogger Petra said...

I agree with Karamia. Chick lit has the best covers. I even got tricked into buying a couple of those I've never even heard of before. Then I ended up not liking most of them.

11/09/2007 04:37:00 PM  

Blogger Jolie said...

I love romance but I don't like romance covers to be honest. What I like, from the chick lit genre.

I used to like the "feet covers" until EVERYONE started to have them. Geesh.

11/10/2007 04:26:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Sorry for the absence. Internet and power went off, yesterday, but now it's back so I'm back.

Isabella- I always ask for faces not showing because I like to superimpose my own impression of what the hero looks like. I'm not too focused on the heroine when I look at the cover, she can be a hag with bug eyes and a winning buck tooth smile for all I will notice, but I really do tend to xero in on the male on the cover. *looking innocent* can't imagine why. *G*

another not a grabber for me in the cover department is a cartoony woman doing any kind of housework. Seriously, if she's not torching the pile of laundry, it's not going to grab my attention.House work, cleaning, etc is a major turn off for me. *G*

11/10/2007 07:30:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Jordis-Ebook covers- They do present a challenge. *G* It is entirely possible to get a reader past the impression those covers can give sometimes (especially the earlier ones) that here there be inferior efforts, but it is possible. A rope, cattle prod and a winch are helpful, *G* but it can be done.

Seriously-it all boils down to the writing. If the writing's strong then that's what can be used to sell the books. The author just has to market differently. I write Western Historical. Just the genre alone is sufficient to have people wrinkling their nose and stepping back. (People have very strong preconceived notions about a Western historical MUST be) Add the fact that I started in ebook (I deliberate choice on my part and part of my 5 year plan) and it's a huge hurdle to overcome. I had faith however, and also the knowledge that it was a hungry niche waiting to be fed and the fact that what I write does not fit formula. And since a good Western historical turns on the same story dynamics as a good paranormal, I knew readers who gave the books a try would find the familiar feel they loved but in a (hopefully) exciting fresh genre.

So pretty much, everything I did/do includes excerpts. My website isn't fancy, but there are excerpts. Lots of excerpts. And to date, from the feed back I've received, that's always what tempts someone to try my books despite their reservations.

There's an upside to starting in ebooks for an author. I once had someone tell me that I'd better be careful not to negotiate too hard on a contract so as not to upset my publisher, because they might give me a bad cover. I didn't think then and don't think now that that's a valid fear, however, my first thought was, "I'm a frickin' ebook author! We don't fear no stinkn' covers!" *G*

11/10/2007 07:46:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Chick lit covers- When they first started with these covers it was a total turn off for me. All I could think of was coloring book covers. then I think two things happened: I got more used to them and the artists got more refined in the delivery. Now, when I see them I expect the book to be a contemporary with lots of humor and a light plot. IOW, a fun read. Which I think goes to good branding. I would be very surprised to see a chick lit cover on a heavy read and might even be annoyed because in all likelihood I picked up the book specifically because I wanted a light read.

11/10/2007 07:50:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Difference between erotic romance and erotica. If you are a writer, there is a huge difference in the two. Almost a polar opposite of delivery. As a reader, you would probably only understand it in the difference in the level of emotional satisfaction with which you walk away from the read.

In my opinion, erotic romance and erotica can be separated by content/structure. To me, as a writer, there's a huge difference between erotic romance and erotica. This is not to say there can't be a woman's fiction book with erotica elements, (blending genres is very common) but in the end, the test is the same for erotica vs. any genre, but I'm just discussing erotica and erotic romance, so no one get fiesty and extrapolate beyond those boudaries and start a fist o'cuffs, okay? *G*

Erotic Romance- the book is 100 percent romance with all the elements, plot, pacing, conflict, characterization, dark moment, and the Happily ever after ending. The only difference between a hot romance and an erotic romance is the loves scenes are more descriptive and tend to work harder. Within the previous categories you will have the growth of each character, the growth of the relationship, revelation of the deeper conflicts, the expansion of the plot, and the steady pacing all building to the Dark moment which resolves into the Happily ever after. In the structure of an erotic romance, love scenes are the transition scenes in which the author wraps up the past to this point, outlines the present, and lays out the future of the plot while taking the reader deeper into the story. They tend to be very powerful, emotional scenes and so much more than the physical act because the scenes are working on so many levels. In an erotic romance, the love scenes are always a beginning, not an end.

A quick, easy identifier of whether one is reading an erotic romance vs erotica: you could remove every love making scene and still have a kick butt story as the love scenes enhance the story but are not the story. (the acid test for any genre)

Erotica- The love scenes are the story and convey whatever message the author wants to convey. Ie: A very typical erotica plot is the uptight woman who goes away for a weekend and somehow, through any one of a variety of plot devices, loses all inhibition and has a wonderful time and by the end of the weekend "learns" something about herself. It's a very successful plot device because it taps into an identifiable thread among women and also allows the author a wide opportunity to deliver a variety of messages.

Erotica love scenes tend to be the culmination moments. There can be romantic elements within the story, but if you pulled out the love scenes, there would not be enough leftover material to make up a story. In Erotica, everything in the book is there to support the love scenes which are the thrust of the story. Characterization, plot development, etc are typically minimal as they are restricted to the boundaries of the message the author wants to get across. Everything that is not a love scene has been written to give the sex scene a reason to be, so if you take them out there will be very little left of the book, and that little bit would clearly be sitting there saying, "Could you bring me my love scenes, please? I'm feeling a little naked and exposed sitting here with no reason to be." Does that makes sense? Erotica can be well written and emotive, but it's not a romance, and typically there is not a Happily ever after ending.

11/10/2007 08:18:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Feet covers- When they first came out, they were very evocative, but the market very quickly became saturated with them.

11/10/2007 08:23:00 AM  

Anonymous Keka said...

Good one Sarah. Sometimes I get confused as to what is erotica and what is erotic romance or romantica. I do know that erotica are books where the main protagonists have lots and lots of sex, with each other and other people but a romantic happily ever after isn't a guarantee. The focus is on sex and the sexual journey of the main characters.

Erotic romance, that I love. :)

11/10/2007 08:35:00 AM  

Anonymous Keka said...

Feet covers! Arg. Every one is using it! It's annoying because you can't distinguish the books from each other.

11/10/2007 08:39:00 AM  

Blogger Lollie Rose said...

Ms. McCarty, thanks for the explanation. I get confused when some erotica writers insist their books are erotic romance when they're clearly not. I'm clueless. LOL

11/10/2007 12:21:00 PM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...


Well, now you can say, "Uhm, sorry, for the story to be a romance you would have to meet the following criteria." *G* Truthfully though, sometimes that sort of discussion is not worth getting into with the creative party. They may have a different definition or a less objective view.

In reality I have read many book by authors who swear they are romance, and my reaction is "In what universe?"(because they don't fit the criteria) Now, just because they aren't romance doesn't mean they aren't good or that I didn't enjoy them and they might have had some effort at romance overtone, but they were not romance. I've also read some books that were not labeled romance that clearly were. (Caine's Reckoning and the Hell's Eight series being a prime example of that)

It has become common practice either through lack of understanding or a drive for sales (adding romance to the description pulls in a huge number of readers that might otherwise over look the book.)
for many authors to claim what they write is romance. This is more obvious in the ebook market because of the sheer volume of books in erotic romance released through this venue. Often, the ebook market gets singled out as having more wrongly categorized books, bad books, poorly edited books, etc, but I think that's more a function of the number of ebooks rather than a higher statistical presence when considered in proportion.

One things for sure, a lot of really top notch authors came out of an ebook background. When the NY houses decided to go into the erotic market, they tapped the existing authors in the ebook world, many of whom were authors who'd been "classically" trained authors (My term meaning authors that came up through Romance Wrrters of America and spent years honing their craft, studying technique waiting to get published as before epublishing it was a LOOOOOOOOOOT harder to break in.) Many of them are now on the best seller lists while others are climbing them.

The ebook market now is in a state of flux because of many things, including losing at least the majority of previous core authors work to competitors and also just the additional competition. One of the things I think being experimented with to garner a new market share is less romance and more kink. Personally, as there's an end to kink, a point beyond which the shock value has no merit, I think the swing will be back toward erotic romance. But that's just my personal view and based on my now fruitless searches for new books to read on sites on which I used to be able to find one or two books a week. (I've always believed while sex sells, a great story sells better. And one that combines both a great story and great sex sells best) The greater buying public may totally prefer the opposite.

A good question to ask right now is which do you all prefer, if at all? Straight erotica or erotic romance? Does it depend on the day? Your mood? The amount you have to spend?

11/10/2007 01:22:00 PM  

Blogger Jordis Juice said...

Re: "while sex sells, a great story sells better"

This is so true. Once in a while I'm in the mood to read some erotica just for the sex and all that. But these stories I will forget as soon as I finish them.

Great stories trump sex scenes. Great stories with great sex, now that's a winner. ;)

11/10/2007 04:35:00 PM  

Blogger Isabella said...

Sarah, great discussion! I'm learning a lot about erotic romance. :D

P.S. I totally agree about the cartoon-y woman during some housework. Major turn off. LOL!

11/10/2007 04:47:00 PM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...

Isabella-I seriouasly never understood how marketing could ever think a woman flitting about with an iron is intriguing and interesting tp a female reader. I'm on my second husbannd, (dating self) and I assure you, not one was ever under ANY illusion that I did house work, let aloned ironed. When the dirt gets too high, I'm willing to do 50 percent of the work, but June Cleaver, I am soo not. The best purchase I ever made was a Roomba robot vacuum.

I detest housework and honestly, my hubby does more of it than me since his tolerance level for debris is lower. (tolerance level is pretty much the determing factor on who gets what jobs. hubby doesn't do bathrooms, I don't do dishes, etc.

11/10/2007 08:16:00 PM  

Blogger Vicious Trollop said...

Sarah, this has been the best author discussion we've ever had! I've learned so much.

I think we should use your comments and make a post out of them so more readers can get to enjoy them and learn from them too (they are lazy and don't comment!).

As for your question, I don't think I could read erotica. I thougt Passion was erotica but after your definition I know its not. I'm starting to like erotic romance because of you *g* and I think it's as far as I'll go in the sex department.

Also, I need a lot of character and plot development and a good story so erotica might not be the way to go b/c I want first and foremost THE STORY.

You see, in all honesty, I usually skip sex scenes if they wont add anything to the overall story. I think I'm odd that way LOL

11/11/2007 11:36:00 AM  

Anonymous Sarah McCarty said...


That's a very nice compliment. Thank you! I'm not sure what You mean by the comments, but run amok.

I had a lot of fun being here. I know exactly what you mean by skipping love scenes. There is one erotic romance author I love because of her prose and incredible skill at characterization. I read everything she writes, but I cannot read the loves scenes because she writes hard core BDSM and that disturbs me, so I enjoy the heck out of her stories and skip the love scenes. I feel sort of bad that I can't enjoy every bit, but I can't.

11/11/2007 07:10:00 PM