Tag Archives: Vintage Books

The 50 Shades Phenomenon

25th July 2012

You guys know that historically, romance isn’t my genre, but you also know I won’t go all Judgy McJudgerson no matter what you like to read. On the Picky Girl Facebook page, we recently had a great conversation about 50 Shades of Grey. Some chimed in saying they enjoyed the books. Others said they were curious but couldn’t get past the writing. Others were just baffled by the huge predominance in the media. I call it the 50 Shades Phenomenon because selling 10 million copies (and counting) of any book in 6 weeks is extremely rare. The fact that the novel in question is erotica makes it even more so.

I remember when 50 Shades first crossed my radar. Everyone on Twitter was up in arms because ABC News called it “mommy porn.” I was instantly reminded of this great scene from Friends where Joey finds Rachel’s “book,” shouting, “You’ve got porn!” In a television show that talked openly about porn, so much so that there is even an episode where the guys can’t turn off the TV because they have free porn, it’s telling that Joey is so shocked at Rachel’s erotic novel. Because women aren’t supposed to like that, right? Harlequin and other romance publishers are laughing at that misconception all the way to the bank.

50 Shades of Grey isn’t necessarily doing anything different, and I have to be up front and say that I haven’t read the novels. However, I know enough about romance novels and have heard from others that the novels aren’t anything new. So why the fuss?

The covers are an interesting place to start. They’re fairly innocuous, and Vintage Books states in this article that they thought the “discreet, tasteful covers” would reach new readers, particularly readers who may not typically buy romance novels because of their racy or ridiculous covers. The ebook promotions also de-stygmatized the novels, allowing even the novice romance readers to feel comfortable.

But to really be fair, the success of 50 Shades of Grey began with its fan fiction ancestor, Master of the Universe. The series started as Twilight fan fiction. This is so smart. With fan fiction, you have a pretty loyal base. Very often, the barriers between author/readers aren’t there, so E.L. James seemed to have a pretty loyal following. Fast forward to publishing, and these same followers not only know and love the story and quite possibly, the author, but they are also willing to shell out some dough for the real deal, particularly since post-publication, James had to remove the stories from the website and make slight changes. Plus, these people have online presence. They’re already online and likely already plugged into reading communities where they’ll spread the love.

But fan fiction admirers alone could hardly drive over 10 million sales. One Facebook poster asked why women who ordinarily wouldn’t read romance would pick up 50 Shades of Grey. For anyone who has ever worked in an office with other women, you know the answer to this one.

  • The office reader discovers 50 Shades on her ereader (which, by the way, has increased the amount she reads.
  • Reader devours the trilogy.
  • Reader feels a little shocked and a lot “naughty” for having read something with BDSM.
  • Reader suggests the trilogy to a couple close work friends.
  • Work friends express disinterest in reading.
  • Reader assures work friends they will want to make time. *wink wink*
  • Work friends who don’t traditionally read give books a try, reassured by innocuous covers.
  • The flames are fanned.
  • The media gets hold of the news.
  • Articles abound discussing the sex lives of women (“The Book That Made Women Want Sex Again!“) and the run on rope at hardware stores.
  • The curious delve in.
  • The scoffers read it and dismiss it.
  • and…
  • And…
  • AND…

The power of a non-reader recommending books is powerful. People know how much I read, so they tend to scoff or dismiss my recommendations because I read so much. A non-reader recommends a book? People listen. It happened at my gym last week. Two women were talking about the series and about how they never used to read until they got a Nook/Kindle. Then another woman came in, asked what they were talking about, and in hushed tones, they initiated her into the 50 Shades club. She threw up the argument that she doesn’t like to read, and they quickly corrected her idea. “But you have to!” “You’ve never read anything like this.” And she probably never had…

I also found this great infographic from PBS, “The Evolution of the Romance Novel.” I really really love seeing the evolution of the covers. It definitely speaks to the changes in society and in taste. What say you?

Click to view larger graphic
The Evolution of the Romance Novel from POV.