Going Mainstream by Cecilia Tan

Today my latest romance novel, Slow Surrender, comes out in paperback. It’s my first book with a major publishing house in over a decade, and I thought for Savvy Authors I’d write about the subject of BDSM becoming “mainstream.” The industry has changed a lot over the past 21 years since I self-published my first book, a BDSM-themed science fiction erotica book called Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords. In 1992 it was considered about as weird and fringe as a book could get. Since then, I’ve experienced pretty much every different form of publishing there is, including mainstream literary houses, web serials, audiobooks, you name it, and so it’s interesting, to say the least, to look back and try to figure out how I went from having to self-publish my fringy BDSM chapbook to now having a BDSM-themed trilogy coming out from Hachette, one of the “Big Five” publishers. The Slow Surrender eBook, which they released first, has already become by far my most-reviewed book on Amazon, and if early reports are accurate, it has already outsold my last book with a Big Five publisher (1998’s Black Feathers, HarperCollins).

In other words, it’s a tall mountain, and I’ve never been this far up it before! From up here, let’s look back down the trail we climbed to get here and see what we can learn.

At first glance there appear to be two major changes that made this possible. One is that attitudes about erotic content have changed: Publishers are being more enthusiastic about explicit content and alternative sexuality. The other is that new technologies and the arrival of eBooks have opened up the marketplace to more authors than ever before. I say there “appear” to be two major changes because in truth these two shifts are part of a single phenomenon. The reason why publishers are welcoming more explicit content is because it has finally been proven to them that readers want to read it. (And writers want to write it!)

Back when eBooks first began to make an impact, the romance genre was very tightly controlled by a small number of publishing companies (Harlequin, Dorchester, Avon, etc.) and most of the distribution to the customers was very tightly controlled by the chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million. It had reached the point where what the readers browsing the shelves really wanted didn’t seem to matter to the publishers. The only people whose opinions mattered to them were the small handful of buyers at the chain HQs who made the inventory decisions for the entire country. Many readers were stuck buying whatever they could find on the shelves at their local chain store. If they wanted more variety, more sex, more threesomes, more werewolves…? Too bad.

In fact, the message that the industry was sending to readers who wanted more sex, more variety, etc. was:  “you’re too weird.” Back in the early 90s, authors like me were told by publishers that vampire stories would only sell to the “fringe.” Vampires were for a “niche” market and would never be mainstream: the only people interested were black-haired goth kids. The term “paranormal romance” didn’t even exist yet. But gradually you saw vampires sneaking up (haha)–in sales, in the number of titles published–kind of quietly at first, because although the vampire books were starting to fly off the shelves, and the publishers were starting to slowly respond and feed that need, it was like no one wanted to TALK about it. As if the growth of paranormal romance into the bestselling subgenre of romance was the dirty secret of the romance industry. Kind of like how, at that time, ROMANCE ITSELF was considered the dirty secret of the book industry.

That’s right, romance was not given its due. The numbers were there to prove that romance novels accounted for over 50% of ALL paperback fiction being sold, leaving the other half to be divvied up among all the other genres of fiction, including literary fiction, mystery, science fiction, etc. but very few industry wonks wanted to admit it. Romances were the staple food of the entire industry, but they got none of the attention. You rarely saw romance reviewed alongside literary fiction. That attitude continues today, but the numbers can no longer be hidden, and breakout titles continually escape from the confines of romance into the mainstream. Remember when a little book called Twilight was suddenly the thing everyone was reading? Is it any surprise, then, that 50 Shades of Grey, which taps the same vein (having started life as a Twilight fanfic), also broke into the mainstream and took everyone by storm? BDSM is the new paranormal, and doms in suits are the new vampires.

So let’s bring it all together now. Where do these trends come from? Big books don’t exist in a vacuum. E.L. James did not invent BDSM in the same way Anne Rice didn’t invent vampires. Did you know Interview with a Vampire was considered a flop when it was first published? And unlike most books which sell a lot at first and then dwindle away, Interview kept plugging along and plugging along, with sales that grew rather than shrank over the course of years, until the book and Rice herself had become a phenomenon. That success happened in spite of, not because of, the mainstream book industry. It took so long because in the days before social media, word of mouth took a long time to spread. Rice had to photocopy and mail out paper newsletters to her fans, and the network of fan clubs was built one black-haired goth kid at a time. What’s different now? With the social media I can instantly tell thousands of my followers about a new book. I can get instant feedback on how excited people are about an idea. EL James developed 50 Shades of Grey by writing it serially on a fan fiction website where thousands of readers could see, comment, and squee instantly, every time she posted. She didn’t write in a vacuum wondering if anyone would like it. She knew.

And there are many, many more writers out there self-publishing, posting original fiction serials, creating characters, running Kickstarters, et cetera, discovering what catches fire, finding what muse bursting forth from their imaginations connects with readers and makes them clamor for more. The best thing about self-publishing is that it doesn’t cater to some prepackaged ideal of what the “mainstream” is. For 21 years I was told BDSM was too “fringe,” too “weird.” That’s why I self-published  Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords in the first place–because I had no other choice, but also because I knew that the market was out there. How? I had originally published the story serially as posts in an Internet newsgroup called It was the early days of the net, but in 1991, 20 years before James posted to, I was doing the exact same thing. That’s how I knew the readers were there, and the publishers didn’t. That’s why I founded events like the Fetish Fair Fleamarket, which brings thousands of shoppers annually to a weekend-long marketplace of custom corsets and handmade whips and, yes, books. Sometimes the only difference between something “underground” and something “mainstream” isn’t how many people are doing it, but whether people will talk openly about it. Gee, just like with the massive sales of romance as a whole not being talked about in the book business, the huge numbers of people who had tried BDSM or who wanted to were ignored by the mainstream. Until this thing called 50 Shades of Grey happened, and suddenly everyone was talking about it.

So there you have it. “Overnight” success that actually took 20 years, and a “sudden” interest in BDSM that was actually there all along. I’m still doing what I always did, but it’s gratifying to be able to share it with so many more readers this way.

The next logical question, if you’re a writer, is what’s coming next? BDSM is the latest thing to break into the mainstream in this way, but it won’t be the last thing. Whatever the next big thing is going to be, it’s already happening, it’s already building in the primordial soup of Internet communities and blogs and self-published titles. Whatever it is will break out like Godzilla from the ocean and surprise “everyone”… everyone except all the people who were part of making it happen. Don’t be afraid to self-publish, or to post in communities, or to maintain a blog and connect with readers. You’ve got the seeds, but the attention of readers is like the sunlight that can make them grow. Some will flower. Some could someday grow into gigantic beanstalks and make you into a giant.


Cecilia Tan is the award-winning author of ten novels and three collections of erotic short stories, including Black Feathers, White Flames, The Siren and the Sword, The Prince’s Boy, and Daron’s Guitar Chronicles. Nearly all her fiction features erotica, love stories, and BDSM in some form, and they are not entirely “fictional.” Tan is the winner of the National Leather Association’s “Lifetime Achievement” award and the Pantheon of Leather “President’s Award” (the equivalent of being the Kinkster Laureate), and she is a past recipient of the NLA: International Writing Award. Susie Bright has called her “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature.” She has a masters in writing from Emerson College and lives and blogs in the Boston area.




He pushes her sexual boundaries . . .

From the moment waitress Karina meets him in a New York bar, she knows James is different. Daring. Dominating. Though he hides his true identity from her, the mysterious, wealthy businessman anticipates her every desire and fulfills her secret fantasies. Awakened by his touch, Karina discovers a wild side she hadn’t known existed and nothing is off limits.

She aches for more . . .

What begins as an erotic game soon escalates to a power play that blurs the line between pleasure and pain. Even as she capitulates to James’s sensual demands, Karina craves more. She wants his heart, his soul. She wants his love . . . and she’ll break all the rules to get it.


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