"Mommy porn" - it's more emetic than erotic.

I don't know quite what message I was supposed to take from it, but before she left to go on holiday the 20-something babysitter flicked me a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest superstar of the publishing world.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a supposedly innocent young woman who spends so much time with her nose in Jane Eyre that she is completely blindsided when preyed upon by an older, very rich man and rapidly becomes his willing partner in sado-masochistic adventures.

The Fifty series has sold 10 million copies and is breaking all sorts of records. It has also cleaved an entirely new genre known as "mommy porn" - as "mommies" by the million sign up to learn how to be gagged, tied up and whipped with riding crops as a result of ploughing through it. You know, between changing dirty nappies and helping with maths homework.

I don't think I'm a prude but there's something about mass-market S&M that seems not just retrograde but stomach-turning. And that's not the only thing that's rum about Fifty Shades of Grey; the other thing is that the book itself is absolute pants.


To wit: "My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire. Desire - acute, liquid and smoldering, combusts deep in my belly." Irritable bowel syndrome, anyone? Which is what threatens me when I read about the heroine's "inner goddess": "My inner goddess is prostrate - well, at least she's quiet".

In short, what One Direction is to music, Fifty is to literature. Both demonstrate that there is still money to be made in mining the arts (using that term loosely). But, like record companies, publishers who would traditionally take a punt on more innovative and/or adventurous works have less money to play with as a result of being undercut by online sales and free digital content.

They fell over themselves to get Fifty Shades of Grey into print after it became an e-book blockbuster (it was initially published by a small independent Australian press). But that's an exceptional journey for a book these days. In this month's New Yorker magazine, Ken Auletta writes about how the e-book is eviscerating the actual book, and the world's largest e-book seller, Amazon, has a business model that is threatening to bring down the largest publishing houses.

As Auletta recounts, when the large publishers teamed up with Apple to force Amazon to sell e-books at closer to their actual cost they were hit with an antitrust action by the US Government, charged with "a conspiracy to raise, fix and stabilize retail prices".

The outcome of that case is still pending, but an Amazon win would effectively mean there will be no minimum price that can be charged for an e-book, and thanks to its dominance in the actual and e-book markets, Amazon will effectively have a monopoly over the entire industry (apart from those brave souls who self-publish - usually also with Amazon).

Can we trust the good people at Amazon to pick winners from the field of authors and provide the reading public with the right range of material to satisfy a diverse populace? The question remains unanswered, yet we can confidently predict one future trend: poorly written, hurriedly published erotic tales aimed at women, pumped out to ride the coat-tails of Fifty Shades of Grey, as quality literature struggles for attention from the sidelines.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com