Business profile: The Fifty Shades Phenomenon

Business profile: The Fifty Shades Phenomenon

The Fifty Shades story in the UK began with a telephone call from Cornerstone m.d. Susan Sandon to Selina Walker, Century and Arrow publisher, at 10 p.m. on the day of the Random House sales conference on 6th March

Sandon told Walker there were some books, just sold to Vintage in the US, that she wanted her to take a look at.

Walker downloaded E L James’ trilogy onto her Kindle and read the first overnight. “I knew immediately it was hugely commercial and addictive,” she remembers. “My immediate thought was: ‘She knows how to tell a story’ . . . and the sex was quite startling. I thought of Fear of Flying, The Story of O, The Valley of the Dolls—these books come along once a decade: startling, a bit shocking, but very moreish.”

Random House recognised that speed was of the essence if they were to catch the buzz that had grown around the books in the US. Two days later, on 8th March, Walker doorstepped agent Valerie Hoskins outside her London office, and within another 24 hours E L James was in the Random House offices being wooed with champagne and chocolate cake. The deal—for a six-figure sum—was tied up four days later.

But with the trilogy secured, the publisher still faced major challenges. How quickly could they get the books out there? Could they create word-of-mouth buzz in the UK to really push sales? Crucially, one point remained untested: yes, the Fifty Shades novels had proved they were an e-book success, but would women really be prepared to be seen reading an avowedly erotic novel in print?

Romantic, not erotic

Anyone who has travelled on public transport recently knows the answer to that one. But for Walker and the rest of the Cornerstone team, that was by no means certain at the start. “A lot of people said women wouldn’t read it [in print],” Walker recalls.

With just a month until their self-imposed publication day (12th April for Fifty Shades of Grey, 20th April for the two follow-up books), a dedicated Cornerstone team set out to solve those challenges, with strong backing from RHG chief executive Gail Rebuck.
Positioning was key. The word “erotica” was avoided. “We have called it romance—if pushed, ‘romance with a kick’,” said Walker. Cornerstone used the author’s cover designs, but replaced the handcuffs seen originally seen on Fifty Shades Freed with a less bondage-explicit image, a key. A piece of consumer insight research was used to find the right messaging to appeal to women, resulting in the “Discover the books everyone’s talking about” strapline used on the first slice of advertising.

The sales team totted up an impressive 250,000 copies of subs for the book. Production faced a major task sourcing paper and organising printing and stock control. Meanwhile, the digital department worked over Easter to get the ePub files converted.

International co-operation was hugely important, stresses Walker; there was strong support from Vintage in the US, where the original acquiring editor Anne Messitte and her team were in regular contact. Conference calls were held at ungodly hours when both the US and Australia could take part simultaneously.

A half-dressed actor playing Christian Grey strolled the halls of London Book Fair on the arm of Cornerstone director of publicity Charlotte Bush. Social media was employed, with Cornerstone instigating UK publishing’s first sponsored tweet and a Google Plus live chat with the author which reached over 1m people. “For four weeks we lived and breathed Fifty Shades,” says Walker.

Worldwide success
Uncertainty over whether the book could work remained right up to publication. But the first part-week’s sales figures came in at 14,000, to huge sighs of relief.

Then what really got sales going, Walker says, was media coverage over the following week, when E L James went on BBC2’s “Newsnight” and ITV’s “Lorraine” and appeared in a big spread in the Sun. Since then, sales have gone on to break records. “Every time the figures come in, we’re totally suprised—very nicely so,” says Walker.

Nielsen BookScan UK sales for the trilogy currently stand at 4.9m, with e-book sales said to be roughly equivalent to print. RHG has also invoiced over three million print and e-book copies across all three editions in its international markets. The books have lead the bestseller charts in Australia and New Zealand for the past six weeks. Demand was so heavy around Mother’s Day that the printers temporarily ran out of supermatte finish for the covers, RHG reports.

Meanwhile in South Africa, all three books are in the BookScan Top 10, and in India Fifty Shades of Grey is also a bestseller. Sales of the editions across Asia and Europe are said to be “strong, particularly in Germany and Singapore”.

In the UK, a new bus-side and national rail campaign is under way, with the new strapline: “Climb aboard, discover the book ten million women are reading.” A cased edition has just gone into the shops (r.r.p. £23.97), and gifty hardcovers printed on board will be out in September. Meanwhile, the film version is being cast.

Water-cooler moment

So with the benefit of hindsight, why does Walker think the book is having such an effect?

“What the author has done very cleverly is the tone of the novels; although the book contains some bondage elements, there’s a strong girl-power message in there too. Ultimately it’s a liberating read,” Walker says. “You can argue that either way. We knew some people would love it and some wouldn’t.”

The novels also have a healing aspect, Walker says. “The author is getting a lot of fanmail related to Christian Grey’s abused childhood,” she notes.

The “discussion value” of the trilogy is also proving important. “Put two or three women round a table and it’s ‘have you got to page whatever?’ There’s intense discussion . . . What’s new is that it has made it acceptable for women to be open about their sexual fantasies, to be openly seen reading an erotic book. I think that’s something that is brave about the books.

“Some people said: ‘Would you give it to your mother to read?’ It turns out that mothers are reading it—and grandmothers.”

Crucially, the book has managed that rare feat of breaking out beyond the usual book-buying readership. “Publishers are getting to the area that they are not very good at getting into—Harry Potter, Dan Brown territory,” says Walker. “The author is getting fanmail from people saying: ‘I can’t thank you enough, it’s the first book I’ve read for 10 years.’”

People may look back on this as the first big e-bestseller which also translated into a printed edition phenomenon. But if it is very much a product of the new age, Walker also emphasises the traditional elements of publishing E L James.

“Marketing and publicity did drive our publication, traditional marketing as well as online energy,” she says. “There is so much more opportunity now with digital, but in core values I am quite a traditional publisher: great authors, wonderful books, and publishing them in the best way we can.”