The life of a writer is hard, because money.
There comes a time, usually after you’ve gone four days eating nothing but ramen noodles (and you’ve contemplated selling all of your valuables and subsequently realized that you have none), when you have to literally sober up and assess the facts. With a stack of unpublished short stories and the wreckage of three or four novels somewhere inside my laptop, with a day job as a cook, I was tired of the whole show. Writing, rejection, writing, rejection. Exhaustion, hard drinking, further exhaustion, rejection, the hardest drinking.
How, having worked my entire life writing fiction no one reads, can I make any money with this skill? This one skill I’ve troubled to cultivate? This one skill that I love? This art?
A few weeks ago I turned, pointed by a friend, to the world of Kindle romance/erotica where, I was assured, there was money to be made. Seventy percent of profits from each story sold would be mine, and the price for a single story was set generally at $2.99. This friend who recommended me explained that she made an extra $500 to $700 a month, and others made much more. Some lucky people you’ve heard of have even made millions. Signing up was free and all Amazon required was a little tax information. Following that, all I had to do was be willing to remorselessly pump out paranormal pornography like nobody’s business. Could I accept this challenge?
I read Dostoevsky for pleasure, I read Juvenal, I read Big Billy Shakes: of course, I thought, of course I can write shape-shifter erotica, and I can do it goddamn exceptionally.
I began this life-changing journey with an attempt to define the word erotica, because I’d never read or written anything with that explicit label before. How in depth are we talking? How specific does this genre get? Erotica had always reminded me of the word “pornography” dressed up for a night at the opera. (Though I don’t really mind the word pornography either: the next time you see a porn video, picture James Joyce’s ghost hovering in the background moaning sensually.) I thought I knew what I was dealing with, having heard a lot about 50 Shades of Gray and dinosaur erotica and all that from the zeitgeist and other grotesque corners of the Internet. I thought that erotica could be as explicit as regular pornography, but it also required a more delicate, emotional touch. This turned out not to be true. After doing some important, serious research, I found out that actually erotica could be just regular old smut, and so I was free to ignore romance and focus instead on the repeated use of the phrase “hard as iron” and descriptions of how hot peoples’ breath was.
I first had to choose my hook, my concept. Perusing the available archives on Amazon’s Kindle section, I quickly learned that there were thousands of erotic short stories available written by willing, easily excited amateurs like myself, and I would have to distinguish my work if I wanted any of that sweet, sexy cash. A lot of the stories had a hook, usually involving paranormal creatures, or just regular creatures, creatures that shape-shift into human form and then have amazing sex with other people (that transformation is very important: apparently overt bestiality, or rape, are banned from Kindle short stories, so, you know, there’s a line drawn somewhere). These shape-shifter sex creatures could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales. Moby-Dick joke. Because I had to put in my due diligence, I decided I’d have to read and research some of these stories, to help settle on a concept and structure for my own sex-melee. I ended up investing $2.99 in a shorty story by Olivia J. Rose titled “Dominated by the Dolphins” (I almost couldn’t decide between this one and “Humped by the Humpback“). I read the whole thing and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. I’ve definitely never read anything like it. But the main takeaway was: who the hell am I to judge if someone wants to get their rocks off, and nobody’s getting hurt? That’s not such a bad thing. You go for it, Olivia Rose. Not every book needs to be Heart of Darkness, and if you’re story is a BBW shape-shifter erotica called “Dominated by the Dolphins,” I’ll have to insist that it has nothing to do whatsoever with King Leopold’s Congo.
Deciding my hook was by far the worst part. I couldn’t decide. Every nook and cranny of paranormal genre junk was already occupied with hundreds of stories filled with passionate creature-based sex: goblins, werewolves, phantoms, steampunk vampires — I wanted to choose a relatively untapped market, but that wound up being impossible. There are no viable untapped markets in Kindle erotica, pretty much like in regular internet porn except in regular internet porn there are no unviable markets. I basically just settled on a bunch of different genre ideas that I then gracelessly mashed together into the uninviting stew that became my first ever explicitly erotic short story. It involved ghosts, it involved dragons, and it involved a secret underground sex club. I wrote it kind of in a trance, but whatever, it doesn’t matter: sometimes you’ve just got to try all available options to pay your rent, and sometimes that entails making compromises.
Tip to win readers over: describe your erotic short story as an uninviting stew.
Before I began writing, though, I knew I had to settle on a pen name. It’s not that I wasn’t inordinately proud of the fact that I was willing to write erotica for hot, iron-hard cash, but I wasn’t exactly interested in advertising it with the name I’d carry for the rest of my life. So I decided to use a pen name, and it would have to be appropriately romantic, because people buy erotic short stories from writers with names like Michelle Cox and Sheena O’Mara, but they definitely don’t buy erotica from writers with names like any male name. There’s a difference between a female and a male writer of erotica, and that difference is porn. So, once again stymied by the brute realities of capitalism, I asked another friend if he had any ideas for a suitable pen name for an author of romantic/erotic fiction. He suggested several: Horatio Mancleever and Orpheus Baccarat being the only I guess printable ones. I tried to ease him into more feminine territory. I can’t tell you what name we eventually settled on, because I don’t want to give away my true identity to my loyal readers, but I will tell you it was a female name and it was slightly less ostentatious than Orpheus Baccarat. A foolproof plot, a totally viable scheme. An extra $500 a month! I was ready. (Meanwhile, it had been almost a year since McSweeney’s received my novella and I’d heard nothing, and the clerk at the corner liquor store now greeted me by name).
The actual writing process was semi-described above. Mainly a fruitless thrusting of words onto the page, a relentlessly sweaty, uncomfortable affair, I wanted to get the whole dumb thing finished as soon as possible. I knew, setting out, that there were a few phrases I definitely wanted to use (“sweltering heat of his animal eyes,” “sturdy as a buffalo,” “a ruined hellscape of exquisite sadness,” etc.) but before writing I had almost nothing in the way of hard beginning-middle-end type stuff. And as soon as I did begin writing the thing, the goddamn thing, I realized that a life spent reading postmodernists and 19th-century Russians had somehow not in the slightest prepared me for the work of generic, workmanlike eroticism. Sure, Gravity’s Rainbow is chock full of weird sex, but to match the right tone, the tone solely focused on sexy time and not acts of eternal recurrence or V-2 mechanics (which needless to say rarely ever come up while I’m, uh…performing sexual functions…I don’t know what language I’m allowed to get away with here) I needed to devolve a little bit, let the writing hang out, forget about descriptions of candlelight or monologues about metaphysics, and instead head straight into the dark heart of bodily fluids and hot breath.
I asked an ex-girlfriend what kind of erotica she’d read if she read erotica and she was confused by the entire scheme, declined eventually to answer. I was on my own, so after an aggressive caffeine binge and a few days spent trying to imagine what this whole thing could possibly mean for my life I bashed out a rough draft of dirty, filthy smut. A couple embarrassing revisions later, and I was done. It was exhausting, but it was also liberating, and not even in a sexual way: if poverty’s a fact, I’m going to game the system any way I can, especially if it’s harmless and entails giving pleasure to other people — in fact, although it was never the kind of pleasure I ever imagined my writing would give people, I felt absolutely terrific, in the end, that I was maybe giving them any kind at all. Weirdly enough a second ambition had twined itself, in stunted form, to the central one of cash: I want to help some people. I want to help some people get off.
Is that how pornographers feel? Am I a pornographer? “Who cares?” as J. Joyce would say. If nobody’s getting hurt I’ll write whatever smut’s required of me when the bills need to get paid.
The last step was designing a cover, by which point I was too exhausted to care. Also, stock photos and photoshop are expensive, so I slapped together a piece of generic art provided by Amazon’s design program. Then I threw the thing up there and tried to forget about it, tried instead to dream about piles of weird voluptuous money, wheelbarrows full of it, and people across the country having a grand old time reading what I’d written.
Somehow, everything went terribly wrong.
In terms of monetary gains, I initially checked my Amazon reports every few days, but had to stop after a while. It was just too depressing. By the end of its first month online, my heartbreaking little story had managed to rope in a grand total of three readers. Which, to be fair, is more readers than I’ve ever had for any other piece of fiction I’ve written in my life. Unfortunately or fortunately, they left no reviews. The only mark to know they’d been there at all was the goddamn blue uptick on the Amazon sales graph. (Blue means that the reader is someone with a Kindle Unlimited account, so they can read your story for free, i.e. no royalties.) It came to me that I might have underestimated the fact that the market is so glutted with stories written by half-assed people like me, nobody’s going to plunk down three bucks for the opportunity to even laugh at it. There was too much. I was one more drop of irrelevant smut in an Atlantic of erotica. I’d thought that just publishing this thing with minimal effort would somehow grant me at least hundreds of paying readers, but now, somewhat removed from the fever that afflicted me while I wrote it, that seems literally insane. What kind of lunatic thinks he’s going to make hundreds or thousands of dollars by self-publishing a 20-page story about a dragon sex club? But when you’re desperate for cash, it’s simpler to believe almost anything. How could I not want to hold onto that? It’s practically un-American to not believe that you can get rich quick with minimal effort and erotic know-how.
My dreams faded. I got up and went to work again, every day. Every day there were no readers, there was no excess money coming in. I worked and went home and worried about rent, groceries, like I’d always done. In the immortal words of Henry Hill, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That was basically the end of it.
Throughout this great experiment, I’ve realized a few things. Most importantly I know now, despite Dostoevsky and friends, that I don’t have any of the ambition necessary to become a successful erotic writer. It would require me to continually write and publish a bunch of stuff that at the end of the day I find so boring, I’d prefer getting paid to correct automotive textbooks. I don’t have the drive to just pump this stuff out, build a fanbase, because it doesn’t in the slightest matter to me. That’s, I guess, the difference between the hundreds of pages of fiction I’ve written, for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and the 20-page erotic story which totally exhausted me. Even right now the idea of sitting down and churning out another of these things makes me want to take a nap. Once the story was actually finished, and there was no money to be made, all ambition tied to it evaporated, and now I’m left pretty much where I began. Ruthlessly lazy, without much money, and stuck for the foreseeable future at an annoying day job. Like pretty much every other writer in the world, I imagine. Maybe there are no get-rich quick schemes, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing. And if you’re writing erotica, you’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be sturdy as a buffalo.
But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean the option isn’t out there for others. Other poor, unlucky writers with superhuman ambition: I’m talking to you. Even if I made no money off this whole charade, what can you do with it, you heroic pornographers? Why not give it a go? Lord knows the world could use more smut. But don’t think of it as smut, think of it as sexual healing. After all, who doesn’t need some excess cash? And who doesn’t need to get off? We’re writers, goddammit, but we’re still human beings. Wants and needs abound everywhere, you can’t avoid them. The hardest drinking one day gives way, hopefully, to opportunity, and maybe you can make some people happy. At the very least they might see the title of your story in the Kindle store, your ridiculous, strange little story, and they might laugh before moving on — and that’s good enough, hell. You’re published. You’re the real deal.
Ain’t nothing wrong with getting off.
Image Credit: Flickr/Fadil Elmansour