The Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

Janet Grant

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 businessFifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades Trilogy #1)magnate, 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.[1][2] The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide,[3] with book rights having been sold in 52 countries,[4] and set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.[5] 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.

78 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. lisa says:

    Fifty Shades of Grey emerged as fan fiction from the Twilight Series, which also has a huge fan base.

    I kind of see it as the deeper need and longing we have to be wanted, known and loved deeply. Something only God can give us fully and can be reflected in human relationships although imperfectly. Often we look to fill that longing in empty ways. I know my main characters struggle with this (not in the way Fifty Shades does though!)I thankful as a faith-based writer to be able to share that we are known and loved deeply.

  2. rachel says:

    i did read it because when something is THAT popular ( see: the Da Vinci Code, the Hunger Games), even if I am not that interested in it, I feel as a reader with a fascination with the literary marketplace that I need to be kept up to speed. it certainly DID read like the twilight fanfic on which it was based. bad writing, horrible characters, etc., the biggest impact i think it has had on the marketplace is making erotica mainstream. erotica has always been popular and available (all bookstores in toronto have a section, off to the side, boasting authors like Anne Rice, etc., ) and well-hidden from the average reader. with Fifty Shades, the subject matter and genre is nothing new—but what IS new is the advertisement for books of its ilk on the subway. what IS new is seeing people reading erotica in public.

  3. This is quite a topic for Monday morning, Janet! 🙂 I pray you’re right, that more sweet romances will be in demand. Does the market demonstrate that?

    • Janet Grant says:

      I think the general acceptance of Amish books, which are now appearing in the secular market, is an indication of that move toward a sweeter book. Also, Debbie Macomber has known this secret for decades–women want to read nice books with likeable characters.
      It’s unendingly interesting to me that the young women editors in the general market are looking for what they describe as “sexy” books, but really they should be looking for Debbie Macomber type of books. We’re about to find out if these editors are smart enough to launch some sweeter reads.

  4. Norma Horton says:

    Two words, Janet: lemming and marketing. Fifty Shades is a literary lemming with an astute marketeer behind it.

    It became a literary lemming by being a slightly different offering, and because someone at RH recognized that angle, and adjusted a campaign to take advantage of its being a one-off. I have to add the Potter series (my kids didn’t read it, nor did I) and Brown’s work to this category as well. (I read his).

    I watched Fifty Shades rise, and hope the marketing person in charge of it got a promotion. And if RH signs me, I’m going to find that person, and ask for them on my manuscripts’ team. (BTW, I didn’t read Fifty Shades. I’m a Daniel Silva kind of woman.)

  5. Jill Kemerer says:

    I haven’t read it for two reasons: I’m a book snob (my writer friends who read it warned me about the poor writing), and erotica isn’t a genre I want to read.

    Last summer, I took my kids to a nearby city pool, and my jaw dropped. Almost every lounge chair held a woman with one of the books in her hands! What an impact this author has made!

    I like your points about the money being fed into publishing helping all authors. Just goes to show us–God can make good come of ALL things! 🙂

  6. I had never thought of this as a potential positive for publishing, but it makes sense. And I know for a fact it’s getting people who never read to read it (I have friends for whom that is the case). Still, it’s unfortunate that people are so engrossed with a book that, from what I’ve read, offers nothing challenging, nothing to really think about. The characters are unrealistic (from reviews I’ve read) and the prose is poor. There are so many books out there for which the opposite is true. I think it says a lot about our society. Still, we can look on the bright side. Perhaps those people will be inspired to read more books, and expand beyond erotica.

    Interesting subject for today, Janet. You’ve really made me think.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, every book bought is a victory for publishing. We can hope that Fifty Shades readers expand beyond erotica to a plain ol’ well-written book that engages them and makes them beg for more–so to speak.

  7. Jeanne T says:

    Janet, it’s good to hear the perspective you shared. I’ve heard what kind of book Fifty Shades is, and like Jill, I am a bit of a book snob, and I will not read erotica. It’s interesting that this book brought this genre into the mainstream. It seems to go with the mainstream of our culture in other forms of media as well. Television shows and movies which promote promiscuity as todays’ norm.

    What surprised me, in a good way, in your post is the benefits—more sweet romances being published and income from a book like Fifty Shades for bookstores helping keep their doors open.

    Understanding the reasons behind Fifty Shades’ success in mainstream publishing can be beneficial for writers of other genres. Just think of what happens for a writer with a unique spin on a story, an amazing plot mixed with a powerful voice? And, as Norma mentioned, the right marketer? 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this, Janet. It’s a good reminder to me to not just ignore those books which are poorly written (or in a genre I choose not to read) that do extremely well in the marketplace. It’s good to analyze WHY they do well. I always appreciate your perspective.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Jeanne. You’ll note that I didn’t rush to read this book as soon as it started selling like crazy. I resisted because this is so not my kind of book. But even taking a look at the first two chapters on my Kindle gave me a good idea of the writing style.

  8. I have not, nor will I, read this book. One thing that stands out to me is the phrase “what goes in to the mind, comes out in the life.”
    I know the power of a lingering thought, we all do, as writers, because we create them.
    It’s not like there weren’t books like FSOG before, but the “Oohhh, you read it? Then I’m allowed to read it too!”
    Almost like it’s worthy of bragging. The ‘scandal factor’ in our culture is falling so much so that what was once considered immoral, is now merely the stuff of prudes and old church ladies with big purses. Gone With the Wind was was considered racy. It had “Frankly , Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a…” in it!!!!
    FSOG is merely a best-selling pile of dreck, amongst all the other dreck out there.

    I need to be careful to not lead my readers astray and I’m already thinking of one scene I may get heat for, and may have to edit.
    But I’ll leave that to the agents and editors to decide.

    All things may be permissible, but not all things are beneficial.

  9. I see this as part of our culture’s desperation for love and connection, distorted by our own “inner mess” (the flesh).

    People are sad, lonely, and (excuse me) horny. There’s also a trend toward normalizing both deviancy and “soft porn”– yesterday’s X rating is today’s PG-13. Companies like RH focus on the bottom line, with little regard to the devastating effects of porn on women, men, and families. I’d put the movie Mountain Mike in this category. Or a few Superbowl Half-time shows. How far can society push this?

    Did you know that ancient Rome was littered with pornography? Phallic images were used as pointers to show the way to temple prostitutes?

    Healthy people can celebrate their sexuality within appropriate boundaries. We, however, are a dysfunctional culture in the mainstream, and boundaries are growing weaker: witness Victoria’s Secrets commercials. (PS, clothing is a type of boundary).

    That being said, there’s no foam finger of shame to wag. Jesus never expected the world to act like anything but the world. We need a new heart which comes, in my view, only from Christ and his salvation.

    You nailed it with your final bullet point: felt needs vs real needs.

    • Bill, I found myself nodding at your comment. Amen!

    • Dianne says:

      Bill, thank you for voicing what I was thinking about “normalizing both deviancy and “soft porn…”

      Janet, you may be right about the sales of these books, and therefore the cash inflow, benefiting all authors, agents, and publishing houses, but that still leaves me with a sick feeling in my stomach. It’s the same sick feeling I get when people here in Colorado promote using the cash boon of sales taxes off of now-leagalized marijuana sales to finance public schools.

      I don’t want drug money funding children’s education. As an author, I don’t want to benefit off the sales of erotica. I know that would be a way of shooting myself in the foot, but still I’d opt out if I could.

      I’m sure some would say lucky for me, there’s no way to opt out.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Dianne, I hear you. We don’t have any say in whether the publishing industry benefits from the sales of the Shades of Grey Series; so my point in this blog is that there are unintended benefits that we all experience as a result of the series’ astounding success. I don’t like that in California our schools receive funding from gambling, but voters approved such a plan so I have no more say in whether I agree with the setup.

  10. Janet, wow! What a way to kick-start our Monday! I loved all of your points and I applaud your courage for tackling this elephant.

    While I’ve not read Fifty Shades, I agree with you that it’s something that can’t be ignored. Your suggestion to “translate the felt needs/real needs (beyond the sexual) Fifty Shades meets” so we can address it in our writing has really made me think.

    What incredible power the written word holds! Think of what we could do as Christian authors if we were able to energize the world the way E.L. James has! To advance Christ’s kingdom (in a more positive way) through something we write…now, that would be AWESOME.

    Bill’s comment above really speaks to the heart of the matter. We’re a culture that continues to desensitize the obvious: sin is sin. And when this happens enough, it becomes accepted as the norm. Is it any surprise to God? No.

    I was at a bookstore a few months after Fifty Shades came out. I’ll never forget seeing a 12-14 yr old youngster pick the book up, peruse it, and purchase it. I remember being shocked as the clerk smiled and wished the boy, “Happy reading.” As a mom of a teenager myself, it made me heartsick. As a Christian, I wish I’d struck up a conversation with the young man and suggested a different book that day.

    Still, I can pray that the Lord grant me the words for next time. In my writing and in my day-to-day interactions.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, when I was discussing this blog post with Rachel Kent, she recounted finding Fifty Shades at Costco at a time she didn’t know what it was about. She thought the cover looked like a YA book and read the back cover. Appalled by the innocuous cover, she put it back on the stack, but has always felt the book is dishonest in how it presents itself.
      And, yet…since porn is considered more of the norm in today’s society, the cover really is a sad reflection of just how far we’ve fallen.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I’ve been saying lately, as a mother of another avid reader, that novels need to have ratings like movies. One of the indie authors started labeling her novels because a reader asked her to do so. She is the only author I know who does it, but she rates her own books. That way kids don’t accidentally purchase R-rated books.

      I think this bodes well for Christian novels. Almost all Christian novels can be left on the coffee table without danger of being accidentally picked up by an underaged reader. This is a big plus for readers everywhere. I hope that more and more secular readers will say — ah, it’s a Christian author, so I know the book is clean. Unfortunately, as more Christian authors cross over to ABA, the line might be blurred. Or will it?

      • Janet Grant says:

        Lines already are blurred. Many CBA publishers are aggressively placing their books in general market venues (Barnes and Nobel, WalMart, etc.) and Christians writing for general market publishers will simply be spreading the wealth of PG, G books. The idea of rating books is an interesting one, although in society today that can backfire, and kids can seek out all the X-rated books…Who am I kidding? The kids already know which books those are!

  11. Escape and no boundaries. A desperate need and an affliction in our culture. That’s my assessment of why “Grey” is a runaway train. Blindly pursuing both will have consequences for us. But that’s another essay.
    Erotica is pornography in words. Pornography isn’t good—”But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
    Matthew 5:27-29
    But, lest I come off as self-righteous, I admit I’ve read Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series. (Her series has only sold over 20 million copies!) I got hooked by the Scottish theme, and I kept reading it for the writing lessons on how to write good dialogue and develop characters. Not to mention, how to write in rich details of history. But I also learned how NOT to write sex scenes.
    The Christian writer Jan Watson does a great job of writing a tender scene of intimacy. Nobody needs the details—cut away to the stars in the sky or the crashing sea—we get it.
    So in my writing I acknowledge the need, the drive, the intimacy—or in my story’s case, the memory of the intimacy the character misses—but I don’t give the reader enough to play the movie in her head.

  12. Sarah Thomas says:

    Talk about timing Janet. This just popped into my e-mail:

    Between the Covers: Four “New Adult” Authors, Wed, July 17 (3:30 pm ET/12:30 pm PT). Join a Google Hangout with four of today’s hottest authors writing in the steamy New Adult fiction genre: J. Lynn, Cora Carmack, Molly McAdams, Jay Crownover and Sophie Jordan streaming live from the Romance Writers of America Conference in Atlanta.

    Oh my, “new adult.” It has a name. Not to be ignored, indeed!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sarah, I believe the New Adult category refers to readers who enjoy Young Adult books but are in their 20s or 30s. The general market developed the New Adult category a couple of years ago; a few CBA editors are acquiring New Adult but not many. New Adult doesn’t have to be steamy; it just means the author is reaching a certain demographic.

  13. Ugg…the Grey debate, I’ve had it many times. My book club selected the first installment, and as you can imagine, the “insightful” discussion dripped with humor and bad wordplay. When I suggested the writing was eh’ and needed tightening – the bondage jokes flew, and yes, I laughed, but the bottom line – no one enjoyed SOG for more than the racy entertainment. I believe the jaw dropping sales stem from a curiosity factor, and a heck of a marketing squad.

    How many women do you think downloaded SOG to their Kindle in an effort to hide the fact they were reading it? 😉

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kathryn, I’m sure the digital sales of the Fifty Shades Series is hefty. It would be instructive to see the comparison between print and digital. Digital equals “plain brown wrapper.”

  14. What you said about the reviews fascinates me, Janet. I guess it’s true that readers pay more attention to word-of-mouth than reviews. And I love Norma’s description of “literary lemmings.” 🙂

  15. The first time I heard of Fifty Shades of Grey was in answer to a question on my blog about romance novels. I asked: What is the best love story you’ve ever read, and why? One of my church friends responded that she LOVED Fifty Shades and couldn’t put it down. Not knowing what the book was, I did a little research and was then flabbergasted by her answer. I didn’t read it, nor do I plan to, but I’ve since heard of a lot of women who have. My sister-in-law will pretty much read anything and she said she read it out of curiosity, but the writing was so poor she wouldn’t suggest it to anyone. Her sweet little mother also read it, out of curiosity. I think that’s the main reason it has sold so many copies. Simple curiosity.

    Janet, your blog post was really fascinating. When I think of best-sellers (whether I’d read them or not), I’ve never considered what they do for the rest of us. Food for thought.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Gabrielle, I’m with you in that I’m puzzled by women who have read the book and proclaim they loved it. Really? What’s to love? A young woman is introduced to some pretty nasty sex acts and accepts them as part of her love life. I think about the lack of self-respect and willingness to let a male control a relationship that expresses. And that leads me to mention my concern for how so many young men don’t respect the young women in their lives. The language the guys use about women and the men’s bullying behavior is an issue that concerns me.

  16. Erotica has been extremely popular for a couple years now. The genre I’m writing now is, unfortunately IMO, largely represented by it. Which doesn’t help our fight to be taken seriously by the rest of the science fiction world.

    All Fifty Shades has done is make it okay to read the stuff openly.

    I too read the sample chapter and did quite a bit of laughing at how horrible it is.

  17. I’ve heard there’s a strong redemption theme, especially in the hero’s arc. I think humans love redemption stories. It’s that simple. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      I’m not well enough acquainted with the series arc to comment. I know Christian Grey has some serious issues in the first book, but how much those are resolved by the end of book three, I couldn’t say. I do know that at the end of the first book, Anastasia walks out on the relationship, but at the beginning of book two, Christian convinces her to come back.

  18. Elaine Faber says:

    I haven’t read it either, but was surprised to hear several of you say it had poor writing, dialogue etc. And it was printed by Random House? Then I must conclude they didn’t print it because of the plot, characters or writing quality as we would expect of them, but printed it purely for the shock value of the sexual content. That is disappointing. And we all strive to learn the craft, create a riveting plot with unusual circumstances and charming characters, scintilating dialogue, correct grammar, a snappy hook, explosive conclusion… and still we don’t get a contract? Something is wrong with this picture.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elaine, Fifty Shades was wildly popular before Random House picked it up. It was a no-brainer for Random House; they knew significant money was to be made with it. And the decision to publish is always first a business decision and second a decision about the craft.

  19. What astounds me is that anyone I know who’s read it counts it as trash. I was waiting in the orthodontist’s office last week and struck up a conversation with a woman who was holding a face-down book on her lap. We talked about authors we liked and then I asked what she was reading right then.

    She sheepishly showed me the cover and said, “But I read good stuff too!”

    To me, life’s too short and there are too many books out there that don’t offend my faith to spend any time reading books that aren’t amazing!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Christina, it would have been interesting to find out why she had picked up a copy. What did she want to get out of it? Did it meet that need?
      But it’s hard to talk about Fifty Shades with a stranger…you don’t know where the conversation might go.

      • So true. 🙂 She said it was her fourth or fifth time through, so she must have gotten something from it!

      • Iola says:

        Fourth or fifth time through? On a novel that’s only been out a couple of years? That sounds like an addiction. I know people who read Pride & Prejudice every year, or Anna Karenina (and the Bible), but this?

        I haven’t read FSOG, and won’t. The reviews were enough for me. I read one review from a Christian sex therapist who said the attitudes and behaviour of the characters would keep people like her in business for the next decade. That can’t be good.

        It seems that readers – people who read a lot in any genre – don’t like FSOG for the reasons you all have stated. It’s the one-book-a-year readers who are reading this (and have now read three books in this last year).

  20. Jan Thompson says:

    Janet, you got me at “Fifty Shades.” I should be writing, but when your blog popped into my email with a title like that, I had to come here to have a look-see because I value your opinion on the publishing industry.

    I’m afraid that I don’t read bestsellers just because they are bestsellers. In the same vein, I haven’t read Dan Brown’s Inferno. I read reviews of it, and many on Amazon bemoaned its poor writing, so that sealed it for me. Same with JK Rowling — some say it was high schoolish writing. But I understand that these authors spun good yarns, and somehow that trumps good writing. Good for them. I don’t envy them, or anyone else who made it big.

    I think many genre trends ebb and flow, and we writers have to be true to our calling, and stick to it. When Harry Potter was trendy, many writers tried to write something similar. Then Twilight brought out waves and waves of wannabe writers in that genre. Some actually made it to the top. Most didn’t. Now with self-publishing, it seems that suddenly, everybody is a writer. Where are the real writers? Who knows, if the readers themselves can’t tell the difference.

    For me personally, I’ll just keep pressing on. I was writing colonial fiction two years ago and then found that they were not selling too well, so I put it on hold so I could go finish the other genre I was working on (the one I worked on for 16 years), and then I found out that colonial is coming back, and now I have two books I need to finish, and then there’s my MG story my family really likes… Chasing winds does not a published writer make. So I’ve decided that I am just going to be true to my calling, stick to it, and just press on, regardless of what sells and when or where or why it sells.

    I could be a poor, famished writer as a result of that decision, but I’d be a happy writer having fulfilled my calling. After all, Christians have a higher standard, and IMO it applies to writing and publishing too. In the end, we have to answer to God re: what we write. And for that matter, what we read. I don’t read certain genres for that very reason, that I have to answer to God for what I put into my mind.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jan, I so agree with you that each writer needs to remain true to his or her calling and also to what the writer is passionate about. If that’s historical novels or theological treatises, what God asks of us is pretty straightforward–be true to who we are and to what he has placed in our hearts.
      But I also don’t want to remain stupid (speaking for myself here). How can I inform myself on what readers respond to? It doesn’t mean I need to write erotica, but if I can understand the underlying draw, won’t that inform the way I create my characters? Not to mention that we can learn from what others have done poorly as well as from what others have done well. Analyzing bad writing can be a learning experience if I realize I commit some of the same errors–they’re just more visible to me in others’ writing than in my own.
      We all have limited time to read, and certainly we each need to choose what is the most beneficial for us.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        This is a great writing tip: “Not to mention that we can learn from what others have done poorly as well as from what others have done well.” Thank you, Janet!

    • Jan, thank you for the reminder to keep pressing on with our stories whether the genre is wildly popular or not. And if it’s wildly popular now, then by the time our book got published the wave may have already past. This is one of the many reasons I would like to work with an agent. They have their finger on the pulse of what’s around the bend.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        That’s why I like agents too. Sometimes writers can’t figure it all out by ourselves. Agents have that professional edge that only helps.

        At the same time, the Fifty Shades book was first self-published and became a bestseller before the author was picked up by an agent.

        Some say that the self-publishing world is the new slush pile, and some say that it’s the new query. Almost all the top 4-5 self-published authors have now been picked up by agents, and are published by traditional publishers.

  21. Lisa Bogart says:

    This Grey post is one more reason why I appreciate Books & Such and you Janet so very much. You look at the whole industry, not just the pieces and parts you like or are in tune with. You see trends wherever they pop up. Thank you for sharing your insights. Something this popular, even if very few of us here seem to have read it, has got to have lessons to teach and you found them. Bravo.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Lisa.I’m late to the game with Fifty Shades,but I’m glad I’ve taken the time to find out more about it. That’s been an instructive exercise for me.

  22. Ann Bracken says:

    Because Ms. James is friends with friends of mine, I have read the books (my reason for reading). I agree with every negative thing said about them.

    However, one of your questions was why do so many women like the books? My guess at the reason is that Christian Grey can be seen as a Byronic Hero. As described by Byron:

    That man of loneliness and mystery,
    Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh—and
    He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
    The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
    And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
    Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
    He knew himself detested, but he knew
    The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
    Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
    From all affection and from all contempt.

    I think many women (I’m using her sales as evidence for this) love the idea of finding a dark, broken, hurting man and through her love bringing him into the light. The fact that it is woefully unrealistic isn’t important.

    Personally, I’ll take a kind, well-adjusted, loving man any day.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ann, thank you for your well-expressed comment. Love the quote from the poem. What you say resonates with me, that Christian (I find the use of that name mildly offensive) is indeed a Byronic hero. But the idea of transforming such a man is a devastating choice. Sadly, Fifty Shades suggests that a woman can redeem a man–just the message women in our society don’t need to hear.

  23. My stories echo some of the dark, morbid areas of a genre in the ABA, but it’s been a delicious challenge to infuse that darkness with light and truth. Hope-filled, memorable novels are the ones that stay in our minds, and no embarrassment colors our cheeks when we tell others about them.

    Janet, thank you for your willingness to address this topic today. I appreciate you and your insight.

  24. Jan Thompson says:

    Janet, I just saw this article that might be of interest, and seems to support your post. Daily Mail says that FIfty Shades is the #2 most abandoned book according to a Goodreads research.

    “And E.L. James’ controversial book came second in the list of works that readers shelved before the end.” – Daily Mail

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for the link to the Daily Mail article. That was an instructive read. And it confirmed what most of us already know: Fifty Shades isn’t the best written book. Still, it’s encouraging to know not everyone was willing to suffer through the bad writing to read about all that kinky sex.

  25. Janet, thank you for being willing to investigate and examine Fifty Shades of Grey from a professional point of view. I agree that when something is so popular, it shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed. Having said that, I admit that I consciously have never read the book nor do I intend to, and I wish with all my being that it had never been written or published. As you said above, it is disheartening that so many women love a book that is about a woman in such an unhealthy (abusive) relationship.

    When the book became a hot topic months back, I asked the women in my book club if any of them had read it. To my surprise, the majority had read at least a part. Most read it out of curiosity and many said they stop reading it because they got bored (that it was the same thing over and over). You have postulated some good reasons for the books success, but I can’t help but feel that a great deal of its sales came from a combination of sales and a forbidden fruit syndrome. My reaction to the book’s skyrocketing popularity has been dismay, not just because of “erotica” (which you have called by its true name: porn), but also because everyone I asked told me that the book was poorly written. For a poor piece of writing to be so phenomenally successful seemed to me to be a sad reflecting on publishing and readership.

    Thank you for the points you made on how the book has positively impacted the publishing world (and writers and readers as a result). It’s encouraging to hear that something good has come out of this. It’s also heartening that sweet romances are counter-balance the Fifty Shades trilogy. So thank you for broadening my emotion-based perspective through your thoughtful and balanced post.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Christine, you’re very welcome. That’s something we can help each other to find: perspective. I so agree with you that my preference is the book had never been written. But I console myself that we all reap some benefits from its existence.

  26. This is a very interesting question. When I started reading fiction, my author of choice was Steven King. Though I’d been raised to go to church, there was nothing spiritual about it. I think, in a way, I sought out SK’s books because at that time they had an element of the spiritual. Certainly not Biblical, but I didn’t really know what that was at the time (my church not teaching it–believe it or not). I LOVE that I can find good fiction now that is both Biblical and Spiritual. I think many are looking for this also, but don’t know it’s out there.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Connie, that’s a good insight about Stephen King. I don’t do thrillers (too scary for me!), but I love some of the screenwriting he’s done such as Stand By Me. His writing displays a masterful understanding of the human spirit.

  27. Willow says:

    I’ve read all three books — twice. And yes I’m a Christian. I can’t speak for other women, only for myself. I’m a romance junkie and I like some steaminess in the story. Always have and that didn’t change when I became a Christian. Mind you, I said steamy and story. It has to have both. And I don’t mean sex, but I’m okay with sex scenes or erotica as it’s now called. What matters to me is the story and chemistry. I’ve tried to read Christian romance and I’m sorry but I find the writing, characters and dialogue subpar. I’ve had enough of mediocre stories that threw in a character praying and now it’s a Christian romance. That doesn’t work for me. So unless anyone knows of a really good story along the lines of Love Comes Softly and Redeeming Love, I’ll stick with secular for now.

    So back to FSoG — I initially read for curiosity (I’m the sort that has to see and judge for myself what the hype is about. Yes, also read all the Twilight books and Harry Potter). I was initially shocked by the explicitness and quantity of the sex. And yes. I got very tired of the very limited vocab with all the repeated “Geez” and “Oh my.” But the author kept me engaged enough with these two people to want to find out what was going to happen next. In that sense, I guess you could say the writing was good. I liked their banter and back and forth with emails. She was successful in creating enough of a chemistry and mystery between the two to hook me. Enough that in reviewing it in my mind a year later, I went back to “see” how she did that as far as a writing technique and I got sucked in again to re-read the whole series, skimming this time. I’ve often asked myself too, what the appeal is because really Christian Grey is a control freak who has Anastasia walking on eggshells the whole time and that’s no fun. And all I can say is that Jessica Nelson comes the closest in nailing it because in the end the message of the book is that for Ana it was intolerable to be in a relationship where the guy beats you and because Christian figures out he’s in love, Ana succeeds in changing/reforming him. Isn’t that every woman’s ultimate fantasy to change a man? I think these books are successful because the author succeeded in creating two very likable characters that had big flaws and their “love” for each other conquers all and the author shows instead of tells — along with a lot of kinky sex.

    I did find something in FSoG thought provoking. Christian Grey comes from a very physically abusive home as a young child and then is adopted into a wonderful, rich loving family. Then at age 15 still a virgin, he’s initiated into a sexual relationship, a BDSM one, (I had to look up that term when I started reading this book) with a married older woman who is a friend of the family. This is the only sex partner he knows until he graduates from college and throughout, he’s the one dominated and beaten by the lady. Yet, he never considers that he was abused by her. He thinks his whole trauma is from when he was a little boy and that she helped him. He and Ana have many discussions on whether or not that sexual relationship, even though he was a consenting partner, constituted abuse and was wrong. The author makes it clear that it was.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Willow, thanks so much for taking the time to eloquently write the reasons you enjoyed reading the SOG series. I know for me you shed light on the books’ attractiveness. I kind of liked both characters in the few chapters I read; so I see your point about becoming engaged in them and wanting to find out what happens in their relationship. I had a hard time overlooking the repetition of facial expressions–and I hadn’t even gotten to the repetitive sex scenes yet, but I’m a consummate what-happens-next!? kind of reader and movie viewer. My husband could judge a movie in the first few minutes while I was still getting settled into my seat. “Huh? You already decided about the movie!?” He was, much to my consternation, always right.

  28. Loved hearing your thoughts about 50. Thank you for sharing!!

  29. Peter DeHaan says:

    Janet, I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this book and especially your insights. Plus the discussion was great! Thanks

  30. Such interesting comments on a book I’m still avoiding like the plague. I rarely read anything that has taken the world by storm: no Harry Potter and no Twilight. As an author, I am probably doing myself a disservice, as reading at least one of the books in a popular series might be helpful, as you’ve so eloquently discussed the impact of one in this blog post.

    The only experience with Fifty Shades I’ve had is at numerous sporting events where the other moms are talking about it. Some are married. Some are divorced. They gush over it and the dreamy guy. While I’ve read erotica in the past, I find I don’t derive the same pleasure from it I did when I was younger and single. I don’t mind steamy love scenes in romance novels, but the story really needs to be strong in order for me to invest my time in it–which I feel holds true for a book in any genre.

  31. Denise Hisey says:

    My adult daughter read it out of curiosity and said it was terrible. She said she had no interest in reading the other 2 because the story line wasn’t very interesting.

    I saw 3 men being interviewed on tv a few months ago and they were discussing the book. One of them said his wife read it and it had ‘reignited’ their romance.

    As several other readers mentioned, I think there are many people ‘looking for love’ or at least to pique their imagination of ‘what if’.

    Seems like a fad to me.

  32. Someone gave me a copy at a dinner party around Christmas time (I know) and I still haven’t read it… I’m not going to because I am so visual and have enough erotica stuck in my brain to last a lifetime… (I wish I didn’t).

    So it remains hidden in the back of the bookshelf until I remember to give it back.

    I so appreciate other’s thoughts on this phenomenon.

    Janet, I love your idea that this will promote a swing in more cozy types of romance.

  33. F.J.Thomas says:

    I haven’t read anything but self help in years. Working full time, having a horse farm, and trying to write on the side I just haven’t had time. My step daughter gave me all three books for my birthday. I had heard about them from friends, church friends too, but wasn’t that interested.
    Then I started reading the first book and couldn’t put it down. Second one was the same way. Third, not as much. Quite frankly, I am having a hard time finding a book to follow up with!
    Yes, I do think the wording was somewhat repetitive and no one could have that much sex in real life and the plot could have been more complex. That said…..I think she did a brilliant job in devloping characters and creating conflict within them. When a man who could have any woman in the world wants to possess a woman and protect her above everything, makes her feel incredible and wants to give her the world, that’s the ultimate turn on, with or without explicit sex. I think that is the draw. Without it, it would be just another porn novel and I don’t think it would have done so well.
    But that’s just my thoughts after having read it.

    • Janet Grant says:

      F.J., thanks for giving us your perspective on what makes the series so popular. I guess we could describe the books as the ultimate fantasy, for a woman to be cared for with such intensity.

  34. Ron Taylor says:

    We’ve had four hundred years of mild mannered romance novels. I think that is why the book sold in huge numbers.

    All genres have bad writers. To complain that it is badly written is sour grapes. Some people may think it is well written.

    I wonder how many of those complaining on a well known book selling site are frustrated writers who have books which don’t sell.


    • Janet Grant says:

      Ron, of course there are badly written books that sell well in every genre. But I found the negative Amazon reviews of Fifty Shades insightful and well expressed. From the few chapters of the book I read, I agree with the insights those reviews provided. A really good reviewer can be quite astute in explaining a book’s shortcomings.