It was the talk of the London Book Fair. Then it was the talk of the summer. Then it became the book news story of the year. The Fifty Shades series—an originally self-published erotica written as Twilight fan fiction—was too new a phenomenon in April, when the London Book Fair was underway, to have any major effect on deals at that industry event. But with Frankfurt weeks away, and the series topping charts around the globe, a flurry of big deals for romance titles (many of them originally self-published) indicate that the Fifty Shades effect will be holding sway over business in Germany.
That E.L. James’s trilogy is very much a global phenomenon—as of last week, the series was translated into its 50th language (see chart for a glimpse at unexpected territories where the trilogy has sold)—bodes well for the romance and erotica category. In the buildup to Frankfurt, a number of big sales have closed for titles in this genre. Two weeks ago, Berkley paid seven figures for a trilogy called Breathless by bestselling romance author Maya Banks. Grand Central just snatched up a romantic novel by debut author Deborah McKinlay for a rumored seven figures. And this week (see Deals, p. 10), Harlequin’s Mira imprint paid seven figures for Bella Andre’s originally self-published contemporary romance series, the Sullivans.
Domestically, as PW has reported, Fifty Shades has created something of a run on romance and erotica titles. The success of the series abroad has also clearly driven American publishers and agents to feel bullish on the prospect of foreign rights deals for what looks to be a sudden glut of titles in these categories. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue against the numbers. Sam Edenborough, at ILA, the British agency that handles James’s foreign rights, said that global sales of her trilogy now exceed 41 million copies, and in every territory the series has been published, it has “topped the bestseller lists.”
Peter McGuigan, an agent and cofounder of Foundry Literary + Media, who is co-representing in Frankfurt a novel called The Juliette Society by porn star Sasha Grey, with Marc Gerald (at the Agency Group in London), said the focus on smart books that deal with sex is, in his estimate, long overdue. “Sex always sells, and always has,” he said, adding, “It’s publishers’ mistake not to have a big erotic title on every list.”
At Trident Media Group, which will be pushing a number of romance and erotica titles in Frankfurt, Claire Roberts, v-p and managing director of foreign rights, pointed to the international success the agency has seen with author Sylvia Day as proof that erotica and romance, at least for now, are still very much atop publishing conversations. Day’s Crossfire trilogy—Penguin’s Berkley imprint acquired the first title in the originally self-published series, Bared to You, in May—has, Roberts said, sold in 34 languages to date. Roberts said she thinks “erotica will be very big at the fair, as well as for the foreseeable future.”
Lauren Abramo, an agent and subsidiary rights director at the agency Dystel & Goderich, said she thinks erotica is “not a category that has been as well served by mainstream publishers in recent years,” and there may be a bit of a correction happening. Abramo, who will be pushing the originally self-published Vincent Boys books by Abbi Glines in Frankfurt—which she classified as “new adult” titles, not erotica—thinks more “high-profile” erotica titles are now entering the fray in the States and that “foreign markets are just as eager for erotica that can attract a lot of attention.”
But how much is too much? Margaret Marbury, editorial director at Mira Books, said that on the one hand, she’s confident that Fifty Shades has whet readers’ appetites for romance as much as it has for erotica. “[The series] was erotica, but [I think] what made it take off is the romantic thread. That’s what kept readers moving from book one, to two, to three.” However, she noted, she is acutely aware of the need to “be in touch with how much you can sell.” Marbury invoked the example of chick lit, and its bubble—it became so popular that it was overpublished and there were “too many offerings and not enough shelf space.”
So how do you avoid that in this category? Already some authors and agents are requesting that comparisons to Fifty Shades—something that was an asset mere weeks ago—be avoided. And though books with a BDSM hook are still selling, more general romances, like the aforementioned ones, are among the bigger acquisitions in the runup to Frankfurt.
While the interest in erotica will eventually fade, right now many are happily riding the wave. As Marbury noted, Fifty Shades has “broadened the inroads for all romance and erotica.”