"Fifty Shades of Grey" Steams Up Publishing World

"Fifty Shades of Grey" Steams Up Publishing World

An obscure e-book built on Web buzz hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller list this week, rocking the publishing world and illustrating the growing power of digital books.

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic novel by E.L. James, inspired loosely by the “Twilight” series, sold 250,000 digital copies before scoring a seven-figure print deal with Vintage Books, a subsidiary of Knopf Doubleday.

The book’s climb to the top is remarkable, considering the title lacked the marketing and financial backing of a major publisher. The success of the obscure romance title, which began as fan fiction written by a lesser-known author, is forcing the staunchly traditional field of print publishing to take a new look at digital marketing.

Certainly, there have been other signals. Sales of e-readers and tablets are soaring, and Amazon’s Kindle Direct market, where authors can self-publish e-books, is growing steadily. But not since Dan Brown self-published “The Da Vinci Code” has the publishing world been so offended, excited, and confused.

Fifty Shades of Grey’s success is shocking partly because it combines romance and erotica, genres typically assumed hidden in bedroom drawers and often looked down upon by the literary world. But romance novels have a massive, devoted following, and publishers like Harlequin and Doubleday rake in millions each year from romance novels alone. Clearly, Grey’s steamy subject matter resonated with a large, primarily female fan base, with the Huffington Post dubbing the novel “Mommy Porn.”

Adding to the surprise, the novel began essentially as an X-rated version of Twilight, raising questions about what determines plagiarism of intellectual property. James’ first digital draft built a new story around characters strikingly similar to Stephanie Meyers’ star-crossed lovers Edward and Bella, and some say Grey’s origins in fan fiction present a new and emerging quandary for authors and publishers.

James reshaped the story and changed specific character details before re-releasing the title last year, but the novel’s buzz capitalized on comparisons to Twilight. University of Utah English professor Anne Jamison, who assigned Fifty Shades of Grey to her students in a “Theories of Pop Culture” course, told NPR the book’s success brings up questions about “whether the explicit, conscious use of another writer’s fan base, via creation of characters known and experienced as ‘versions’ of the writer’s characters, for commercial purposes, constitutes any kind of damage or infringement.”

But even with blush-inducing subject matter and rumors of copying, what the publishing industry seems most shocked by is the word-of-mouth buzz the book generated, which propelled it to pop-literary stardom. It’s the clearest sign yet that traditional methods of marketing and publishing could be waning, and that online buzz is a more valuable marketing tool than ever before.

“Erotica has always been popular with online and e-book readers. But why these books have caused such a stir comes down to buzz,” Susan Swinwood, a senior editor at leading romance publisher Harlequin, told The Star. “That’s not a science, and it’s very elusive. But it’s what every publisher hopes for.”

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