Over the last 15 years, I’ve edited over 60 erotica anthologies featuring over 600 authors. I’ve read thousands of stories, and wanted to share some of the elements I look for in the ones I accept. Right now I’m editing three anthologies for Cleis Press, and welcome submissions, especially by writers I haven’t worked with before! (Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 6 is open to authors who are women, gender nonconforming, genderqueer and/or nonbinary, while my bondage erotica and women’s orgasm anthologies are open to all authors.)
The most important advice I can give you is to read and follow the guidelines. With every anthology I’ve edited, I’ve received submissions that don’t meet the guidelines, regarding word count, subject matter or in other ways that automatically disqualify them. I also highly recommend reading or listening to some of the stories I’ve previously published. This will give you an idea of what I’m looking for, although I’m always seeking the next story that will totally blow my mind.
Beyond those basics, here are five elements I look for when selecting stories:
By surprise, I don’t necessarily mean a shocking plot twist, but something about the story that surprises me as a reader. That could be an unusual take on a theme, such as a story I published in my anthology The Mile High Club: Plane Sex Stories, about someone who walks on the wings of planes. Or it could simply be a way of telling the story or plotline I never could have anticipated. Maybe it’s a futuristic scenario with inventive sci fi elements, or a type of sex toy I’ve never heard of, or simply a tender moment or description that stops me in my tracks. My biggest job as an anthology editor is to keep readers engaged for 20 to 25 stories, even when all the stories touch on the same theme. So any time an author can surprise me, I’m always intrigued.
At its heart, erotica is about people, and I look for stories with characters who are vivid and memorable, who make me want to know more about them, who I could imagine reading a whole book about. I want characters with distinct personalities and points of view, whose sexual journey is only part of their story. These characters don’t have to be ones I’d want to be friends with or likeable, but they should feel real.
Providing diverse perspectives to readers is one of my biggest jobs as an anthology editor, lest readers feel like they are reading a version of the same story over and over. I aim to publish collections that offer diversity regarding race, age, sexual orientation, gender, religion, setting, personality types, sexual experience and sex acts (see below for more on that), as well as writing style. I am especially seeking ownvoices stories, though marginalized authors should not feel restricted to only writing ownvoices stories. I want to showcase as wide a range of desires as I can.
Real Life Elements
While many, if not most, people read erotica to escape, as do I, I also have a deep appreciation for erotic stories that reflect the realities of life, that feel true to readers’ lived experiences. I want to offer readers both elaborate fantasies and stories that allow them to see themselves within my pages. I want to acknowledge that hot sex in reality isn’t an isolated act that only takes place when everything else about our life lines up perfectly. I want to publish stories that explore hopes, fears, emotional struggles, mental health, physical health, divorce, workplace drama, and other aspects of life that are familiar to many.
Some of the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year stories I’m most proud to have published feature characters using sexuality as a way to help them heal and move forward in a challenging world. These included “Infused Leather” by Dr. J., about a woman with a leather fetish who’s worked to move past the abuse she experienced as a child, in Volume 3, as well as “Her Invisible Prison” by Jocelyn Dex in Volume 4, a deeply moving about a woman with agoraphobia whose lover helps her take literal steps out of her house. While lovers are integral parts of these characters’ healing, neither are stories about a woman being weak or needing rescue. They are about human connection, and how the intimacy of a lover who cares about a character’s mind as well as body can have a powerful impact. I welcome stories that don’t shy away from the reality of our often dark world, where sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and other systems of oppression are confronted through the lens of these characters. While all stories I publish must be solidly erotic, I know that doesn’t preclude them from offering powerful antidotes to the hatefulness of the world.
While I don’t expect the sex acts in erotica to necessarily be ones I’ve never heard of, I try to offer as wide a range of sexual acts and approaches as I can. This can include varied sexual positions, locations, sex toys, settings, and number of people involved (I rarely receive masturbation stories but I am definitely open to them). I welcome stories that bring new insights into sexuality, desire, and sexual fantasy. Echoing what I said earlier, my biggest job is offering readers variety among the stories contained in each book, and that especially goes for the sex within erotica. So anything authors can do to add variety, sexual tension and nuance is useful. Give me the kind of scorching-hot sex that (there’s that word again) surprises me and will make readers eagerly turn pages, then not be able to stop thinking about the sex they’ve just read about. Sex can happen in the beginning, middle or end of a story—or in all three!
I’m also just as interested in the mental side of sex as the physical, and look for stories that don’t just show me what characters are doing, but why. I want to know how the sex in the story impacts this character, how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into their previous experience. What’s sex like for a virgin? What’s sex like for a woman who’s had hundreds of partners? What’s erotic for a sex worker when they’re not working? How has sex and desire changed for your character at 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 than it was when they were younger?
With those tips in mind, I look forward to reading your submissions for any or all of these anthologies!