July 2012, Week 5


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Tue, 31 Jul 2012 21:46:19 -0400
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Grey Area: How 'Fifty Shades' Dominated the Market

Emily Eakin
July 27, 2012, 11:34 a.m.

By late May, more than ten million copies of E.L. James's
Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series about the
sexual exploits of a domineering billionaire and an
inexperienced coed, had been sold in the United States,
all within six weeks of the books' publication here. This
apparently unprecedented achievement occurred without the
benefit of a publicity campaign, formal reviews, or
Oprah's blessing, owing to a reputation established, as
one industry analyst put it, "totally through word of

It's not news that "word of mouth" has become a business
model in the book industry. But E.L. James, a
forty-nine-year-old former television executive from West
London whose real name is Erika Leonard, has exceeded the
sales feats of previous reader-discovered authors by such
a staggering magnitude that she is in a category of her
own. Last year's breakout success, Amanda Hocking, sold
merely a million copies of her self-published young-adult
novels over the course of eleven months before signing a
four-book deal with St. Martin's Press.

The crucial difference may have less to do with talent,
content, or luck than with a peculiarity of Leonard's
early readership: her work originated as fan fiction, a
genre that operates outside the bounds of literary
commerce, in online networks of enthusiasts of popular
books and movies, brought together by a desire to write
and read stories inspired by those works. Leonard's
excursion in the genre provided her with a captive
audience of thousands of positively disposed readers,
creating a market for her books before they ever carried
price tags. But fan fiction is inherently collaborative
and by convention resolutely anti-commercial, attributes
which make its role in the evolution of her work both
highly unusual and ethically fraught.

Beginning in 2009, Leonard posted, under a different
title, a version of the Fifty Shades trilogy on a
well-trafficked fan-fiction forum devoted to the Twilight
series, the vampire-themed romance blockbusters by
Stephenie Meyer. Leonard's "TwiFic" shed Meyer's
supernatural story line and transposed the largely chaste
love story of her protagonists, Edward and Bella, into a
sexually explicit register. Like many fan-fiction writers,
Leonard uploaded her work in serial installments, a method
that enables readers to weigh in as the story progresses
and allows writers to incorporate feedback as they go.
Writers also read one another's fan fictions and can
infer, from the number and tenor of reader responses, what
kinds of stories are popular. Leonard's story reportedly
received more than 37,000 reviews, and was read by untold
thousands more who did not post reviews.

Early in 2011, after amending the work and expunging all
traces of its connection to Twilight, she contracted with
a small Australian press to publish it as the Fifty Shades
trilogy, in ebook and print-on-demand paperback formats.
By March of this year, when Vintage acquired the rights to
the trilogy for more than a million dollars, all three
books were at or near the top of The New York Times'
combined print and ebook bestseller list.

The vast majority of Fifty Shades's readers are presumed
to be women, as are the vast majority of fan-fiction
producers and consumers, and anecdotal evidence suggests
that, at least initially, there was much overlap between
these groups. At Goodreads.com, a book-recommendation site
with more than nine million members, readers began
reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the
trilogy, in the spring of 2011, many noting that they had
first encountered the story in its fan-fiction
incarnation. "I loved this story as a fanfic and the
characters have stolen my heart all over again!" wrote a
reader named Ashley, who, along with more than 55,000
other Goodreads members, gave Fifty Shades of Grey the
site's highest rating, five stars.

Critics, by contrast, have found much to abhor about the
work. Many have lamented Leonard's "stilted,"
"cliche-ridden" prose (a typical line: "my very small
inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba") and
decried as retrograde the sexual mores of her (now
renamed) protagonists: Anastasia (Ana) Steele, a willing
but inexplicably chaste college senior at Washington State
University, and Christian Grey, a buff but troubled
Seattle mogul who seeks to enlist her as his sexual slave.
Christian is partial to BDSM--an umbrella term encompassing
the erotic practices of bondage and discipline, dominance
and submission, sadism and masochism--and his penthouse
includes a "playroom" kitted out with chains, shackles,
whips, and other kinky toys. But before Ana can experience
its exquisite tortures, she must sign a contract, devised
by Christian's lawyer, consenting to become his submissive
(or "sub"), ceding control over her body, diet, hygiene,
sleep, and wardrobe, and stipulating her tolerance for
various sexual acts and accessories (manacles, hot wax,
genital clamps, etc.).

Together, the Fifty Shades books run to more than fifteen
hundred pages, many if not most of them sexually explicit.
(One of Leonard's few obvious talents as a writer is
maintaining variety in the frequent couplings.) What Ana,
who narrates the series, refers to as Christian's
"predilection" lends to the strenuous antics a
transgressive frisson. Yet critics have noted that the
erotic content breaks no new ground, citing equally
explicit, better-written fare, in particular The Story of
O, Anne Declos's indubitably literary portrayal of female
sexual slavery, published in 1954. In a cover story for
Newsweek, Katie Roiphe concluded that what's "most
alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what
gives it its true edge of desperation, and
end-of-the-world ambiance, is that millions of otherwise
intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this

It's hard not to hear the unease in such appraisals, the
condescension envenomed by a dawning awareness of
irrelevance. What sway does a critic have compared with
55,000 members of Goodreads.com or, for that matter, the
entire Twilight fandom? It's tempting to argue that the
Fifty Shades trilogy marks the apotheosis of a new
industry paradigm, in which power has shifted from
high-status cultural arbiters--agents, publishers, and
professional reviewers--to anonymous readers and fans. Yet
the story the books tell suggests a more ambiguous take on
this development. A subplot concerns Ana's professional
aspirations: an avid reader of nineteenth-century romance
novels, she hopes to become a book editor and lands a job
as an editorial assistant at a Seattle publishing house.
We're meant to understand this achievement as evidence of
both intellectual promise and self-reliance. But then
Christian buys the publishing house and has her boss, a
bumbling sexual predator, fired, effectively becoming her
superior and her livelihood.

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