I do Q&As fairly regularly in a bunch of different contexts, sometimes on blogs, very rarely live (like the lovely event that Cathy Berner was kind enough to host at the Blue Willow Bookshop recently) but the Q, or rather set of Qs, that I’m going to A today is one that seems to be coming up quite a lot at the moment. It gets phrased in a bunch of different ways and I’m going to try to address various aspects of it in this post but a broad summary of what you might call the ur-question goes something like: why do your books have a lower heat level now and is it because of pressure from your publishers and/or commercial expectations.
So this is going to be a mini FAQ about my books, sex, and the commercial realities of publishing as I understand them (which, honestly, probably isn’t very well).
Q: Why do your books have a lower heat level than they used to?
Short answer: I don’t actually think they have.
Long answer: To date, my back catalogue consists of Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (technically this is front catalogue), Boyfriend Material, the 3 Ardy books, the four Kate Kane books, 3 full length novels and 1 novella in the Spires series, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Looking for Group, and 1 novel, a short story collection, and a novella in the Prosperityverse. Of these 16 novels, 2 novellas and a short story collection there’s one standalone novel, and one trilogy explicitly written in response to a Certain Very Popular Series About A BDSM Billionaire, that I would categorise as high heat. They also happen to have been my successful books prior to Boyfriend Material, which might account for perception that my work is, on average, more explicitly erotic than it actually is.
To break it down, because this wouldn’t be an AJH blog post if it didn’t get needlessly detailed, of the remaining 12 books, that is the other three quarters, and ignoring for a moment the two most recent ones because they’re the ones that people tend to feel are lower heat than the rest: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter has no on-page sex and virtually no on-page romance, Looking For Group has no on-page sex, Waiting for the Flood has no on-page sex, about half the short stories in Liberty & Other Stories contain no on-page sex, and neither Prosperity nor the Liberty stories include on-page sex between Dil and Byron Kae, the actual main couple of the series. Prosperity, Glitterland, There Will Be Phlogiston and Pansies have on-page sex in them but I don’t think they’re particularly higher heat than the sex in, for example, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake. The Kane Kane books have a varying amount of sex of a varying level of explicitness depending on what’s going on in Kate’s life at the time. Sometimes she is too busy trying to avoid being murdered as part of a massive supernatural conspiracy to bang.
Anyway the overall takeaway is that the really “high heat” bits of what I (and I hope people realise this is ironic) might call the AJH canon actually come from a fairly narrow window kind of in the middle of my career and at least one of the two books that are seen as lower heat is—in my estimation—about on par with the rest of my work. And even Boyfriend Material I’d argue is higher heat than Looking For Group, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Waiting of the Flood and several of the Liberty stories.
Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of commercial expectations?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: yes, but not in the way people mean.
When I started writing in this subgenre (the rant about whether it is appropriate to treat “books with LGBTQ+ people in them” as a subgenre I will save for another day) LGBTQ+ romance was, if not synonymous with m/m romance, then very strongly overlapping with it. And while I think that the characterisation of m/m in that era as being primarily by and for an audience of heterosexual cis women is problematic and to some extent false there was a set of commercial pressures that were very real and that steered books in a particular direction. Fans of the Kate Kane series are, I am sure, well-aware that my record of getting those books out on a reasonable schedule has been spotty and a big part of the reason for this is that at the time I started writing the series my then publishers—and, in their defence, the market as a whole—had a very strong sense what kind of books sold and that sense was “contemporary romances about two young cisgendered white men with explicit on-page sex”. And as a result of that commercial pressure that is where my energies went in my early and honestly mid career.
I’m very proud of For Real (insofar as I’m capable of being proud of anything I’ve done which, since I’m British, is to a limited extent) and I think there is a story in it that I really wanted to tell (and that specific story could not have told without the specific “heat level” of that book). But part of the reason that I made the choice to tell that story over one of the many, many other stories I could have been telling was that I knew my then publisher had a strong interest in publishing and promoting stories with a high level of kink. And, for whatever reason, until Boyfriend Material, For Real was my most successful book. So the commercial decision I made to prioritise the story that involves a lot of BDSM rather than, say, the story about two nerdboys playing video games or the story about the messed-up lesbian investing paranormal mysteries was validated.
But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that what I really want to be writing, deep in my innermost heart, is “books in which I write a lot of explicit on-page sex” and not “books that tell a range of LGBTQ+ stories across a range of genres and heat levels.”
If anything, my need to respond to commercial pressures has only lessened over my career. The more people who’ve heard of you and the more your “brand” is worth, the more you’re able to say “do you want this book I’d like to write” instead of “do you want this book, it’s a bit like a lot of things that have been very successful in the current market.”
Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of pressure from your publisher?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: still no.
And part of this is because, as explained above, I’ve kind of deliberately pitched what I’m writing at where the market is throughout my career (otherwise I wouldn’t have a career). But I have never had a publisher say can you put more/less sex in this book.
I’ve occasionally had very early-stage conversations with putative editors whose initial feedback has been “this book needs another sex scene” (and, again, the trend has almost always been asking for more sex, not less sex) but that’s been in the “deciding if we’ll be a good fit” stage not the “actually working together” stage.
Obviously, I can’t answer for all authors and all editors, but in my now-coming-up-for-ten-years’ experience is that while publishers might have expectations about the amount of on-page sex in a particular type of book (it’d quite hard to sell an erotic romance with just kisses) they tend not to have strong opinions about the specific amount and type of sex there should be in a specific book. Obviously, editors give feedback on sex scenes as they give feedback on all scenes, but it’s usually about the role that the scene plays in the text and how the characters are interacting in it not about “heat.”
Q: Why is the sex in Boyfriend Material relatively off-page?
Short answer: because it felt right for the book.
Long answer: Actually quite a few reasons. I wrote Boyfriend Material specifically to evoke the Richard Curtis romcoms of the 1990s and early 2000s. And those, not to put too fine a point on it, are called Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, not Four Weddings and a Deep Dicking, Fisting Hill, and Fuck Actually. Of course there are romcoms, both within the romance book subgenre and the cinematic genre, that have more sexual content but it’s a big pool and I wasn’t swimming at that end of it.
More broadly, when I write a sex scene, no matter how “hot” or “not” it is, I’m primarily thinking about what role that scene plays in the overall book. It’s basically like a fight scene: you don’t have your heroine just walk up to someone in a bar and punch them to show she’s good at fighting. You might, if you wanted you wanted to show she was the sort of person who would walk up to someone in a bar and punch them. But those are different things.
For me, for a sex scene to earn its place in a romance novel, it needs to develop or demonstrate character, or show an aspect of the relationship or building intimacy between characters that can’t be shown better in another way. In LFG, they do a lot of kissing, and I think it’s implied they are having sex during the latter half of the book, but mainly they play computer games together because that’s what intimacy looks like to those two characters. In other words, it’s their love language. Similarly, Edwin in Waiting for the Flood, makes a cup of tea for Adam. He doesn’t go down on him. Because, again, different characters express affection, desire and connection differently.
To return to Boyfriend Material, I did actually try a couple of more explicit sex scenes but they didn’t work. They didn’t reveal anything about Luc and Oliver that isn’t communicated more successfully either elsewhere in the book or in the intimate scene leading up to the actual sex. And I realised that, because Luc has had the sordid details of his personal life splashed over the tabloids for years, it wasn’t right for him to be narrating the … no pun intended … ins and outs of a specific sexual encounter that actually meant a lot to him emotionally.
Q: Why is there no PIV sex in Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake
Short answer: this one is complicated
Long answer: I will say that this isn’t a question that I’ve been asked directly in these exact words. But I have inferred it from some of things people have said to me about Rosaline, particularly about the final sex scene. It’s often perceived as low heat or even closed door when, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fairly explicit sex scene. It very specifically describes what bits of which people go where, it’s just that the bits being described are hands, vibrators, and mouths. Not, well, penises going into vaginas.
One of my very strong goals (and, as ever, I make no claim to have achieved it) in writing Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake was to write a romance novel about a bisexual woman who winds up with a heterosexual man but that nevertheless feels resolutely like a queer book. And, obviously, queer women can enjoy PIV sex (many of them do and, of course, conversely many straight women don’t) but it felt genuinely important to me that, in a book that nails its colour firmly to the “bi women are queer even if they’re in a relationship with a man” mast, to avoid defaulting to the assumption that sex only counts if it involves a penis going into a vagina.
A lot of the themes in the book are about sex and sexuality and heteronormativity and especially the way that heteronormative assumptions, or the perceptions of a heteronormative society, impact queer people. I don’t like to over-analyse my own texts but there’s reason why I included two scenes where Rosaline and her then partner are going to have sex where Rosaline says she hasn’t got any condoms, and one of them responds by immediately running to get condom so that they enact heteronormative sex the only way he feels is valid, and the other responds by saying “that’s okay, we can still do a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t need one.”
For me personally, and as ever perceptions differ and mileage varies, the sex scene at the end of Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake is more explicit and “hotter” than, for example, most of the sex scenes in Glitterland. But because the sex scenes in Glitterland are … um … anal between two men I suspect they code as hotter to some readers. Which is a valid reading, it’s just not my reading.
Q: Will Husband Material have a higher heat level than Boyfriend Material?
Short answer: probably not
Long answer: still probably not. Pretty much everything I said about why BM is low heat will still apply to HM. If the book reaches a point where I or my editor really feel there’s something that could only be communicated with an on-page sex scene then I will include one. Otherwise I won’t.
Q: Will you be writing high heat books in the future?
Short answer: yes
Longer answer: I find this kind of thing difficult because I don’t think of my books in those terms. If I took a totally clinical/baseball metaphor approach then I could probably look through my existing books and say “well this one has kissing, this one has oral, this one has anal” but I really don’t like categorising books by what sex acts are in them and to me that breakdown doesn’t really capture the nebulous quality of “hotness”. Then again, I thought Rosaline was hotter than Glitterland, so what do I know?
I’ve finally had the opportunity to come back to the Spires series and I currently anticipate that the next Spires book will involve on-page sex of the kind that is more likely to code as conventionally “high heat”. Several of my other upcoming releases will also include on-page sex of varying levels of explicitness, although fair warning there is at least one more coming out that involves no on-page sex at all.
Essentially, I’m just going to keep doing what—from my perspective—I’ve been doing all along. Which is writing books that may or may not have sex in them depending on what type of book it is and whether it feels right the story and the characters.