I imagine a lot of people would think being bisexual gives me an advantage in writing romance. Back when I was still firmly in denial about my sexuality, I think I would have assumed the same. After all, I have the advantage of being able to see “both perspectives” when writing about romance, right?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. For starters, I’m pretty sure my sexuality colors my writing simply because it affects what I find erotic and generally appealing. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you get into the demographics of erotic romance readers. We’re talking 90% women (although numbers of men are climbing) and, although I don’t have the specific numbers for romance purchases, I do know that women who identify as straight far outnumber those who identify as homosexual or non-monosexual, so I would presume that transfers into romance reader’s statistics.
I hadn’t even thought about these demographics until I was selecting a cover for my book, Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained, to sell it via Kindle Direct Publish. I browsed around through some stock photos and finally purchased one I was really happy with – I felt it perfectly captured the feeling of the story. Then I started Googling to see what others had to say about romance and erotica cover design.
I was dismayed. Time and time again, everyone said the same thing. “Make sure there’s a shirtless man on the cover.” “Never put a woman alone on your romance cover – it screams ‘male targeted porn.'” “Ideally your cover should include an attractive couple, or at the least a scantily clad attractive man.” “Women are the primary readers of erotic romance, and you want to appeal to them with a picture of a couple or a man.”
Now, I’m not only a writer of romance – I’m also an avid reader. So it was with some confusion that I read these tips. I’m a woman, after all, and a reader of romance – and a cover without a male presence on it is almost more appealing to me than less. The primary reason for this has to do with social acceptability: a cover with a girl alone on it doesn’t scream “erotica” the same way as a picture of a couple or a naked guy does. A secondary realization, though, was that there’s a difference between me and the majority of the romance novel’s target audience: I’m openly attracted to women as well as men. I realized that this must affect what appeals to me in matters of erotic and romance reading.
As an author, I was really concerned by this. Either the consensus is wrong, I thought, or my sense of what makes an effective cover image is off – and it made me wonder what else might be off-putting to my readers.
I spiraled into this agonizing pit of self-doubt, panicking about all the ways my sexuality was maybe undermining my writing. I was especially vulnerable because this hit me right at the intersection of two insecurities: my insecurity as a writer, where I panic about all the things I don’t know about writing and marketing, and stress over writing what my readers actually want to read; and secondly, my insecurity as a bisexual woman, which tends to leave me floundering in this space where I feel like I don’t quite fit with or understand anyone monosexual, whether straight or not.
I wasn’t just questioning my cover design; I was questioning my characters, my storyline, my entire career as a writer! Does the largely female body of readers actually care about what the female characters in the story look like? Is a solo female self-stimulation scene appealing or off-putting to readers who are only attracted to men? Are people going to think I’m presenting myself as bisexual just to increase book sales? (And FYI, I’m not, and I’ll flick you in the ear repeatedly if you so much as suggest so.)
Panic ensued for a little while. I couldn’t write because I was so worried I was somehow “doing it wrong.” I finally had to sit down and think it through, and remember that EVERY writer is different from the rest of the world in some way.When it comes down to it, none of us can write for everyone. Maybe you love your romance heroes to be pale redheads, instead of the classic bronzed brunet. Maybe you can’t stand writing heroines who wear dresses, even though it’s not perfectly feminine. Heck, maybe you have a weird hatred for romantic candle-lit dinners and you will do whatever necessary to keep such a scene out of your book.
Regardless, there is probably something that you might see as a liability to the appeal of your writing. Well, it isn’t. I’ll say it again. YOU’RE WRONG. These things are what make you a distinctive writer – the one who stands out from the pack. The one who readers shop for by author name instead of book description! Your little idiosyncrasies are part of your brand, and if no one had them, every romance book out there would read exactly the same. After all, the genre is pretty formulaic already, so whatever you can bring to the table to add a little variation is a huge plus.
It gets said all the time in the rest of the world, but I think we need to hear it in the context of romance authorship: embrace your individuality.