As I write this, the most downloaded item for Amazon's Kindle is a novel by Jenna Bayley-Burke called Compromising Positions. Here is part of the plot description: "David Strong knows how to do a lot of things—run an international fitness company, finesse stock portfolios and stay out of emotional entanglements. That is, until he gets tangled up with Sophie Delfino and her Sensational Sex workout. He's supposed to help her demonstrate Kama Sutra positions for her couples-yoga class. … And his co-instructor unexpectedly tests his control to the limit." If that nudge and wink aren't clear enough, this is attached: "Warning: This is one exercise program you won't need to consult your doctor before beginning—unless he's hot and available for house calls. The Kama Sutra isn't for the prudish or faint of heart, and neither is this story."
You won't find Compromising Positions anywhere on the New York Times or USA Today best-seller list. So how did it become the No. 1 item on the Kindle, slightly outpacing Jonathan Franzen's Freedom? Price. To buy the paperback on Amazon costs $10.20, plus shipping and handling. The Kindle version? $0.00, which includes instant delivery. Christina Brashear, publisher of Samhain Books, explains that she usually makes one title in a series available as a freebie for two weeks, betting that some readers will pay for future titles. Based on the performance of August freebie Venus in Blue Jeans, it's reasonable to assume that some 35,000 people will download Compromising Positions during its freebie run. While few would dare try Samhain's giveaway tactic with a physical book, the tactic seems to be working digitally.
Many—including the publishing industry—would not label Compromising Positions pornography, and with good reason. For decades, romance and women's fiction novels have featured fairly explicit sexual passages, which readers apparently feel comfortable with as long as they are surrounded by what one Amazon commenter labeled "a tastefully written story of deep love and emotional commitment." And so the stellar performance of this Kindle novel represents little more than the savvy technological marketing of a longstanding genre.
But as you scroll down the list of Kindle offerings, you can't help but notice all of the steamy writing that seems to be targeted at men—an emotionally uncommitted genre which, if not exactly new, is associated with book publishing less commonly than with Penthouse Forum. Take, for example, a novel called Office Slave, in which an attractive female CFO is found to be embezzling from her manufacturing company. Rather than go to prison, she agrees to her boss's demand to become the company's sex slave. She is forced to wear slutty (or no) clothing at work; he films her in intimate acts; he instructs male coworkers to beat her physically for perceived transgressions; and she has sex with everyone imaginable, including factory workers (to reward productivity gains), prospective customers (to secure new contracts), a coworker (as a retirement gift), teenage boys (who deliver lunch to the office), etc. And—whaddya know?—no matter how physically abused and mentally degraded she is, she finds she actually enjoys it.
Presumably, some small percentage of women might be attracted to this material. But much can be adduced from reader comments, such as, "I don't see how any woman could enjoy this ... just seems like every man's fantasy." There's no point in dancing around it: Amazon is distributing men's erotic fiction, and its bargain-basement Kindle pricing—in many cases, this material, too, is given away for free—means that some of it shows up on "best-seller" lists.
Is it porn? Well—would you tell your mother you were reading it? Here's another test: There are tens of thousands of sex scenes in novels which you could imagine being photographed or filmed in ways that would not necessarily be pornographic. But any faithful filming of, say, the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom—and, I would argue, Office Slave—is going to include moments of pure porn. And if that doesn't meet your definition, there are Kindle books for five bucks or less dealing with incest, bondage, rape, and bestiality. Sooner or later, everyone is going to hit a Potter Stewart threshold.
Like the Kindle itself, the marriage of porn and e-reader is relatively new; much of this digital erotica has been added to the Kindle library in the last 18 months or so. From a technology standpoint, anyone who's seen Boogie Nights or Middle Men could predict this development. Every time a major new content platform—print, film, cable, VHS, DVD, the Internet, mobile phones—has experienced massive growth, it has either been driven by a porn boom or at least brought the porn industry along for the ride. (The biggest exception is probably radio.)
But there are other aspects of this phenomenon worth chewing on. Verbal (as opposed to visual) porn for men is probably a niche taste. Yet the growing ubiquity of e-readers could unleash latent demand for nonvisual pornography. The Web long ago eliminated the embarrassment factor of having to purchase erotica at a store or newsstand; stored in digital form on an e-reader, it needn't be seen by partners, families, or anyone at all.
Another question: How comfortable is Amazon with being identified with this material? There are thousands of pornography sites on the Web (paid and free), and while you can't access them without some kind of device and software, you're not pointed toward them in any meaningful way. The Kindle, however, pushes Amazon over the line from mere enabler of erotica to promoter and producer. Many of these e-titles are specifically being published by Amazon; others are sold by "Amazon Digital Services," meaning that Amazon—based on its usual publishing arrangement—is getting a considerable cut of the sales.
For those who've criticized Apple's prudish filters, Amazon's open-mindedness may be something to celebrate (although Amazon, too, has come under attack for the way that it categorizes gay- and lesbian-themed books). And, certainly, as a loss-leader strategy, giving away racy stories might be an effective way to sell more Kindles. It's hard to believe, though, that Amazon can wander too far down the path of peddling cheap-to-free porn without encountering pushback from Christian and conservative groups. When and if those protests come, Amazon will have to make a decision: Is it valuable to the company to goose interest in the Kindle with erotica giveaways, or will the presence of e-books like Compromising Positions at the top of Amazon's charts sully the e-reader's reputation?