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."

Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star