Monday, April 19, 2010

Survey Says...

article contributed by author Cara McKenna

I recently invited people to take a What Erotica Readers Want survey. The nearly seventy participants came via my erotic authors’ group blog, my website and Twitter, so the pool is more a focus group of erotica fans who patronize mainstream publishers such as Ellora’s Cave than a true representation of all people everywhere.

Percentages have been rounded to the nearest integer.

Gender. Respondents were 88% women, 9% men and 3% transgender.

Age. The largest group fell in the 30–39 range, making up 36% of the pool. The next largest groups were 40–49 (26%) and 20–29 (22%). 14% of respondents were 50–64 and only 2% were 19 or younger. We had no responses from readers 65 or older.

Voracity. The largest group reads roughly one erotic story per week. That said, 16% of our participants read 15 erotic stories or more per month—you insatiable perverts, you!

Formats and vendors. Nearly everyone polled reads digital erotica, with only 9% reading print exclusively. Most read a mix of the two, and 16% read digital only. The vast majority of readers get their erotica from traditional bookstores, online bookstores and direct from publishers' sites. Other sources of note are libraries, fan fiction sites, and erotic blogs and websites. None of our anonymous respondents claimed to get their erotica from pirate sites. Big, sloppy kisses from all us starving authors!

Length. Participants enjoy erotica of all lengths, though novels and novellas were most popular (46% and 35% respectively). 13% preferred short-story length and 6% preferred super-short (i.e., EC's Naughty Nooners or fan fiction / blog posts).

Character gender mix. The majority of our repondents were women and unsurprisingly, most want a man in their story. He can be one-half of a hetero couple or an m/m couple, or part of an f/m/m+ menage. Nearly two-thirds of pollees are indifferent to or turned-off by women-only erotica. Even more would pass on m/f/f menage.

What we're into reading. The meat of the survey—get your gravy! I’ve broken these data into three sections: safe themes, super-popular themes, and least-popular themes. Readers rated a bunch of items using five options: love, like, no opinion, dislike, and hate. That said, this is just for fun and I don’t encourage authors to chase trends—write what you love.

You're probably safe writing:
• Historical settings
• Full-on BDSM (D/s, bondage, etc.)
• Male Dom / alpha hero
• Sci-fi / futuristic settings
• 10+ year age difference, either gender
• Virginity loss
• Anal play
• Voyeurism or exhibitionism
• "Cheating" with permission / cuckolding
• Consensual rape role-play (contentious—12% love it, 13% hate it)
• Sex as rite / ritual
• Plus-sized protagonist
• Interracial lovers
• Kinky piercings / body modification
• Orgies (5+ participants)
• Food play
• Larger-than-average wangs (size kinda matters)

If you really want to thrill readers, take notes:
• 96% like or love light bondage
• 95% like / love contemporary settings
• 89% like / love oral sex performed on a man
• 87% like / love male-on-male action
• 83% like / love oral sex performed on a woman
• 82% like / love humor
• 81% like / love a suspense plot
• 79% like / love paranormal stories
• 77% like / love a happily-ever-after ending
• 77% like / love sex toys
• 77% like / love menage (3–4 participants)
• 73% like / love spanking
• 71% like / love outdoor sex

If you're aiming to alienate:
• 39% dislike or hate a sexually Dominant female character
• 35% dislike or hate female-on-female action

Verboten topics. I also asked what topics readers don’t like mentioned, even in passing. Here they are, along with the percentage who say they kill their buzz:
• 71% Sexually transmitted diseases / infections
• 54% Abortion
• 46% Religion / morality
• 44% Recreational drug use (excluding alcohol)
• 33% Serious illness or death
• 27% Politics
• 25% Rape or sexual abuse in protagonist's past
• 23% Children or parenthood
• 23% Infertility or erectile dysfunction
• 21% Tobacco use
• 19% Conception or pregnancy
• 6% Birth control

How we judge our books. I was surprised to find we do judge them by their covers! Nearly 60% of respondents said a nice cover is reasonably important, though they also care about the theme or blurb. 19% say a nice cover is merely a bonus, 14% say the cover is the most important thing when choosing a book, and only 12% said they choose books totally regardless of their covers. 8% chose the non-applicable option, reading their erotica in a cover-less form such as fan-fic sites.

Thanks again to everyone who participated.

Cara McKenna writes erotica for Ellora’s Cave. You can visit her at For a more detailed analysis of the survey results, visit


Emma Hillman said...

That was very interesting. Thanks, Cara!

The 'verboten' topics had me thinking though. Some of them are pretty much self-explanatory, others...not so much.

Cara McKenna said...

Emma, if you have any specific questions, shoot! I'm happy to clarify if I can.

Angelia Sparrow said...

Birth control? Really? The little thing that ensures the sex scene you're about to enjoy has no unintended consequences, from intrusive strangers to, you know, DEATH?

Readers are strange.

I think I've hit everything on the no-no list, except abortion. And that last's only because I write mostly m/m.

On the other hand, aside from food play and orgies, I've hit most of the positive side as well.

Cara McKenna said...

I know, Angelia—my mood would be way more killed if a hero or heroine didn't take a moment to grab a condom…but some people want to live in a perfect fantasy world, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this information. I'll be passing the link along to my author friends.

I guess I'm in the minority, since I wish there were more f/f stories out there. I'd especially love to see them with futuristic or paranormal settings.

There is a lot of m/m out now that is really good, I've read my share of it, but being a woman, I prefer books where women and their sexuality are part of the fantasy.

As for the rest, I'm pretty open minded, although I don't really care for books with an agenda: religion, morality, sexual identity crisis, abortion, politics. Yuck.

Maxwell Cynn said...

Great post, though a bit of a buzz kill since I really like writing F/F and M/F/F scenes. But there is a small market for it (maybe the few guys who read erotica)

Cara McKenna said...

Huzzah for Maxwell, busting the myth that porn is for dudes, erotica is for ladies.

Emma Hillman said...

Cara, I was thinking (and not really understanding) why some of those topics would be a buzz-kill for readers. I agree with Angelia - birth control is a no-no? Same for infertility or conception. I'm not sure I get why those would be a bad thing! I understand the whole fantasy thing (I mean, I write about fantasies after all!), but I like my books with a dose of reality too.

Still, a very good post!

Kama Spice said...

I just want to chime in with the sentiments expressed. Very illuminating post, so thank you, Cara! But yes, very surprised at some of the "buzzkills" some folks expressed.

Cara McKenna said...

I actually selfishly included the conception and children buzz-kills in the survey for myself… A while ago I wrote an erotic novella in which the sex revolved around a woman trying to conceive, and heard from my usual publisher (and from fellow authors) that "babies and conception don't sell." I was actually rather heartened to see that the majority of readers polled don't seem to mind the idea, even if it's not a big draw. I happen to think it's sexy, but then again I'm thirty and my ovaries are starting to get ideas.

The sense I've gotten is that apparently some readers want their erotica to exist as complete fantasyland, and the prospect of pregnancy and children is a responsibility that sucks them right out of that fantasy, possibly reminding them of their own day-to-day parenthood obligations and wrecking the no-strings escapism.

As for the birth control deal, I think it may be same reason you'll rarely see a porno in which the actors pause to suit up. The condom (when there is one) is just magically there, and I think that's the way some readers want it, too. Some of us don't want to be thinking about protection when we're in fantasy sex-mode. I've beta read for an erotica author who left it out, and when I queried her she said that in her erotic fantasy world, birth control and condoms simply don't exist, and presumably neither do the consequences of sex. It's not my m.o., but she's not the only one out there with that opinion.

I hope that helped clarify!

Paisley Smith said...

I surprised by the reaction to F/F romance. My sales have proved differently and my readers are begging for more.

Curious? Try a free taste at Ellora's Cave:

My erotic romance likes: light bdsm, great characterization, exploring the sexual psyche.

As for what I don't like in erotic romance: babies and pregnancies and hairy men. :-)

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is a great blog topic. Everyone's feed back is really thought provoking. I don't want to be a buzz kill either; but it seems that erotic writers see themselves as advocates for safe sex or presenting a fantasy without consequences. This genre is supposed to be entertainment right? Or are writers making safe-sex more sexy? I'm a new writer and a fan so don't draw and quarter me. I'm just asking.

Cara McKenna said...

Hi Gwyn,

I think most of us "mainstream" erotica writers try to walk that wobbly tightrope between sexy-fun-entertainment and responsible realism with our stories. If I had to guess (my only credentials being this cockamamie survey and lots of half-drunken gabbing with pervy friends, authors, and readers) I'd say it's safest to err on the the side of responsibility. That is to say, I think more readers would be disturbed by an absence of protection in a story than would be willing to roll with it and assume that in this fictional world, such things aren't a concern.

Our society's so trained (for better or worse, probably better) to be hyper-conscious of health and pregnancy risks, it's a tough topic for our brains to glide past, even after we've invested $4.50 in a dirty romp and settled in with our glass of wine, ready for some filthy fictitious fun. And I suspect it's challenging for our libidos to get on board when our heads are still stuck on page 33 where the hero didn't bother to suit up and the heroine didn't bat an eye. "What is wrong with these people? Don't they know how common herpes is?!"

One way around it might be for an author to include a note at the start that says something to the effect of, "In this fictional world, there are no physical consequences to sex, and hence no need for protection." And perhaps the game reader would happily suspend her or his disbelief.

I'm of a weird camp, I suspect, where I generally like my erotica (that I read, not just write) to be realistic…although realistic can still mean extraordinary…and probably should if it's warranted its own book. Anyhow, for me this means I'll take a pass on shifters, vampires, ripped investment bankers with no explanation for their washboard abs, and also an absence of sexual risk.

The upside to choosing to write in a world of buzzkills is that they're great cues for characterization. For a lot of readers (well, for me, anyhow) a scene that shows the perhaps awkward negotiation of the condom situation can be chock full of intimacy and vulnerability, and I don't think the formality of it detracts from the senseless banging that ensues. Then again, I don't think I checked any of the buzzkills from the survey besides maybe "politics".

Well, that was long-winded. Anyhow, my two cents.

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