The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

I had been told, during my investigation into which e-reader to buy, that the market for these products exploded when Fifty Shades of Grey was published. People embarrassed to be seen reading it in public found they could put it on an e-reader and not suffer the shame. No one knows what you’re reading on an e-reader. What might not be comfortable to be seen reading at work or on public transit was fine on a Kobo or Kindle. E-reader sales soared.

Now I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey, and from what I’ve been told of it, it’s not a title I plan to download. It doesn’t interest me. But the brouhaha around it did, so I read several reviews and excerpts online to understand what the kerfuffle was all about. Mommy porn, it has been derisively called. Critics have been unrelenting. The writing in what few excerpts I’ve read didn’t impress me, but I’m no great shakes as a fiction author myself, so who am I to criticize?**

What impressed me was the number of copies sold: more than 100 million. Stacks of the book were in all the big box stores. Clearly there was a market for this stuff. And others saw that, too. The bandwagon is never empty for long.

Erotica has always been with us, since humans made cave paintings. Greeks and Romans wrote erotic poetry. So did the classical Indian and Chinese poets. An interest in sex is just part of being human.

I remember in my youth the furor over Fanny Hill, Venus in Furs and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Over Henry Miller, Anais Nin and the Marquis de Sade. Most of it seems tame by the brutal, violent and misogynist standards of today’s pornography. One cannot look into our history and not find some erotica in every culture – in writing, song, art and sculpture. And now, inevitably, in e-books, as I discovered.

This week, when I got my first Kindle, I spent a few hours loading it with e-books. My choices were the great works of literature: War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein, Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, Pride and Prejudice…  I also wanted to get some light reading. Maybe some detective novels, or science fiction. But I wanted free: I didn’t want to pay for anything, not yet, not until I had some experience with the Kindle and made up my mind what I wanted to use it for. So I went online to various sites offering free e-books and, of course, to Amazon’s Kindle store.

Free e-bookWhat an eye-opener.

There’s a huge number of people writing books these days and many offering them as free e-books. Of these many e-writers; none (or at least few) have a tree-based published book to their name. I admire this tsunami of creativity, however awkward and amateurish some of it may be. It takes some courage to put a book online and offer it up to the criticism of the world.

I was stunned by the sheer volume of writing available. Every style and genre, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, religion, philosophy and conspiracies. Quality? Who knows until you download and read some of it. But with much of it free or at a very low cost, the investment is a mere fraction of a modern paperback.

These free e-books are not simply on Amazon and iTunes; there are many sites dedicated to or created by these authors, or those with whole catalogues of free e-books for download. Some with reviews and ratings too, just like Amazon’s. (My favourite source remains Gutenberg.org, by the way – where else can you find such vintage delights as Motor Tours in Yorkshire and such historical oddities as The Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII from November MDXXIX, to December).

Some titles are just crazy. Vengeance of the Lump Being? The Kretins of Doctor Combobulay? Are these satires or serious? I can’t tell because I hesitate to download them. I suppose that’s supercilious, so I’ll have to break free of my innate snobbishness and try a few of them. Of the scifi and mystery titles, I mean.***

What really surprised me was the number of bodice-rippers and soft-porn titles (some, apparently, not so soft and a lot more explicit than the Harlequins of old, at least according to the descriptions and reviews… there also seems to be an awful lot of interest in BDSM – is that because of Fifty Shades? Simply the fashion du jour in this genre? Or was it always lurking there, beside the old Marquis?). Most of these titles appear to be written by women (who can really tell or be sure it’s not a man’s nom de plume?). Has the internet created this preoccupation with sex or just unchained it?

AmazonObooko has seven pages of scifi titles, eight of crime-mystery and eleven of romance/love/sex, most of which seem to be about the latter. The Kindle store has 29 pages of free e-books books under the keyword “erotica” with 48 titles per page. Twenty nine!

Here are a few of the titles from page one: His Indecent Training; Julie’s Huge Birthday Surprise (Eighteen Lust); Spanking Stories Erotica Under His Hands; Pastor Ryan Helps Out (Taboo Pastor Erotica) ; Two Men for Me; Alpha Lust: A Wolf’s Embrace; Glory Holes And Blumpkins; Captured by Cavemen; Dark Desire; His Indecent Lessons; Tasting The Boy Next Door; Sensual Erotica 12: Thrilling Her; Filled by the Doctor: Rough Sex Dental Erotica; Punished And Exposed; Sexy Little Cheerleaders: Practice Makes Perfect; Kidnapped the Wrong Sister; In the Barn (Taboo Forbidden Erotica Book 8); Carmen’s New York Climax;  Office Toy; Bought By The Billionaire Brothers; The Man Who Came Too Much; The Ride Home (The Babysitter Book 1); “tell her she’s pretty!” How Tina helped Becca seduce her maid; Above the Dungeon; Secret Story Time: More Filthy Fantasies; The Quickie (Sexy and Short Erotica Story).

There are 28 pages more like this. Just in comparison there are 24 pages of free e-scifi. The first title of which is “Taken: Erotic Science Fiction and Fantasy” followed by “Captives of New Pompeii,” another scifi-erotica title. There are horror-erotica titles, vampire-erotica and so on. So obviously the genres overlap.

There are even whole sites dedicated to erotica e-books, from the soft-core to XXX-rated. Now I didn’t read any of them, but from the lurid descriptions, there seems a certain repetitive “sameness” about many of these titles that makes my eyes glaze over after a few of them. I get a similar sort of feeling when I look through the bookshelves of fantasy titles – oh look, another book about orcs and dwarves and a magic ring…. oh look, another book about bondage and submission…. oh look, another Facebook picture with a cute kitten in it….

There’s a lot of written erotica online. Is there really such a large audience for it? I don’t know. Maybe there are more writers of it than readers. Maybe there are just a few prodigiously prolific e-writers pumping out volumes of this stuff under an army of assumed names. There’s no way to tell about most of it.

I’m not passing any moral judgment on this stuff. I’m not a prude and can be as titillated as anyone by a well-written bit of erotica. Although it’s not the sort of material I normally choose for reading or viewing, sometimes passages appear in books that are otherwise in another genre. As for the dedicated e-books, I may pass literary judgment, should I ever read some of it, and comment editorially on grammar and punctuation, but seldom sit in moral judgment over another person’s personal tastes.

I’m simply surprised by how widespread and ubiquitous this literary erotica seems. And how many more e-writers are pursuing this genre than seem to be pursing other types of literature.

I personally don’t think I could write this stuff – I overwrite and intellectualize my fiction at the best of times. Not what most of readers want in this genre, I suspect. And writing it seems a little too clinical, too detached, like it would take the fun out of it. Or maybe that’s just my style of work.

Am I just getting so old that I no longer bother with or am titillated by these things? Sometimes it all seems so silly, so over-rated and under-written that it can’t be taken seriously. Someone in Amazon should stand up and say to these authors and readers, “Okay, you’ve done erotica to the nth degree. There’s nothing new here, nothing left to say. We’ve run out of  cover ideas. Time to move onto something else.”

I feel sheepish and somewhat quaint downloading my Canterbury Tales and chuckling over the “racy” Miller’s Tale or the saucy bits in Fielding’s Tom Jones. Funny how something as technologically up-to-date as an e-reader can feel so stuffy and old-fashioned by simply downloading a few, familiar books into its memory.

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* I worked in book publishing for many years, from sales rep to book editor and I know somewhat about how Canadian publishing operates, at least how it operated through the 70s and 80s. I also owned a bookstore and managed a couple of others, so I have experience in the retail side of publishing, too.

** I admit to another interest: learning about formats and venues for publishing my own e-books… I have a few works-in-progress – humour, fantasy and scifi, not erotica – I would like to see in this format.

*** Okay, there are even crazier titles in the world of print.