50 Shades of Money: The Alluring Economics of the Romance Novel

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Guest post by Laura McKenna, former political science professor, blogger, and freelance writer.

I became fascinated with the romance novel industry this spring.

It all began when a friend recommended that I check out a romance novel with an autistic hero,  The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. For multiple reasons, I found this book pretty horrifying. In order to purge my mind of this book, I decided that I had to read a different book pronto. Based on recommendations by Amazon readers, I downloaded In Bed with a Highlander and two other books, by Maya Banks, while sitting poolside on vacation in Puerto Rico.

I blogged about these books in a rather disdainful manner and was promptly smacked down by my readers, many of whom are highly educated women. They told me that I was unfair. They gave me a whole lesson about the academic journals that are devoted to the subject. They pointed me to Mary Bly, an English professor at Fordham, who writes best sellers under the pen name, Eloisa James. I learned about websites, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels

The Romance Novel industry is big business for publishers. According to the Romance Writers of American website, romance novels brought in $1.4 billion in sales in 2010. They far outperform other genres of literature, including religious/inspirational books, mystery novels, science fiction and classic literary fiction. 

Just as I was getting this education, Fifty Shades of Grey exploded. I read it. OK, I wasn't impressed with the quality of the writing. I was equally annoyed at some of the commentary on the book that tried to determine what the success of this book says about the status of feminism. 

I am, however, impressed with the sales figures for this book. The book sold 10 million copies in six weeks. It completely dominates (heh) the New York Times best sellers lists. Last week, the author signed copies of the book at our local Barnes and Nobel. At 9am, a line of people wrapped around the building waiting for bracelets for that evening's signing. 

Romance novels have always been a big sellers. They have a large, devoted following, even among highly educated women. The 50 Shades books hit a chord with women, because they take the traditional romance novel to a different level. There's an added level of naughtiness, a curiousity about a life style, and a dollop of materialism. Smart women are reading, writing, and buying these books. They might be reading them in the privacy of their e-readers, but they are surely reading them.

My spring reading list taught me to hold back my judgmental side and appreciate this subculture for what it is. Fun. 

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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