Bonding with Fifty Shades

If you think about it, most of the runaway bestsellers of the past decade have been books that broke some, or all, of the perceived rules of publishing. Or at least the perceptions publishers, and to a certain extent booksellers, have as to what sells and what doesn’t. A series of children’s books set in a boarding school, a middle-class rant about poor punctuation, high-school vampires, an over-the-top conspiracy involving the descendants of Jesus (oops, spoiler alert), and now an erotic novel which began life as a piece of self-published fan fiction inspired by those very high-school vampires I have just mentioned.

All of which reminds me of William Goldman’s first rule of Hollywood, as explained in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.

How many publishers, booksellers or critics would have given Fifty Shades of Grey the time of day before it took off and turned people on to a genre that didn’t even have a section dedicated to it in most bookshops a few weeks ago? By which I mean high-street bookshops, not those “specialist” bookshops in Soho that I occasionally pass en route to business meetings and am in no way tempted to nip into. Not even for the purposes of research. Although have you noticed how many of them have “models” living in the flats above them? Quite a coincidence.

Anyway, where was I? Erotica, yes. The success of E L James and her bondage trilogy has forced bookshops to clear space and make room for an influx of rejacketed erotic classics and copycat novels. And they will be legion. Gone are the Ann Summers-esque lingerie model covers which have adorned erotic novels for god knows how long, and in are the close-ups of ties and keys and other decidedly un-sexy images all rendered in, well, 50 shades of grey.

Is this a good thing? Of course it bloody is. Every few years our industry has the immense good fortune to produce a book that becomes the must-have item across the world. It gets people into bookshops, gets them shopping online, or downloading to their devices. I am not going to trot out the patronising argument that it is wonderful to get people reading books, even if what they are reading isn’t great literature (and who are we to judge, anyway?). No, I am going to trot out the crass argument that it is great to get people buying books.

The book world is currently the centre of attention. The eyes of the world are on us. We should make the most of it. And if that means selling loads of books that look, feel and smell like Fifty Shades of Grey then that is fine by me, because that won’t be all that happens. There will be a knock-on effect into other genres, other authors and other books, and the money going into tills will help our industry fight the recession which is causing those poor bankers so much grief.

If the success of these books proves anything, it is that news stories are more influential than book reviews. Word-of-mouth trumps critical acclaim; getting people talking about a book is the single most effective way to get them reading it. And buying it.

Inevitably some are complaining, suggesting that there is something wrong with this. Their argument usually centres around the fact that they don’t think the book is very good. That is their opinion, it is a valid one (quality is subjective, after all), and they are welcome to it. But they are outnumbered—considerably in this case—and no matter how loud they shout, they are not going to change what is largely a positive thing. Hundreds of thousands of people are spending money, reading and talking about books. OK, so their activity appears to be restricted to three books for now, but it would be foolish for us to grumble about it.

Especially as the continued rise of social media will inevitably create more success stories such as this in the months and years to come.