Ebooks, Romance, and the Evolution of Smut

My first romance novel was “The Heart of Devin MacKade.” Written by the First Lady of Romance, Mrs. Nora Roberts herself, the novel was sitting unassumingly on the bottom shelf of one of my grandmother’s many book cases when I stumbled across it. As is often the case with contemporary romance novels, there were no heaving bosoms or clutching models on the cover to alert an astoundingly innocent 17-year-old to the “adult” content of the book. And so I settled in, reading with ever-widening eyes as the book’s many extended metaphors guided me through a sweet, suspenseful, and surprisingly nuanced romance that would turn me into a lifelong lover of the genre.

I’m not alone in my yen for romance novels. At sales of over $1 billion a year, this oft-maligned genre accounts for over a third of all fiction book sales in the U.S. Once characterized by so-called “bodice-rippers” and criticized for its embrace of outmoded gender norms, the genre has expanded and modernized in the past two decades. Readers seeking a story that prioritizes emotional development and relationship-building can now choose from a dizzying array of sub-genres. Fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dracula? Paranormal’s got you covered. Yearning for an exceptionally polite teatime with a scandalously exposed ankle? Fear not – regency romances abound. Wishing Stephen King provided happily ever afters? Go find yourself a romantic suspense novel and enjoy the mysterious serial killers keeping our (unfailingly attractive) heroes apart.

Though we all have our preferred sub-genres – I’m a contemporary girl myself – we romance novel fans are united by our fierce protectiveness of the genre. Decades after the questionable consent depicted in 1980s bodice-rippers, the stigma of romance novels and the people who read them (the overwhelming majority of whom are women) persists. Fans often feel the need to defend their habit to friends and family, and many a romance enthusiast has switched out a book jacket to avoid the embarrassment of being outed on their commute.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that when ebooks began their rise in the early 2000s romance readers were among their earliest and most enthusiastic adopters. Once considered a fringe industry, e-publishing now comprises nearly a quarter of all book sales. The humble romance novel, which can be safely concealed from prying eyes with a discreet e-reader, is responsible for a staggering 61% of these e-book sales. Yet as a romance fan and a member of the Carbon Neutral crew, I am duty-bound to ask – are these digital love stories more or less environmentally friendly than their paperback cousins?

The answer, it transpires, is a resounding “it’s complicated.” Though e-readers are much more environmentally costly in their production than paper books, consumers can typically offset the added carbon within a year of purchasing their Kindles or iPads. However, whether or not your e-reader will “pay” for its production depends on your behavior as a newly converted romance fan.

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Image Credit: CustomMade

To break it down a bit further: Though estimates vary, the production of e-readers such as Kindles or iPads emits between 40 and 100 times the amount of CO2 as that of a paper book. That means that if you read 100 books on your e-reader over the course of its life, you can feel fairly confident that your e-reader’s impact is equivalent to that of its paper counterpart. That’s good news: one estimate by the CleanTech Group found that the roughly 168 kg of CO2 produced throughout the Kindle’s lifecycle easily offsets potential savings of 1,074 kg of CO2 over four years of moderate use. But what if you read newspapers or browse the Internet on your device? Or what if the e-reader is only a part of your reading diet?

In these cases, your discreet digital ways may be doing more harm than good. Though a 2009 study found that reading 10 minutes of news digitally per day has a lower environmental impact than reading on paper, the effect is reversed when the time is increased to 30 minutes. As for the Internet, web browsing on your e-reader adds to your carbon footprint thanks to the bump in electricity use resulting from Internet usage’s drain on your device’s battery. And for casual e-readers, you may not be getting your environmental bang for your buck if you’re reading less than 60 books a year on your device.

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Image Credit: Green Press Initiative

So what’s an environmentally minded romance fan to do? Here are a few ways to ensure that the steamy pages of your favorite romance novel aren’t raising global temperatures:

  • Keep it offline. If you’re planning on reading e-books regularly, try using a dedicated e-reader instead of using a computer or tablet.
  • Be consistent. If you love e-books, go for it! The more you can stick to the medium and avoid buying paper books in addition to your e-books, the lighter your carbon footprint will be.
  • Recycle! After your e-reader has lived a long, full life, donate it to a friend or send it off to be recycled. Amazon has a customer-friendly guide to recycling your devices, and our very own Jordan Tony is always happy to answer your questions about recycling if you’re still feeling lost.

Happy reading, and may your pirates, time travelers, werewolves, Dukes, and architects live happily every after!

Addendum: Intrigued by my extremely compelling defense of romance novels, but not sure where to start? Here are my top three (contemporary) recommendations for getting started: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, The Witness by Nora Roberts, and This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Contact us at carbonneutralpod@gmail.com if you have recommendations you’d like to share! Listen to our Black Hills episode here, or subscribe on iTunes.

By Emily Auerbach 

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