This article, by Alice Marwick, originally appeared on the Social Media Collective Research Blog on 6/5/12.
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: