In February, the media started tittering over erotic romance trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, by British author E. L. James. By that point, the BDSM-tinged novels, about virginal college student Anastasia Steele and her punishing paramour, billionaire Christian Grey, had sold about 100,000 e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks, owing mostly to Amazon reviews and word of mouth. A month later, amplified by scandalized coverage from the New York Times and the Today show, the buzz grew, sales tripled, and a bidding war broke out for the movie rights. But while mainstream attention for a work of erotica is unusual (in this case, it probably helped that the book was a hit in Manhattan instead of just the South and Midwest, where books like it are more popular), Fifty Shades’ pre-titter sales were no major anomaly: “Once in a while, a random book will just pop,” says Kimberly Whalen, a literary agent with Trident Media Group. “It’s incredibly successful, but there are a lot of other erotic books selling well.”
If that surprises you, consider that romance, the large umbrella under which erotica is broadly classified, is a nearly $1.4 billion, recession-proof industry and the top-selling genre of fiction in the U.S., beating mystery and sci-fi combined. And if the bondage in Shades isn’t your thing, there’s probably a subgenre that is: More than just the classic historical bodice ripper, the spectrum of romantic fiction now includes everything from sex-free books starring Amish lovers to racier ones involving werewolves and vampires to the burgeoning sub-sub-category of erotic paranormal cowboy-ménage romance. For the uninitiated, here’s a primer on the vast, ever-expanding universe of smut.
“It’s always older women, never younger than 30. There’s a whole group that has release dates memorized. In the five years that I’ve worked here, I have not seen a single man buy one of these books.”
—Manhattan Barnes & Noble Clerk
What Makes Smut Good?
“A hero who’s neither twisted and sadistic nor overly perfect. A heroine who’s not too stupid. No smuggling or kidnapping subplots. No gratuitous S&M or tantric sex. And no anachronistic names—women were not named Brittany in Regency London.”
—An anonymous romance-novel addict
What Makes Smut Bad
Excerpts from one-star Amazon reviews.
“So saturated with sex that you forget what the story is about.”
Divorced, Desperate, and Delicious
“Christian wasn’t alpha enough for me.”
Fifty Shades of Grey
“The number of words misused is startling. Warlocks are, by definition, male. So a female warlock (much less a female warlock seer) is a contradiction in terms.”
The Vampire King
“I believe in angels, and I think it’s wrong to write a book about one falling in love with a human.”
“Katie is 5’2” and Luke is 6’3”. What a freaky-looking couple.”
A Hope Undaunted
“Book was not at all as presented in the description.”
Big Spankable Asses
What Are the Most Popular Subgenres?
“Romantic suspense was big ten years ago. And paranormal romance, five years ago. Erotica is really big right now.”
—Kimberly Whalen, literary agent, Trident Media Group
“Military-themed romances are extremely popular, because we live in a time of increased patriotism, especially after SEAL Team 6 [killed Osama Bin Laden].”
—Pam Jaffee, senior publicity director, Avon Books
“Our top-selling subgenres are contemporary, paranormal, and historical.”
—Jules Herbert, Romance buyer, Barnes & Noble
How Dirty Can Smut Get?
Love Amid the Ashes, by Mesu Andrews(Christian romance):
Whitney, My Love, by Judith McNaught(Historical romance):
2 acts of intercourse
Dark Lover, by J. R. Ward (Paranormal Romance):
4 acts of intercourse
Thong on Fire: An Urban Erotic Romance, by Noire (African-American Romance):
15 acts of intercourse
Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (Erotica/BDSM):
24 acts of intercourse
*Don’t see what you’re looking for? Chances are it exists anyway. Consult your local bookseller.
Additional reporting by Sadie Stein, Raha Naddaf, Amanda Dobbins, Katherine Ward, Clint Rainey, Taylor Berman, and TJ Kosinski.