Publishing Trends

What Does The “Fifty Shades” Phenomenon Tell Us About Book Publishing Today?

In light of Fifty Shades of Grey‘s run-away success, many observers have tried to boil down the secrets to the book’s explosion on the marketplace.

A USA Today story from July developed a list of ten reasons (sex sells, handcuffs are exciting, everyone loves a fairytale, and so on). CNN similarly attempted to explain the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

After watching this debate and publishing event from the sidelines, I decided it was time to weigh in.

I waited in line to check out all three books from the library and gave them a read through. “Underwhelmed” describes my thoughts generously; however, this blog only reviews books which I would recommend to others.

But, even if you are “underwhelmed” like I was, it is important to unpack what Fifty Shades means for people who are looking to have books published.

Here is my list of five:

1) The power of the buyer is on the rise. Many of you likely have an image in your minds of a room filled with snooty-looking editors. The “gatekeepers” of book publishing, who are trying to mold the minds of their readership. Tossing manuscripts left and right because they are not the next Hemingway or Proust. Maybe so in the olden days, but the consumer has  increasingly become a force in determining what gets published.

2) Books which have a solid base of ready consumers are more likely to be published. Fifty Shades built up an incredible fan base and contingent of consumers while it was a fan fiction website and a self-published e-book. This goes a long way to soothing one of publishers’ greatest fears: the books they worked hard to develop, print, and publicize might not sell.

3) In the war between quality and marketability, the ability of a book to sell well seems to be gaining steam. Over the years, we have slowly seen more books which are poorly written and cliche with under-developed characters become worldwide bestsellers. In short, even if you write an amazing book, you still need to be able to sell it.

4) Have you ever been embarrassed to be seen reading a book, buying it, or checking it out? Now, that concern is becoming a non-issue with the rise of the e-reader. Sales of romance novels have increased dramatically with wider e-reader use. The Romance Writers of America tabulate that sales increased to $1.368 billion in 2011. Increased anonymity for readers/consumers means that publishers and writers can push the envelope further while still selling books.

5) Social media and the internet have magnified the power of reading groups. No longer contained by meeting physically, reading groups have become more fluid and informal. You can now use Twitter, Goodreads, and other social media to share what you’re reading, link up with like-minded people, and discover your next great read on the internet. Or, think of initiatives like Oprah’s book club. Now, “reading group friendliness” is a criterion by which many publishers judge manuscripts, and one writers should be considering too.


~ Michelle


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