article

08.25.09

Sex on the Kindle

E-readers are selling like hotcakes—in part, thanks to closet fans of cheesy romance novels and tween lit who don’t want you to see what they’re reading.

Sony recently  unveiled its new e-reader into a market that's red-hot—in part, thanks to closet fans of cheesy romance novels and tween lit who don’t want you to see what they’re reading.

Would you feel comfortable pulling out a book titled Your Bed or Mine? in a crowded public space? How about Cold Case, Hot Bodies? What if the cover were splashed with a ravished-looking, bodice-clad blonde clinging to the bulging thigh of a shirtless beefcake?

Today, as Sony unveiled its new e-reader to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, the company, no doubt, had such scenarios in mind. According to readers and publishers of the types of books that some might consider humiliating to whip out on the train, the burgeoning e-reader market is almost certainly being boosted by the fact that it renders embarrassing-to-read books anonymous.

“Ultimately there is the subway test,” says Tim Holman, vice president and publisher of Orbit Books, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Hachette. “Would you be happy to be seen in public reading this book? With the Kindle [and other e-readers] you don’t have that issue.” According to Holman, sci-fi and fantasy books using a “generic approach to fantasy packaging”—dragons and busty, sword-wielding wenches—are more likely to make readers want to hide behind an e-reader. “I can see certainly there will be people who feel they haven’t bought science fiction and fantasy because they don’t like the way that it looks, but obviously they don’t have that barrier when it comes to the Kindle.”

“A couple of years ago I was on a plane, and I was reading this book by Jennifer Weiner called Good in Bed. This guy sitting next to me was like, ‘Oh, good in bed, huh?’”

Heather, whose job as a consultant requires constant travel, originally purchased the Kindle as a space-saver on long flights, but quickly discovered a new use for it—surreptitiously reading Stephenie Meyer’s  Twilight hit tween series. “I had seen the books in Wal-Mart and I was like, I don’t know about these books, they’re in the young-adult section,” says Heather, who is 30. But curiosity, combined with a relatively cheap $6 download fee, got the better of her. She downloaded the first book in the series, then the next, then the next. “I know definitely, had I not had my Kindle, I never would have read them because a couple of years ago I was on a plane, and I was reading this book by Jennifer Weiner called Good in Bed. This guy sitting next to me was like, ‘Oh, good in bed, huh?’” To which Heather responded, “‘Oh, it’s more like a do-it-yourself kind of book.’ That pretty much shut him up. But I was like, gosh, never again can I be out in public with these books with questionable titles and creepy people on the front all draped over each other.”

Snide commentary on her reading choices is something Sarah Wendell, co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels and the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, is familiar with. While Wendell says she no longer cares what people think of her reading habits, “I’ve totally had strangers comment on what I’m reading in the morning on the subway, and you’d think that people in New York City would have better senses of self-preservation than to mock the reading material of an uncaffeinated morning commuter, but it’s happened to me more than once.”

Sarah thinks e-readers are just strengthening the trend that’s been present in the romance world for a while. “Most of the erotic publishers who are very successful are digital publishers because women get enough commentary when they check out at a bookstore with romance novels. The commentary when you go to buy an erotic novel is even worse, so if you have the safety of doing it anonymously online, you take it.”

Liquid Silver Books is one such erotic digital imprint, and publisher Tina Burns says e-readers like the Kindle and Sony lines have helped boost sales because they’ve increased awareness of the e-book industry. The stigma surrounding erotic literature, Burns says, is why 95 percent of Liquid Silver’s authors use pen names. The science-fiction and fantasy genre has the same issues, Orbit’s Tim Holman says. “We have a lot of catching up to do with the marketplace. The genre as a whole has probably not been as adventurous as is could have been in the last 10 or 20 years with actually coming up with exciting new looks. Most genres have reinvented themselves...Fantasy hasn’t really reinvented itself particularly, but I feel like we’re right in the middle of a period where that’s happening at the moment.”

Of course, all the digital camouflage in the world won’t stop you from accidentally outing yourself as a closet Twihard. Shortly after reading the series, Heather and her 12-year-old niece sat down to watch the movie adaptation of Twilight. “I kind of slipped ‘cause I was like ‘Wait a second, that wasn’t in the book!’ And my niece was like, ‘What are you talking about, I thought you didn’t read these!’” Busted.

The technology could turn against you, as well. Sarah says that one of her friends recently got a Kindle to hide her erotic romance leanings. “She said, ‘Now I have an e-book reader and no one knows what I’m reading, unless I activate the Kindle text-to-speech and the Kindle starts telling me about someone’s cock.’”

Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.