MANY may now know who EL James is. We may have 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 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 last year. 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 $5 million.
The Bookseller features and supplements editor Tom Tivnan says we are reading soft porn and romance titles on e-readers, partly because of far less risk of being "caught out" with such material.
"The e-reader is the new brown paper bag," Tivnan says, adding that "there's a rise in what is being called mummy 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% of the erotica market is in e-books, compared with 20% of general fiction.
Mills & Boon, the long-established publisher of paperback romances, has not only brought out a steamier series, but 40% of their trade is now also electronic. The fact that racier reads and garishly packaged "bonk-busters" can be downloaded has removed the embarrassment factor in buying them, Tivnan says.
"Booksellers used to call erotic fiction the 'sandwich' books," he says, referring to the popular habit of buying a "dirty" book by tucking it in between two less embarrassing ones.
Mitzi Szereto, whose recent titles include Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts and Red Velvet, 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.