By The Numbers: Indie Publishing Really Does Have an Issue with Porn

When thebow chicka wow wow mainstream media made indie publishing into a synonym for pornography last week I was both appalled and infuriated. Many sites, including The Daily Mail and The Kernel, were reporting on the news less because it was news and more for the tabloidistic shock value.But as annoying as that may be, today I am going to have to admit that there was more than a grain of truth in the reports. It's not just media hype; indie publishing has a porn problem.

Or rather, indie publishing has a far higher concentration of erotica and adult content than is found in traditionally published content. I personally don't see that as a problem, but I can see how others might.

Aaron Stanton, the founder of BookLamp and the Book Genome Project, was the first to really look for data which could shed light on this topic. Over on Digital Book World last night he posted some details from an analysis in which he compared a slice of the indie published titles that BookLamp has analyzed with the traditionally published titles that have been fed through BookLamp's system.

Aaron found some rather startling results:

Self-publishing-erotica-vs-non[1]

Over 28% of the 15,000 indie titles which were collated for this comparison were erotica, compared to less than 2% of the 100,000 plus traditionally published titles in BookLamp's database.

As you may know, BookLamp has developed a way to analyze the text of a book and identify details like the writing style and major themes. They call this the book's genome, and it is that genome that was used to classify the ebooks as erotica.

50-Shades-of-Grey[1]

To be more exact, BookLamp searched each book for sexual content and then created a chart like the one above. Each green square represents 1,00 words with no sexual content, yellow means some, and red, well. As you can see 50 Shades clearly belongs in the erotica category, and it was not alone.

Getting back to the survey group as a whole, Aaron also reported that BookLamp found that around 3% of indie titles involved questionable themes:

Self-publishing-bestiality-and-incest2[1]

Now, one could argue that this single source does not reflect the actual titles available, which is true. In fact there's really no way to know for sure without feeding a sample group the size of the entire Kindle Store through BookLamp's servers and collating the results.

Given the cost and logistical issues involved, that is probably not going to happen. And that's why I went looking for another source of data:

Smashwords

This ebook distributor carries all types of content, including erotica, so I took a moment to see just how many titles they carried in the erotica section. I found that the SW website listed 48,000 titles in that section, out of a total 256,000 titles.

That is around 18% of all titles in the Smashwords catalog.

And these are just the self-identified erotica titles; there could be more listed in other sections. I was debating this issue with Aaron last night, and he pointed out that:

I don't think it's necessarily accurate to make the assumption that a book with erotic content will always be in the erotic section, or classified as such.  Many times books that statistically should be categorized as erotica by their amount of sexual content (and would have been by a traditional publisher) are not when published independently.

But even though there is a demonstrably higher concentration of erotica among indie-published titles, I still think that it is a misnomer to label the group based on a minority of the content. And I think it is wrong to punish a group for the actions of a minority.

But that's what happened last week both in the media and in ebookstores when Kobo, Amazon, et al purged a wide variety of indie-published ebooks from their ebookstore, including titles which were not questionable nor even vaguely resembled erotica.

Now that we can see the scope of this issue  I think it's even more clear that last week's purge was a solution out of proportion to the problem at hand.

What do you think?

Digital Book World

About Nate Hoffelder (11591 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

16 Comments on By The Numbers: Indie Publishing Really Does Have an Issue with Porn

  1. Why is 28% porn bad? Is it any worse than x% vampire Romance or y% YA dystopia or z% genre series? None of that is anymore to my tastes than porn.

    I’m often called a snob because I rag on low grade genre fiction rife among the indies, but porn is no better or worse. The big question is how much of the porn is good to readers of porns. If they like it …. What’s the big deal?

  2. That 20-30% indie-published ebooks fall within the various categories of erotica (which is a full spectrum ranging from romance with a few explicit scenes to TOS-violating material) should surprise nobody. The numbers sound about right.
    Try getting some numbers on just how much revenue the big cablecos and media companies derive from porn. Comcast, Disney, TimeWarner, Liberty Media, all of them rake it in by the billion. Nobody makes a fuss.
    Historically, porn merchants have been early adopters of new technologies and no rational person would expect ebooks to be different. As a matter of fact, commercial porn ebooks werd flourishing long before Kindle and even now the majority of publishers maitain dedicated ebookstores.
    Neither the supply nor the demand for it is going to be impacted by any media hysteria.
    One of the reasons indie publishing has exploded is because it allows supply to meet under-served demand. The unmet demand might be for Young Adult urban fantasy, the various romance genres, or LGBT erotica. The technology doesn’t moralize.

    Most of the vendors will end up doing what Amazon does: expel the more eggregious TOS violators, segregate the rest from the search and recommendation engines, and quietly pocket the hundreds of millions in profit from the rest.
    That is how the big boys play.
    In the age of frictionless publishing there is little room for gatekeepers, censors, or hand-wringing moralizers. All that matters is law, Terms of Service, and cold hard cash.
    Anything that fits within those bounds is fair play.

    • “Historically, porn merchants have been early adopters of new technologies and no rational person would expect ebooks to be different”

      It’s been said that VHS won out over betamax because the porn industry adopted the former as a distribution channel.

      • And DVD got a big boost early on from porn.
        And the internet created an entire cottage industry of “amateurs” disrupting the established studios, much as ebooks are disrupt publishing.

  3. And what’s the definition of erotica, erotic romance and porn?

    • They labeled books as erotic based on the quantity of sexual content. I don’t know what the cut off was.

      Update: I asked and was told that the label erotic was applied to ebooks that had as much sexual content “95% of traditionally published books with similar type and amount of sexual content are published by traditional publishers with an Erotica BISAC”.

    • Opinions on what classify erotica and erotic romance differ widely. Especially amongst people that read it and those that don’t.

      I’ll break it down from a romance reader/reviewers perspective

      Erotica is a book where the characters have no romantic connection. It’s, basically, sex with a very thin story. (erotica titles are usually short. No more than 75 pgs)

      Erotic-Romance is a book where there are graphic sex scenes (no flowery synonyms or ‘behind closed doors’ sex) Opposed to straight erotica, the sex is used as a plot device to further the connection between characters. (Typically anything with the word ‘romance’ in it MUST have a happily ever after) – 50 Shades of Grey is considered Erotic Romance.

      Porn are just sex scenes. No story. No explanation of the why’s or who’s. Just sex. (these are usually the ones that you see that are 7-20 pages long)

      It only takes a quick glance of the labels on Goodreads to see that a lot of people are confused on the subject. Many books labeled as erotica shouldn’t be.

  4. This is an analysis of titles available, not copies sold. That’s important, because if you analyzed copies sold, the traditional publishing industry is now mostly erotica, thanks to “50 Shades”.

    There are a lot of real world problems. This isn’t one.

  5. The “issue” is people who think you shouldn’t be able to buy erotica. It they don’t like it, don’t buy it. The only problem I see is that Amazon and certain other stores don’t have an “adult” filter for searches if they don’t want to see (or don’t want their kids to see) the covers. This is an issue with not just indie published novels though.

  6. The problem as I see it is that a lot of the indie titles are very short ebooks — often more than 10 pages. If smashwords could set a minimum word count (say 20,000 or 30,000 words) that could reduce the problem of browsing through a catalog.

    • Hmm, I did not speak very clearly. A lot of the “cheap erotica” comes from Smashwords and is less than 20,000 words. These titles clutter up the catalogs on places it distributes at BN, Amazon, etc. and convey the impression that the ebook catalog is a den of sin. Setting some kind of minimum word length can reduce the sheer number of titles and require more effort to publish.

      There are many distinguished titles of erotica (and many well-edited anthologies). The short erotica ebooks often have explicit/descriptive titles and amatuerish writing. The problem isn’t that they are sexually explicit, but that many just aren’t competently written or produced. (Imagine having to browse through 1000s of Harry Potter fan fiction titles written by 9th graders).

  7. Maybe we can ship some of this stuff off to Japan. Apparently they need it.

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