Thursday, March 15, 2012

Inside the Mind of Best-Selling Erotica Author Selena Kitt

One of the authors whose work was deeply threatened by PayPal’s recent attempt to suppress certain types of erotica was Selena Kitt. We interviewed Selena about her extraordinary success as an indie author and also about her views on the attempts to curb erotica. Most of the interview took place prior to PayPal's decision to overturn their policies. After PayPal reversed their policies, David Weir updated the interview.

[David Weir] When did you first start writing erotica, where did you publish, and what were the results?

[Selena Kitt] I wrote a lot when I was younger—I wrote my first novel long-hand when I was thirteen—but I didn’t start writing erotic fiction until a friend pointed me to a site called Literotica. They were holding a contest called “Survivor” (back when the television show was very popular)—the most stories written in the most categories in one year would win a $500 prize. I thought it would be a fun way to flex my writing muscle, get feedback for my work, and push my boundaries as a writer.

Also, my husband was the only one working at the time, and we had two small children, so I thought the money could come in handy. I only came in second place, but at the end of that year, I had a very large body of erotic work. I had also received a great deal of feedback from readers on the site, and had risen to the top of Literotica’s “favorite authors” list. I said to my husband, “If I’d been paid for every time someone downloaded one of my stories, I’d be a millionaire!” And he said, “Well, why aren’t you getting paid?”

That got me moving. I submitted some of my fiction to a few epublishers—the now defunct Stardust Press along with Samhain Publishing and Phaze—and they accepted and published my work, but they paid so little, just 30-45% royalties, and they didn’t accept many of the subjects I’d written.

So I went to the largest ebook distributor in the game at the time, a site called Fictionwise (they were later bought out by Barnes and Noble). They told me they didn’t accept individual authors, and that I would have to be a “publisher” to get my books distributed on their site. So I went to my Literotica author friends, who had written books right alongside me all year long, and asked them to publish with me. And that’s how Excessica was born. I met my goal of making a good supplemental income on Fictionwise -- about $5,000 per quarter. That was $20,000 a year! I was pleased.

Then Amazon came out with the Kindle and the whole ebook world exploded.

I started making $10,000 a month on Amazon. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, was back when their Mobi division was the only way to get on the site and they only offered 35% royalties to authors!) When Kindle KDP opened up and Amazon began giving 70% royalties, the floodgates really opened. And then Barnes and Noble came out with the Nook. And suddenly, my little supplemental income had turned into a booming business.

[DW] Can you quantify your current success for us?

[SK] Well, if you want stats… in 2011, I sold half a million ebooks and made about three-quarters of a million dollars. I don’t know if I will make that much in 2012, but I’m fairly well known as an erotica author now and the ebook market only has room for expansion— but as we know in this genre, it’s often one step forward, two steps back! I’m humbled and still a little stunned by my own success, I have to admit. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the amount of money that comes my way every month from ebook distributors and still break into a cold sweat sometimes when I see the bank balance!

[DW] How much feedback do you get from readers and what is your sense of who they are?

[SK] I get lots of emails from fans, and I try to answer them all if I can, even if it’s just to say, “Thank you for reading!” Just judging from the feedback and reviews, I’d say that 70-80% of my ebook audience is women. Which is a bit of a switch from Literotica, where I think a majority of my fans were men. But I think I actually write erotic fiction that crosses gender boundaries and appeals to both.

[DW] What tension, if any, exists for an author of erotica to write about fantasies as if they were events that actually took place? Or is it sufficient to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?

[SK] One of my books, “Confessions,” addresses this very issue!

More than any other genre, erotica writers hear the question, “Did that really happen?” Somehow it’s assumed that we erotica writers are swinging from the ceilings on sex swings every night and we carry cat o’nine tails in our back pockets “just in case” like some people carry Swiss army knives! Why should I try to dispel the myth?

There are lots of people who think Stephen King is one creepy dude. Is he really? Or does he just have a very rich, vivid imagination? Writers are good at lying. We don’t call it lying, of course, we call it fiction. Telling stories. It’s what we do. We give the truth “scope.” So even when we are writing about things that happened in our own lives, they’re not always true. And when we’re writing about things that never happened to us at all, that doesn’t mean some aspect of them isn’t also true, for us, in some way.

Thriller writers don’t have to have murdered to write about serial killers. I wrote The Sybian Club before I’d ever ridden a Sybian. (Although I do happen to own one now!) Like any other writer, I don’t have to have experienced something to write about it. Some of the things I write about have happened to me, personally, or to people I know. Some of them are strictly fiction.

And sometimes, I think especially in erotica, the mystery of not knowing for the reader makes the reading all the more intriguing and fun. Erotica writers become a fantasy within the fantasy and as long as I don’t have stalkers calling or showing up at my doorstep, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that!

[DW] Are there any differences in the way you develop a character in erotica, say, than in other reams of fiction?

[SK] Not really. You’re still exploring someone’s psyche, whether your character is eating breakfast, jumping out of an airplane, or having sex. That said, you’ll probably be exploring more of your character, or at least different aspects of them, than most authors do. You’re going to have to think about your character’s first sexual encounters, whether or not they’re experienced, what things have shaped their sexual character? Are they conformers in the bedroom? Are they rebels? Are they repeating patterns in their sex lives, in their relationships? Those are things you might explore in a mainstream novel, but its stuff you definitely have to know when you’re writing erotica.

[DW] Do you think there is any connection between erotica and visual pornography, which obviously is also huge on the Internet?

[SK] Other than the fact that it’s porn and sex that has driven every new technology we’ve ever developed? They aren’t the same thing of course—but they do have connections. They both sexually excite. They are both controversial. They both have their advocates—and their detractors. Personally, I’m not against either, nor do I believe that one is “better” than the other. I think they can both be healthy additions to a normal person’s life. But I do think they both have a slightly different aim. Most visual porn has the singular purpose of arousal and release. The purpose of erotica is far more plural. Most erotica explores the depths of human sexuality in ways that visual pornography can’t reach. Visual porn tends to be as two-dimensional as the screen you watch it on. Erotica, when it’s done well, gives the reader a deeper understanding and experience of human sexuality.

[DW] Finally, what advice do you have for new and first-time authors of erotic stories and books, and how can they navigate the world of self-publishing, especially during the periodic crackdowns that may occur?

[SK] I won’t tell anyone to self-censor, although I have chosen to do so myself, in some ways. I do write some incest fiction, but out of my sixty-something titles, I only have two novels and one anthology that focus on incest. If you do want to write in the taboo realm, there are still places (Barnes and Noble) to publish all of the topics. If you want to write transgressive erotic fiction, go for it! Just know that the paying market, at the moment, is more limited than it was. And there is a possibility that it will become even more limited in the future. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Other than that, I wouldn’t give any different advice now to an erotic writer than I would have a month ago. Write often, write well, and write what turns you on. Worry more about your character development and your word choice than finding your market. If you keep writing, your market will find you. Pay more attention to your readers and their feedback than pimping your book on Facebook or Twitter. Yes, you’re writing for yourself, but if that was the only person you were writing for, you wouldn’t be publishing, would you? So you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but if you’re not pleasing most of the people most of the time, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your work. Learn to take constructive criticism and filter out the stuff that really doesn’t matter. And keep writing. Always keep writing.

[DW] Can you walk us through the recent crackdown attempt on erotica by PayPal from your perspective?

[SK] Sure! The basic 411 on the “erotica crackdown” started back in late 2010, when Amazon decided to start removing erotic fiction containing incest and bestiality from their virtual catalog. This was a backlash in regards to Amazon removing The Pedophile’s Guide from their site (after they defended leaving it there, issuing an official statement that removing it would amount to censorship). So much for a policy of no-censorship.

Just recently, it was PayPal that contacted me as a publisher at Excessica, telling us that they would no longer pay for erotic fiction that contained “incest, pseudo incest, bestiality or rape for titillation purposes.” And I wasn’t the only phone call they made. I know several other independent ebook publishers and distributors who use PayPal who were also contacted. Many of these ebook distributors began removing books from their sites without regards to actual content. If they had “Daddy” in the title, they had to go—even if they were just role-plays between two consenting adults. Non-consent fantasies (i.e. what PayPal deemed “rape for titillation”) were removed, even if they were actually dreams or the characters were ghosts and never existed at all.

Many of those titles were on their bestseller lists and selling very, very well. Many of my own titles had been on their sites for years and I’d actually been awarded as a “bestselling author” for selling titles that contained such content. Clearly readers were voting with their dollars. They wanted to read them—they were willing to buy them—but now they couldn’t. At least not on the sites that had been targeted by PayPal.

But what happens when a huge corporation like PayPal decides they don’t want to pay for something? Well, now it becomes less profitable to produce those products in question. Erotic authors begin to change and adapt to the market. They self-censor. They don’t write about that stuff anymore, even though readers want to read it (remember, they previously told us so with their dollars), because they can’t upload it onto sites that use PayPal as a processor.

That’s how the decision of one corporation threatened to reshape the entire free market.

[DW] Why should rape or incest or bestiality be protected in erotica?

[SK] Um, gee… because it’s fiction? Because these are completely imaginary, made-up stories written down as words on a piece of paper? Because it’s not real?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the public’s reaction, given that I write erotic fiction in a country whose Puritanical roots continue to choke the life out of us as sexual beings. I keep having to remind myself that I live in a culture where breastfeeding photos disappear off Facebook as fast as they appear, but clips of torture-porn like Hostel or Saw posted from YouTube are just fine and dandy. Sometimes I forget that some people consider the books I write offensive or even immoral.

The fact is that all fiction is, and should be, protected. There are no victims here. And there has been no broad-based, definitive study that proves that fiction makes people engage in the subjects they read about. Most people who read thrillers about serial killers don’t go out and kill people. People who read erotic incest fiction don’t want to have sex with their family members. It’s called fantasy for a reason!

We should always defend free speech, if we want it to remain free, even if we don’t like what’s being said. So maybe the thought of a woman being tied up and having clothespins attached to her nipples is abhorrent to you. And perhaps the babysitter having sex with the family dog makes you feel a little ill. And two siblings getting it on is just… ewwwww… icky!

But we have to protect icky speech too. We have an obligation to defend those things we find reprehensible, even indefensible, if we want to protect our rights.

[DW] What does research tell us about rape or incest fantasies, and why people have them?

[SK] I can speak to this with some authority, as I have my Masters degree in psychology. If you want a thorough background, go read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden or Forbidden Flowers. The fact is that sexually explicit fantasies are normal and healthy in both men and women. This is 2012. We all understand (I hope) that masturbation doesn’t cause hairy palms, and sexual fantasy doesn’t cause sexually deviant behavior. Many, many, many women have rape and incest fantasies. It’s quite common. Rape and incest are deviant behavior, but fantasy is not reality and words are not action.

Incest fantasies have a huge psychological component to them, and they’re usually about love and acceptance. It’s probably no surprise that many women who enjoy “Daddy/daughter” role play or fantasizing about “Daddy/daughter” sex often lacked a strong father figure in their lives as adolescents. This is a generalization of course, not an absolute. But one of the reasons incest fantasies are so popular for men and women stems from the fact that, at least in our ideal worlds, no one knows you better or loves you more unconditionally than family. There’s also the “forbidden love” aspect of an incestuous relationship, which has great psychological appeal. We humans sure do like doing things we’re not “supposed” to do!

As for the non-consent or rape fantasies, we have to remember that, historically, women have been sexually repressed by the patriarchy. Even in this day and age, we still have a mainstream radio host making comments about a woman whose admission of using birth control must mean she is not only sexually active, but she is also a “slut.” So it’s no wonder that females in this culture have a lot of shame and guilt surrounding asking for and accepting sexual pleasure. The non-consent (or as PayPal liked to phrase it, the “rape for titillation”) fantasy allows a woman to explore her sexual pleasure without all the baggage and possible recriminations that can come with openly doing so.

One of the purposes of fantasy and fiction is to allow ourselves to experience things that might actually frighten or horrify us in real life. Horror fiction does this. So do the fantasies of erotic fiction. There are lots of books about locking a girl in a basement as a sex slave—both in mainstream and erotica. The difference is, in mainstream fiction, the woman is truly raped and tortured in horrible, shocking and really sick and twisted ways, and the killer usually gets caught and punished. In erotica, the woman being "forced" isn't really being raped, per se—at least not in the same sick and twisted way she is in the mainstream—and in the end, it turns out... she actually enjoys herself! And usually falls in love with the rapist-hero.

The reality is that the “rape for titillation” fantasy that PayPal was so worried about isn’t about rape at all—it’s actually about women receiving pleasure! Non-consent and dubious consent fiction is about sex and fantasy. But the rape in mainstream fiction—from John Norman’s Gor books to Jack Ketchum’s The Woman—is, indeed, about very real rape, in all its horrible, gory detail.

Is it a coincidence that, statistically, most erotic fiction is written by AND read by women, but horror, on the other hand, is known to be a male dominated genre?

[DW] What is "pseudo incest" and why would it be censored?

[SK] “Pseudo incest” is so ridiculous a term it’s laughable. It isn’t incest. It’s sex between two consenting adults who happen to be related, but not by blood. Pseudo incest is kind of like taking tofu and shaping it like a hamburger.

As to why it was to be censored—you’ve got me. Apparently, according to PayPal and the credit card companies, Woody Allen could have sex with his adopted daughter—but erotic fiction authors shouldn’t write about it?

[DW] You've described what started happening with PayPal as a "slippery slope" that could affect all indie authors. Please explain.

[SK] Instead of dealing with PayPal’s mandate on a book-by-book basis, Bookstrand deleted all of their Indie author accounts. Not just the erotic writers—ALL of their Indies. If you’re an Indie author and you think you’re immune… think again. Be prepared. It’s possible that this latest round of “risk-reducing” by PayPal and credit card processors is over. Or maybe they’re just starting at the top and working their way down. Take a look at this, from Visa’s site:

VISA Brand Protection
Members must not use the Visa-Owned Marks:
• In any manner that may bring the Visa-Owned Marks or Visa Inc. or its affiliates into disrepute
• In relation to, or for the purchase or trade of, photographs, video imagery, computer-generated images, cartoons, simulation or any other media or activities including, but not limited to:
– Child pornography
– Bestiality
– Rape (or any other non-consensual sexual behavior)
– Non-consensual mutilation of a person or body part

I know a lot of “torture porn” (al a Saw and Hostel, etc.) that falls under that last category. And I know a lot of Indie authors who write it as well.

[DW] Now that PayPal has reconsidered, what do you think PayPal's new policies mean for the future of indies in general and erotica indies in particular?

[SK] I think it's an unprecedented victory for erotica indies and it gives me hope for this thing we call "the free market." People stood up for something they believed in, and a large corporation backed down from their original position. How often does that really happen—outside of, say… fiction? It seems as if it's a victory for the little guy, for free speech (even if this wasn't 'technically' definable as a constitutional issue) and for the erotica genre as well. All Indies will benefit from what happened here, because no matter what we write, we are all authors and we should all be interested in protecting the right to do so freely, regardless of genre or subject matter.

And it may seem radical on my part, but even given how far PayPal has backed down in terms of erotic fiction, it still bothers me that they made any restrictions on free and legal fiction at all. Like most citizens, I abhor child pornography and pedophilia, but the written word is very different from other art forms—as this decision has proven. I understand staying away from pictorial displays of that kind of subject matter—but fiction? What would happen, for example, if Lolita was self-published today? Sorry, Nabokov—PayPal won’t pay for that?

The fact is that no pseudo-bank should be telling anyone what they can or cannot write or publish, regardless of subject matter. I’m glad PayPal came to their senses to the degree they have. And I do feel that Indies are now a little more protected, thanks to the actions of those who were willing to speak up.

I hope other corporations will remember this incident when they sit down in future board rooms to make policies in regards to the written word, erotica or otherwise. The message the public sent here was loud and clear, and I’m pretty sure they’d be willing to send it again—as often as needed—to make their point.

[DW] Thank you, Selena!

Smashwords distributes Selena Kitt to the following:

Diesel eBook Store

View the complete catalog of Excessica books:
Smashwords - Excessica Publisher Page

David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for

Next week, an interview with Smashwords author Ruth Ann Nordin!


C. Margery Kempe said...

Excellent and well put. The ludicrous attack on erotica, as if it were the only genre that includes these "objectionable" themes, simply highlight the puritanical nature of the censorship.

I'd only add the small caveat that while the perception is that horror is a male-dominated genre the readership and many of the writers are women, too. I've been part of a Horror in Film and Literature group since 1994 and it's certainly full of women. But a lot of women who write horror have been tagged in "dark fantasy" or "thriller" categories because of the continuing perception by marketing depts that horror is "male".

JJ Argus said...

I agree with everything Selena said, but there was one omission. Amazon does not merely refuse erotica which involves incest or bestiality. They also forbid erotica which contains rape or any other kind of non-consensual elements. In fact, I and other authors have learned that if you even have the word 'rape' in your erotic ebook somewhere, even if there is no actual rape, your book might be blocked by Amazon. And Amazon never offers any explanation for why they block your book, nor will they tell you if you write them and ask - as I have done - repeatedly. Amazon still does not admit they censor books...

dana e donovan said...

Interesting interview on several fronts. As an indie author, I am interested in the success of other indie authors (or perhaps more so how they became so successful so that I might emulate their strategies and techniques). Well done, Selena!

Secondly, although I do not write erotica, I have been very interested in the Paypal saga for all the same reasons that Selena and others were. If Paypay, Visa or anyone else for that matter, including the government, begin censoring free speech in the name of decency and morality, which is totally subjective by the way, then where does it stop?

Will they then turn around and say that my Detective Marcella mysteries are inappropriate because they include murder, and murder is unacceptable in civil society?

Perhaps because the series also centers on witches and witchcraft, then that is reason enough to censor my work. Well I say that's fine, maybe in Russia, comrade, but not here.

Kudos to Mark and Smashwords!

I think we all (authors and readers alike) should celebrate this victory for the milestone it is.

Excellent interview! Thanks.

Michelle McCleod said...

Excellent interview!

I agree with a previous commenter, Amazon is censoring as well, but they are sneaky about it and don't publicize it.

I recently had an erotica novella 'blocked' by an adult filter. A book that was a #12 Hot New Release, hit the Top 100 and was poised to do so again, is now dead. Can't search it. Can't topic search it. Not listed in also boughts.

And it's just a sweet romance with a little spank spank. Not even as raunchy as Fifty Shades. Paypal wouldn't have banned it.

I have to give Paypal credit for at least being transparent so that we could represent our genre and shape policy. The largest bookseller in the world isn't even that ethical.


Erica Pike said...

Excellent interview! Great questions and Selena, you're so eloquent I get sucked into every blog post you write. Write m/m fiction and I'll be first in line ;)

One idea did spark out of this whole thing. The government can't put restrictions like these on erotic content because of the First Amendment ... but would they be able to use a privately owned company with a huge market share to do it for them? You know, without no one else knowing.

I was starting to lean toward this explanation after Visa's letter and before PayPal's update. It's just a conspiracy theory, but I did read somewhere that PayPal's done a lot to stay in the good graces of government offices to be able to do what they do, so it didn't seem too off base. Of course, I don't believe the Obama Administration would do this, but I worry if people like Santorum ever get elected.

Anyway, today I blogged about what I hope to be the last post on this matter. Thank you Mark and everyone else who's fought for this.

Selena Kitt said...

Write m/m fiction and I'll be first in line ;)

Hey, have you read Second Chance? It won the Epic award for erotica - and it's my only m/m title to date. ;) It's only 10K. But you asked!

As for Amazon, yes - they continue to censor without rhyme or reason. I'm not letting them off the hook, I promise. I even blogged about that issue here recently.

Admin said...

I love that Selena was able to write what she loved, and make a living from it. Many writers are just writing what they think the market wants most. Me? I'm caught in between.

Best of luck Selena...