In the erotic novella Moonlight Desire, it doesn’t take long for the protagonist’s fantasies about her shapeshifting wolf/vampire high school crush to turn lascivious. “Bored and daydreaming, she would picture his body under those clothes. Did he have a hairless six pack, or a little patch of hair on his taut belly?” the character muses. “Here was a man, she thought, who works his body until drained of the energy meals provide.” Rawr.
If you looked around, as magazines and websites fold and book stores shutter, you might think we were headed for a publishing apocalypse. But one area in which sales are steady is romance publishing. According to a 2013 report from the Romance Writers of America, the total sales value of romance that year topped a billion dollars—with e-books, which readers can discreetly download, making up 39% of that pie.
While readers of all genders and sexual orientations purchase romance, the market is fueled largely by women. But just who is penning these works, many of which admirably prioritize female pleasure? In the case of Moonlight Desire, which claims to be written by a lady named Marilyn Lee, it’s actually a 20-something dude.
Not long ago, a writer and rock journalist I know let slip that he was tied up working on an “erotic werewolf series.” I soon learned that, using dozens of pen names, he had written hundreds of short erotic e-books in just over two years—including Moonlight Desire and a host of successful paranormal, thriller, and dramatic romance works geared toward women. He also recently launched an e-book publishing company called Hard Books, which debuted with a series of election-themed erotica. (In my favorite, Bernie Sanders throws an orgy and turns into a bear.)
I would have been more alarmed by these revelations if I didn’t know this writer to be a perceptive, intellectual feminist with a strong eye for detail and scene-setting. But could he really channel women’s innermost sexual desires?
Naturally, I had to both learn more about his work and his process, and how the eff he even got into this. But more than that, I had to understand how a straight white guy I know from basement concerts in Brooklyn was able to tap into the mind of a blossoming young woman crushing on her supernatural classmate.
Honestly, I first started out of curiosity. I was getting fed up with journalism. I knew I could make a living off writing—just not a very lucrative one. I was also miserable working as my own worst boss, writing pitches every free minute. Then one day I responded to a posting on my alma mater's job database for a romance fiction writer for an e-book publisher. This got some wheels turning.
I began studying the best-seller lists on Amazon Kindle and came to realize there was a legitimate market for romance books. Two years ago when I started, the big thing was Twilight-style romance—a lot of vampires, shapeshifters—so I began building a portfolio of the stuff and gathering ideas. There was a lot of reading and researching that went into the creation of those first books.
Yeah! Within six months of starting I had turned out a complete series and several short stories. My favorites included a blue-collar vampire who reconnects with a high school sweetheart [editor’s note: sound familiar?], a diner waitress’ affair with a bear shifter (a guy who turns into a bear), a three-way between a middle aged couple and a handsome waiter in a story, which accidentally doubles as a reliable document for constructing a sex swing with parts sourced from Home Depot. I found myself shocked at how much joy I derived from dreaming up insane situations and acts.
Absolutely! Especially if you look at how much of popular culture, especially TV and film, involves women being punished just for being women. In traditional romance literature it plays out in an equally insidious way—that women essentially have nothing going for them unless they have a man they’re fighting for. And real life isn’t that way! To be honest, I don’t even think fantasies are this way.
But it’s not just sexual pleasure. I want to give the men and women [in my books] fulfilling lives and agency. I try to break some of the more rigid taboos—and you’d be surprised how conservative many erotic e-books can swing.
I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer. Even though I've written about a woman getting multiple orgasms from sex with a ghost, it actually takes time and thought and a notebook for me to get there. I know I'm working with a quality scenario if it has me smiling, because erotica is fun, and fun writing sticks!
But I also base a lot of my scenarios on trends and pop culture. Just like any other industry that follows daily publishing trends, erotica tends to cycle through themes fairly quickly.
I’d say it’s actually half and half on the writing end, but outside of that it generally seems that women tend to inhabit more of the promotion side and men are on the business end.
But the reason why so many of these pen names begin with initials is because, my gut says, readers don’t want men to write romance books. So it’s kind of an easy way to get around that without explicitly lying.
I’ve always been fascinated by the narrative arc of what some might call “trashy television and movies”—the heightened drama, sex, and intrigue. By the time I started writing I felt like I really understood the tropes and norms of romantic entanglements. Again, it’s a lot like writing regular fiction.
That being said, I DID NOT feel totally qualified when I was first starting out, and had to do a fair amount of research. I’m not exactly the target demographic for this type of work.
To be honest, my first few books had tepid responses. But then I created a story about an Army Ranger that rescues a pregnant woman from a violent situation. The Amazon reviews came in and no one could put the book down. Many read it in a night. But looking back, I don't feel particularly proud of that book, especially since some construed it as misogynistic. It really made me think about the kinds of messages I wanted to say with these stories.
Simple: I just talk to people. The funny thing about a job like this is that whenever I mention what I do, people are incredibly entertained and want to know more. I use that opportunity to ask them, particularly women, “What’s this like?” and “What’s that like?” When my cousin’s wife found out, she literally called and said, “Ask me anything!”
Erotica writing is like any other type of writing: If you want to be good at it you have to do your research.
I’m going to be honest and say that I actually try to skirt around specific anatomical sensations and go for more emotionally resonant stuff. It’s funny, but traditional erotica is more personal and effuse rather than clinical, and successful erotica often doesn’t even describe things explicitly in detail because that tends to be boring. It’s more interesting to read emotion-based work because it makes it easier for readers to step inside the first-person character.
People want something a little unreal in their e-books because they're not getting that from any other entertainment. You'd think with all this media at our disposal we’d always be stimulated in new ways, but movies and TV tend to be the most impassioned vendors of bland and unfulfilling sex.
Word gets around. There are some people that I would prefer not to know since I teach and tutor creative writing and SAT prep, and do a range of other side hustles. But my mom knows, my 17-year-old sister knows, most of my friends know. It’s kind of an open secret.
Have you been surprised by how well-received your work has been? I know it’s been picked up a few places.
People have really responded to it! In particular to my Presidential Passions series, which tackled the faux sex lives of Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders (among others). For a while Gawker was writing up every installment of this series—MTV also wrote something about it and so did Jezebel. It was hilarious.
I understand that you started this presidential series around the same time you were launching your publishing company, Hard Books. Did one inspire the other?
Last November I saw the election cycle ramping up and a light bulb went on that I wanted to start making the news steamy. It combined some of my favorite passions—journalism, fiction, sex, and controversy—with my career. For our inaugural series I wanted to imagine the sex lives of all the presidential candidates. Right now, we're about to publish our anthology of the previously published Republican candidates, winners and losers alike, called Presidential Passion: Red. But readers should definitely look out for some Blue States action. In essence, I'm really trying to put out books that cover all the bases: sexiness, intellectual-stimulation, gender equality, and more than anything, create something that’s a real blast to read.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.