What Exactly Is The Difference Between Steamy Romance And Erotica?

If there's one question I get asked most often (other than, "What upcoming books do you recommend?"), it's what the difference between erotica and romance is these days. In my formative years, back when I was cutting my teeth on my beloved Herotica volumes edited by Susie Bright, it was easy to tell: Erotica was the stuff with full-on sexy times hidden in the back of the indie bookstore, while romance was the stuff that never mentioned any body part by name and took up an entire wall of my Waldenbooks.

Now, however, the line is much more blurred. Some of the steamier category romances will include fully descriptive sex, and when it comes to non-category? It often seems like they are erotica. 

So what's the difference? How can you tell a contemporary romance from a paranormal romance from erotica? 

First thing's first: the sex. I know you're saying "but almost all of them, except sweetheart and inspirational romance, have sex." True, but let's take a look at the exact definition of erotica. Merriam-Webster defines it as "literary or artistic works having an erotic theme or quality." (And apparently, their teachers never taught them not to use a word to define the same word.) You might argue that some of the hotter romances definitely could be said to have an erotic quality, but it's actually more than that.

Wikipedia takes it another step, by defining it as "any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter" and goes on to suggest that it differs from pornography in that erotica "has high-art aspirations." Taken that way, it sounds almost like erotica is really porn that tries too hard, but I think that's an oversimplification as well. 

The best definition I've found actually came from Jane Litte in a Publisher's Weekly article that pre-dates the Fifty Shades of Grey era (prophetically, the article began with a discussion of the popularity of Twilight driving readers looking for sexytimes in their novels), in which she defined erotica as, "when sex is the basis of the conflict." 

That's it in a nutshell. If a novel's driving force is the sex between the hero and heroine, or if sex is somehow the central theme of the novel, you'd call it erotica — or "erotic romance" or "erotic thriller" or whatever subgenre you'd like it to be. It's why M.J. Rose's Butterfield Institute series is marketed as an erotic thriller without a clear sexual relationship between a hero and a heroine in any of the books. And don't forget that how a book is marketed can be different from the content actually within the book. Then there's the fact that even books within the same series might not all stay within the strictures of one genre. (This may be why our reviews categorized Rose's series as both Mystery/Thriller and Romantic Suspense at various times.) 

What's clear, however, is that the classification is often in the eye of the beholder — and the publisher. Erotica is what's selling right now, and any time a publisher can market a book in a hot-selling genre, that's what will happen.

A general rule of thumb, however, is that if it's sex driving the story? It's erotica, or erotic <insert subgenre here>. If it's the story driving the sex? It's probably something else. 

What are some books that you think straddle the line between erotica and romance? Are there any titles you've read that have been misleading in terms of how they were categorized? Let us know in the comments! And for more erotic romance, visit our Everything Erotica Page.