by | May 21, 2012 | General | 12 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Decades ago I read a science fiction
story about a planet where trends, fads and fashions would rise and
fall in a single night. The clothing styles popular at nine in the
evening might be totally different from those worn at four in the
morning. A unknown performer might become a instant celebrity, with
billions of admirers, then fade back into obscurity within twenty
four hours. Even language could evolve overnight, with new words
coined and yesterday’s favorite terms falling into disuse.

I wish I could remember the title or
author of this prophetic tale. It seemed original, almost
far-fetched, in the nineteen eighties. Now, aside from some expansion
of time frame, it quite accurately describes the reality of our
networked world, and especially the world of publishing.

Thousands of words have been devoted to
the “50 Shades of Grey phenomenon”. The popular media have
dissected the appeal of BDSM to the “mommies” who made the book
such a hit or wondered whether the book signals a precipitous decline
in morality. Erotica bloggers have rejoiced at the popular spotlight
shone on our genre or bemoaned the poor literary quality of the book
itself. Feminists have castigated the shallowness of the heroine,
questioning the consequences for the current generation of young

Everywhere I turn, people seem to be
debating the implications of E.L. James’ incredible success. On one
writers email list I subscribe to, a member asked, only
half-facetiously, whether 50 Shades of Grey might be some sort
of devious plot by the traditional publishing industry to test the
waters as to the popular acceptability of erotic fiction. Is 50
Shades of Grey
a conspiracy? A fluke? An indicator of the tyranny
of mediocrity? A harbinger of things to come?

In my view, FSOG is significant
because it demonstrates the near-random amplifying effects of the
social Internet. The book started life as a series published on a fan
fiction web board. It happened to strike a chord with the
subscribers, then gained popularity via grass-roots dissemination of
information to new readers. The buzz grew exponentially, facilitated
by the ease of tweeting, forwarding, sharing and syndication in
today’s socially-oriented Web infrastructure.

I’m not going to say anything more
about this book – partly because I believe that more than enough
has been said already. My main point in this post is that the
Internet is a huge amplifier of ideas. Under the right
circumstances, a book, a song, a video, or a news story can attract
the attention of literally millions of people within a matter of
days. However, despite what many believe, it’s extremely difficult to
predict exactly what content will “go viral”. The content itself
is not necessarily the primary determinant of popularity. It’s all in
the luck of the draw.

Nevertheless, despite the random
element in Internet amplification, everyone is trying to game the
system. Publishing has become a frantic attempt to utilize viral
nature of the Internet to gain attention for one’s books. Almost
every professional author that I know spends significant amounts of
time on blogging, tweeting, Facebook, Internet chats, and other
promotional activity. We create banners and trailers to display on
review sites. We “like” each other’s books and leave comments on
each other’s posts. The goal is to seed the Internet as densely as
possible with references to our names and our books. In this scrabble
to be part of the Next Big Thing, books themselves hardly seem to

Last year, introduced the
Kindle Select program and generated a frenzy of excitement among both
readers and authors. A book enrolled in this program is available
exclusively for the Kindle. In return for granting Amazon these
exclusive sales rights, authors or publishers receive 70% of the
sales price of their books – significantly more than most ebook
publishers offer. In addition, publishers/authors are allowed five
promotional days for each title – days when the books can be
offered for free. Judicious use of these promo days can build the
buzz for a new book. Downloads of the free book affect the ranking of
the book when it’s for sale. “Likes”, tagging, reviews, and
actual purchases also push up the book’s rank.

Since this program came into effect, a
whole ecosystem has developed around it. There are a dozen
newsletters to inform readers about the latest Kindle releases. Many
sell advertisements to authors who want to increase their visibility.
There are websites and forums, for readers and authors. Self-styled
marketing gurus blog or publish their own books on how to get your
Kindle book to the top of the charts. I wouldn’t be surprised to
discover someone had published a book on how to get rich by telling
Amazon authors how to get rich. If so, I’m sure that author
hopes to ride the crest of the Kindle Select wave to personal

Toward the end of last year, one of my
publishers decided to go exclusive on Amazon for all new titles. I
have to admit that the initial effect on my royalties was dramatic –
and I’m nowhere near the top seller for this company. Now, every day
on the authors’ email list, my colleagues discuss their rankings
(sometimes on an hourly basis), announce their free days, and beg the
other authors to like and tag their books. The publishers are
spending lots of money on newsletter ads to draw in readers. They’ve
had some success manipulating the rankings of our books; my peers are
in ecstasy.

Personally, I’m skeptical. I doubt this
approach is sustainable. If we can work the system, so can everyone
else. Furthermore, the number of titles available on the Kindle is
growing at an astronomical rate – especially in the categories of
erotica and erotic romance. A goodly number of them are shovel-ware
or even plagiarized. (See
The competition is just plain ridiculous. Even for legitimate authors
(which I define as authors who actually care about what they put
their name on), tagging, liking and other actions are eventually all
going to cancel each other out.

I’d like to believe that when the
situation levels off, the best books will be the ones with the
highest sales. But experience suggests otherwise.

Meanwhile, after an initial jump in my
royalties, they’ve begun to fall. I need another release to push them
back up. I do have a book in the pipeline; it may be a few weeks
before it’s released. But how many other Kindle titles will show up
in the meantime?

Amazon is just one example of my point.
The Internet is dynamic, constantly changing and far too complex for
any individual to grasp. Strategies for search engine optimization
become obsolete almost as soon as they’re discovered, as Google and
its competitors tweak their algorithms. Two months ago the hottest
new facility for social networking was Google+. Last month it was
Triberr. Now everyone’s talking about Pinterest. If you can catch a
viral wave, ride it for all its worth – but I don’t think it’s
possible to summon one on demand.

And yet, authors can’t afford to
completely ignore the amplifying influences of today’s ubiquitous
connectivity. Or can they? One of the most successful authors I know
doesn’t blog, or tweet, or hang out on Facebook. She has a single
email list where she communicates with her fans (more than 500 of
them) – and she writes, every day, despite being a single mother
with two young daughters. Since she was first published, a handful of
years ago, she has produced over a hundred books (mostly novella
length). The majority of her fans buy every single one. 

Meanwhile, here I am, spending hours
writing a blog post instead of my current work in progress.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. t'Sade

    I probably will never write mild stuff like 50 Shades and that's okay. But, I've seen what you were talking about the Kindle ecosystem.

    I put my first novel out there (Mummy's Girl) a few weeks ago. Originally published in 2003, I figured it could get a second life on Kindle. It really didn't sell well at all, no doubt because of the same reason it didn't before–too niche and BDSM mummys aren't sexy to most people. But, just putting it on Kindle didn't magically make it a big seller.

    I didn't think it would. But, I know a lot of people who do think that just throwing something up there will magically make them millions of dollars and they will get a pony AND a wagon.

    That said, I do think the best novels will rise to the top, but they won't stay there long and it takes that much effort. It is a morass of stories, good and bad, and it just kind of churns there. It will take some amazing writing to stick up there or a story that resonates with the readers enough to really attract attention.

    Kind of like the VHS/Betamax thing, the "winner" isn't always the best writing but the more accessible. 🙂

  2. Donna

    Thank you so much for this sane perspective on what is basically a chaotic frontier town of publishing (it used to be gold back in '49 in my neighborhood). However, in spite of the increasingly rapid change, I'm seeing a couple of timeless elements here. First, our human desire for meaning. As in, books succeed because they're good, take your pick whether it's the quality writing or the thrilling story. Or books succeed because the author worked so hard and was savvy about how to use social networking. Which ties into another perennial fantasy that we can have power over our fate :-). These "truths" are repeated so often, they have an insidious effect, even on a scarred veteran.

    Perhaps what it really comes down to for a writer is finding and believing in our own definition of "success." Is it making as much money as you can at any cost–pirating others' work or writing a book a month? Actually, being prolific is a fine choice, I don't mean to misrepresent that, just that I feel pressure sometimes to produce, produce as if that's the only way to be in this frenzied environment and I'm disappointing someone out there by not having a book a month (which is just not my way of working). In any case, it's not easy to figure out what you really want in all the noise.

    What appeals to me personally is your portrait of the single mother at the end of your post. A storyteller who loves what she does connecting with her readers. That's as timeless as it gets.

  3. Jacqueline B

    This feels such a timely post – am just in the process of writing a blog post on productivity and prolificacy! Not exactly the same, but certainly related to what Donna was referring to about the pressure to be constantly producing.

    I personally get exhausted by too much social networking, and feel exactly the same pressure to use it as I do in real life social occasions – it takes energy to communicate with people. Except with using it for a marketing tool the pressure seems even more – you have to both be sociable AND sell your work, and if you don't do both…woe betide you, everyone seems to be saying.

    I think you're onto something about the author you mention – in fact, it's approaches the idea of having the 1000 true fans as being enough to allow an artist to support themselves with their work. And I suspect you're right that the gamut of options that we have to choose from may, in the end, just cancel everything else out.

  4. Remittance Girl

    Exceptional post, Lisabet!

    Twitter freak that I am, I have now started to shy away from following fellow writers on twitter, because if I do, the first thing that pops into my DM stream is them trying to push their book on me. I wasn't on twitter to be sold or to sell to. I love the connection it gives me with authors, and I love their posts on writing. Even on some detail of writing associated with a new book they have coming out. But I get enough ads on TV thanks.

    Honestly, I have never downloaded a single 'free' kindle book offer. Ever. I figure that if I want the book, I'll bloody pay for it. The fact that it's free makes no difference to me.

    I share the dream with Ms. Storey. That good will rise to the top, anyway, anyhow.

    On the other hand, I'm slightly heartened by the success of FSOG because it has a badly written and abrupt ending. And I write those all the time.


  5. Erika

    Blogging (as informative as it may be to one's readers) is not writing. Facebook is not writing, not is Tweeting. Writing is writing. That good old butt-in-the-chair, open-a vein, nose-to-the-grindstone work is. It seems that we're so busy marketing, that we're not writing, and that's not good for creating and maintaining a career.

  6. Word Actress

    Lisabet – I've been waiting for you to comment on
    FSOG. I wasn't even sure what Fan Fiction was until
    I talked to a couple of sales guys at the Kindle desk at Barnes & Noble. I found FSOG dull. But I guess I'm in the minority. I'm not a soccer mom either so I don't know what their lives are like. I've always owned
    my sexuality, so I guess I don't need a book for that!
    What else – oh – I've joined a women's group and each month there's a speaker or speakers who talk about using social media to grow ur business which for me is my books. They talked about having a FB Fan Page about Tweeting, about building a Platform.
    This week's meeting is about Pinterest but I'm skipping it b/c I need to write! I've been trying to
    figure Amazon out. My second book is coming out in the next month and I'm going to format it for Kindle
    but it will be all new to me. It's all interesting, exciting and time consuming. I hope I'm like the single mom you talked about and just have people
    who consistently like my writing. Thanks, Lisabet,
    you ALWAYS are so thoughtful about what you put out here to all of us…

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    t'Sade – I wish you luck with the novel. I envy you your surety about the "best books" rising to the top. I don't see anything about the system that will make that happen. When it does, it's often chance.

  8. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Donna,

    'Perhaps what it really comes down to for a writer is finding and believing in our own definition of "success."'

    I long ago decided not to kill myself over sales or popularity. I'm satisfied with a small group of readers who really like my work. I mean, money would be nice (but not necessarily fame) – but I'm not going to drive myself crazy trying to produce a best seller.

    The funny thing is, if I set my mind to it, I could write decent "me-too" books in any of several genres – and fast, too. I just don't want to spend my time doing that. It would poison the experience of writing for me.

  9. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Jacqueline,

    The author I mentioned works really hard. She's supporting herself and her two girls with her writing. Still, I think she does it out of joy as well. And her fans give her a huge amount of support.

  10. Lisabet Sarai


    How does it feel to know you'll never be wildly popular because you're too creative and capable? ;^)

    Dream on…

  11. Lisabet Sarai

    Erika –

    Too true. Although I like blogging, as opposed to other kinds of promotion. Sometimes a blog post will lead me into a story.

  12. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, Mary,

    I think you HAVE to be on Kindle. Just don't expect that to automatically lead to great sales.

    Thanks for your support!

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