It goes without saying that the record-breaking sales of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series are the publishing industry’s success story of the year. In addition to the millions upon millions of books sold, E L James’ racy and buzzworthy novels sparked a studio bidding war for movie rights and growing interest from various actors and actresses interested in taking on the roles of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
But what is perhaps most intriguing about the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon is how the sexually explicit, borderline X-rated BDSM (a blanket term for erotic activities that include bondage, dominance/submission and sadomasochism) material in the books crossed over into the mainstream. MTV News spoke with several publishing experts about the “Fifty Shades” effect and why it’s such a positive thing for fans and authors of erotic fiction.
“We’ve been [publishing] erotica since 2006, so you can imagine our kind of shock, but we’re really excited about it,” said Michelle Renaud, senior manager of public relations at Harlequin books. “It’s bringing more readers into the genre and more women are getting excited about it and kind of returning to reading and using reading as an escape. It’s been very, very positive for us.”
“It’s a sign that we are actually getting new readers to the industry,” added Cindy Hwang, executive editor of Berkley Books, a subsidiary of Penguin Books that publishes a variety of romance and erotic fiction. “That is always gratifying, because there’s been a lot of concern that there haven’t been new readers coming in for a while. I think the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy has been a great entry point for people who may not have been more than casual readers before but [are] intrigued enough by the experience of reading ‘Fifty Shades’ to go back to reading.”
With James’ books flying off the shelves, mainstream retailers have started trying to fill readers’ needs with storefront displays of other titles in erotic fiction, something that used to be reserved for the back of bookstores or specific “romance” sections.
“Once the media picked up on it and then people were talking about it in daily casual conversations, merchants were like, ‘Wow, there’s really a demographic that would like to get this and we should probably be serving them.’ And they made room on their shelves where they didn’t before,” noted bestselling author Sylvia Day, whose latest novel “Bared to You” has received “Fifty Shades”-esque buzz. “Previously you’re writing erotic fiction, you’re in trade paperback, and the covers usually, you know, left very little to the imagination and they were only stocked in traditional bookstores or you had to buy it online at the e-tailers. That really limits impulse buys. It limits recognition among the populace that it’s out there, so now the books are in the grocery stores, they’re in Target, they’re in Walmart. All of those places would not stalk erotic fiction before and now they do, and that’s huge.”
So what is it about “Fifty Shades” that has garnered such widespread attention for erotic fiction?
“I found it really interesting how it really did just kind of take off and was its own animal,” Renaud said. “We saw an increase of women coming to our website to research erotica stories that we had because they wanted more. And yeah, we’re able to do that and we’ve even been hearing from retailers that they want reissues and hardback format or trade size [copies], and we just reissued a few Megan Hart titles. Hers is not necessarily the BDSM, but it is erotica with a great love story to it, and I think when you look at that as well, ‘Fifty Shades’ is a love story between two people, and women love that. They’ve been reading romance and love stories for so long that they just were attracted to this.”
“The emotional component has been what has been addictive about it for a lot of readers,” Hwang added. “I also think you can’t divorce the whole kink factor. I think for some readers, that’s absolutely the hook and what drew many readers in. It had a little bit of everything: It had the kink with the Cinderella-story factor, along with a package that allowed them to read this without feeling like they’re reading something they shouldn’t be. So I think the packaging was very smart and very eye-opening for the rest of us who have been publishing erotic romance but not with this kind of romance, so it really was an eye-opener as to how receptive readers could be without the more typical, signifying package.”
Hwang said the simplistic cover design for “Fifty Shades” has had a dramatic influence on their packaging — in other words, it doesn’t take an airbrushed beefcake embracing a busty, long-haired femme fatale to sell books.
“There was a much bigger readership for erotic romance than we had originally assumed, and we knew that packaging would be key,” Hwang said of the minimalist approach for Day’s “Bared to You” cover. “We also knew that you can package a lot of books this way, but it’s important that the book actually delivers, because readers, once they’re burned, might be shy about trying something else once they’ve been sold something they weren’t expecting. We know it’s important not to abuse the packaging while still using it to maximum effect. It’s also limited packaging in a way, because how many objects can you put on the book?” she said with a laugh. “You don’t want to overexpose it as well; you have to use it wisely.”
It’s clear that the interest is not going away anytime soon, especially with the “Fifty Shades” movie adaptation on the way. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try and look into the future, so we asked Day what subjects or themes she thinks will be the next big thing for the genre, be it paranormal, BDSM, etc.
“Part of [the allure of] ‘Fifty Shades’ and ‘Bared to You’ is that they are really almost like ‘Harlequin Presents’ [novels] but with extra sex,” Day said. “You’ve still got your tortured millionaire hero, so there still is that kind of fantasy aspect to it, but I don’t know that it could continue along that vein. But for a while in erotic fiction, there was kind of this trend where it was all done in sex clubs, like dungeons, you know that sort of thing, so it’s kind of evolved from the BDSM being an underground thing to being this kind of wealthy plaything sort of [setting]. I think maybe what we’ll start to see is that it will pull more into the more average, everyday couple and how they pull that into their lives and maybe how it changes their relationship, a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing. I could see it being done very well by some of the authors that I know.”
Those looking for more erotic fiction along the same lines as “Fifty Shades of Grey” should check out Day’s “Bared to You,” as well as Tiffany Reisz’s “The Siren.”