Mainstream Smut & the Future of Cooperation Between Legacy Publishers and E-Books

There’s a book story that’s been making the rounds lately. It’s a book called Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (a pseudonym). It started out as an ebook and then went through a huge bidding war before it was bought by a major publishing house. It’s been compared to the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series, which is why the big bidding war took place. But the history of this book is a little, well, um, interesting.

You see, the book isn’t a young adult book. It’s an adult book. A very adult book. It’s basically a book about bondage and discipline, where a young woman gets drawn into a world where some dominant guy becomes her master. Most of the time, a book like this ends up being marginalized and sold as ebook smut. Such a book is very, very difficult to sell mainstream.

Yet, it happened. It became that “book” that adults bought (most often the demographic of housewives, which is another story itself) but didn’t really reveal they were reading. Now, the big publishing companies AND movie companies, see this as the next big thing and are looking to market it because of its success as an ebook.

Well, that’s going to be interesting, to say the least. You see, the book did really well because it was an ebook. Think about that for a second. When you buy an ebook, you can read it in public, and almost no one has a clue what you’re reading. But bring a book onto the train (an actual book) and everyone knows what you’re reading. That’s going to make it really difficult to get people to want to read this book in public. That’s going to kill a lot of chances of selling it to the mainstream public because it’s going to be the equivalent of reading erotica in public. Good luck on that one.

Yet, the publishing industry it’s got the next Twilight on its hands.

What this is actually showing me is that the Legacy Publishers (the ones who still print books and then ebooks as an afterthought) are starting to realize that ebooks are a viable market that might slowly overcome the old style market. Yet, I don’t think they understand the nuances involved in ebooks versus mainstream books.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I also have an adult book out there somewhere being sold as an ebook. It’s written under a completely different name, mainly because I chose a long time ago to distance my writing name from that other stuff. It’s not that I’m not proud of the other novel, or even ashamed of it. I just realized that for simple, rational (and sometimes irrational) reasons, people are often more comfortable separating the two names for the types of books that are published under those names. Throughout history, mainstream writers have done this as a precaution to keep the two camps of readers apart.

An example: Some years back, there was a series of books written by John Norman (the pseudonym of John Frederick Lange, Jr.) about a mythical land called Gor. It was one of those series that had a huge following, basically taking a complete life of its own. The premise of it centered around a civilization of highly structured slavery. This series has spawned into a lifestyle culture of people who partake in the culture of living a Gorean lifestyle, which generally revolves around a strong master/slave society. Sometimes the genders are mixed (as in sometimes its female controlled, but most often it tends to gravitate towards a male dominant household). Anyway, because the ideas of his novels were so against the mainstream thought, Norman remained the header on all of these stories and Lange made every effort to keep his secret identity. During the 1970s, as the series was at its zenith, a woman I knew named Laura figured out who the author was, including where he was teaching and confronted him directly about it. For years, he protested his involvement but then eventually he gave in, realizing that secret was quickly catching up with him. Today, pretty much everyone who has ever read these books knows exactly who was the author. Fortunately for him, he was already so famous as a writer that it didn’t actually affect his teaching career.

The same kind of thing happened when vampire-story writer Anne Rice was revealed to be writing under a number of names that published books on male and female lifestyle slavery. Because she was already so famous as a novelist, these revelations didn’t hurt her career, and then soon after her identity was discovered, she started writing religious fiction, and her career has really never returned to the power career it once was.

What is interesting to note about all of these cases is that the stories themselves never really became mainstream. Even Rice’s book, Exit to Eden, which became a major motion picture some years ago starring Dan Ackroyd and Rosie Odonnell, never really became the hot seller as a mainstream novel. And the reason is simple: It was perceived by mainstream America as smut. Which is sad because it’s a brilliantly written novel (and a horrible movie adaptation that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the book).

So, as this “new” series moves into mainstream writing, I’m wondering how it is going to do in that realm. All attempts to bring S&M into mainstream have never succeeded. Madonna tried to do it for years, and every time she did, she continued to remain famous, but those attempts (including a picture book, several songs and videos and even a major motion picture) continue to remain obscure in her collection of mainstream releases. Recently, even Rihanna tried to present such material to a mass audience, and she was criticized for responding badly to her scandal of how she had been beaten by her boyfriend (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, as her adventures in that realm only served to be used as continued criticism…making some kind of weird connection to PTSD from being beaten by Chris Brown as her motivation behind why she’d do a move into S&M music video…yeah, the argument didn’t make a lot of sense to me either at the time).

The upshot of the whole thing is that no matter how hard people try, fringe sexual activity is rarely ever going to be seen as acceptable by sex-obsessed Americans who pretend to be shocked when they secretly covet all sorts of different sexual material. It’s like a politician who screams “sinner” at random strangers while having an affair with another woman to hide his predilection for having sex with children. America has never really made a lot of sense.

But expect to see a lot of shocked faces when people start to realize what they actually bought into now that everyone has jumped on the popularity of a bdsm book that publishers are convinced is ready for the mass public. I think they’re ready, but I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.

duaneMainstream Smut & the Future of Cooperation Between Legacy Publishers and E-Books

One Comment on ““Mainstream Smut & the Future of Cooperation Between Legacy Publishers and E-Books”

  1. Duane

    An interesting addendum to this article is that People Magazine’s site released an article today that talked about which actress should be cast to play the female lead in E.L. James’s book. What they didn’t bother to do with their article was mention what the story was actually about, kind of skipping that part of the article and writing as if the audience should already know. I found that kind of interesting, considering the fact that People is speculating over what actress will take the lead in an S&M movie, which is exactly what it will be. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of movie, but it should be pointed out that some of the actresses they mentioned wouldn’t be caught dead playing such a part. The article tried to make the story out as some kind of romance story, which is all fine and dandy, but honestly, the actual subject matter is going to need to come out a little before people walk into the theater and suddenly realize what’s on the screen. For me, I’m fine with it, but I get the impression a lot of others won’t be.

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