22.06.12 | Philip Jones
Publishers have been here before. From The Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter to Stieg Larsson to Twilight books that tip over from bestseller status to “phenomena” are rare enough to live long in the memory, but not so infrequent that we cannot learn the lessons from past successes.
The erotic trilogy Fifty Shades has decimated previous paperback records and now holds the book-buying public, booksellers and rival publishers in its thrall. What surprised this week was that each of the titles doubled in the number of copies sold, with the first title Fifty Shades of Grey selling a whopping 205,130 copies through Nielsen Bookscan’s universe last week, an amount even bigger than Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.
Some have argued that the books represent all that is wrong about modern publishing: here was an unagented title self-published on a fan-fiction website that went under the radar until a small Australian publisher picked it up and began making waves. You can just as convincingly argue it the other way: having taken the decision to publish traditionally, in both print and e-format, Random House moved incredibly swiftly to get the three books out, and then backed its judgement with ambitious print-runs. The neutral jacketing was smart, and the PR and marketing campaigns equally so, building on the publicity that was already out there, rather than attempting to hijack it, as was evident from Random’s slogan: “the books everyone is talking about”. Digital might have rewritten some of the rules, but the publisher still found its role. However it came by the book, Random took it to the next level.
So what are the lessons of previous phenomena? First, the surprises will continue for some time: the core book market is small, but once a title “breaks out” into the general population the numbers become truly startling (they should not surprise us, but they will). Second, there will be imitators, but none will sell in quite the same number, however a profitable strand can nevertheless be developed. Third, these three books alone will not save the print book business, which despite enjoying its best week so far in 2012 remains stubbornly down on 2011. But we should use the opportunity to generate wider interest in books—now is a great moment to up-sell the “book”, as non-regular readers rediscover a love of reading. There are no shades of grey about that.