In 1999, I edited a erotica anthology, Aqua Erotica. It was a pretty convoluted process, since after I did preliminary selection of the stories, I discussed them with two editors at the packager, Melcher Media. After the Melcher people and I whipped a set of stories into shape, we submitted them to a Random House editor for final approval. The book came out in September 2000 and was in its fourth printing by January; by publishing industry standards, it was a rousing success -- in fact, it did much better than Random House expected it to. Which led us to ask, why?
What makes a book succeed? Why did this one succeed beyond industry predictions? Publishers generally have a pretty good sense of how many copies an epic fantasy will sell, or a first literary novel, or an erotica anthology; any good editor or agent can quote you typical figures for these books. There are always books that break out of those statistical bounds, of course, books that are many times as successful as they were supposed to be -- and when this happens, the burning question on the publisher's/agent's/author's mind is, what happened? And more importantly, can I make it happen again?
There are, obviously, many factors that contribute to surprising success. For example, some of my book's high sales came from the novelty of its waterproof paper and binding; the publishers expected that increase, but it's always hard to predict just how "cool" the public will find a given feature. Word-of-mouth has always been a wildcard factor in publicity, and the value of Internet promotion is also hard for publishers to calculate. When you combine those two approaches, you can achieve startling results; many of the authors in my collection had significant online presence which helped multiply the possibilities for swift word-of-mouth promotion. We could stop there, and say that these three factors were enough to explain the unexpectedly high results, but I'd argue that there was at least one more significant factor -- the breaking of genre barriers.
Most erotica anthologies stay very much within their genre. The authors tend to specialize in erotica, much as many spec fic authors specialize in their genres, and an anthology can be filled easily by stories from people who only work in their own field. Aqua Erotica was a little unusual for erotica anthologies in that it was being published by a major mainstream publisher, and while its primary editor came from the erotica genre, the three other editors working on the book were coming from a literary fiction perspective. It's not the only erotica anthology to have that kind of cross-pollination, but it's one of a select (and recent) few. When we finished selecting stories, we had some big erotica names, like Carol Queen, Simon Sheppard, Michael Hemmingson. We also had some well-known literary fiction authors -- Louise Erdrich, Barry Yourgrau. We had a few new voices, authors who hadn't published before and thus couldn't be pigeonholed into a genre. And we had a few spec fic authors too -- Poppy Z. Brite, Francesca Lia Block, Cecilia Tan.
Now, I can't be sure how much effect that cross-genre authorship had on sales figures. I don't know how many readers picked up the book because of Erdrich's name on the back cover, or Brite's, or Sheppard's. But imagine yourself as a bookseller, when this book comes into your store. It claims to be erotica -- but when you glance at the cover, you see names you recognize from literary fiction, and from spec fic. Where do you file the book? Do you really want to hide it away on the little erotica shelf in the back? That's not what you usually do with an Erdrich novel -- and remember, you want to sell books, as many as possible. There isn't a shelf rack for cross-genre fiction -- where will this book sell best? Pretty often, it just ended up on the store's front table -- new trade paperback books -- which is a very happy place for a book to live.
This works with word-of-mouth as well -- if you're an erotica reader, you might hesitate to recommend an erotica collection to a friend who doesn't normally read in the genre. But you could tell your friend who reads fantasy -- "Hey, there's a great mermaid story in this book, you ought to read it!" I believe the crossover between audiences for the different genres did a tremendous amount for the success of the book. When I discussed the book sales with the publishers, they agreed -- they thought the cross-genre nature helped sell the book to a much wider audience than a typical erotica anthology would have reached.
So when I put out the call for Bodies of Water, the sequel to Aqua Erotica, I did my best to actively encourage genre-crossing. I made sure the call had a wider distribution than the previous one had. It went to all the standard erotica market lists -- it also went to Speculations, to Scavenger's and Gila Queen. It went to at least one SFWA-internal market list. Nalo Hopkinson and Cecilia Tan helped me spread the word among various ethnic communities of writers. And it went to some general literary listings as well, such as Poets & Writers. I looked forward eagerly to the stories I would receive, letting them accumulate in my inbox over the months the call was out. Then, in late May, I settled down to start reading them -- and promptly received an unpleasant surprise.
I received close to three hundred submissions for this anthology. Of those, perhaps seventy-five of them were clearly unusable right off the bat -- not because they were badly written, but because they weren't of the right genre. They often had sexy scenes, but they didn't read as erotica; they read as horror, or fantasy, or SF. And as I started writing rejection notes, I found myself wondering where I'd messed up -- because I had obviously not been as clear as I'd wanted to be about what I was looking for. I wanted genre-blurring, certainly; I was definitely open to fantasy and horror and science fiction. And yet, here I was writing these rejections based solely on genre. What had gone wrong?
In the end, it seemed to come down to a matter of language and tone. I found myself using phrases in the rejections like "too horrific in tone," "overly hard-SFish," "too high-fantasy." I realized that while I was open to spec fic, I needed a particular subset of spec fic -- the stories that wouldn't mark themselves very clearly as being spec fic. This seems contradictory on the face of it -- spec fic that isn't spec fic? But there is a continuum in each genre. There is intensely high fantasy, for example, full of archaic language -- Lord Dunsany. Morte d'Arthur. Gorgeous stuff, but very clearly of its genre. And then there are authors like Jonathan Carroll and Lisa Goldstein, who write novels about people in our world -- or something very close to our world; our world with a dreamy fantastic layer to it. Movies may demonstrate it even more sharply. In horror: Nightmare on Elm Street vs. The Fall of the House of Usher. In SF: Star Wars vs. The Handmaid's Tale or Being John Malkovich. Too many of the stories I received used language or images that were too clearly of a genre other than erotica. For this anthology, I needed stories that would fit the overall tone, that wouldn't drag readers kicking and screaming out of the erotic world of the book. Stories that would slide them delicately into a landscape that was just a little bit different from that of the previous story. That was the kind of speculative fiction that I would be able to include in the collection; spec fic that still read primarily as erotica.
This became even clearer to me in discussion with the Melcher editors. They were actively interested in blurring the line between literary fiction and erotic fiction; they wanted erotica with strong literary elements, as did I. To that extent, we had similar goals. But they weren't spec fic readers, and they were much more resistant to stories with speculative elements than I was. I was pleased to receive mermaid, merman, selkie, water sprite, and alien stories. The Melcher editors have been inclined to dismiss such stories immediately. I've had to persuade them to consider some of the fine stories that have speculative elements and that, in my opinion, wouldn't disrupt the overall tone of the anthology. It has sometimes been frustrating working against their resistance, but their perspective has been valuable too. This will be marketed primarily as a book of literary erotica -- I need to always keep that audience in mind, and so I end up turning down nine out of ten mermaid stories. (Aside from language and tone of individual stories, I must also consider balance -- more than a few spec fic stories would make the anthology feel much more like a spec fic anthology than a literary one, so there's another restriction on my genre-blurring efforts.)
It's been more difficult than I'd anticipated to gracefully bring some speculative elements into this erotica anthology. I hope that in the end, I'll have a collection of fine stories that are hard to categorize as just erotica, just literary fiction, or just spec fic -- though the book should still feel primarily erotic in tone. With luck, they'll bring readers of different genres together in one book, as the first collection did -- and they might even encourage a die-hard erotica reader to look up some mermaid tales, or convince a literary fiction reader that there might be something to this creepy horror stuff after all. Despite my recent travails, I remain committed to encouraging genre-blurring; I continue to believe that it can bring the best of many specialties together. I think at Strange Horizons, our editors often choose material that lives in the borderlands between spec fic and other genres. And while it can be tricky navigating these roads, in the long run, I think that border-crossing enriches literature. While I'll always love the intensity of high fantasy or hard SF, I think much of what pushes literature forward occurs in the cross-pollination between different disciplines, fertilizing the minds of writers. It is often difficult living in the borderlands, but it is also tremendously exciting.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief for Strange Horizons.
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