At Work My Life in the Romance Novel Industry
“Who was I to say what women should be allowed to read?”
Somewhere in the virtual e-book marketplace exists a story of love, angels, and kinky sex that thanks me in the acknowledgments. This is because I edited it. Over the course of one year, after graduating from college with a degree in English, I read close to three hundred of these erotic romance novels while working as a staff editor for a publisher in the industry.
“Tech internships are risky. Erotica is reliable.” This is how I explain my choice to take a full-time job as a romance novel editor right out of college instead of the other position I was offered: a three-month paid internship at a tech startup, which “had the potential” to turn into a full-time position. I got both job offers on the day of my graduation ceremony, and my mom cried with relief. She was on a lot of pain medication because she was very sick. She had been allowed out of the hospital for my graduation and she was very worried about my future. Graduation meant I could no longer work as a writing consultant at my college’s writing center and everyone we knew was excited to tell us that it’s impossible to get a job if you get an English degree. Here was evidence, to her and to me, that I would be okay and could take care of myself, even if she and my dad were unable.
That tech startup’s office, despite being in a real downtown office building, was not much bigger than the small bedroom I rented in a house I shared with two strangers that I found on Craigslist. I needed to pay rent for that room and my lease, unlike the internship at that startup, was not “three months with the potential to turn into something more long term.” So I chose what seemed to many to be the scandalous and fun choice but was actually, in my mind, the pragmatic one: the full-time position in a very steady industry with the unglamorous ten-dollar-per-hour pay, the electronic time clock machine similar to the one I used when I worked at a Hometown Buffet, and the opportunity to dive into editing full books right away.
As a newbie editor, I half-expected to love everything I read—stories about sex! Sex is my favorite!—and I half-worried the books would be an amateurish shitshow of cringeworthy trash that some high-minded purveyors of literary fiction make them out to be. As with all things, the reality of the books themselves—as well as the process of editing them, and the details of the thriving communities that keep this industry chugging along—was much less clear-cut. The paradoxes of the erotic romance novel e-book world are many and varied.
Our office was not full of dildos, whips, and women wearing bondage gear. We were a quiet bunch, huddled around tables with ten to twelve desktop monitor stations and looking more like a high-school computer class than arbiters of kink and love. Yet our work was NSFW, our internet search history utterly scandalous. When fact-checking a butt plug brand is considered de rigueur, I got my big “fight the man” adrenaline rushes from transgressions like reading all the way to page two on Jezebel.
People want to know if erotica editors get turned on by the material they have to read for their job. The answer, for me, was very rarely. Not all sex does it for all people, and the required level of explicit content (we counted words like “cock” and “pussy” to make sure they were used enough times) ended up rendering me pretty numb and emotionless. From what I know of my colleagues, their experience in that regard was similar to mine. It wasn’t our job to be aroused; it was our job to enhance literature meant to arouse our paying readers. And it did.
For women who feel unwelcomed or unaroused by other elements of sex culture like porn, erotic romance novels provide them with sexual satisfaction as well as a whole host of other benefits, in a safe and generally discrete way, through a form of media that knows what they want and doesn’t judge them, but rather celebrates it with them. The proliferation of tablets has boosted the industry, allowing women to gleefully say “fuck it” to the often fraught experience of being seen purchasing, reading, or even possessing those chunky, lusty paperbacks.
Above all, I have found that erotic romance e-books offer choice and control on every level. Books are categorized as precisely as possible, from page length to genre to relationship type to happy ending (the mainstream meaning, as in marriage, engagement, blood rituals, formal claimings of one’s mate[s], “married in our hearts”-style group commitments between four totally built cowboy brothers and one shy but foxy young redhead with a mysterious past, etc.) to sex act.
As editors, we listed every sex act contained in every book, and the page on which those activities could be found, so that those in sales could properly categorize and organize the books for maximum success in the e-market. This was necessary. In reviews, regular readers are just as willing to provide effusive praise for their favorite pairings and scenes as they are to rain down outrage when they feel a scene or a novel did not meet expectations.
Romance novel readers get a lot of unfair criticism. But for the most part, they couldn’t care less. Romance writers are almost always romance readers, meaning the genre cultivates a sense of community. This community, in turn, has its own rulebook and set of standards based less on literary craft and more on passion, creativity, and fun. Many of our writers hadn’t been in school for decades, never had formal writing training, and yet were making six figures a year because they knew that if they wrote what they wanted to read, other people would want to read it, too.
Something many editors struggled with was the idea that technical proficiency and rulebook following were not the most important indicators of quality when it comes to an erotic romance e-book (or, I’d argue, any piece of writing). Creativity, absolutely, is the number one most valuable element in these genres. My favorite writers regularly came up with delightful plots I could never dream of: a meet-cute involving fainting goats on top of a farmhouse; a kooky older woman who refused to let her children get married until they performed a ceremony involving what she believed to be the most sacred vegetable, the beet; a thrilling kidnapping climax where the pregnant heroine shoots a harpoon gun at her captor on a sailboat in the middle of a tropical storm. Editing creative moments like these was a highlight.
I was a good editor for this type of writing, thanks no doubt to the 600 hours I spent at my previous job helping students at all ability levels. The writing center policy—and thus the editing style I developed while there—was to be “non-directive and non-evaluative,” which meant that I had a knack for tact and enjoyed finding the good in the worst and the great in the best. I also respected kink from the get-go, meaning my onboarding process did not include the nervous giggles and overcompensation that many other new editors had to move past. And yet, I burned out quickly, leaving after only a year.
There was sexual assault, though the books would never call it that, not if it was done by the hero. I edited stories where the hero started having sex with the heroine while she was asleep, or didn’t tell her anything about BDSM but started being extremely physically aggressive. It was common for the hero to “help” the heroine by undressing her while she was passed out or asleep, groping her naked body. Once, I remember a hero admiring the hot, naked, and unconscious body of a heroine who had been battered and beaten by a villain, imagining in vivid detail what it would be like to have sex with her. Her body was covered in dirt and blood. If a heroine started off saying “no” but ended up saying “yes,” it wasn’t rape. If she came or made sounds that indicated she was enjoying it, even if she started off telling him to stop, it wasn’t rape.
And the gaslighting and emotional abuse. Oh, the gaslighting! Our heroes told women why and how they were constantly wrong, why they were crazy, why they needed to trust more, why they didn’t understand, how they were so silly and needed to be taught a lesson. Strangely, heroines were regularly running from evil, abusive husbands spewing profanity and waving knives, and they were running into the arms of their “true love(s)” who often controlled everything from the food on their plate to the clothes they wore to the things they were allowed to say.
This content, it’s important to recognize, is fiction, and I regularly questioned my negative reaction. If it’s escapist fantasy that gives readers pleasure, is it really sexist? After all, BDSM isn’t abuse when understood and done correctly. Who was I to say what women should be allowed to read? I never quite came to satisfactory answers, but I knew the fictions were full of damaging stereotypes and, whether I liked it or not, were quickly wearing me down.
It’s strange to realize that, in fact, it’s readers’ demands that drive this sort of content. The rules we had were less about morality and more about what sold well or didn’t. Our primarily female readership loved—and spent a lot of money on—MM stories, especially when they were members of packs of men who could shift into wolves or bears or big cats, a.k.a. “shifters.” They were often offensive. Our MM books regularly told stereotypical tales of strong, hairy, muscled men topping thin, gentle guys that our writers seemed set on portraying simply as stand-ins for equally stereotypical ideas of women. By contrast, FF stories were so undesired that they were automatically published in our lower-tier imprint, no matter how good the writing was. As a bisexual woman, I was desperate to edit FF books—something that might actually turn me on!—but I was considered one of the higher caliber editors at the company and thus was assigned the bestsellers.
Editors were rarely permitted to suggest changes to anything but the most offensive content. I remember one book that included a character who was paraplegic, and was centered around the idea that he was not a full man. In the end, love and magic grant him the use of his legs once again. The language throughout the story was explicitly ableist and the premises even more so. But after writing pages about how to address these issues, I was eventually limited by my lead editors (who were sympathetic but equally limited by the guidelines of the publisher) to a few gentle sentences of suggestions, which ended up boiling down to small word changes.
My work editing erotica thrilled me at times. I had favorite authors who made me laugh and created romances that felt real and organic. I loved seeing writers improve. And I got a rush of competitive satisfaction when the books I’d edited climbed to the top of our website’s “bestsellers” list, unseating the books edited by my friends. This industry engenders loyalty in even the smallest ways.
There were some dull and bitter days when I wanted to mock everything: every misspelling; every sentence that just wasn’t right; every contrived plot. And we did our best, my colleagues and I, while we messaged each other crazy quotes and premises. But there’s a numbness that comes with laying down brick after brick of droll, high-minded vitriol until you’ve built a wall of scorn and condescension that leaves you unable to engage in a human way with the work that you’ve been tasked with improving and, in a sense, caring about. It’s useless and destructive to care more about maintaining your own sense of superiority than about seeing a piece of writing visibly improve—by working collaboratively and with the best interests of both the writer and the reader in mind.
But despite the satisfaction of an editing job well done, the work came to exhaust and demoralize me. The office had rules about not speaking during work. We were meant to churn out a lot of books, and communication evidently disrupted the editing flow. I can’t argue with that logic, but I can also say that I went days at a time without speaking out loud, where the only conversations in my life were along the lines of a young virgin asking how she could possibly satisfy all four brothers at once and a beefy blond man responding “well, darlin’, how many holes do you have?” (The words may be paraphrased because time warps memory, but it was a very real scene I had to read.)
I lived a very isolated life during that year. My roommates never changed from strangers to friends. The people I knew from college were never really friends and they moved to expensive places like Europe or New York and we didn’t speak. My mother was always in pain and my dad was always angry and phone calls from my parents were always bad news. I spent weekends running 3.2 miles each day and then driving to the suburbs to watch a movie or eat a burrito with my mother. I drove back every evening with a tense jaw, and then I went to work the next morning and said no words out loud and ate SmartOnes frozen diet meals and read about women narrowing their lives to the point where their happiness came only from men who called them darlin’.
I began to develop an eating disorder. Editing romance novels did not give me the eating disorder—if only the cause and effects of the illness were as neatly discernible as that—but the routine and the silence and the constant exposure to exhausting and unrealistic gender expectations, which I had very little ability to change, did make it easier to focus on the singular goal of shrinking and streamlining my body. I was fond of the idea that I was an editor, not just as a profession but as an identity, editing everything, including my body. I wasn’t as nice to my body as I was to the writers.
As time went on I felt more like a party trick and a robot. At the end of the workday, I wasn’t able to clear my mind of demeaning language and abusive situations from the stories, and when I slept I had fitful dreams, mostly about my mom dying and horny men turning into wolves and women with bruises. I got bored of hearing strangers I met at bars tell me I must have the best job ever. I got tired of feeling like a salacious novelty when my job was actually rote and numbing. I stopped caring about commas. Every sexist line of dialogue stuck with me. I was gritting my teeth all day at work and all night as I slept.
When I submitted my resignation letter, I received no reply from my boss. Authors are stars in the industry, but editors tend to be considered disposable. I moved away, I got other jobs, disproving again and again the many folks who liked to make jokes about my future as a teacher or barista, and I told fewer and fewer jokes about doing control-F searches for explicit words. My memories have faded and my bitterness is tempered. My stories of the erotica industry have lost some of the specificity and the sharp edges that once made them so appealing at parties. But in return I have more choice over what I read, over the narratives I expose myself to, and the fictional relationships I become invested in. Choice is, after all, the most important thing the romance novel industry offers, and I made mine.