Sunday, July 29, 2012

Grey Area: How Fifty Shades Dominated the Market

Emily Eakin - New York Review of Books

By late May, more than ten million copies of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series about the sexual exploits of a domineering billionaire and an inexperienced coed, had been sold in the United States, all within six weeks of the books’ publication here. This apparently unprecedented achievement occurred without the benefit of a publicity campaign, formal reviews, or Oprah’s blessing, owing to a reputation established, as one industry analyst put it, “totally through word of mouth.”
It’s not news that “word of mouth” has become a business model in the book industry. But E.L. James, a forty-nine-year-old former television executive from West London whose real name is Erika Leonard, has exceeded the sales feats of previous reader-discovered authors by such a staggering magnitude that she is in a category of her own. Last year’s breakout success, Amanda Hocking, sold merely a million copies of her self-published young-adult novels over the course of eleven months before signing a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press.
The crucial difference may have less to do with talent, content, or luck than with a peculiarity of Leonard’s early readership: her work originated as fan fiction, a genre that operates outside the bounds of literary commerce, in online networks of enthusiasts of popular books and movies, brought together by a desire to write and read stories inspired by those works. Leonard’s excursion in the genre provided her with a captive audience of thousands of positively disposed readers, creating a market for her books before they ever carried price tags. But fan fiction is inherently collaborative and by convention resolutely anti-commercial, attributes which make its role in the evolution of her work both highly unusual and ethically fraught.

Beginning in 2009, Leonard posted, under a different title, a version of the Fifty Shades trilogy on a well-trafficked fan-fiction forum devoted to the Twilight series, the vampire-themed romance blockbusters by Stephenie Meyer. Leonard’s “TwiFic” shed Meyer’s supernatural story line and transposed the largely chaste love story of her protagonists, Edward and Bella, into a sexually explicit register. Like many fan-fiction writers, Leonard uploaded her work in serial installments, a method that enables readers to weigh in as the story progresses and allows writers to incorporate feedback as they go. Writers also read one another’s fan fictions and can infer, from the number and tenor of reader responses, what kinds of stories are popular. Leonard’s story reportedly received more than 37,000 reviews, and was read by untold thousands more who did not post reviews.
Early in 2011, after amending the work and expunging all traces of its connection to Twilight, she contracted with a small Australian press to publish it as the Fifty Shades trilogy, in ebook and print-on-demand paperback formats. By March of this year, when Vintage acquired the rights to the trilogy for more than a million dollars, all three books were at or near the top of The New York Times’ combined print and ebook bestseller list.
The vast majority of Fifty Shades’s readers are presumed to be women, as are the vast majority of fan-fiction producers and consumers, and anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least initially, there was much overlap between these groups. At, a book-recommendation site with more than nine million members, readers began reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the trilogy, in the spring of 2011, many noting that they had first encountered the story in its fan-fiction incarnation. “I loved this story as a fanfic and the characters have stolen my heart all over again!” wrote a reader named Ashley, who, along with more than 55,000 other Goodreads members, gave Fifty Shades of Grey the site’s highest rating, five stars.
Read the full, lengthy, thoughtful piece at New York Review of Books. 

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