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‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ dominates publishing

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(Photo provided)
This file combo made of book cover images provided by Vintage Books shows the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy by best-selling author E L James. EL James' erotic trilogy was easily the year's biggest hit, selling more than 35 million copies in the U.S. alone and topping bestseller lists for months. Rival publishers hurried to sign up similar books and debates started over who should star in the planned film version. Through James' books and how she wrote them, the general public was educated in the worlds of romance/erotica, start-up publishing and "fan fiction."

NEW YORK – The story of 2012 in publishing was the story of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” in more ways than one.

E L James’ erotic trilogy was easily the year’s biggest hit, selling more than 35 million copies in the U.S. alone and topping bestseller lists for months. Rival publishers hurried to sign up similar books, and debates started over who should star in the planned film version. Through James’ books and how she wrote them, the general public was educated in the worlds of romance/erotica, start-up publishing and “fan fiction.”

But the success of James’ novels also captured the dual state of the book market – the advance of e-books and the resilience of paper. In a year when print was labeled as endangered and established publishers referred to as “legacy” companies, defined and beholden to the past, the allure remained for buying and reading bound books.

James already was an underground hit before signing in early 2012 with Vintage Books, a paperback imprint of Random House Inc., the house of Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison, a house where legacy is inseparable from the brand. She could have self-published her work through Amazon.com, or released her books from her own website, and received a far higher percentage of royalties.

“We had a very clear conversation back in January about the need for a very specific publishing strategy,” Vintage publisher Anne Messitte said. “We talked about distribution, a physical format, publicity. And she was basically clear that she needed what we did as publishers to make that happen.”

“Fifty Shades” began as an e-phenomenon, understandable since digital erotica means you can read it in public without fear of discovery. But according to Messitte, sales for the paperbacks quickly caught up to those for e-books and have surpassed them comfortably for the past several months. Everyone was in on the secret. The series sold big at Amazon.com, but also at Barnes & Noble and independents, at drugstores and airports.

Publishers from several major houses agreed e-books comprise 25-30 percent of overall sales, exponentially higher than a few years ago, but not nearly enough to erase the power of paper. And the rate of growth is leveling off, inevitable as a new format matures. Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said e-sales were up about 30 percent this year, less than half what she had expected.

“There are some people who think that print will go away, but ‘Fifty Shades’ is an indication of why that’s not going to happen,” said Messitte, who added the books attracted many nonreaders who don’t own e-devices. “You’re going to need a mix of ways to read.”

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