It’s the book phenomenon of the year: seemingly from nowhere, a fanfiction writer called EL James is snapped up by a major book publisher and within a week all three of her novels have sold more than 100, 000 copies, the first writer to do so. Aside from that, in two months the records were broken again as the first novel sold more than 765, 000 copies, beating the previous paperback record holder – Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – which took six whole months to reach that total. But what is going on with the Fifty Shades trilogy? And is it good or bad for books?
Basically, the books follow the story of recent university graduate Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey, who makes her sign a contract saying that he can have full control over her life as well as a non-disclosure agreement. As their relationship gets more involved, Anastasia begins to wonder about her own life and who she is. And obviously, there’s lots of erotica.
But I won’t focus on that: there’s plenty of reviews out there pointing out the sheer awfulness of the prose itself, whether its Anastasia’s only line of ‘Oh my’ or the tiresome clichés that seem to follow the characters around in their own little world. What seems more interesting is the way in which these books have become so popular and what it means for books themselves. The Fifty Shades trilogy was originally Twilight fanfiction. That doesn’t sound appealing at all, admittedly, but it apparently filled a void for those Twi-hards who thought that there wasn’t enough physical action between Bella and Edward (basically, those who didn’t realise that the series was basically a big symbol for why abstinence is good and moral, based on Stephanie Meyer’s Christian beliefs). James posted her fanfiction on websites and after the content of her stories was questioned, began publishing on her own website.
It became a hit on book blogs and after a while word of mouth spread about James’ works, leading to her having a massive fanbase for her three works. The internet, it seems, did for James what it did for music: spread the word about new authors, even if it was someone whose prose style and vocabulary was questionable at best – though, if we’re honest, there’s plenty of mediocre bands who have built up huge followings through the internet in the same way. Secondly, James’ case exposes just how powerful the nature of e-readers are nowadays. Perhaps a woman (and we are talking women here – the majority of James’ readers are reported to be married women over 30) wouldn’t be seen reading a paperback version of James’ books ten years ago in a public place, leading to her having much smaller sales thanks to the ’embarrassment factor.’ But if you’re reading a Kindle, or a Kobo, or any other sort of reader (even a smartphone with a books app) then who’s to say what you might be gandering at? It could be James, but it could just as easily be Dickens or another classic.
Technology, then, might not be heralding the death of the book in the way that the industry predicted. Yes, it’s nice to have something more tangible in your hands with that new book smell but it’s also lovely to know that you can carry around a device that’s portable and that people won’t be secretly judging you on, particularly if it’s in the types of genres that James places herself in. Aside from that, viral marketing and the internet could well help launch a new generation of writers – I participated in NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago and it’s amazing to see the amount of people who are actually interested in writing their own novels. Publishing on blogs and encouraging feedback on forums could help create better prose style and spread word of mouth for writers who wouldn’t be considered through the usual publishing routes. The relatively cheap cost of books on E-Readers compared to paperbacks and hardbacks could also encourage publishers to take more of a risk on a younger, less-established generation of novelists who wouldn’t have been given a chance a few years ago.
So while I wouldn’t be interested in reading James’ work myself, I can appreciate the ways in which new media has turned her into a phenomenon – her books are an example of how technology can revitalise the book industry and bring new talent in. As long as they don’t litter their works with the phrase ‘Oh my.’