Lust and elves: How 'low-brow' lit made e-books

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 25: A man reads an ebook in Victoria Tower Gardens on April 25, 2013 in London, England. Following an unseasonably cold start to 2013, higher temperatures are being reported in southern parts of the United Kingdom. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) Peter Macdiarmid

(MoneyWatch) Smut has become popular fare on e-books, according to the New York Post. Amazon (AMZN), Barnes & Noble (BKS) and other online sellers "are peddling a raft of raunchy online books depicting incest, rape and bestiality" following the success of "50 Shades of Grey."

This report suggests that online retailers are torn between keeping racy material off their sites and enjoying the profits the titles can bring. But the issue is more complex. In a broader sense, the literary industry has long considered a variety of book types -- whether erotica, self-published or genre -- second-class citizens. However, in a world of electronic publishing, these red-headed stepchildren are the ones that will make e-books work whether industry doyens like it or not.

For a few years, Amazon.com has had a love-hate relationship with hard-edged erotica. The company would sell titles that featured incest, bestiality, pedophilia, rape and other sexual  topics that many people find offensive. So Amazon reacted by banning many titles, but still the e-books sold well. Too well to completely write off.

According to an erotica writer with the pen name Selena Kitt, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble continue to keep many erotic titles out of the best-sellers lists through a number of mechanisms. "Adults don't need nannies, but in a post 50 Shades world, Amazon and BN are playing nanny, not to children, but to adults," she wrote in an e-mail.

While the conflicts in erotica are most obvious, the industry as a whole has long considered other categories of books as lesser. Even though such genre types as mysteries, science fiction, horror and romance can hit the best-sellers lists, titles are usually placed in specialty divisions or publishers rather than be allowed to mix within the broader fiction category. Self-published books have long been snubbed by the literati.

And yet, genre and self-publishing have been mainstays in publishing economics and have proven to be the true powerhouses in e-books. Kitt has made large sums of money with self-published electronic erotica. Jack and Jasinda Wilder, on the brink of financial ruin, saved their home and created an empire -- and saw one of their steamy romances hit the New York Times best-sellers list.

Amanda Hocking made millions with self-published young adult paranormal titles -- many of which had been rejected by traditional publishers. Thriller writer Joe Konrath had published traditionally, but has found that self-publishing in his area is extremely lucrative. People who read genre fiction often go through many different titles. E-books avoid the bulk of paper and offer cheaper prices -- great for the reader who needs a fix.

In a way, the continued financial support of publishing books that movers and shakers might see as trivial makes sense. But as digital continues to be more important to publishing (e-books made up 23 percent of revenue for major publishers alone last year), it may be that the categories dismissed by elites may become the openly dominant forces and demand their share of respect.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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