Whatever its literary merits, “Fifty Shades of Grey” can take credit for a few things. The phenomenal best-seller has brought kinky erotica out from under the covers and into the mainstream. It has provided comedians and parodists with ripe fodder for jokes and spoofs. And it has inspired some previously buttoned-up couples — such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy — to get their freak on.
But is this the literary equivalent of a one-night stand, or is it something more lasting and meaningful? Will "Fifty Shades" whip readers into a frenzy for more erotic romance, just as the "Harry Potter" books were a boon for fantasy novels?
It is perhaps too soon to tell, but there is no doubt that "Fifty Shades" is being passionately received. E L James' titillating trilogy has sold nearly 25 million copies in the United States in four months in all formats, according to Random House, which brought to market the book that had inauspicious beginnings as "Twilight" fan fiction, initially self-published by James. Stieg Larsson's "Girl" trilogy, in comparison, sold 20 million copies in four years. Globally, the trilogy has sold 31 million copies. Amazon UK recently announced that "Shades" and its two sequels, "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed," have outsold all seven "Harry Potter" books.
Don't look for "Grey"-mania to cool any time soon. The three books continue to dominate the upper echelon of The New York Times e-book fiction best-seller list. James is embarking on another U.S. tour in September that will bring her to Texas, Minnesota and the West Coast (but not to Chicago, where 400 people crowded the Standard Club in the spring to hear her speak).
Want to check out the books at your local library? Get in line. The waiting lists are long for a chance for some alone time with any of Highland Park Public Library's 22 copies, Northbrook Public Library's 25 copies or Lake Villa District Library's 26 copies. As this issue went to press, none in a consortium of 24 libraries in the north and northwest suburbs had a copy on the shelves. The Chicago Public Library has 284 copies for all its branches; at press time not one was available, according to the library website.
There is also a hotly anticipated "Fifty Shades" screen adaptation in the works, sparking a feverish casting call that recalls the frenzy surrounding the casting of "Gone With the Wind." Who will play innocent college senior Anastasia Steele and entrepreneur Christian Grey, who introduces her to the illicit pleasures of BDSM (which doesn't stand for "Bring Daddy Some Macaroons"). Fan favorite candidates include Emma Watson, Elizabeth Olsen (who have thus far publicly nixed the notion) and Felicity Jones for Ana, and Ryan Gosling, Channing Tatum and Ian Somerhalder for Christian.
There even are some musical spinoffs: "The Greatest Classical Music Ever! 50 Shades of Classical Music" compilation not affiliated with the book or author (in MP3 format), and "Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album" curated by the author and set to be released digitally Tuesday by EMI Classics in the United States and Canada, with the CD release scheduled for Sept. 18.
But what next for publishers who want to strike while the iron is hot? Does Random House have another "Fifty Shades"-type book waiting in the wings? Not yet, said Russell Perreault, vice president and director of publicity at Vintage/Anchor Books. "Our office has not been deluged by erotica, although we have received some manuscripts. We don't necessarily plan to publish other books in the genre."
Romance novels made up 15 percent of the adult fiction market in the first quarter of 2012, according to Bowker market research. But they accounted for almost one-third (32 percent) of e-books, up from 19 percent in the same period last year.
"Fifty Shades of Grey's" is an odd sort of bandwagon. It is far from being the first book of its type; it is only (and for some, unaccountably) the most popular, and if it was your first taste of forbidden fruit, you should have no trouble finding other tomes like it. Naperville-based Sourcebooks started publishing romance fiction in 2007. Its first erotic romance, "Backstage Pass," the inaugural volume in Olivia Cunning's "Sinners on Tour" series, came out three years later (the next volume in the series, "Double Time," is set to be released in November).
Critics may debate whether "Fifty Shades" is a well-written book, but there is no arguing with its success and how it has resonated with readers. Publishers are adopting an attitude similar to traditional country artists when Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" became a crossover hit. They may have disparaged the song, but they appreciated that it was introducing country music to a new audience.
"We're very much in favor of anything that gets people to read books," said Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks editorial manager. "We think it's great that readers love this series, and they'll naturally look for more. That's a great opportunity for authors."
The website Ellora's Cave bills itself as the premier publisher of "romantica," which it defines as stories in which sexually explicit scenes are integral to plot and character development, and monogamous love ultimately triumphs. Founded in 2000, Ellora's Cave publishes a minimum of nine new titles weekly and has more than 4,000 titles available for immediate download on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-book sites, including its own. There is romantica for every genre, from sci-fi ("Galactic Inferno") to Christmas ("Stocking Full of Coal"). Last February "Brawn," by Laurann Dohner, became the first Ellora's Cave title to make The New York Times e-book fiction best-seller list. Dohner, one of the e-publisher's 800 writers, has since been signed to a 75-book contract.
The company pushes the "Fifty Shades" connection in its advertising and promotions, said Susan Edwards, chief operating officer, who credits the book in part for introducing erotica and erotic romance to readers new to the genre. "We were already seeing a strong surge in sales when 'Fifty Shades' hit the market because of the rise in online e-book vendors carrying our books," she said.
To what lengths will a publisher go to lure "Fifty Shades" readers and get a piece of that action? Total E-Bound Publishing is taking a page from the Woody Allen short story, "The Kugelmass Episode," in which an unhappily married humanities professor is magically transported into Gustave Flaubert's classic novel "Madame Bovary" to have an affair with the title character. Its new line, "Clandestine Classics," adds graphic sex scenes to vintage novels in the public domain, including "Pride and Prejudice" (written by Jane Austen and Amy Armstrong),"Jane Eyre" and, hold your breath, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
Two original books are staking a claim to be the next "Fifty Shades." Sylvia Day's "Bared to You" (Penguin imprint Berkley Books) has been spending time on The New York Times' e-book fiction best-seller list. Its Twitter hashtag: #50ShadesHotter.
Berkley also recently picked up Sylvain Reynard's "Gabriel's Inferno" and "Gabriel's Rapture," which, like "Fifty Shades," originated as "Twilight" fan fiction. It concerns a debauched Dante specialist and an innocent grad student.
Some previously released books are being granted another chance to reach a new audience. Anne Rice's"Sleeping Beauty" trilogy, which she wrote in the 1980s under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure, is getting a re-release.