There is an internet meme called Rule 34 which states: ”If you can think of it, there is a fetish for it.” Rule 35 follows: ”If no such porn exists, it will be made.”
The publishers of the electronic-book arm of Harlequin, that grand dame of the paperback romance, understand these immutable laws better than most. Carina Press sells e-book romance in 11 categories and 17 spin-off niches – including Amish, dragon, angel and demons, space opera, paranormal, fantasy and time travel – reaching to the edges of cyberspace to corral a readership of the most eclectic kind.
The personal tastes of Carina’s chief executive, Angela James, run to steampunk, cyberpunk and a discreet touch of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) and she jokes online she’s still looking for the author who will write her a space cowboy book in the vein of Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
But love stories laced with buffed blokes and sexually game heroines are the genre’s current hot ticket.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic romance novel written by an obscure British author and mother of two, featuring college student Anastasia and her millionaire beau who hides a secret sexual predilection for whips and floggers.
This month the trilogy made the jump from underground fan-based fiction to mass market, landing a seven-figure advance for the US rights from Vintage/Random House, and a six-figure sum for the British and Commonwealth rights.
”I certainly see why readers find it compelling,” James says, ”though it’s certainly not the most well-written or original book, especially given its start as Twilight fan fiction.
“But clearly there’s a perfect storm of story elements that make it attractive to a commercial fiction audience, and anything that increases the profile of romance, books and publishing is a win for all of us.”
While fans argue over the ethics of a storyline spun from the Twilight franchise and critics dispute its literary merit, Fifty Shades stands as a remarkable example of the convergence between old and new publishing models. Its author, E.L. James, started without a major publisher and marketing machine behind her, her re-imagined tale of the Bella and Edward love affair being published by an unknown Sydney amateur fiction publisher.
A US fan base loyal to Twilight promoted the books on Facebook, Twitter and book review sites such as goodreads.com, generating a word-of-mouth buzz that eventually went viral.
Without the changes brought by the digital age, Fifty Shades would probably never have made its way out of a publisher’s pile of rejected manuscripts, a Macquarie University media studies academic, Associate Professor Sherman Young, says.
Digital proved itself the perfect low-cost vehicle for bringing the experimental, risky story to market while social media substituted for the literary critic and the publicist.
It was Young who in 2007 wrote The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book, a prescient prediction of the migration of the physical book from page to screen. Young’s observations were made before the advent of the Kindle and iPad.
Publishing is not dying but it is in the midst of enormous upheaval not seen since the invention of the Gutenberg press.
The arrival of the internet retailer Amazon and its aggressive strategy to sell e-books at a loss to build market share has benefited consumers but undermined the very business model of the big publishers. In some eyes, its platforms for self-publishing have rendered the entire author-agent-publisher relationship obsolete.
Publishers are making e-books available simultaneously with p-books and are converting backlists. Only one big Australian publisher, Pan Macmillan, has established its own straight-to-digital imprint although others are soon to follow.
The agency model, the means by which the six major US publishers have effectively limited Amazon’s deep discounting, is under investigation by the US Justice Department and the European Union.
The effect of publishers setting a cover price for e-books is more expensive books, but authors such as Salman Rushdie argue that to break this system would be to ”destroy the world of books”, denying a fair return to story creators and their editors.
The digital world is a riotous jungle, publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe concedes, posing all sorts of technical and practical challenges for traditional publishers. But the structural changes under way may be the least of the publishers’ problems.
Rosenbloom has warned of a precipitous drop in the value of Australian bookshops’ print-book sales, as measured by BookScan. Down 17.5 per cent in December last year, compared with the same period in 2010, the sales trend is accelerating.