Fifty shades of sales

The stunning success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which tops the charts after a weekly sale of 60,000, raises two interesting questions for the book trade: can e-books spawn print success? And has erotica finally gone mainstream?

Initial sales of Fifty Shades make it by far the most successful e-book-to-print crossover title to date. It débuted in the Official UK Top 50 last week in fourth, and has now topped the chart, with sales triple those of the next-bestselling book. The e-book side is equally good, with an informed estimate of 30,000–40,000 sales.

Various factors are at play here. The author-designed jacket is iconic without being explicit; bland enough to be read in public. The media got behind the book very quickly, their interest piqued by the title’s US success; by the e-book angle; by the local angle (the author is British); and by the “mummy porn” angle. Certainly not every début author gets newspaper interviews plus appearances on “Loose Women”, “Daybreak”, and a 10-minute slot on “Newsnight”.

The coverage is as notable for its range as its intensity: from “Women’s Hour” to the Sun on Sunday and Grazia. Equally, the book is selling through indies, supermarkets and chains, indicating broad appeal. The conclusion—that a popular e-book works in print—is not surprising given many people still prefer to read print.

The book is loosely based on the massively successful Twilight series, and some fans may have switched over. More likely it has hit a sweet spot between traditional romantic fiction and erotica (Nielsen BookScan classes it as “romance”).

From Fanny Hill onwards, erotica is one of the oldest genres, and the success in the past decade of titles such as Belle de Jour’s have hinted at a mainstream breakthrough. Yet the area has remained the preserve of specialist imprints, and print sales halved to a tiny £700,000 last year. But does the success of Fifty Shades mean erotica’s time has finally come?

Certainly British society has been “pornified”—by strip clubs, the web, lads’ mags, you name it—on a level that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Perhaps publishing has lagged behind the curve while a new mainstream market, more comfortable with explicit content, has grown up. That possibility is going to be put to the test as, in publishing terms, a bandwagon is now rolling. Everyone is scrambling to find the next Fifty Shades, or reinvent a dusty classic.