Fifty Shades of Green: Why 'Mommy Porn' And E-Books Shouldn't Scare Big Publishers

on August 18 2012 1:13 PM
Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey copyright holders claim Smash Pictures film is too true to the book to be called a parody. Flickr

It has infiltrated bookstores, bedrooms and even, according to reports, boosted sales of cotton rope.

But "Fifty Shades of Grey," E.L James' masochistic "mommy porn" blockbuster, has also been grabbing headlines in the business community for its apparent upending of the publishing industry.

Before it was picked up by a major publisher, "Fifty Shades" found its success as a self-published sleeper hit.

And so the tale of the plucky scribbler making it (at least at the start) without the need for a major publisher has inspired a legion of articles hailing the birth of a new generation of amateurs going it alone using e-books and self-publishing distribution channels.

James originally penned "Fifty Shades" as an episodic piece loosely based on the teen vampire fangfest "Twilight," posting it on fan fiction websites under the title "Master of the Universe."

When she received complaints that the subject matter was a little too racy, the British author removed it from the "Twilight" boards and posted it on her own website, fiftyshades.com

In May 2011, an Australian virtual publisher, the Writers' Coffee Shop, released the trilogy as an e-book and print-on-demand title, and, after its runaway success, Vintage (an imprint of literary giant Random House) bought the rights and rereleased the books in the U.S. and globally starting in April 2012.

There's no doubt that in some respects, the phenomenon has -- in the short term, at least -- altered more than just the sexual proclivities of the reading public.

In March, publisher HarperCollins announced it was setting up a new e-book division called Mischief (tag line: private pleasures with a handheld device) exclusively devoted to erotica in the "Fifty Shades" mold.

Elsewhere, mainstream publishers are also hungrily eyeing other erotic works, with former book agent Swanna MacNair telling the Atlantic that Penguin had recently acquired the rights to self-publicized erotica piece "Bared to You."

On top of this new found love for erotica, "Fifty Shades" and its ilk are also -- at least in part -- responsible for surging e-book sales.

In the U.S., sales of "Fifty Shades" are split 50/50 between physical and digital versions, with publisher Vintage shifting 9.8 million paperbacks and 9.6 million e-books through July this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In a broader global trend, Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice president of Amazon's European Kindle operations, last week triumphantly announced that the firm's eponymous Kindle e-Reader was taking the UK market by storm.

"Customers in the UK are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books," Van der Meulen said in a statement. "As a result of the success of Kindle, we're selling more books than ever before on behalf of authors and publishers."

The move to digital, according to Amazon, is also gathering speed.

In the U.S., it took almost four years for Kindle sales to supersede print. In Britain, it has taken only two.

To keep pace with the changing publishing world, Barnes & Noble, the world's largest book retailer, released its e-book reader, the Nook, in the U.S. in November 2009. In 2011, 17.3 million units of the Android, the operating system used in the Nook and Kindle, were sold, and 37.9 million units are projected to be sold this year, according to Gartner. 

In addition, in April of this year, B&N struck a deal with Microsoft, which will invest $300 million to help form a subsidiary for Barnes & Noble's e-book and college textbook businesses. 

But perhaps as the clearest sign of the digital wave, once-behemoth print book retailer Borders filed for bankruptcy in February 2011 and subsequently liquidated its outlets. 

And it's not just the physical medium of digital publishing that has aroused interest with publishers, but the global stage on which the digital format can launch unpublished authors.

Amazon's Direct Publishing system, for instance, allows authors to upload their work to the Kindle system and, in exchange for royalties, gives authors immediate access to millions of potential readers without any financial risk for the author or Amazon.

"Thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing, thousands of self-published authors have also been given an outlet to share their work with the millions of Kindle readers worldwide," Van der Meulen added.

It's a testament to Amazon's self-publishing effort that this year three of Amazon's top 10 most popular Kindle authors made their mark through Kindle Direct Publishing.

But in spite of the apparent success, is self-publishing anything new?

According to Stuart Applebaum, executive vice president of communications at Random House, self-publishing, in one form or another, has been around for years.

"We're always looking for the best books, and we're open to looking for them from all sources, including traditional and self-published ones," he said.

"Random House have been looking at self-publishing for decades. Take Christopher Paolini, for example."

Paolini, a New York Times best-selling author at just 19, had his first book, "Eragon," picked up by Random House subsidiary Alfred A. Knopf in 2002.

Before that, Paolini and his parent's company, Paolini International LLC, had self-published the book, which is about a 15-year-old boy set in the fantasy world of Alagaesia, and embarked on their own P.R. tour, visiting hundreds of schools and libraries with the author dressed "in a medieval costume of red shirt, billowy black pants, lace-up boots and a jaunty black cap," according to Paolini's website.

It was only after Carl Hiaasen, an author with Alfred A. Knopf, noticed his grandson reading a copy of "Eragon" and took it to Knopf in the summer of 2002 that it really took off.

"Eragon" eventually evolved into the 25 million-selling four-book series "Inheritance Cycle," with the first book made into a major Hollywood film in 2006.

As Applebaum puts it, Paolini was still "selling books from the trunk of his car" when Knopf came calling.

"We're having an enormous success with e-books and have for many years," he said.

But, Applebaum added, Random House remained bullish about its physical book sales too, and he cautioned against media "hype" from the likes of Amazon about the coming dominance of e-books.

"It's a trend in the media due to the mega success of 'Fifty Shades' and other titles," he said.

In truth, "Fifty Shades" only gained its global mega-success after Vintage deployed the full resources of its marketing machine behind it.

"Many of the self-published authors would never have seen their books published by a traditional publisher or even an indie publisher," said Julie Cummings of online bookstore All Romance/OmniLit.

But, she cautioned, while "there are gems in that bunch that never would have seen the light of day ... there is also lots of mediocre material that is not ready for publication."

And that's the crux of it: While an author may sell 20, 50, even half a million books by self-publishing their work through Amazon and the like, without the backing of a publishing house, it will never reach the 20 million-plus sales of "Fifty Shades."

Indeed, self-publishing may just prove to be the saviour of large publishing houses, who can now sift through thousands of already-written works (negating the need for large advances) that have already been consumer-tested on a huge audience.

When they find what they're looking for, they can snap up the rights and do what they do best; global mass-market promotion.

More News from IBT MEDIA