An erotic novel (with BD/SM and a whole lot of sex) titled Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is sweeping the suburbs, the cities, red and blue states alike just like Peyton Place and The Story of O did 60 years ago. On the Amazon paid Kindle bestseller lists, as of the first week of March, it's No. 1 in both Erotica and Romance and No. 5 overall. Not bad for a self-published book by a first-time author. The TODAY Show estimated that over 120,000 copies have been sold, most of them ebooks. (Amazon is being characteristically tight-lipped on copies actually sold, so only Amazon and Ms. James really know for sure.) A paperback is available by print-on-demand but the ebook version is what's really flying off the e-shelves.
In the 1950s, dog-eared mass-market paperbacks were passed furtively from friend to friend. But the modern-day scandalous novel is delivered in the brown paper bag of wireless download: no need to buy such an embarrassing book face-to-face from your local bookseller (assuming of course that your local bookseller hasn't already gone out of business). That's a big advantage for an ebook over a paperback. Erotica and romance have a huge share of the book market but their steamy, bodice-ripping covers can be a bit off-putting to some who don't want to advertise their reading choices to the world. If you don't want people to know just what you're reading, an e-reader is perfect. With no book cover visible, no longer must the proverbial comic book be hidden in your algebra textbook.
And just as is true in many of these risqué books, size matters: when it comes to page count, that is. The cost of producing a paper and bound novella isn't really that much less than the cost of a full-length novel. As such, the price doesn't vary much, but many consumers are unwilling to spend that much for far less reading material. Ebooks' adjustable pricing allows for a sales price that better represents the length of the novella, or short story for that matter, and is more in line with what people will pay. It's also a great way to discover new authors without dropping a lot of cash. Conversely, for books of greater, shall we say, "girth," e-readers and tablets are a lot easier to carry around than a hardcover book.
Fifty Shades of Grey, at 380 pages, is certainly not in novella territory. The Story of O (the English translation) runs about 180 pages. Both covers are relatively tame, an artfully-lit man's tie and text-only respectively. Conversely, many romance novels, which compared to erotica have far less explicit sexual situations, bear covers replete with busty young maidens and muscled -- and usually rather shiny -- men in tight clinches and embraces. Even if the story fades to black at the good bits, it might not necessarily be what you might want a co-worker to notice in your briefcase.
So the next time you see someone reading their e-reader on the bus, remember it might not be Jonathan Safran Foer that's making them smile.