Will Write E-Porn for $1 Million

Last Updated Apr 11, 2011 6:41 PM EDT

Young adult paranormal romance writer Amanda Hocking stunned many in book publishing by selling a million young adult novels in ebook form and pocketing close to $2 million. Hocking signed a four-book series to St. Martin's Press for more than $2 million. Thriller author Joe Konrath was on track in March to earn $643,000 this year.

There's another category of literature that sells, as well: sex. Ask Selena Kitt. She makes a bundle selling erotica. Really hard-edged erotica. And she makes a lot of money at it: nearly $238,000 in the first three months of this year, and that was just from Barnes & Noble (BKS). Not bad for a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom who home schools two kids and doesn't read erotica. It all started five years ago with a contest.

Kitt -- who goes by her pen name because "I have fundamentally religious people in my family who already think I'm going to hell, so it's not to protect me so much as to protect them" -- majored in English. Her entire exposure to erotica was Story of O and Lady Chatterly's Lover. But a family friend had written some short stories for an amateur erotica web site called Literotica.com and wanted her opinion. Kitt went to the site where a contest notice caught her eye: Write the most stories in a year and win $500.

Give me smut and nothing but
"I had two young children at home," she says. "I figured, why not? It was only $500, but I'm very competitive." So she started writing 2500 to 5000 words a day ... and came in second. No $500, but a pile of material. "I thought, 'What if I could turn a tenth of these readers into paying readers?'" Kitt says.

That was 2008. At the time, e-book sellers wanted to deal with real publishers that had multiple authors and titles, not with individual writers. So Kitt worked with some of the other writers at Literotica.com and created Excessica Publishing. Authors received all income from their books. (Eventually she would charge 10 percent to cover business costs and help.) So long as characters were over 18, it would publish subject matter such as incest, non-consensual sex, and BDSM, which most e-book publishers wouldn't touch at the time:

You're writing about sex but you're really writing about the same thing everyone else is, which is emotion and people. If you're writing that she walked into the room and had 38DD breasts and looked like Barbie, you're not writing real erotica. The stuff that rose to the top had more of a story in it than just the sex.
By late 2009, Kitt was making $3,500 a month on her titles. One of the great attractions was that people could read erotica on a Kindle and not attract attention because there was no visible lurid book cover. Her volume was also a big help. If a reader liked one book, there were immediately others to buy. (She currently has 15 novels and 10 novellas.)

A dirty novel I can't shut
Then an online book club calling itself Kindle Smut, which used the readers' social network Goodreads.com, chose one of her books. In January 2010, she received a $10,000 check from Amazon. "I looked at it and nearly had a heart attack," she says. "Is this real? Am I seeing things? [My husband's] jaw dropped to the floor."

The numbers grew until, by July 2010, she made $22,000 for the month. Without a business background, she had stumbled her way into profitable self-branding. Her marketing includes a Yahoo fan group, Facebook page, commenting on various blogs, mentioning upcoming releases on the Kindle Smut group, and some free fiction to attract people.

But she doesn't count on any trend in e-publishing, because there have been too many surprises:

There's that feeling that it could all disappear tomorrow. I'm not counting on this income, are you insane? Konrath is saying ten years from now, I'll be selling [this much]. I say, "Dude, I hope you have a good investment banker."
She's already seen enormous and unpredictable changes. When Kitt started selling e-books, price was based on length. (Yes, size mattered.) Then Amazon offered authors a new system with a 70 percent cut of the sales price, which made lower sales prices and higher volumes possible.

If it's uncut...
But in the process of moving books to the new platform, Kitt lost all her old rankings and ratings and her sales dropped by more than a third. It took Amazon six months to figure out how to move the books without losing the information that was important to attracting readers.

Things began to pick up again, until Amazon began to censor certain erotica titles, including those with incest themes, which took out a big chunk of her income.

Luckily, sales through Barnes & Noble more than picked up the slack. Last December, she sold nearly 19,000 copies. In January, the number topped 61,000 (probably a result of the release of B&N's Nook Color e-reader).

And unsubt... le
Then B&N pulled from erotica titles a preview button and suddenly dropped their rankings, which had a heavy impact on sales. The logic is hard to understand; a reader has to be as logged in to preview a story as to buy it, so it can't reasonably be about under-aged youth getting access. It's also not as though B&N is making money to burn.

By March, sales dropped to about $44,000. Amazon has been selling between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. Even that combined monthly rate would put her near $680,000 for largely passive income. As she put it in an email, "And yes, I know... when I say sales sucked in March in comparison... I'm aware my diamond shoes are too tight. :)"

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.