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The great scandal of dirty ebooks

In the last couple of weeks the world of publishing was deeply shaken by a weird, unexpected scandal. It all began when the rather yellow online tabloid The kernel went for the kill with an article exposing how Amazon «cashes in on filth». The writer had searched the million-strong catalog of the largest online bookstore in the world and he reported his shock in finding hundreds of titles dealing with illegal sexual acts, such as rape, bestiality or incest. What was the giant of book distribution scheming, behind that suspiciously smiling company logo? Once you peel off the many layers of manipulative righteousness, the truth is quite simple to spot. Amazon – like most other online bookstores – simply allows anybody to self-publish his works in digital format. This leads to an enormous and barely visible market composed of thousands and thousands of ebooks that no sane publisher would ever even consider: soporific autobiographies of boring unknowns, awful poetry collections, unreadable fan fictions (50 shades of Grey began life as one), unbelievably dull essays… and amateur erotica. Lots of it, in fact.

Most self-published porn is just badly written, some of it get extremely weird, but in a number of cases the right of free expression is in fact strained to its limits – especially considering it is sold just one click away from Peppa Pig collections. Titles like Naughty daughter abducted and pounded by Daddy’s cock: anal sex and BDSM with my step father (Taboo daddy daughter erotica) have always been freely available on specialized websites, yet seeing them on a family-friendly e-store raises an eyebrow or two. But is it really so? Apparently not. The kernel’s article admitted that most “extreme” books can only be reached by accessing their pages directly. This looks like a simple courtesy digital bookstores are offering to fringe writers to allow their right of free speech, then. But never underestimate the ability to mis-censor things.

The immediate reaction of several large digital retailers was to simply axe every single self-published erotica they had. Thousands of titles disappeared overnight, and only the «non-controversial» ones are being reinstated. Beside the (risible, really, but yet) loss of income damage this decision inflicted on the authors, it is interesting to know that the selection is mostly left to keywords-sifting software that can get it spectacularly wrong. Just one example: a classic book about forbidden love among nuns was killed off because its description contained the word ‘sister’. Anyway everything is already getting back to normal. Plain smut will be back soon on the virtual shelves, while “special interests erotica” continues to sell mostly through equally specialized sites – just a minor inconvenience for the true purveyors of these genres. The mess however shone a light on a rarely discussed phenomenon which is interesting to analyze.

First of all: how large could ever be the readership of self-published incest stories? Selena Kitt, one of their most proliferous writers with over 70 ebooks out, says her biggest earner sold over 75,000 copies and that her literary efforts earn her about half a million dollars a year. Not exactly what you’d call a small niche, it seems, especially factoring the huge competition. The precise size of this market was helpfully calculated by the Book genome project, a wonderful initiative born to catalog the actual contents of every book ever written. The powerful sorting algorithms of their servers ploughed through a sizeable sample of all self-published titles, and they discovered some stunning figures:

  • Erotica composes just 1.11% of traditional publishers’ catalogs, but a huge 28.57% of the self-publishing market
  • Of this erotica, 2.81% of the books contain «objectionable» material (more specifically, incest or bestiality)
  • Considering the traditional and self-published market as a whole, objectionable erotica titles outnumber many popular genres such as travel, music, cookery or sports

These raw data however must be interpreted under the light of the very different visibility and marketing mainstream publishing enjoys vs. self-publishing, but also the limitations of this definition of ‘objectionable’. What about rape, snuff porn, in example, or cannibal erotica, necrophilia or malicious ageplay stories? They are all real well-known genres, but they weren’t measured. And, by the way, why exactly books dealing with imaginary incest should be thought as worse offenders than detective stories, whose focus are equally imaginary murders? The debate about the literary dignity of “immoral” pornography has been raging for centuries with no end in sight.

While you think about what the amateur erotica conundrum really says about our society, however, please also read this great article about another Amazon sex puzzle. In it, the author raises two very simple questions: why the e-store was so quick to remove books, but they never stopped selling sex toys and even «tasty teen twins» sex dolls that could appear as “related suggestions” if you searched for ‘teen doll’? And why don’t family e-stores simply use a family filter to hide adult products from shockable eyes? What if the Kernel was right, but for the wrong reasons?

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