How 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Dominated Publishing

E.L. James' saucy novels sold 25 million copies in just four months—a benchmark that Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy didn't hit in four years. What does that mean for the book industry?


By now, it's accepted wisdom that the Fifty Shades of Grey books have had a major impact on the publishing industry. The amazing velocity of sales of this erotic trilogy has boosted overall industry revenues even as several publishers--with the notable exception of Random House Inc., which had the very good fortune to acquire the books--say the E. L. James phenomenon has by comparison made their own numbers look softer.

But the saga behind Fifty Shades of Grey's impact -- not the content of the books themselves, which is a whole different subject -- is fascinating in its own way. Technology is, of course, changing the industry drastically, but Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest example of another profound reality about books: Periodically, they can ignite a cultural fervor so intense that tens of millions of people respond to join in a common experience in a relatively short time, as they do with movies or television. The 150 million U.S. print copies sold of the seven books in the Harry Potter series and the more-than 50 million copies in print of the three Hunger Gamesbooks are examples of how young readers can be the catalysts for these kinds of cultural crazes.

What's remarkable about Fifty Shades of Grey, though, is the breadth of its appeal to women and the speed with which it became a household name. The book initially was thought to strike a chord mainly among married thirty-somethings, but now enjoys a readership ranging from teenagers on up, reportedly selling more than 25 million copies in paperback (at $15.95) and e-book ($9.99) formats in the United States market. (This includes the second and third volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.) It took about four months to reach that number, with sales about equally divided between print and e-books. By contrast, Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy of suspense novels featuring journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his dragon-tattooed partner Lisbeth Salander, widely regarded as a sensation in its own right, took four years to sell 20 million copies in various formats. Fifty Shades of Grey is still atop every paperback and e-book bestseller list and has, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal several weeks ago, roared past the revenue mark of $145 million. (I'm told that number is more indicative than precise, but in any event, the revenue volume is vast and growing.)

The story of how Fifty Shades of Grey came to the mass market is itself a wonderful tale. E. (for Erica) L. James, a London wife and mother of two working in television, started writing on fan sites a series of episodes inspired by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (yet another of the mega-million publishing spectacular trilogies of the past few years). In time, James refined her principal characters and developed the racy themes of their relationship. The first volume was released as an e-book and print-on-demand paperback in May 2011 by Writers' Coffee Shop, based in Australia, with the other two books following over the next six months. From what could hardly be a more obscure launch, the books began to gather momentum on the Internet through blogs and social media so that, by January 2012, chatter among its readers reached places like suburban Connecticut, and a group called on Manhattan's Upper East Side invited James to make a visit.

Anne Messitte, publisher of the venerable Vintage division of Random House, realized the appeal Fifty Shades of Grey clearly was having on a highly desirable audience, including among some women she knew. So she initiated negotiations with James and a representative that culminated with a deal in March valued somewhere near a million dollars, according to news stories at the time. Messitte scored one of the true publishing coups of this era and deserves accolades galore. Shifting reading habits in the digital age played a role, too. Messitte believes that the extraordinary speed with which Fifty Shades of Grey has reached its audience is directly attributable to the Internet. Word of mouth is vastly amplified by social media, giving it the potential to shape the culture for books as nothing like it has ever done before.

Nearly everyone in the industry is now looking for ways to take advantage of this revolution, particularly combined with the power of immediate delivery of e-books. At its peak a decade ago, Oprah's recommendation alone could turn a book into a huge bestseller. But the effect of what is possible today from digital exchanges seems far greater, and so are the numbers. Of course, Fifty Shades was one-of-a-kind, with James's sexy narrative being paired up with the publishing savvy of Messitte and her colleagues. But who knows what will come along to rival its success? Increasingly, technology gives every book a chance to make a splash.