The Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
In 2013, I wrote the blog below about how the book Fifty Shades of Grey
affected publishing and reading habits. Now, with the upcoming release of the film, and therefore, more readers rushing out to buy the book, it’s worth taking a second look at what all the fuss is about and what it means for the publishing industry.
I’ve politely ignored Fifty Shades of Grey, dismissing it as erotica, which I neither read nor represent. But this past week, I startled myself into taking note of the book. After all, any series that can sell more than 70 million copies really isn’t to be ignored.
Why does the series sell like iced drinks on a sweltering day? What does that mean for publishing in general and for you in particular?
First, I went to Wikipedia to pick up a primer on the book. Here’s what I found:
“Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 erotic romance novel by British author E. L. James. It is the first installment in the Fifty Shades trilogy that traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young businessmagnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).
“The second and third volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, were published in 2012. Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, with book rights having been sold in 52 countries, and set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time. Critical reception of the book has been mixed, with the quality of its prose being generally seen as poor….”
Then I clicked over to Amazon to read the reviews. After all, this book is seriously popular, right? Here’s what I found: 28,000+ Amazon reviews, most of which panned the book as being beyond banal. These generally are long, in-depth complaints about the plot and writing. Even the erotic portions of the book received complaints (although not as many as the other aspects of the book). The readers who liked it only said they loved it and couldn’t put it down. I didn’t find any insights from the positive reviews. It has a 3.5-star rating, with readers giving it one star or five stars–and very few ranking it in the middle.
Why do women read this book? I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a blog on Fifty Shades and wished I could find someone who had read it. She responded, “I read it.” When I asked her why, she said, “Curiosity. It was titillating, but it was so poorly written, I’d never consider reading the other two books in the series.”
I suppose a lot of women did pick up the book because they were curious. But I also think women want read it to fantasize about a relationship with an over-the top, drop-dead gorgeous, 26-year-old billionaire who gives money to feed the world’s starving, is a concert-level pianist, athlete, blah, blah, blah. With so many women finding themselves divorced and disillusioned, it’s exciting to think about a different kind of relationship from theirs that didn’t end so well. Also some women might have enjoyed savoring being a little bit bad by reading the book. I’ve seen more than one woman in an airport or on a plane reading Fifty Shades. Reading it in public must feel like being a little naughty.
What affect will Fifty Shades have on publishing? This book will cause a groundswell of erotica to be produced. The covers won’t be bodice rippers or show excessively muscled men but will instead look like the cover of any other novel.
We might groan over the thought of so many publishing resources being invested in this way, but it’s important to remember that for every trend there is a counter-trend. With erotica going mainstream, it also means more “sweet” romances will be in demand.
While E.L. James has made a fortune, publishing has been invigorated by the series as well. Random House, which published the books, can afford to expand the titles it publishes in every category, add personnel in all departments, spend more on marketing on other titles, buy other publishers, etc. Bookstores have experienced an infusion of cash because of Fifty Shades, and that means their doors stay open and their shelves are filled with hundreds of additional titles. The saying that what lifts one boat lifts all boats is true. We might not like the idea of erotica selling like crazy, but its success means success for everyone.
What does this book mean to you? I personally couldn’t bring myself to lay down money for the book, but I did download a sample of it on my Kindle. I confirm that the writing isn’t stellar, and it probably becomes more aggravating the further you dip into the book. Apparently the characters have extremely limited facial expressions and vocabulary (“jeez” being a word that presents itself multiple times per page). I’m not advocating anyone else give the book a try, but if you know someone who has read it (and you probably do), a conversation might shed further light on this publishing phenomena.
- Thoughtfully consider why someone would read the book
- Translate the felt needs and real needs Fifty Shades meets (beyond the sexual) that you can address in your writing
Even if you write nonfiction, the forces at play in making this book such a success could inform your writing. (The phrase, searching for love in all the wrong places, occurs to me.)
Why do you think this book has taken the reading world by storm?
How can understanding the reasons behind its success inform your writing?
How has Fifty Shades of Grey affected all of publishing? Click to tweet.
What does the rise in erotica mean for publishing? Click to tweet.
Should we ignore Fifty Shade of Grey? Click to tweet.