Before the advent of the Internet and eReaders, if you were reading erotica (formerly known as "dirty books), you were under the covers with a flashlight, hiding in the bathroom, or holding your book with another one in front of it. In other words, you didn't want anyone to see what you were reading. If there was a hot book out there, you heard about in whispers, jokes, or were warned to stay away from it for fear or endangering your immortal soul.
The fine book Summer of '42 was published when I was a teenager. Several of us were reading it at the same time, and I clearly recall one of us yelling out a page number and we'd all race to it, anticipating something salacious. Understand, that book is not a work of erotica it's a very sweet coming of age story, but compared to what we'd been reading, it was steamy stuff. If we'd come across The Story of O, our heads might have exploded. Needless to say, we had a field day whenever we found hidden stashes of Playboy or Penthouse, but we didn't discuss what we'd read. Nobody called their friends on the phone and said "hey, you should read that letter in this month's Penthouse!"
Maybe it was growing up in the Bible Belt or maybe it was just the mindset at the time, but nobody liked to admit enjoying erotic material. It was taboo and even your dad hid his magazines from your mother. It's no surprise that when the Internet exploded, so did the availability of smutty stuff to read and look at. You didn't need to look very hard to find it, you could hide it with the click of a key, and lots of it was free. Along came the eReader, bringing with it even more privacy, accessibility, and selection. Did it lead to greater word of mouth for erotica? Not as far as I can tell.
To this day, not one person has said to me "hey, you should read that 50 Shades book." A hell of a lot of people have read it, but nowhere near that many seem to be willing to own up to it. At my former workplace, there was a quite diverse staff and most of them were avid readers. Not once, even at a girls night out, did someone ever mention it until one of our summer interns piped up at the lunch table that she'd read it and liked it. Maybe there's hope for the next generation to be less repressed. My co-workers had absolutely no problem recommending other genres, and I learned about many good reads from them.
So when it comes to word of mouth, it hasn't been my personal experience that it plays as big a part in erotica book sales as it does with other genres. When I confessed to my Facebook friends what I was writing, I received requests via private messages asking how and where they could find my work. Many bought books but only two felt comfortable posting reviews. I received a message from another that she enjoyed my stories and wanted to read more but had to keep it on the DL because she's a church secretary. Ok, I grew up in the Southern Baptist church so I know how it is. I gave her my blessing and she's now a beta reader for me.
This isn't a big issue for erotica authors who have the power of traditional publishers behind them or have bestsellers in their catalog. They have become established and a good amount of respectability comes with sales. Those of us who are starting out and self-publishing will keep looking for ways to join their ranks as we continue to attempt to find more readers.
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