How 'Fifty Shades' Is Changing the Face of Publishing

This week it was announced that Caroline Mickler Limited had been appointed the "master licensing agent" for the Fifty Shades trilogy. Leaving aside questions of taste, let's talk about this as business. 

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This week it was announced that Caroline Mickler Limited had been appointed the "master licensing agent" for the Fifty Shades trilogy. This means that down the road, we may get a whole string of book-branded paraphernalia, like sleepwear, lingerie, perfume, beauty products, bedding, stationary, adult products, home furnishings, and even jewelry. This is interesting not only because who, seriously, is going to buy and sleep on Fifty Shades sheets?, but also because clearly major companies think that people will. Leaving aside questions of taste for this post—and, oh, we have many—let's talk about this as business.

The idea of the "big book" of the year, the one with the inevitable movie(s) and related merchandise—toys and clothes and fan paraphernalia that people can buy—is not a new one. We saw it with The Hunger Games, most recently (and are still seeing it). We saw it with Harry Potter. With Twilight. Fifty Shades is not entirely dissimilar to those books: It's a series, featuring recurring characters we get to see develop and change (in the way they do); it also shares something even more with Twilight, which are its origins in fan fiction for that book. It's monopolizing the best-seller list, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide, generating article after article, generating copy cat books with similar themes and plots, generating quite a nice bit of money for its author and its publishing house and other folks related to the business of its publishing. To continue that trend, the hype machine is in full force.

But Fifty Shades is also different, most significantly because it's a book for adults, not for young adult readers. Y.A. readers, you'd expect, might want the toys and dolls and jewelry and trinkets and other paraphernalia that come with loving a book and its characters. Sure, there's Game of Thrones merchandise, but that's a bit of a different animal given its status as an HBO series as well.  Can you think of previous, or current, best-sellers that have generated this sort of enormous full-cloth marketing effort? At the same time, what previous best-seller has generated this sort of overwhelming, constant discourse?

"You probably have to go back to Dragon Tattoo for this level of cultural saturation," said Holly Root, an agent at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. Of course, even the mania for Lisbeth Salander did not give rise to a flood of merchandising deals, which are more familiar territory for movies. "There was the H&M fashion collaboration, but even that was pegged to the movie. I think that's probably what makes this one unique--that they are moving aggressively to pursue those outlets now, when most book properties tend to wait for the movie to come out and do merchandising as a tie-in to that."

As for the merchandising itself and how much it might bring in, Root says, "We'll see what deals actually result from it in time. I'm sure they've been fielding inquiries, given how big the media narrative has gotten, and appointing someone now will help sort the real offers from the speculative ones." She confessed to having found the licensing deal "kind of genius, in light of the book's Twilight connection. People have been selling 'unauthorized' Edward-inspired sex toys online for years, so I guess that is one market!"

"It's very unusual for an adult book to hire a merchandising person and come up with this type of huge plan," said former book agent and founder of Creative Conduit, LLC, a cross-platform consulting firm, Swanna Macnair. "Usually an author's agent could handle the licensing of territories directly, but remember, the author couldn't find a U.S. lit agent. It's smart to hire a licensing person. I think it's a trend." And there could be huge profit related to it: "There is no number/limit to the amount of money the company could make in licensing fees. It's huge," she said. "Licensing fees is where many brands (including TV shows and books) make millions of extra dollars in revenues. Take Grey's Anatomy scrubs for example."

Related to any talk of how the success of Fifty Shades will impact publishing is talk of its provenance. The book came out of the self-publishing ashes, as if plucked from a kind of modern slush pile that gives publishers the opportunity to gauge results before they actually have to lay out any money to buy and promote the book. Its success had been tested before it arrived on stands. This is a rarity, as Lizzie Skurnick writes in The Daily Beast:

Every so often a manuscript, like an impudent toddler, rises on unsteady feet and toddles onto the bestseller list without so much as a by-your-leave to that ignorant publishing foursome. Such a work is E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which, out of a teeny e-publishing community in Australia, managed the neat trick of vaulting to the top of The New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists, garnering a seven-figure deal from Vintage, and leaving readers clamoring for the as-yet-unpublished rest of the trilogy, all without ever being in print in the United States at all. 

Given the money involved (and the ongoing talk of the struggling book industry), we might well expect it to become more common in the future. But how do publishing folks feel about all this? Macnair mentioned Penguin's recent acquisition of Bared to You, a self-published "slight erotica" book that the company picked up after seeing big digital sales and will print and distribute digitally; that formula for success appears ripped from the Fifty Shades model. And Root said, "I don't think there were many people left in the business who could really overlook the self-pub juggernaut anymore, since it's really touched every shelf now. Authors have been getting attention on their own and then doing well with houses for years, this is just arguably the biggest pop. Although," she remarked, "it is an interesting evolution in what that trajectory looks like, since unlike most of the other self-pub successes we've seen, this one was never priced cheap after it was pulled from the web for publication."

There's an interesting, related point, which is of how Twilight and Hunger Games and Harry Potter became "crossunder" reads, with adults reading them just as much as the teens and kids who had been their intended audience. Fifty Shades is really never going to crossover the same way, though, since its subject matter isn't exactly suitable for teen readers—even if some of them do end up "borrowing" it from Mom or Dad. Thus far, though, that doesn't appear to hurt its bottom line. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus writes that the series has sold more than 15 million copies in 3 months, compared to the Dragon Tattoo's similar sales, which took 3 years. Comparatively, The Hunger Games series has sold more than 23.5 million in the U.S.—but the books have been on the market far longer (the first in the series came out in 2008).

With all the hype, when can we expect the backlash (some of which has already begun)? And when will we really be at peak Fifty Shades? Further, if there is backlash...does it even matter? The success die has pretty much been cast, Root told us: "The backlash is definitely there--there are tons of Tumblrs and blogs devoted to the elegance of the prose, many of them totally hilarious--but even backlash is attention, and attention sells books. It is kind of maddening, as someone who's sold romance novels for years, to see all the press devoted to this one, which manages to ignore in one swoop both the power of fanfic readers and an entire hugely successful subgenre that was here long before this book and will be around long after."

"I don't think we're anywhere near [peak] industry backlash regarding Fifty Shades of Grey," said Macnair. "On the contrary, big six publishers are scouring self-publishing sites for Fifty Shades knock-offs. Bidding and acquiring these titles is happening and publishers are taking it very seriously. Hollywood producers and film scouts are following the same track. Many of the L.A. book-film scouts I saw at Book Expo last week were looking at self-published books in the vein of Grey. It will have to reach a peak at some point, but we're not there yet. Or anywhere close."

As for whether this means a total glut of BDSM-themed stuff, the way dystopia and fantasy seemed to take a new hold on Y.A. after The Hunger Games, Root said, "We've already seen a bunch of Fifty Shades parodies or mashups sell, but I can't say I am betting on Vintage doubling-down on BDSM. When things cross over into pop culture this aggressively, for the vast majority of people it's nothing more than that--they read it because everyone else was. But for the readers who do really connect to some part of it, authors have been producing romances with these themes for years." There is an upside to all this frenetic fandom, too: More people are reading...hopefully. "I have already seen a big uptick in shelf talkers, radio features, and blogs with 'if you liked Fifty Shades (or didn't)' recommendations for existing titles. Just as Twilight was a gateway read to Y.A. for many readers and led to a huge influx of attention and sales that lifted many other novels, I hope those who read Fifty Shades will be introduced to a section of the bookstore they may not have visited before, and that they will be delighted to discover the breadth and quality of books available," she said.
A positive thought, indeed. As much as we criticize the book for its quality of prose and lack of a certain writerly something, can anyone who loves books truly hate Fifty Shades if it gets other people to love books, too?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.