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Fifty Shades of Grey leads erotica boom

25 June 2012

The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon seems unstoppable. The paperback and ebook editions have sold in excess of 2.75m copies, breaking all previous records, in the UK alone and the ebook is reckoned to have sold 4m copies worldwide. US sales are over 10m.

The trilogy is already inspiring a rash of me-too signings and publishers are rifling their backlists for other erotica to feed this sudden demand. Jon Wood, deputy publisher at Orion, was quoted last week in The Times as saying: ‘No one saw this coming. The world has changed. The book market does that. No one really saw Stieg Larsson coming. No-one saw Dan Brown coming either. That’s the beauty of this industry.‘

Publishers have been bringing out erotica on special lists dedicated to it for many years, but it has been classified as such and has never broken through to the bestseller lists in this way. It’s significant that the books started out as fan fiction, then were self-published as ebooks, then later were snapped up by Random House worldwide and became print bestsellers too. But this rags-to-riches story is potentially a big anxiety for traditional publishers.

As blogger Agent Orange put it in a Bookseller Futurebook blog:

‘What is far more worrying for the business is how completely the Fifty Shades story encapsulates the perilous position the traditional elements of the business are in. This is a book that no agent would have thought to represent had it arrived in the post as an unsolicited manuscript – at least not in its current state. And even if there had been an agent to send it out, no publisher would have commissioned it. If any book could be designed to make publishers and agents feel insecure and irrelevant this would be it. They must be laughing in Seattle.

Impossible of course for publishers not to want to take advantage of an opportunity, especially one that turned out so golden, but they need to beware becoming too comfortable about relying on self published authors to do the hard work of breaking in the trail and do more trailblazing themselves. The Amazon driven self-publish drumbeat is driving more and more talent away from this business. Some of it may never return.’

E L James lives in suburban west London and will make her first public appearance on 3 July, although her identity is no secret and photos of her are freely available. After a fierce bidding war involving several top studios, Universal and Focus Features bought the film rights to James' trilogy in March. It’s also provoking controversy because of the content. In the US there has been a row over the decision by some libraries to ban the book, sparking online petitions and outcry from free speech groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is that it constitutes the rise of what has been called ‘mummy porn’. There’s nothing to suggest that the books are being picked up by a younger audience in any major way, although booksellers have commented that they have brought new customers into their shops – not at all a bad thing.

But the books do seem to be attracting a slightly older female reader and it’s possible that their bestsellerdom has made them respectable and a talking-point. Maybe they’re attracting the reading group market? But perhaps they’re reading them privately, rather than in the reading groups? Or perhaps the whole point is that erotica is now out in the open, part of the mainstream and suitable for reading group discussion?