Monday, September 17, 2012

New York Times Bestselling Author Lyla Sinclair Shares Secrets to Writing Successful Erotica

Early in August, indie author Lyla Sinclair hit the New York Times Bestseller List with her erotic novella Training Tessa. In an interview with David Weir, Sinclair shares her insights into the pragmatic techniques for success as an independent, self-publishing author, writing under a pseudonym.  She talks about the challenges and opportunities faced by female erotica writers, why women (and men too) read erotica, how 50 Shades of Grey has helped erotica come out of the closet to mainstream acceptance, and how she's building her writing career.

David Weir: How did you start writing erotic romance and erotica?

Lyla Sinclair
: I was a single mom who needed more income. After I complained about my problems selling my outside-the-box romantic comedy novels, the man I later married (known on my blog as the Nude Spanish Guitarist) asked a ridiculous question. He said, “Why don’t you just write what’s selling?” I was appalled at first. I was an “artiste,” after all -- I wrote from inspiration. That overly logical techie didn’t understand my delicate artistic soul!

However, my straight-A daughter had no college fund. Was it possible I could nudge at least some of my inspiration in a more lucrative direction? I studied the sub-genres of romance, then erotica. Paranormal was huge, but I just don’t “get” paranormal. The only thing in demand that I could conjure up an idea for was erotic romance. Unfortunately (I thought), I only felt inspired to write it in a first-person, chick lit voice with bits of humor, instead of the elaborate, flowing, serious styles I had read in erotic romance. And I was pretty sure the sex wasn’t hot enough in my stories, either. I sent a couple of submissions out and was picked up quickly by Ellora’s Cave. Surprise!

DW: What groups or networks helped along the way?

Nearly everything I know about fiction writing and publishing can be traced back to Romance Writers of America, one of the largest writers’ organizations. As a newbie, I attended RWA craft workshops and realized that, even though I had a journalism degree, fiction writing required a completely new skill set. I’m also a member of a local chapter of RWA in my city. Members hold meetings and post links online which get passed from one group to the next. Entering RWA writing contests is how I first found out that some people enjoyed my stories, and I learned where my strengths and weaknesses were. Friends from my writers’ group are now my best critics, saving me from all kinds of embarrassment. I also found my Training Tessa editor Jennifer Bray-Weber through RWA connections. There are all kinds of online and in person writers’ groups out there. I wouldn’t recommend publishing (fiction, especially) to anyone who hasn’t joined a writer posse.

DW: When did you discover self-publishing, including Smashwords, and how did you proceed with that?

LS: In 2010, members of my local writers’ organization began posting links about self-publishing to our Yahoo group. After reading a number of blogs by J.A. Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I was intrigued. I’d always been marketing-oriented, entrepreneurial, and a control freak. Self-publishing seemed perfect for me. To try out the process, I used a story I’d had sitting on my hard-drive that was too short for Ellora’s Cave. Much to my surprise, it sold copies on Amazon before I even announced it on Facebook, and sales kept rising. I quickly wrote two more short stories to go with it in a series. These three shorts shot up to first, second and third on the Amazon erotica best-seller list and stayed there for several weeks. I was hooked. Meanwhile, I uploaded to Barnes and Noble, then I heard about another site called Smashwords that some of the bloggers were using, so I published there too. I was clueless. I didn’t even know Smashwords sent my books to other retailers. I was the first in my writers’ group to try this, so I’ve just been learning by doing.

DW: How have sales of your books trended over time, and what do you think provoked your big breakthrough with Training Tessa?

Typically, when I publish a new story, sales increase for my backlist titles as well, even the more expensive Ellora’s Cave books. If I go a long time without publishing a new title, sales gradually decrease. My first indie story was published in the first quarter of 2011. I continued publishing short stories, than a novella, as fast as I could. So, 2011 was the year I began making a living as a writer, even though I’d written fiction seriously since 2003 and was first published in 2009.

I think Training Tessa was the perfect storm that happened at a lucky time. “Perfect storm” does not mean perfect story. My definition of the perfect storm in self-publishing is when you write a good story in a popular genre, create a cover that communicates the story effectively to potential readers, and write a description that is interesting and clear.

DW: What impact has the massive success of 50 Shades of Grey had on the erotica genre overall?

LS: This is where the luck comes in. I didn’t realize what a huge impact 50 Shades of Grey had on BDSM erotica and the erotica genre as a whole until Training Tessa came out. This is a genre that’s been around forever, but it’s suddenly out of the closet in a big way. Previously, a handful of women would send me discreet Facebook messages telling me they enjoyed my books. Now, they’re posting proudly on my Facebook pages, supplying their email addresses for my notification list, and sending me emails that say, “I lovvvvvvvved Training Tessa!!! When is Controlling Krysta coming out?” The embarrassment factor seems to be disappearing.

DW: Do you think female writers are treated differently than men when it comes to authoring sexual content?

LS: Well, authors tell me it’s different in some other countries, but in the U.S., we still have a lot of contradictions when it comes to sexual content. It seems that men can write stories with explicit or even brutal sex and it isn’t a big deal. People don’t generally seem to assume the author has done everything in his book. (I don’t know a lot of male authors, so take this with a grain of salt.) However, my female romance writer friends have been chastised and insulted because of the love scenes in their books. Friend’s husbands—who probably only read the sexy parts—snicker and joke as if they believe the author is writing down her personal experiences. Neighbors inform the author that they “don’t read those trashy novels,” and journalists have poked fun at the genre for years, with silly puns and childish innuendo. I’ve never seen this kind of disrespect heaped on the more male-dominated genres.

When you go a step further from romance into erotic romance, the situation gets even dicier for female writers, since most of us are moms. It has always been taken for granted that men had sexual fantasies—the cheerleader, the librarian, the hot teacher, etc. Women were supposed to pretend they didn’t think about such things, but it turns out they have common fantasies too. Like male fantasies, these usually have nothing to do with their real lives. They’re an escape, just like any other fiction. I think the stigma of reading erotica is starting to lift, so hopefully the same will happen for those writing it. Regardless, there’s never been a better time in history to be a female writer, just check the best-seller lists.

DW: You’ve experimented with various pricing models—can you share some of what you’ve learned along the way?

My advice would be “listen to me, but don’t really listen to anybody” when it comes to pricing. You do need to study the pricing of other books in the top 100 of your genre before you consider your price. Different genres can have different price points. Also, brand new authors can’t expect people to risk $12.99 on their ebook. And as tempting as it may be, you can’t price your book by how hard it was to write. If so, each of my books would cost at least a hundred dollars, since erotica is the hardest writing I’ve ever done, barring none. Some authors advise you not to devalue your work and remind you that you can make just as much money selling fewer copies of your book at a higher price. This is true. However, it dawned on me that, even if the profit on a particular book is exactly the same at the end of the quarter, when I sell fewer copies I’m finding fewer new readers, therefore fewer fans will auto-buy my backlist and my subsequent books. I could be hurting myself in the long run if my prices are too high. When I put my novella Training Tessa on sale for $0.99 (originally $2.99) to see if it could sell better, sales of that story went through the roof, then sales of all my backlist surged drastically.

On the other hand, a friend of mine went against my advice and raised the price on a story that wasn’t selling well and sales increased a bit. (That’s where the “don’t listen to anybody” comes in.) To be successful in self-publishing, an author needs to stay away from the “sheep” mentality and become her own shepherd. I research everything I can, run my own tests, then decide what’s best for me. All my marketing and sales efforts are a work in progress. I never think I know it all. What’s best today is not necessarily what will be best tomorrow. Since publishing intersected with technology, the publishing industry has been changing fast. I’m stretching out and remaining agile.

DW: Many people say the quality of a book’s cover is critical in ebooks—what is your take on this?

I can see why covers are one of the most frustrating, confusing problems indies have to deal with. The advice that’s generally given is so vague: “Make sure you have a professional, attractive cover.” This causes authors to focus on getting a graphic designer and leaving it to that “professional.” However, the graphic artist cannot be the decider because he doesn’t necessarily know anything about your book or genre. He may give you the most artistic book cover, or the prettiest, or the edgiest, even though that may not be what you need.

I think it’s important to remember why people read fiction. They read in order to escape and feel things they may not get to feel in their real lives. Therefore, the most important characteristic of a cover is that it invokes—in the potential reader—the same emotion he or she will feel while reading the book. In other words, the cover for a horror story should creep you out. A suspense novel cover should make you nervous. An erotic cover should turn you on.

If the cover image, the title, and the font don’t convey the right emotion, there’s little chance readers will click to the description or excerpt. No matter how cool the cover is, it isn’t serving its purpose. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule, but I’d never assume that my story was fabulous enough to defy the odds. In fact, I’ve become so practical, I planned the cover for Training Tessa and commissioned the photo before I actually wrote down the story.

DW: What has been your experience with social media, i.e. Facebook, your website, etc. on building your audience?

Although today is very different, when I was first contracted by Ellora’s Cave, it seemed that the only free promotion I could do that might make a difference was on Facebook. I painstakingly friended women by finding them in a romance or erotica group and sending each one a note telling her why I was requesting a friendship. If she accepted, I put a nice comment on her wall that related to her info page or pictures. (I always found something genuine to say. I don’t believe in fake compliments.)

When it was time for my first book to come out, I started writing entertaining blog posts with irresistible titles and linking them on my Facebook page. This got me lots of hits to my blog, where readers also found my book cover and links to my book. Some of these Facebook friends became my core readership who bought all my Ellora’s Cave books and interacted with me about them.

A couple of years later, when I announced my first self-published story on Facebook, two of them posted that they’d already bought it. If I were starting out as a new author today, my primary focus would be on making the most of what the retail sites offer—author pages, tagging, Listmania, putting key search words in my title for the search engines to pick up, etc., then I’d deal with Facebook and Twitter next.

However, it’s very important to me to be able to contact my core readership. The best tool I have is that little check box on my website’s contact page that allows readers to sign up for book notifications. Habitual readers read lots of authors, and as much as they may love me when they finish the book, by the time the next is out, I may have slipped their minds. Being able to tell my readers when my next book releases means that a group of people will buy my book within a few hours or days of each other, which pushes my rankings up, which, in turn, causes me to appear in more locations on retail sites.

After my very first story was published (in an Ellora’s Cave anthology), I only had a few readers on my notification list. But each book got me a few more. Training Tessa has been a bonanza, and I now have hundreds of people who will be notified of my next release. A reader who goes to the trouble of finding my website, clicks to my contact page, then entrusts me with her email address is as good as gold. These are the people I’m writing for. That being said, my readers rarely hear from me. I use the list for its intended purpose and do not send unnecessary messages or share it with anyone.

DW: Are all of your readers women or do you hear from male readers as well?

As far as I know, most of my readers are women. However, women are by nature more communicative, so there may be more men than I realize. Occasionally men “fan” my Facebook page without comment. Perhaps they just want to know when the next book is coming out without giving up their email addresses.

DW: Can you share with us your views on the pluses and minuses of blogging for authors?

LS: I think you must have heard I have a controversial opinion on blogging, David. Initially, I was stressed by all the advice about how I needed to blog frequently and regularly in order to be a successful author. While I have blogged to try to gain a readership, I see problems with frequent blogging. “Forced” blogging is a terrible time suck and can result in very boring posts. When I first started wrestling with the blogging issue, I asked authors on two Yahoo groups if any of them had seen evidence that blogging increased sales. No one had. Several felt sure it didn’t help them at all. But I knew I could write entertaining blogs that got me lots of hits to my site, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to discount blogging completely.

Finally, I decided to use the “movie star” approach to blogging. Notice how movie stars disappear from talk shows for months, then pop up when they have movies coming out? That’s what I try to do. I think it’s interesting to note, though, that I was too sick to blog around the Training Tessa release, except for an announcement that it was out, but it made the bestseller lists. And when I think about it, I’ve often heard complaints from readers that fiction authors aren’t publishing their next books fast enough. I’ve never heard a reader complain that his favorite fiction author isn’t blogging enough.

DW: Back to your bestseller, Training Tessa, can you speculate about some of the specific fantasy elements that may account for how well it is resonating with readers?

Every genre has its peculiarities. I think with erotic romance and erotica, the most popular titles are often those that play into a common fantasy. For erotica aimed at women, the fantasy is an alpha male-type, who might also happen to be a millionaire or a shape-shifter, or something else interesting. With Training Tessa, I think I hit on three fantasies at once. Apparently, a lot of people have boss/office fantasies, plus the two male characters in Training Tessa and the upcoming Controlling Krysta are rich cowboy types. I guess rich-cowboy-boss may be an erotic romance triple threat. (Before you boys start rolling your eyes, I would argue that these fantasy men are no more ridiculous that the boob-ilicious cheerleader, librarian, or hot secretary fantasies guys are famous for.)

DW: Many indie authors get discouraged when their first book doesn't sell. Do you have advice for them?

It is nearly impossible to be an overnight success as an author. Even when it seems that way, if you dig deeper, you find out the author has been working toward her goals for years. One book will not create a career for you any more than one year at a job will. Honestly, if a writer publishes one book, doesn’t sell much and gives up, I’m not sure he wants it badly enough. I was born a writer, and I would rather write limericks on bathroom walls for a living, if that were my only writing option, than not write. It took me about six years and the writing and rewriting of numerous works in three genres to become a self-supporting fiction author. I have traditionally published friends who had to start over several times in new genres with new names when their books didn’t sell. One thing is true, whether publishing traditionally or indie. A writer needs to be prepared to create multiple stories in order to build a following, then many more to sustain a career as a professional author.

DW: So what’s next for you?

I find that having more than one type of project going at once keeps writer’s block away because if I draw a blank on one project, I can move to the next. That’s why I’m currently working on a non-fiction book for writers about indie publishing as well as Controlling Krysta, the sequel to Training Tessa, plus my romances I write under another name.

DW: Thank you!

 Smashwords distributes nine Lyla Sinclair titles to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble
Diesel eBook Store
Ebook Eros (Operated by Diesel)


Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I especially loved what Lyla said about being a woman writer of erotica. I too have encountered the 'trashy novel' comments and implications that I'm writing about my own experiences or (worse) that I desire to have such experiences with anyone who comes along. Ridiculous, of course. But, like Lyla, I believe that the mainstream success of erotic fiction (namely, Fifty Shades of Grey) has been decreasing the stigma attached to reading (and even writing) erotica / and or erotic romance. It's wonderful to see people becoming more accepting of the genre.

And congrats to Lyla for her success!

Katlynne/Ms. Downlow said...

Yes! Congrats Lyla!! I don't know why there aren't more comments on this amazingly insightful post. I am also a writer in the erotica genre, and I appreciate you revealing these valuable secrets to success. I will definitely put them into practice.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Lyla
Thank you so much for the interesting and informative post. As a published writer, I can relate to what you have said, but you went a step further and offered some very sound advice.



Keith said...