In 2013, the highest earning entertainer, who also is an author, was E. L. James, who earned according to Publisher’s Weekly and other sources, $100 million dollars in worldwide royalties from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Those books were published by Random House as ebooks and trade paperbacks, not even hardcovers, and earned Random House so much money, the publisher gave $ 5,000 Christmas bonuses to every employee, including the mailroom staff.
E. L. James was an unknown amateur writer and, by every account I’ve read, her writing is at best pedestrian and at worst dreadful. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the trilogy but I did check out the first 50 pages of the first book on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. Stephen King decried Fifty Shades as porn, and, as you probably know, those books are about the BDSM relationship between a naïve, awkward, unpretty college girl and a devastatingly handsome, cold and calculating twenty-seven-year-old billionaire who seems to have a lot of spare time on his hands.
The “relationship” is set up by a legal contract. I’ve seen articles over the years about pre-nuptial agreements between women of lesser wealth and the billionaires they marry. Such contracts usually stipulate what is required in intimate relations, as well as what happens financially when the “relationship” ends. I even read an article about a well-known billionaire who, in between marriages, had one-year contracts with his girlfriends.
So this type of thing isn’t exactly news, but may have been shocking to those who don’t follow the Media as closely as I do.
It turns out Fifty Shades isn’t even all that racy as porn, according to many reviews.
I, and many other feminists including the mega-bestselling Janet Evanovich, voiced our concerns that such a theme set back women’s empowerment by fifty years. I mean, men go to prison for torturing women. Full disclosure: I personally don’t find BDSM or controlling men attractive at all. But other erotica authors rushed forward to defend the theme, if not the books. Ardent fans variously declared in reader comments that “it’s so bad, but it’s so addictive” or “how far will Ana let Christian go for love?”
Are there really seventy million readers out there who find the fantasy of being a submissive to a sadist enticing? Or who really are submissives? Or who are sadists trying to pick up a few pointers?
What zeitgeist did James tap into? If it’s true the “average reader” reads only one book a year, was that book Fifty Shades? And what does that say about our society?
Fifty Shades spawned a rash of BDSM books, most of which tanked except for Sylvia Day’s Crossfire Trilogy. Day, I should note, is a talented, professional writer of science fiction and fantasy going way back. Her writing is far superior to James’, but she hasn’t sold any seventy million books. After a good run with the Big Five Publisher of Crossfire, she’s continued her brand of porn through Harlequin, a genre publisher.
How does an unknown author with a mediocre style and a questionable theme earn a hundred million dollars inside of a year or two? How did Fifty Shades happen?
The Spin was this: James wrote fan fiction under a kooky pseudonym in the Twilight universe, imagining BDSM sex between Bella and Edward.
Twilight is another trilogy Stephen King has decried as “teen porn,” and has stated outright that “Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a damn.”
I’m not sure from the Spin if James hosted her own fan fiction site or if she participated on someone else’s site. Whatever the case, how did James dream up such a crazy idea from a YA book?
As a professional author who makes it her business to follow what’s selling, I’ve read Twilight (but not the rest of the series). I find Meyer’s prose not as dreadful as a lot of people think. While I don’t understand another unknown author selling seventy million books inside of four or five years, I get that Meyer tapped into teen angst and the thrills and chills of a first obsessive teen love. But BDSM?
Well, Edward is cold—he’s dead, he’s a vampire. He’s gorgeously handsome, while Bella is plain. But he chooses her.
You would think Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon wife and mom of three who doesn’t drink or smoke, a fan of Jane Austen no less, would have written a nice morality tale about two Mormon teens who fall in love and have to wait until they are of the age of marry to do more than kiss.
But she didn’t. And here, at page 302 of the trade paperback, “His long hands formed manacles around my wrists.” And at 305, “I tried to pull back, but his hand locked my wrists in an unbreakable hold.” And at 345, when Bella tells Edward he’s not such a scary monster, he unexpectedly seizes her and leaps across the room. “He curled me into a ball against his chest, holding me more securely than iron chains.”
Holy Shades of Grey.
At some point James’ fan fiction got noticed by readers of the site. She changed the characters’ names (note that Meyer’s husband’s name is Christian, though she calls him by a nickname) and got picked up by a very small independent Australian publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, which published the books in print as well as ebook format. The Writer’s Coffee Shop really is a very small publisher currently carrying three authors, all of whose books are BDSM and none of whom are much higher than a million-six in Amazon ranking.
No deep pockets there. But they (or someone) did a masterful job of crafting brand-name-looking covers for Fifty Shades. No faces. No half-naked bodies. Just the fetishes—tie, mask, handcuffs—against a gray background. Romance authors, take note.
The Spin then says Fifty Shades got noticed by a site for new mothers called “diva moms.” I remember that, at the beginning of 2013, a feature story about “the new mommy porn” flashed at the top of my AOL Home page. A lot of excitement generated around this hot new book from an unknown fan fiction writer. Suddenly, puff pieces about the book—decrying the writing, drawing analogies to BDSM erotica of yore, especially The Story of O—popped up in all kinds of mainstream media. And suddenly, hundreds of thousands of ebooks sold. A publishing deal was struck with Random House, a five-million-dollar movie deal with Universal Pictures, and voila, seventy million books (print and ebooks, I assume) sold worldwide.
I remember thinking—at some point, Big Money stepped in. You don’t just go from mediocre fan fiction writing on an obscure website, no matter how big the source material, to megamillions. But at what point?
About two or three weeks ago, I received a notice on my Newsfeed on LinkedIn. Here’s the link:
The post claims that E. L. James invested $100,000 of her own money into promoting 50 Shades of Grey. At some point.
This is unsubstantiated rumor. The woman who posted this item doesn’t cite a source. Of course, the Spin says E. L. James and her husband are television executives in Britain. Or that E. L. James is a middle-aged, stay-at-home mom trying to revitalize her marriage. Or that E. L. James was a new mom spinning fantasies off her favorite book to please herself. Or…..I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth about Fifty Shades.
And neither do the Big Publishers.
So there you have it, my friends. The Shady Case of Fifty Shades. What does this portend for other authors, traditional, hybrid, or independent?
To me, traditional publishing is starting to look a lot like the “indie” movie business. Once upon a time, the Sundance Film Festival featured indies—movies made on a shoestring by talented amateurs hoping to break into the Hollywood Machine. By “shoestring,” I mean maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars raised from credit cards or sympathetic family members (and even that is a lot of money for most people to squander on something that ninety-nine point nine times out of a hundred will never see a return of investment, let alone make money). Now “indie” movies at Sundance cost five million and up to make, feature actors like Nicole Kidman, and vie for distribution from the studios. Does that sound like an “indie” to you?
I don’t think so.
Next: State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond Part 4: The Comet and the Long Tail Lisa Mason #SFWApro
Previous Blogs in this Series:
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond, Part 1: Introduction Lisa Mason #SFWApro
State of the Biz: Publishing in 2014 and Beyond Part 2: Who’s Reading? Lisa Mason #SFWApro
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