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Without e-books, would there be “Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Hot summer reading

Lean-back technology is not only changing how we read, it is rapidly changing what we read, and publishers are rushing to fulfil the new demand.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is now the fastest selling paperback in history. Its sales records have broken even those set by “Harry Potter”, selling 397,889 paperbacks in the UK last week and total sales in excess of 10 million in the US. Numbers of e-books sold are not released by Amazon but “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its two sequels have occupied the numbers 1, 2 and 3 spots since publication, and there’s nothing in sight to knock them off. Except volumes 4 and 5 of the same series, which have just been announced

And what is “Fifty Shades of Grey”?  It is pornography. Its publisher, Random House, part of the Bertelsmann group, labels it ‘erotic fiction’ for a veneer of respectability, but everyone knows what they are buying.  It’s spawned the moniker “mummy-porn” because its author and original target audience are middle-aged women, though it has now gone far beyond that group.

Here’s the thing: it could never have become the fastest selling book in history without the tablet. It is cringe-making to go into a bookshop and ask the sales assistant for pornography. And it’s embarrassing to read it on a bus, train or plane.  But just as no one knows that you are a dog on the internet, no one knows what you are reading on a tablet. The back of the screen gives nothing away. Unless you have gone beetroot. So “Fifty Shades of Grey” worked entirely as a digital phenomenon to start with.  It became a buzz topic, widely discussed in social media (Mumsnet, perhaps?) and sold in record numbers as an e-book.  

And here is the really interesting thing: its success as an e-book has changed the world, and readers were encouraged to buy and openly read the paperback, so that you now see readers on park benches and buses openly reading the paperback. No one knows quite how this happened – it’s a completely new phenomenon – but it’s probably because, book lovers, like magazine readers, are reading both digital and physical books. Perhaps readers who enjoyed “Fifty Shades of Grey” on their tablets started to give it to their friends as paperbacks.  Before lean back 2.0, no one could ever have read top-shelf magazines or books in public. Now that’s changed.

Pornography, romance, science fiction and westerns – all categories of fiction not quite mainstream, which perhaps people don’t want to be seen reading – have seen huge growth in e-books. People are happy to buy and read them on tablets when they don’t want to be seen with the paperbacks. None of them, of course, were books to collect or treasure on one’s bookshelves.

Now mainstream publishers are wondering what is going to be next. But for the meantime they are piling heavily into pornography… sorry, erotic fiction.