Frederick Lane begins his book by flashing back to a 1997 Wall Street Journal article titled "Lessons for the Mainstream." The story profiled entrepreneur and former stripper Danni Ashe, who runs a popular X-rated Web site called Danni's Hard Drive.
What, Lane wonders, would lead the starched-collar newspaper to treat a big-boobs Web site as a straight - even congratulatory - business story? The answer, he decides, is revenues: Ashe told the Journal she was raking in $2 million a year with her site. Money changes everything.
That opening to Obscene Profits promises a businesslike look at the kings and queens of Web porn - how they got rich and, by implication, how you can, too. The book doesn't deliver.
Instead it provides 200 pages of porn history, with a 100-word primer on the basics of online pornography tacked on at the end.
Which isn't to say that some of this isn't entertaining stuff. Who knew that one of the earliest attempts at magazine pornography was 1931's covert Sunshine & Health, "the official organ of the American Sunbathing Association"? Or that in the late 1930s there were underground comics called Tijuana bibles, which depicted the sexual adventures of cartoon characters?
Unfortunately, not all the information in Obscene Profits is similarly interesting. Like bad sex, some of it is just plain boring, as well as peripheral to online porn, the supposed topic at hand. For instance, there are pages of discussion detailing the phone-sex industry, with such mind-numbing selections as "the disadvantages of using a home phone to run a phone-sex business."
The real letdown is the book's skimpy treatment of online pornography's recent past. Lane does a thorough job of documenting the rise of Web porn, from humble bulletin boards with centerfolds scanned from Playboy to early mom-and-pop sites. But on the subject of the Web's most impressive entrepreneurs, Lane basically regurgitates oft-reported personal histories.
There's Ashe and her homespun movie satires like Bra Wars. There's Seth Warshavsky, the young CEO of Seattle's Internet Entertainment Group, who made his name by posting naughty nude pics of Laura Schlessinger and the home video of a Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex romp. There's Ron Levy of CyberErotica, who virtually invented the system of pegging banner-ad fees to the number of click-throughs. Where are the interviews with these entrepreneurs, the juicy details that might provide real insight to the biz? Other than quotes from the affable Ashe, Lane includes little about the Web's most successful sites that wasn't plucked from other sources - specifically U.S. News & World Report and USA Today.
Lane relies heavily on the mainstream press for his numbers - of porn sites online, subscribers and revenues. This is a bit disappointing, especially in view of the book's opening statement: that if the mainstream press is paying attention to online porn, there must be fortunes to be made there, and here's the inside dope.
All that aside, the book does provide a decent overview of the online porn scene, which is especially useful for people who would rather not troll the Web to find out for themselves. It's a good read, if only for the purpose of cultural literacy.
Those hoping to break into the biz, however, will likely come away disappointed. If you want new information on the competition - if you want to know whether it's still possible to compete in the crowded online pornography business - that's a question Obscene Profits fails to answer.