Those who work in publishing—and especially those who write books—are no strangers to jealousy. Why does one title become a bestseller when another doesn’t? That sentiment has certainly bubbled up around E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. While some romance editors and authors say they don’t appreciate the mainstream media’s assertion that the erotic series is something new—the genre (as well as splintering subgenres) has been popular for well over a decade—many are acknowledging that James’s books may present an opportunity to draw more readers to romance titles, new and old.
“Since Fifty Shades of Grey became such a huge phenomenon we’ve definitely been trying to make people connect [the trilogy] with erotic romance [at large],” says May Chen, at Avon Romance. The HarperCollins imprint sent an e-mail blast to the media in March, with the headline “Shades of Avon Red,” that suggested erotica titles it publishes that will appeal to fans of E.L. James’s books.
While Chen admitted there are some in the romance community who find James’s success either befuddling or, worse, infuriating, she said writers and editors who’ve been working in this genre their whole careers are hopeful these books bring new readers into the fold. “A lot of people who don’t read romance are reading Fifty Shades of Grey,” she noted, adding that while the book is regularly categorized as “erotica,” it is, at its core, a romance. “Yes, there are BDSM elements in [Fifty Shades of Grey], but the focus is how the hero is redeemed by love.” In this way, Chen pointed out, fans of the Fifty Shades trilogy might not realize that what they’re reading is a classic romance. Though Chen couldn’t predict the long-tail effect of the books’ success—everyone in the romance community is wondering whether readers of James’s books, who don’t think of themselves as “romance readers,” will now go hunting for genre titles—Avon is trying a host of approaches to capitalize on the interest in the trilogy, including price-dropping promotions. The imprint recently pushed five e-book titles down to $4.99.Avon is also toying with repackaging efforts and will, next month, re-release three erotic titles by Lisa Marie Rice with new covers. The updated art, Chen said, will be less romance-specific and rely on “non-human images,” like Fifty Shades of Grey, which features a closeup of a man’s tie, and is done in gray and white tones.
That the mainstream media does not always correctly identify what Fifty Shades is—at least by the subgenre standards that exist within the romance community—is also a conversation that has cropped up in the romance community. The story line that unfolds over the arc of the three books is a classic romance, i.e., a man (in this case s&m-loving, handsome, billionaire Christian Grey) is saved by the love of a woman (innocent undergrad Anastasia Steele). Getting more technical, though, book one in the trilogy is not a romance, since it does not have a “happy ending,” with the couple getting together. (Romance readers are more accustomed to trilogies where every book focuses on a different couple, each achieving a happily-ever-after.) Taking the full arc of James’s story, Chen believes the appeal of it is unsurprising. “I think the BDSM hook pulls in the reader…but a lot of women have an emotional connection to this story on a base level. If it was just about sex, it wouldn’t be this big.”
Another aspect the success of James’s trilogy touches on is how readers have, up to now, been finding erotic fiction. Although James’s books are topping the bestseller lists—Nielsen BookScan has them, for the week ending April 22, in the first, second, and third spots, respectively, on its overall list—there are not many other erotica titles popping up on the BookScan charts. Amy Pierpont, executive editor at Grand Central Press and editorial director of GCP’s Forever imprint, noted that the print charts may be deceiving because erotica sells predominantly online. As Pierpont explained, erotica has always been popular in digital; in fact, the genre was selling well in digital before digital itself was popular. (Sales of digital erotica, Pierpont said, peaked nearly a decade ago when readers, the presumption was, didn’t want their guests or their kids to see the kinky novel they were reading sitting on the coffee table.)
“What I think is really interesting, in a sociological way, is how women are openly talking about [Fifty Shades of Grey],” Pierpont said. Since romance titles, especially those with racier subject matter, have traditionally gotten little shelf space in mainstream outlets—another reason erotica sells better in digital—Pierpont is wondering whether James’s series could bring change in this area. “What’s still unknown with Fifty Shades is how bricks-and-mortar sellers will respond. Will they start carrying sexier titles?”
R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn., is one indie that has embraced Fifty Shades: James is visiting the store on May 2 for a ticketed $25 event. The store’s manager, Lori Sazio, said she is now looking to expand the erotica section. “[Fifty Shades] has gotten a lot of people excited about reading. We’ll probably have a small section where people who liked Fifty Shades can find the next thing to read.”
For all the excitement, and potential for new romance readers, that long-tail question remains. Will interest in the trilogy flame out? Is James’s series, which has struck such a chord, something you can’t replicate? Most think, regarding the latter, the answer is resoundingly yes. As Chen put it: “No one will be publishing another Harry Potter.”
Susan Swinwood, at Harlequin’s Mira Books imprint, said she and her colleagues are searching for re-publication opportunities with titles featuring BDSM. Looking ahead, the house is also seeing, in delicate ways, whether it can align a forthcoming trilogy by Tiffany Reisz—featuring a “strong BDSM element”—to Fifty Shades. Noting that it is “tough to say” how a comparison to Fifty Shades might be worded—the first book in the series publishes in August and is called The Siren—Swinwood is hopeful that the timing will be beneficial. “The thinking is that readers who found E.L. James’s books, who might have been new to [the genre], will now try Reisz.”
Pierpont is also eager to tap into Fifty Shades spillover with a new work. She just signed a series by Delilah Devlin, an erotic romance, and is releasing the first title in digital, before print, to bring it to market more quickly. But Pierpont is also candid about not trying to copy Fifty Shades, and is eager to see what will come next, taking Fifty Shades in another direction. “I’m wondering how many authors and agents are now submitting stories that feature a different fantasy, maybe where the woman is in charge,” Pierpont said. Is there as big an audience for a story where the woman does the spanking, and tying up, in the bedroom? “It’s quite a different fantasy,” she mused. “I think there’s an audience for it... maybe a smaller one.”