Why "Fifty Shades of Grey" Is So Successful

If you're intrigued by the success of E.L. James's "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy (currently at #1, 2 and 3 in the NY Times bestseller lists), you might be interested in this Publishers Weekly article which puts the series into the context of the wider book market:

"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 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."

May Chen of Avon Romance admits that there are some in the romance community who find James's success befuddling and infuriating, as the concept of erotic romance is hardly new, but equally the industry is hopeful that James's books will bring new readers into the fold as, "a lot of people who don't read romance are reading Fifty Shades of Grey."

So, there you have it - at heart, Fifty Shades of Grey is a classic romance with an erotic twist (which E. L. James describes as "my midlife crisis, writ large...all my fantasies in there"); but this still doesn't explain why the breakout titles in a long established genre should be these books at this time. The answer to that seems to be that old unfathomable combination of right book, at the right time, enhanced by the ebook marketplace and extensive word of mouth.

In brief, this is how the series came about...

A couple of years ago, an unknown author named E. L. James posted a free x-rated version of Twilight (the popular vampire-romance series) on one or more fanfiction websites under the pseudonym "Snowqueen's Icedragon". This version, titled Master of the Universe, drew a huge response (one source says that more than 37,000 reader reviews were posted). It also received some criticism for the sexual nature of the material, which caused James to remove the book from the fanfiction site(s), rewrite it (taking out references to Twilight), and then post an extended version on her own website, fiftyshades.com.The first volume, Fifty Shades of Grey, was released as an e-book and print-on-demand paperback in May 2011 by The Writers' Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher based in Australia (around this time, James took the free copy off her website). The next volume, Fifty Shades Darker, was released in September 2011, and the third, Fifty Shades Freed came out in January this year.

Sometime in late 2011/early 2012 the mainstream media in the USA started to comment on the viral success of what they deemed "mommy porn", and before you know it, publishing rights had been snapped up by Vintage (the paperback arm of Knopf, part of Random House) and a somewhat revised version of the series was hurried to publication in April.

If it surprises you that there should be so much demand for the series, it might also surprise you to know that the romance genre, which includes erotica, is the top-selling fiction genre in the USA, worth more than mystery and sci-fi combined!

Which leaves two questions - are the books any good and is the lifestyle portrayed in the series really what women want?

To answer the second question, let me quote the author: "Once you're in charge of your job, your house, your children, getting the food on the table, doing all of this, all of the time, it'd be nice for someone else to be in charge for a bit maybe. But in real life, it's different. You want someone who does the dishes."

As for whether the series is any good, all I can say is it depends on what you like to read. A quick perusal of a few of the 10,000+ reviews on GoodReads will clarify whether this is a series for you. I suggest you filter first to look at the five star reviews, and then filter for the one star reviews, and you will quickly have your answer!

--- Davina, BookBrowse Editor

I don't know if this is relevant but a few weeks ago Tom Bergaron(?) mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey on Dancing with the Stars. It was in response to one of the judges emoting about a dancer. Maybe it was popular then and that is how Tom knew about it. Just thought I would throw that in the mix.
# Posted By Jojo | 5/21/12 1:14 PM
I am glad you posted this article. My friends and I were just discussing this over the past weekend. While I do like some books in the romance genre, I read a couple reviews of this book and didn't find it appealing to my personal tastes at all. I had the same reaction though - why is this particular book so popular as I know there are many out there with similar themes. But right book at the right time, and being caught in the social media wave explains a lot.
# Posted By B.G. Watkins | 5/22/12 12:05 PM
My 22 year old daughter is reading it now. She said "It's so bad, but I can't stop reading it!" It's funny...she said the same thing about the Twilight series. I think there are a lot of books that benefit from pop culture word of mouth. I think quite a few people buy books "in the news" and probably don't even read them. But every time a book sells, it means more money for the publishing houses to buy actual good books so I can't complain.
# Posted By Kathleen Phillips | 5/24/12 9:23 AM
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Someone by Alice McDermott
The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress