2012 was a momentous year in the publishing industry. The Department of Justice sued five members of the big six publishers (and Apple) over e-book pricing. Two of the biggest publishers in the country, Penguin and Random House, announced they planned to merge. It was also the year that an unknown author, writing under the pen name E.L. James, found overnight success with an erotic trilogy, beginning with the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. The level of the trilogy’s success, the speed with which it achieved that success, and the fact that it was launched in an untraditional manner, led us to select its author as the most significant player on the publishing stage this year.
Everyone loves a Cinderella story. As people who work in the storytelling business, we love them even more than most. This year, we were treated to a whopper: it was about a wannabe novelist who took her small romance tale from an experimental work on a fan fiction Web site, published it initially with a tiny outfit in Australia, landed a multi-million dollar advance with the largest trade publisher in the world, and then capped it off by becoming the author of the fastest-selling adult series of all time.
To date, the Fifty Shades trilogy—Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed—has sold more than 35 million copies in the U.S., and 65 million copies worldwide. Ask someone who works in the book business what to make of E.L. James, née Erika Leonard, and there’s no telling what the response might be. Some see her as a savior, others as a harbinger of death. She could point to where the industry is headed, or she could be an anomaly. No matter the take, James’s effect on publishing is going to be a lasting one. The only question is what her legacy will be.
It’s not just about the numbers, either. If E.L. James had taken her manuscript about a self-conscious college student (who just happens to be a virgin) becoming enmeshed with an unspeakably handsome and successful entrepreneur (who just happens to have a thing for BDSM) to an agent, signed a traditional deal with a big six house, and sold an unexpectedly high volume of books, she would be a notable bestseller. But she didn’t. Although James did not “self-publish” in the technical sense of the word—she posted the trilogy as Twilight fan fiction online before releasing the series digitally and in POD with a company called the Writer’s Coffee Shop—she might as well have. What she did do is jump from publishing a book with a house too small to fill any significant print orders, to reach those aforementioned sales figures. So while the numbers are impressive, what’s more impressive is that those numbers are for a project that came into the traditional system through untraditional means.
From the start, James, who’s done a limited number of press appearances—she dislikes the spotlight and is uncomfortable in front of crowds—has said that she is as amazed as everyone else by the stratospheric sales she’s achieved. It is hard to imagine that anyone could plan for what happened to her or, more specifically, map out an approach that could produce this result. Most authors will tell you it’s hard to write with any objective other than finishing. At a time when publishers are becoming more analytical about the potential for a book’s sales, there’s something wonderfully unsettling about this notion that James simply got lucky. When PW asked her whether she saw herself as a disrupter, as someone changing the business, she laughed: “Not at all! I consider myself to be someone who’s been lucky enough to write a book that women seem to want to read. That’s all.”
And read they do. One thing that’s important to note about the Fifty Shades trilogy is that it continues to connect with people who claim they are not regular readers. Historically, this tends to be the case with massive hits: the same was said of the Harry Potter books, the Twilight Saga, and the Hunger Games. This, James, said, is the thing that continues to shock her: “The most surprising and satisfying [reactions to the series] have been from women who say they don’t normally read books. I’ve had women e-mail me saying they haven’t read a book for 10, 15, and one woman, 28, years. And yet they read the trilogy in a matter of weeks.”
But let’s get back to that notion that James is lucky. That can’t be all, can it? The why behind Fifty Shades—the reason for its unprecedented level of success—is both exhilarating and frightening for those working in this business. For years, publishers have admitted that putting the books they care about, and think will be successful, in front of readers does not follow a formula. The problem has been given the term “discoverability.” Although publishers have long watched as books become successful for reasons ranging from quality or timeliness to the benefit of a big-budget marketing push, they still don’t know the magic that will connect readers with their content. And Fifty Shades, which bypassed the traditional channels to find its initial readership, makes a bold statement about what happens when the audience can lay claim to the discovery process.
Fifty Shades may be selling so well because of the way readers found it. The chronology: James began posting a version of the story in August 2009, called “Master of the Universe,” on the Web site fanfiction.net. In December 2010 she moved the story from fanfiction.net to her own Web site, 50Shades.com. Then, in May 2011, the Writer’s Coffee Shop published the first book in the trilogy. Strong word-of-mouth on fan sites like Goodreads (where the trilogy was widely reviewed and praised) led to interest, in December 2011, from Hollywood studios. “I started realizing something was going on when I got the first few e-mails from Hollywood asking if the film rights were available,” James said. Once the studios came calling, James sought out Valerie Hoskins—she has an eponymous agency in London—who took her on as a client and remains her agent. (Hoskins was recommended by James’s husband, Niall Leonard, a screenwriter.) Once Hoskins was on board, James signed a seven-figure deal with Random House's Vintage Books imprint.
This brings us to the publishing component of the story. While James may have found her own audience, she needed the traditional publishing system to actually reach her readers. As it turns out, E.L. James needed Vintage as much as Vintage needed E.L. James. The Writer’s Coffee Shop could not handle the distribution demands of a series as successful as James’s. Although fewer people are reading print books, Vintage bet that a lot of people wanted to read this story, either in traditional print format or as an e-book. (When Random House gave James that seven-figure advance, many thought the house was significantly overpaying for what could turn out to be a short-lived fad, overhyped by the media.) That bet has brought Random House more than an estimated $200 million in revenue, and was a major contributor to a record six-month performance for the company. Fifty Shades success also played a role in the Random House, Penguin merger, underscoring for Bertelsmann the upside potential of trade publishing.
One of the most interesting things James told PW is that she has no interest in self-publishing her next book. (She is writing again—when time permits—and is toying with starting a new project, or working on one of two earlier manuscripts she never sent to anyone.) Done right, she might make more money self-publishing. Nonetheless, she says she has every intention of sticking with her agent (Hoskins) as well as with Vintage.
James is not alone. As more authors make a name for themselves self-publishing—some claiming that they are earning quite a nice amount of money in the process—most still sign traditional deals when the opportunity presents itself. Amanda Hocking, who sold more than a million copies of her self-published novels and then signed a $2 million contract with St. Martin’s Press last year, has said that, more than anything, she decided to go with a traditional house so she could focus on the one thing she wanted to do all along: write.
In a world where anyone can publish with a click of a button, why does an author need a publisher? This is the question that so often reverberates at industry conferences and, more and more, in the consumer media. But what is so often left out of discussions of self-publishing is the work it entails. Writing is work. But so is publishing. As the number of people trying to become bestsellers on their own continues to climb, those going the DIY route will increasingly find themselves dealing with the same headache as the big six: discoverability is a bitch. What self-publishing gives those who have been locked out of the traditional system, as well as those who built their careers within that system but now feel overlooked, is control. The trend points to more competition, with “publishers” of varying scales fighting for the attention of readers, all of them trying to tap into the magic that James attributes to luck.