How e-readers took the embarrassment out of erotic fiction

Arifa Akbar explains how the digital revolution has made sex the hottest genre in literature

Most of us know who E L James is by now.

We've read about the extraordinary success of Fifty Shades of Grey, her bestselling, sadomasochistic romance that became an e-reading sensation, even if we haven't yet thumbed through its pages. The debut novel, which has a sexually graphic narrative following the passions of a virginal college student and her rich and powerful lover, began life as a viral word-of-mouth hit, selling more than 250,000 copies as a download before it had even been published as a conventional book. Its success is not unique, and points to a blossoming, red-blooded trend.

The e-reading phenomenon has led to a rise in the sales of erotic and romantic fiction that readers may previously have felt too inhibited to buy and read in public. Now, without the embarrassment of a dust-jacket, readers have begun to download such works in growing numbers.

James's book made record sales for an erotic fiction title last month and became the UK No 1 bestseller. The mother of two, who refuses to reveal her first name and age (forty-something), used an Australian virtual publisher, The Writers' Coffee Shop, to bring out Fifty Shades of Grey as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback in September 2011. She went on to publish two more volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Since then, the first in the trilogy has rocketed up the New York Times bestseller list and the film rights have been sold to a Hollywood producer for $5m. A paperback was published in Britain last month, and it has since been flying off the shelves, shifting a grand total of 60,000 copies per week.

Tom Tivnan, features and supplements editor at The Bookseller, says that we are increasingly reading soft porn and romance titles on e-readers, partly because there is far less risk of being "caught out" with such material. "The e-reader is the new brown paper bag," he says, adding that "there's a rise in what is being called 'mommy porn' [sexy fiction read by mothers] and it's interesting that a lot of erotica e-books are selling really, really well."

The statistics back up his view: 50 per cent of the erotica market is in e-books, compared to around 20 per cent of general fiction. Mills & Boon, the long-established publisher of paperback romances, has not only brought out a steamier series, but 40 per cent of their trade is now electronic. The fact that racier reads, and garishly packaged "bonk-busters" can be downloaded has removed the embarrassment factor in buying them, says Mr Tivnan.

"Booksellers used to call erotic fiction the 'sandwich' books," he says, referring to the popular habit of buying a "dirty" book by furtively tucking it in between two less embarrassing works of fiction.

Jojo Moyes, a bestselling romance novelist, says the relationship between electronic reading and romance fiction is much the same. Her latest novel, Me Before You, has become the biggest e-seller across all of Penguin's titles so far this year, a remarkable feat given the size and stature of the publishing house.

"The rise of the e-book is working in my benefit," says Moyes. "Me Before You has attracted a whole slew of male readers. I've never had this before. I've suddenly started getting all these email and Twitter messages from men, as they've realised that they don't have to sit on the Tube reading a book with a pink cover. The fear of this pink cover is removed with an e-reader. I was reading a filthy bit from [the fantasy novel] A Game of Thrones on an e-reader on the Tube recently, but no-one could tell. I could have been reading Proust – and I obviously was!" she adds.

Mitzi Szereto, an erotic fiction author whose recent titles include Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts and Red Velvet and Absinthe: Paranormal Erotic Romance, says that while sales of her books have certainly been buoyed by e-books, the conventional packaging and marketing of erotic fiction needs to be revised and modernised, so that "sandwich" book-buying can become a thing of the past.

"Some people still feel a bit embarrassed to read (or be seen reading) material that is sexually explicit... [but] if a book is not packaged in such a way as to look – for lack of a better word – pornographic, then there probably wouldn't be a need for the more inhibited reader to keep the material under wraps.

Ithink this is a major factor that has made Fifty Shades of Grey so popular and acceptable," Szereto adds. "It looks like a [non-erotic] novel, and it's packaged like a [non-erotic] novel. I've been saying for years that erotic fiction needs to get out of the ghetto. A lot of it is no more explicit than anything you'd find on the mainstream fiction shelves, but when you put a cover on a book that makes someone embarrassed to walk up to the till with it, or be seen reading it on the Tube, then the perception of it will not change. Hopefully Fifty Shades of Grey will help remove some of these perceptions."

James conceived her novel on an internet "fan fiction" forum. As an avid reader of Stephenie Meyer's vampire trilogy, Twilight, she began writing the book as an imaginative off-shoot to the vampire series.

The online forum on which she first wrote gave her instant exposure and readership. Tivnan points out that fan fiction – amateur works inspired by professional writers – is a trend that thrives in the Sci-Fi and fantasy genres, and that publishers scout for talent on these forums. But, he stresses, James's success is very rare, and hard to replicate. "The forums act as slush piles for publishers and agents who pick up on the successes, but most fan fiction makes no money at all."

James's detractors have criticised her for extending beyond "fan fiction", which is supposed to pay homage to a writer's work – Meyers's trilogy in her case – without taking on its own autonomous existence. A publicist from Arrow defended James on this count, pointing out that while she published an earlier, serialised version of the story online under the title Master of the Universe, this book had not evolved in to the trilogy it is today, and even featured different characters. "These books [James's trilogy] are not fan fiction, though their origins are," she says.

Moyes, meanwhile, believes that James's success lies in her careful balance between traditional romance and soft porn. "I think it's the kind of thing that might appeal to people who bought the Lovers' Guide video, people who want to venture into porn but in an acceptable manner. That's why this has taken off."

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