Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed are sexually explicit novels with sadomasochistic themes that started from modest fan fiction beginnings to become a huge book publishing phenomenon. The trilogy broke sales records and sold tens of millions of copies over just a few short months in 2012.
The Fifty Shades Overview
Dubbed “mommy porn” (or “mummy porn” in Britain) for its apparent appeal to middle-aged women looking for vicarious excitement, the Fifty Shades trilogy tells of the exploits of a sexually naïve college student, Anastasia Steele and a gorgeous, handsome, dominant billionaire, Christian Grey. Complications—featuring handcuffs and riding crops—ensue.
About Fifty Shades Author E L James
The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was written by Erika Mitchell. Mitchell, a former television executive, was born in 1963 and is married to screenwriter and director Niall Leonard; they have two sons. To publish Fifty Shades of Grey, Mitchell took the pen name E L James (she does not punctuate the initials of her nom de plume, though The New York Times does).
In an interview broadcast on NBC’s Today Show, Mitchell said “[Fifty Shades of Grey] is my midlife crisis, writ large… All my fantasies are in there." Mitchell said she was “stunned” by the popularity of the books and, while doesn’t claim to be a great writer, admitted, “I wrote every day, every minute… I was obsessed… I didn’t do anything else for two years.”
Fifty Shades of Grey’s Fan Fiction Beginnings
Fifty Shades of Grey began its life on the site fanfiction.net as Master of the Universe written by one Snowqueen’s Icedragon. Master of the Universe was an eroticized take on the hugely popular but chaste vampire bestseller, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Master of the Universe got positive reinforcement from its fan fiction audience but, reportedly, concerns over the controversial sexual nature of the material caused Snowqueen's Icedragon (aka Mitchell) to take down the story from fanfiction.net and move the work to her own website.
To publish what became the three-book Fifty Shades trilogy, Mitchell edited Master of the Universe, changing character names and eliminating the use of any other overt Twilight details, likely to avoid any sort of legal infringement issues.
Fifty Shades of Grey Self-Published?
E L James’s author website corrects the assumption that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally self-published as some sources have claimed. Rather, the Fifty Shades trilogy was published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop, the Australia-based e-book and print-on-demand establishment.
According to its website, The Writer’s Coffee Shop was started by a group of friends in late 2009 who were “brought together by a common goal: Providing a fun environment in which to enjoy literature.” The Writer’s Coffee Shop (or TWCS, as it sometimes refers to itself) “…quickly grew when there was a need for a friendly, easy-going environment in which to post and read fan fiction or original stories”; the TWCS website went live in January 2010. In May of 2011 Mitchell published Fifty Shades with TWCS, and followed up by releasing the second book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker in September 2011, and number three, Fifty Shades Freed in January 2012.
Fans Flock to Fifty Shades
The fan fiction readers who frequented The Writer’s Coffee Shop site boosted the profile of the books and word-of-mouth began to grow. One theory of its rampant popularity was that e-reading devices like Amazon.com’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook made reading the spicy novel a more private experience while in public places. But demand for the print version of the book also grew and, as those were available only via print-on-demand, U.S. bricks-and-mortar bookstores had difficulties stocking it.
Scarcity may have worked in the trilogy’s favor, however, as growing demand for the soft-core S&M-themed titles became a lightening rod for publicity, exciting interest from traditional trade publishing houses who vied for the right to republish the titles. In early March 2012, the book was featured on the Today Show and shortly thereafter, Mitchell obtained both a book deal with Vintage Anchor (a paperback division of the giant Random House), who announced a planned first printing of 750,000, and a multi-million dollar movie deal with Universal Studios.
After the deals were struck, Jason Boog of MediaBistro’s GalleyCat blog elucidated the origins of the Fifty Shades trilogy and linked to the original Master of the Universe web pages through the Wayback Machine Internet Archive. Subsequently, the pages were excluded from the Wayback search engine possibly, again, to squash any legal questions about the relationship of the Fifty Shades books to Meyer's Twilight works.
Fifty Shades of Publishing Success
Since its publication, despite mixed reviews and some feminist outcry, the Fifty Shades trilogy has broken sales records to sell tens of millions of copies, has been published in nearly 40 countries, and has gone where no books have gone before—into the hands of women who are generally non-readers. Britain’s Daily Mail quoted a Nielsen BookScan researcher in saying “The success has not been driven by people who regularly buy books, but by people who buy maybe three or four books a year.”
In addition to reportedly spicing up marriages and boosting the sex-toy rope industries, Fifty Shade of Grey added a little excitement to book business returns during a time when the industry much needed it. While creating bookseller and publisher profits in its own right, the popularity of the books greatly helped to de-stigmatize the enjoyment of erotic romances, and helped create demand for other titles in the erotic genre.
Read about another book publishing success story, paranormal romance author Amanda Hocking or more about the Romance book genre, in general.