Grey Expectations – How ’50 Shades of Grey’ has affected publishing


Just when we thought the ruckus around E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy was dying down, the trailer for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie hit the internet, whipping everyone into a frenzy. Pun intended.

E.L. James, whose real name is Erika Leonard, calls it adult romance. News agencies have called it mummy porn. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that it is popular. By August 2012,  just a little over a year after its release, Amazon had sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than it had the entire Harry Potter series.

The Top of the ‘Books Left Behind’ List

Unlike the Harry Potter books, many of these were not given a place on bookshelves. According to a 2012 article in the Telegraph, the budget hotel chain Travelodge reported that in Fifty Shades of Grey’s first year of sale, it was number 1 on their ‘Books Left Behind’ list. Approximately 7 000 copies of the book were recovered from their hotel rooms after guests checked out.

Still, it has sparked the emergence of saucy literature, like Jassy Mackenzie’s Folly and Switch. There has been a renewed demand for previously published erotic literature, leading to republication of works like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy and Sylvia Day’s Bared to You.

Back to the Classics

A Huffpost Culture article reported in 2012 that Total-E-Bound Publishing, an adult fiction publisher, intended republishing some literary classics after giving them an erotic makeover.

Their new release of Wuthering Heights (by Emily Brontë and Ranae Rose) has lashings of bondage sessions between Catherine and Heathcliff. The blurb for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (by Washington Irving and Morticia Knight) reads, ‘There is terror at every turn in
the mysterious Sleepy Hollow – but there is also plenty of lustful frolicking. Can three lovers thwart the legendary Headless Horseman to be together forever?’ The publisher aims to show the reader the scenes the reader has always wanted, but was never allowed.

What started as a little (okay, a lot of) slap and tickle has morphed into a grey area, in the un-erotic sense of the word. It raises some interesting questions.

In true chicken-and-egg style, to what extent does the demand for sexually explicit literature reveal an existing hunger in society, versus create it? We should consider the significance of this for authors.

The Most Important Question

Is literary worth determined by entertainment value and resultant sales figures? One of today’s most discarded books has led to some of the classics, which are still being read generations after they were written, being deemed unentertaining. If entertainment – writing what readers want to read – is the yardstick for literary worth and is the highest value, does it follow that it is permissible to rewrite other authors’ works?

What do you think?

 by Donna Radley

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

This article has 16 comments

  1. Bethanie

    I would happily read Harry Potter books five hundred times over. I have no desire AT ALL to read 50 Shades of Grey.

  2. Toni Adwell

    I think it’s a little frustrating to see writing such as 50 Shades do so well, because as writers trying to break into the field it is constantly pounded into us to make everything as perfect as possible before we submit. The one excerpt I read from 50 Shades was cringe-worthy as far as the writing was concerned, and the fact that it did so well makes me a little sad. If it’s just the sexual aspect of it that appealed to the masses we’d likely have seen more of such works become extremely popular. 50 Shades rode the coattails of Twilight, (another series I don’t see the appeal of, but, hey, to each their own), and that was an excellent springboard for them–catering to an already massive audience base. People wanted more from Twilight than what the author gave them, and 50 Shades did that. It seems more like good marketing than good writing. *shrugs*

  3. Donna

    You make an interesting point about marketing, Toni. In one of the articles I sourced, it says that Berkley Books, the publishers of Sylvia Day’s ‘Bared to You’, republished the book with a ‘new, very Grey cover’. Sales soared. Cindy Hwang, executive editor, said that the cover of Fifty Shades made them realise that people didn’t want explicit covers. They wanted to tap into the huge potential market, hence the change to a more Grey-looking cover.

  4. Mary

    I find it interesting that no one’s talking about which house is actually behind 50 Shade of A Lip-Chewing Insipid Twit. Doesn’t anyone think that the huge marketing platform had anything to do with the instant success?

    Double Day is a huge publisher, with an enormous reach. Their influence helped launch this book, and create the buzz.

  5. Bethanie

    I have seen the classics that have been re-written to include modern-day ideas–Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies 😛 Really? It upset me tremendously to see that. I do not think it should be permissible to re-write any classics with modern-day ideas. The classics are just that, classics. That is why they are still being sold and read. Keep them that way!

  6. Lex Keating

    Two points to consider, both of which dovetail with the question:

    1. Aldous Huxley gave us a small preview of the current demands in entertainment in his book Brave New World. The films people went to see had the option to “feel along” with the characters on screen, and the result was an entire culture who viewed entertainment as the next high in an increasingly debauched orgy of sensation. Towards the end of the story, you may recall, these film-makers came looking for John, so they could make his pain into one of their feelie movies. When Solomon wrote “there is nothing new under the sun,” he wasn’t kidding.

    2. Pop fiction vs. Literary fiction. There’s a good reason 50 Shades was the most left behind book–it’s worth abandoning. It is nutritionally deficient as a literary work. No protein. No fiber. All empty calories. Has it impacted the publishing industry? Oh, yes. The author took advantage of the blooming e-publishing side of the industry to get her book into people’s hands. The staying power of pornography is problematic, though. I don’t call 50 Shades pornography to be dismissive, but to come back to the definition and purpose of pornography. Namely, to inspire lust in the reader. Pornography doesn’t satiate any desires, doesn’t satisfy the reader, doesn’t answer a transcendent question about human nature or the divine. It makes the reader crave another sensation. And sensationalism doesn’t require quality. Only quantity. So yes, we should expect to see a lot more pornography on the shelves as long as there is a demand. That doesn’t mean better stories shouldn’t be written or read. But fighting for shelf space with pornography shouldn’t be a writer’s battle. Make your own shelf. Write the story that challenges readers to abandon their diet of candy, so that they can sit at the gourmet feast of good writing.

  7. Eddie Jones

    The success of 50 Shades can’t be repeated. First, it’s not well written. Not saying it’s bad writing, but the prose lacks much of what the industry considers great writing. (see Dave Barry’s blog: http://time.com/3030375/dave-barry-50-shades-of-grey/ – funny stuff).

    Second, 50 Shades worked because it hit just as eReaders began to take off. People were downloading everything in eBook form. Suddenly (notice the use of a bad adverb, here), women could read porn in public without getting weird looks. Today, with the glut of eBook titles, 50 Shades would struggle to be found.

    Great writing still sells. Smut does too – but for different reasons.

  8. Bethanie

    @Lex Keating–Would love to know some of your titles that you have written. You seem to be the kind of author whose books I would like to read. 🙂

  9. Deb

    Eddie, I think you need to look again at Amazons Erotic book section. You will find that there are thousands of books that were written long before 50. I have been a fan for years of many of the authors listed. Did u know that 50 was fan fiction for Twilight, with Rob Pattinson being Chriatian Grey? I personally think that’s why the 50’s book got published. It was so the ladies could enjoy a HEA for adults. Not a teens book. Yes HP is probably the best written in years and I loved them. I also like the classics as written but there is a place for books with no “fade to black” love scenes. 50 woke a lot of women up as to what their sex/love life could be and I’m not talking about the BDSM part. I’m speaking about how if a man puts you ahead of himself he will usually get a women that will do the same. Women still want to be swept off their feet by a man who knows what he’s doing. My father was that way for my mom and she for him, married 60 years. My hubby the same married 23 years. Maybe some think it’s a fairy tale but it’s not. Too many men and women just don’t understand commitment. The 50s books are about finding that one person you would do anything for just to make them happy. (The BDSM stuff is just filler, the shock and awe)

  10. Ulf Wolf

    Although I have not read 50 Shades I can only conclude that its success has much to do with it nearing so closely the lowest common denominator of the reading populace which, biologically speaking, boils down to procreation and survival.

    While morally anorexic, I believe that literature written to titillate will always find an audience hungry for sexual stimuli. Is the reader wiser for it? Not a chance. Is the reader better equipped to face life on our planet for it? Of course not. The reader has simply killed a certain amount of time, time as soon forgotten as a turkey sandwich or a trip to the bathroom.

    Literature, in my view, elevates into art when it—to take a Buddhist perspective—aids, in some way, enlightenment. When it sheds light upon (or asks questions that invites light upon) the perennial questions of what are we doing here, and where are we going.

    A human life is precious for so many reasons, not the least of which is our ability to ask and answer questions that truly matter. Wasting even an hour of such a life on sexual titillation should, again in my view, be considered a crime.

    But that is the world we live in today, awash in a million million things we, strictly speaking, don’t need.

    Luckily, there are still many writers who write for the benefit of all of us, by posing and speculating about and attempting to answer questions that transcend consumerism and procreation.

  11. Donna

    Thank you for your comments, everyone.

  12. Lex Keating

    @Deb – Oh, but 50 Shades is such a transparent retelling of an old fairy tale. One that is (in my opinion) oversold in the romance market. “Sun, Moon, and Talia”–otherwise known as the dirty Italian Sleeping Beauty. (There are legitimate arguments that SM&T predates the traditional fairy tale we’re more accustomed to. It’s entirely believable that SM&T was sanitized so it could be told to children, hence the reason Sleeping Beauty has neither proper antagonists nor a plot.) This fairy tale details how an innocent maiden is seduced by a wealthy, selfish man whose personal history attacks the girl. It’s not a nice story. It’s not intended to be a nice story. It’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, and a powerful teaching tool so that girls who hear the story can stand up and say “these are my limits–no cheating, no lying, no stalking; my life shouldn’t revolve around some jerk.” But the fairy tale, when told the way the romance market exploits it, takes advantage of the female fantasy of “saving” her man and being the special one he keeps. 50 Shades isn’t the only pornographic novel to use this formula, but a lot of its proponents use the story’s notoriety as an excuse to celebrate “fantasy.” That’s another way of saying that the lust inspired by this erotica is a viable part of a committed relationship. Wives don’t feel beautiful and desirable when their husbands have a porn addiction, so why should we think that men feel powerful and capable when we crave our romance novels? Yes, erotic fiction caters to a woman’s desire to be swept off her feet. And then delivers sensation after sensation. So, you’re right: 50 Shades is more of the same in its field.

    @Bethanie – So far, there’s just the one published. Several WIPs on my plate right now that should come out in the near future, though. 🙂

  13. Deb

    Ulf, while you say “you have not read it” it is mind boggling that anyone that has not read it can make any kind of assessment about it. It would be the same if you commented on a movie, television program, concert or play that you have not seen. I will keep my “opinions” to myself if I can’t debate with an educated mind. I read more then 100 books a year of all genres for entertainment as well as education. Sometimes you just have to say that’s “not my cup of tea” and let others duke it out, stand back, watch and listen. Do know what they say about people with opinions?

  14. Donna

    Okay, what I see from all the comments is that everyone is expressing an opinion about whether Fifty Shades is good literature. It’s a valid debate, because the classics (classified as good literature) have been adapted because of its influence.

    Here’s another question: if you had to choose three non-negotiable criteria that need to be present in order to classify literature as ‘good literature’, what would they be? It’s a tricky question, because one can’t ‘measure’ literature in the same way one would scientifically calculate volume. They’re not in the same category. Yet, mankind expresses an evaluation of literature’s worth or beauty. This is evidenced by the fact that we have opinions about what we read, and the prizes awarded for ‘good’ literature.

    Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we use a yardstick to evaluate literary worth. So, my question is: what is your yardstick? I’ve limited the number of criteria to three in this question because it’s a good way to isolate what’s most important to each person.

  15. Lex Keating

    We did get away from the actual question, Donna. For myself:

    1. Communicate truth. A piece of literature may not tell a truth I like or agree with, but an honest revelation must be present in literature for me.

    2. Enduring theme. While cultures and individuals definitely disagree about what makes an important, universal theme, everybody has a list. Greed, honor, revenge, love, sovereignty–whatever list a reader uses, a piece of literature must be more than just the words on the page.

    3. Quality writing. Beautifully written pieces of fluff exist, but they are still empty of meaning. Powerful truths and themes *can* be written in a six hundred page run-on sentence about a pickle, but sloughing through it is torture. Clear communication of the story (or emotion, for poetry), that draws the reader deeply into the work without pulling back to question word usage, character development, or plot progression, must be consistent in good literature.

    For me, anyway. Excellent post and points to ponder. 🙂

  16. Katie Dockeray

    I think we can all agree. 50 Shades is poorly written. Yes, the fact that it has done so well is especially troubling. However, with the backing of a huge publisher and the emergence of e-Readers, it was going to be a slam dunk. However, I disagree with the classics being re-written to “bring more entertainment value.” How would you feel if years after you wrote something, someone decided to revamp it to make it more entertaining in today’s market? While eye-catching, integrating the classics with modern ideas, like Pride & Prejudice Zombies just doesn’t work. There’s always a dollar to be made, and it seems like standards are falling while revenue is increasing.

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