The Curious Case of EBook Sharing Sites

The popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed in the last few years. The Association of American Publishers reports that eBook sales by US publishers were up 300% in 2011:

Total eBook net sales revenue for 2011 was $21.5 million, a gain of 332.6% over 2010; this represents 3.4 million eBook units sold in 2011, up 303.3 %. As comparison, print formats (Hardcover, Paperback and Mass Market Paperback) increased 2.3% to $335.9 million in 2011.

(Source) With this increase has come the usual hand-wringing over the end of print, the effects on book stores, access to books for people who can’t afford e-readers, the problems caused by DRM and the demise of the First-sale Doctrine (which says you can sell second-hand books, DVDs, videos, etc.), and so forth.

These are all worth investigation, but I’ve become interested in two specific effects of this shift.

First, the enormous rise in erotica sales and the ability of unknown authors without agents or publishers to publish ebooks cheaply and easily.

Second, the ebook sharing underground: a loose network of sites that let people swap ebooks without DRM. Because the files are so small, they’re much easier to disseminate than movies or television shows. They can be easily emailed, DropBoxed, or placed on a DDL (direct download) file-sharing server like 4Shared or Rapidshare. (There are also ebooks on BitTorrent, but it seems that most ebook sharers bypass the torrent infrastructure entirely, probably due to usability concerns or lack of comfort with the protocol.) The popular freeware program Calibre allows ebook users to convert any format (pdf, epub, mobi) to any other format; there’s a popular Calibre plugin that cracks DRM. Most ebook sharing sites contain a tutorial or two on using Calibre.

While all sorts of books are shared online, many of the ebook sharing sites I’ve come across are largely comprised of romance novels. Romance novels are an enormous industry, comprising 13% of the US market and generating more revenue than any other category:

Romance fiction: $1.358 billion in estimated revenue for 2010
Religion/inspirational: $759 million
Mystery: $682 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $559 million
Classic literary fiction: $455 million
[Source: Romance Writers of America]

From my highly unscientific perusing of ebook sharing websites, the majority of participants are women, and most of them are voracious consumers of particular subgenres, such as paranormal or Western. They’re aware of release dates — romances are published on a strict schedule— and so there’s a constant stream of new content being made available. Romances have become so popular on ebook sharing sites that one disgruntled participant wrote:

“The books board seems flooded by self published chic lit. More and more the forums are flooded by garbage that IMHO nobody would ever want to read. All about women having sex with dead people (vampires) or animals (werewolf). Is there some way we could divide the releases into, written by self publicist women, and normal literature. Seems about a 20:1 ratio in favour of the rubbish at the moment.”

(More on this in a second)

Another genre that’s been intensely impacted by file-sharing and technology is academic books. As most of us know, academic books can be ridiculously expensive, often priced for library acquisitions rather than personal purchasing. And most academic authors can expect limited sales and even more limited royalties. The ebook sites that aren’t flooded with romances are full of textbooks and academic books; specialized archives have sprung up for literary criticism, computer science textbooks, and cultural studies, often maintained and organized by graduate students or, I suspect, faculty members. The files shared therein are less likely to be cracked .mobi or .epub files and more likely to be scanned PDFs without OCR (optical character recognition, which allows you to search or cut and paste in PDFs). Given that many professors disseminate class readings as PDFs, it’s unsurprising that these are turning up online. The academic archives are full of students from countries without robust libraries, independent scholars cut off from academic library access, and broke graduate students who can’t afford to spend $50 on a 200-page monograph.

What sites like these display are needs that are not being met by the market. Digital books can be disseminated anywhere, easily, for free. Imagine a library where you never had to wait for a hold because you could just check out an infinitely-replicable digital version. But the way most ebooks are published now is as damaged goods. Due to DRM and publishing restrictions, you can’t easily trade ebooks (ok, you can trade a Kindle ebook once), buy them from yard sales, take them out from the library (OK, you can, but usually not new titles and usually in very limited numbers), borrow them from friends, or read them most of them for free. By circumventing DRM and circulating ebooks through underground, non-commercial sites, users are taking advantage of the possibilities of digital publishing that the publishers are trying to snuff out.

Beyond the general and obvious disruptive potential of ebooks, I’m fascinated by the wide-reaching, and often unexpected, effects of these changes.

This brings me to the other development: the rise in self-publishing, erotica, and self-published erotica. Obviously, 50 Shades of Grey is the exemplar here. For those of you who don’t keep up with zeitgeisty bestsellers, “Fifty Shades” is a three-volume series of BDSM romance, which started life as Twilight fan fiction. It’s sold 10 million copies, primarily to women, and primarily through ebook sales. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for months. And it’s often dismissively referred to as “mommy porn” for “bored Long Island housewives.” The Atlantic called it “terrible” and bemoaned “Can’t America ever like something quality? Are we just heading toward the dumbing down of everything?”

Far from it for me to defend the quality of the writing, but there’s something interesting here. Porn for men isn’t called “daddy porn,” it’s just called “porn.” A friend who got laid off from her job writing SEO articles has turned to writing Kindle Singles; among her erotica writers group, one woman is making $10,00 a month selling self-published erotica. Cutting out the middleman of publishers, even prolific publishers like Harlequin, has opened heretofore ignored markets. And one enormous market is clearly erotica written by and for women. Who are not only buying ebooks, but cracking the DRM on them and sharing them with friends.

Clearly, the impact of ebooks goes beyond the publishing industry. I’m fascinated to see where else in the culture we’ll see changes in reading practices. Beyond “Reading the Romance,” what can these ebook sharing communities teach us about audience and reception? In some ways, these sites, and sites like GoodReads, constitute interpretive communities, where uploaders recommend books and previously-ignored titles can spread like wildfire based on positive reviews. (I haven’t even touched on how social media is changing the relationship between readers and authors. Let’s just say I’ve vowed to be kinder in my GoodReads reviews.) Studies of filesharing are often focused on economics or legal aspects; it’s interesting to imagine the perspectives we might gain by leveraging audience studies and media and cultural studies in our analyses instead.

6 thoughts on “The Curious Case of EBook Sharing Sites

  1. Awesome post! In particular, makes me think about different kinds of privacy in reading.
    In print culture work, people sometimes talk about the shift from reading as public to reading as private. As in, back in the day when there was a scarcity of books, reading aloud was an important way of disseminating ideas (also displaying status of literacy), but it also meant that everyone around you knew what you were reading. With a shift to reading in silence, there were increased fears of censorship, because you no longer knew, definitively, what someone was reading. With a shift to ebooks, perhaps people feel like reading is even more private? There’s still a lot of shame around reading romance novels (and comics. And fantasy. And science fiction. And occasionally horror. Basically any genre besides detective novels because those are “cerebral.”) in public, seems like the love of romance for ereaders is likely tied to that.
    And beyond that kind of privacy, there’s the privacy of production that you mention in cutting out the middle man not only of producing your own text but disseminating it, too. Fan fiction communities have tapped this cycle for years, but this is something different, because it’s (apparently?) mainstream engagement with mainstream genres (as opposed to crafting pregnancy fantasies for characters of BSG, which is totally cool, but subject to mockery).
    Lots more I could say, but I’ll leave it there. Thanks for putting this out there, Alice!

  2. Molly

    Hi Alice, fascinating post. I’ve been reading about ebooks from an academic perspective, and the black market for academic e-files hadn’t even occurred to me but makes perfect sense. What else are you going to do with the articles and books you downloaded after you no longer need them? Copyright lawyers, of course, would prefer they be erased, but information wants to be free…
    Also, I think instead of “Far *from* it for me to defend the quality of the writing, but there’s something interesting here” you mean “Far BE it…”. Otherwise, great article!

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