Changes Brought About by 50 Shades

A retro ad that says 'Vintage Shades of All Types'When I started reviewing all the 50 Shades-esque covers, particularly the Lora Leigh book (“Oh, come ON, now”) I started wondering what things might have changed in Ye Olde Publishing Houses in the weeks and months following 50 Shades' domination of the bestseller list.

For example: cover art is changing, especially covers for contemporary romances that are explicit or tagged as erotic. Sexuality within books has also become a more prominent part of the pitches I've received – “This book is HOT!” for example.

I got to wondering how the success of 50 Shades might have changed or influenced the way folks in publishing houses go about their jobs, and so I got nosy and asked a few.

Pamela Jaffee, Director of Publicity at Avon, says that the style of the books on the outside and the inside has definitely changed: “We are repackaging a lot of great books (ie Sylvia Day) in the new evocative/erotic style. We're launching a new trilogy acquired by Harper Australia specifically geared to interest and entice the 50 Shades market. We are re-publishing Toni Blake's The Red Diary ( A | BN | K | S) to give a book that had a decidedly quiet first life to the impassioned new audience for erotica.”

Jaffee also says that the initial press “avalanche,” as she calls it, about 50 Shades (and that dreaded term 'mommy porn') has also opened up a new opportunity among booksellers: “I find that media and booksellers are…more open about discussing romance in all its genres. And the readerbase is finally getting due credit for being the powerful communicators and genre ambassadors they are in their own right.”

I asked Pam what it means for a publicity department if readers are getting credit and booksellers and retailers are more open, and she replied, “It’s nothing that I haven’t said to major media, the very same ones who swore 50 Shades was a media-driven phenomenon.  Our job (publicity) for romance has long been to reach out to the readers whose word-of-mouth helps move perception of books.  We’re ahead of the curve, that way.”


A publicist at another house told me, “After Fifty Shades, I think the real change in erotic romance publicity has occurred in terms of the media possibilities.  Erotic romance has been successful for years and we know women are reading and buying the books, but media contacts outside of the romance world have been largely uninterested in erotic romance or have actually refused to accept review copies.  Fifty Shades has really opened the door to mainstream media and the sky is now the limit when it comes to pitching coverage.
And of course, we’re also using Fifty Shades as a comparison title for many of our erotic romances.  That kind of reference has been extremely helpful with media contacts because they can instantly identify the audience you’re trying to reach with the book you’re pitching.”

So in some ways, the success of 50 Shades has helped create an understanding as to what erotic romance is, and how much of it there is to market – and how many readers have enjoyed it for a long time now.

I was also curious if 50 Shades has changed what editors are looking for in their own acquisitions. For example, the tropes of the dark and controlling alpha male and the innocent clueless heroine are VERY old. Are editors looking for more of that, or exploring other options with an emotionally charged power dynamic?

May Chen, an editor at Avon, responded, basically, yes to all of the above: “We’re looking at self-published authors, fan-fic, etc. And I’ve always loved dark, controlling alpha males, yes, it is a very old trope, Kathleen Woodiwiss FLAME AND THE FLOWER— hel-lo! Diana Palmer—all so good!”

Amy Pierpont, editorial director at Grand Central, echoed May's comment about the familiarity of the character tropes in 50 Shades: ” I think the FIFTY SHADES phenomenon has certainly brought a spotlight on the alpha male/innocent heroine trope, but it’s one we’ve known readers have been loving for ages—across all genres, and even (gasp!) without the spanking.”
“Some of our upcoming books that tickle this particular fancy:
Historical: Anna Campbell’s September release SEVEN NIGHTS IN A ROGUE’S BED ( A | BN | K | S) features the ultimate gothic alpha male Jonas Merrick and the lovely young innocent Sidonie Forsythe who will risk everything—even her virtue—to save her sister.

Paranormal: Larissa Ione’s upcoming ROGUE RIDER ( A | BN | K | S) features the ultimate bad boy Reseph and the innocent Jillian Cardiff who saves him from himself (in more ways than one!).

Contemporary: Katie Lane’s MAKE MINE A BAD BOY ( A | BN | K | S) features Bramble Texas’ favorite bad boy Colt Lomax who meets his match (again) in the form of Bramble’s sweetheart Hope Scroggs.”

Pierpont adds, “What we’re paying close attention to, and looking for in our acquisitions, is the other nuances that flavor FIFTY SHADES and have captured the interest of readers who have gone on to read other books in the same vein.

“We’re looking for angsty, emotion-packed stories, stories that tease out the “will she/won’t she/should she/shouldn’t she” question for a longer ride (i.e. stories about the same couple that carry over the course of several novels), stories that get a little (or a lot!) naughty, stories that emphasize that undeniable, unquenchable passion that burns brighter and hotter by the minute, stories that feature gritty bad boys who make you go weak in the knees and do things you NEVER imagined you’d do—or like so flipping much!  We’re also looking at stories featuring younger characters—heroines in their early to mid-twenties, falling for “older” guys in their late twenties-this is a shift that we’re making in response to such strong reader response to characters in those age groups.”

An editor who asked to remain anonymous told me, “I think 50 Shades has definitely opened up a lot of publishing people’s eyes to how quickly and powerfully word of mouth can spread on the internet—not that they didn’t know this before, but I don’t think there’s been a better example of how much online chatter can translate directly to sales.

“I’m definitely more aware now of certain power/sexual dynamics that some readers have found appealing, and am definitely on the lookout for similar themes in other books.  At the same time, I know there are plenty of readers out there who did not respond to 50 Shades and I wouldn’t want to end up catering only to those readers who enjoyed 50 Shades.”

It seems like part of the effect of 50 Shades' success is a mix of new sources and very familiar plot lines and power dynamics. I don't think there's any way to accurately gauge how this trilogy's omnipresence will impact every area of publishing, but it's already created some noticeable changes. Whether the readers of 50 Shades will look for more and find all that erotic romance has to offer depends, I think, on the percentage of people who are reading 50 Shades because it is still the hot book to read.

It can be difficult to identify what it was that a reader enjoyed about a particular book: was it the educating of an innocent, for example, or the seclusion and secrecy of the couple? What was so captivating for one reader may not work for another reader, but being able to identify the factors that made 50 Shades so compelling might help spur more recommendations for curious readers. And we do have plenty of those on the internet!

There will be some attrition once the trilogy is no longer the top three on the bestseller list, but I'm hopeful there will be a group of readers who discover that they enjoy reading explicit and emotionally charged stories, and go looking for more. Whether they'll pick up romances is a curious question – especially as romances that have elements in common with 50 Shades may be changed and marketed differently to reach those readers. Thank you to all the editors and publicists who took the time to answer my nosy questions!

Did you read 50 Shades? Have you looked for more books like it? Or were you content to let that be a one-of experience, and are reading something else? What do you think of the changes in marketing, promotion and acquisition that have occurred since 50 Shades took over the top of the lists?

Thank you to BigStock for the image!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Mirandaflynn says:

    “responded, basically, yes to all of the above: “We’re looking at self-published authors, fan-fic, etc. And I’ve always loved dark, controlling alpha males, yes, it is a very old trope, Kathleen Woodiwiss “

    The return of the alph-hole. Joy ::eyeroll::


  2. 2

    Great. So raping women into loving a jerk is going to be flooding bookstore shelves again? Well, at least I’ll be saving money by rereading older books until this particular fad passes.

  3. 3
    Lynne Connolly says:

    you know that scene in “Chicken Run…”?

  4. 4
    Beccah W. says:

    I personally don’t want to see romances that last over the course of multiple books. I want a pretty straight forward romance that gives you the happy ending in one book. The longer the story to more chance there is for a character to do something unforgivable. Just look at True Blood, which started off with a great romance but couldn’t be sustained long term. If the show were a mini series Bill and Sookie would still be together. *sigh*

  5. 5
    Jonna says:

    I did read Fifty Shades, and I liked it, but what it did for me was bring me back to the genre that I’d abandoned for a little while. Not new to me, just back to it.

    I think what’s interesting is what you pointed out: It’s almost impossible to parse out what brought each individual reader to 50 Shades. Some authors/houses are trying to play up the BDSM angle, occasionally to tremendous failure and wild insult to the lifestyle. Others, the alpha male. And still others are going for the romance trilogy. But what makes 50 Shades tick for people varies so broadly, and for some, was their first intro to the genre, so READERS sometimes don’t know what they like. That’s a tough, nebulous thing to replicate

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    It’s curious-interesting, isn’t it? On one hand, the 50 Shades setup of the all powerful super rich compelling alpha who knows better than you do what you need and want, and the suitably innocent and malleable heroine is very familiar – and not a trope I enjoy, unfortunately. (I didn’t enjoy 50 Shades and I didn’t enjoy Twilight, either.)

    But the superpowered holy crap success of both books, which rely so heavily on that very old power differential between the male lead (who is mysterious) and the heroine (who is overwhelmed a lot), seems to indicate that there are a lot of readers who very much enjoy that character setup. I wrote back in September 2008 about how Edward Cullen is basically a sparkly-dipped old skool hero, and of course, given the origins, Christian Grey is more of the same. It’s not my favorite character dynamic, but boy howdy, it seems to grab some readers and send them to the bookstore.

    I wonder if the alphole/klutzy heroine pair will just keep showing up every few years, like houseguests who keep coming back!


  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    Yes – exactly. There’s something that grabs readers in 50 Shades, but what that thing might be is probably slightly different for each reader. And identifying what it is you like as a reader – even within the romance genre – can be very difficult.

  8. 8
    Jaelwye says:

    A Haiku on the Recycling of the 1970’s Old Skool Romance Power Dynamic, Which I Absolutely Hate

    Sparkly gray a-holes
    Obsessing over doormats
    Begone like disco!

  9. 9
    Ros Clarke says:

    I loathe the bit about searching out fanfic and self-published successes. I don’t think that fanfic makes for good books (even the very best fanfic) and I think that offering successful self-pubbers contracts is the laziest kind of publishing.

  10. 10
    R.Savage says:

    Jaelwye—totally need to be able to hit the like button more than once.

    I wasn’t interested in Twilight, and so haven’t read either set of books. It’s great that they’ve been so successful – but how many of these readers have staying power? I know people that will only read something because of the media buzz and then that’s it. They pick up a book once or twice a year maybe (if that).

    It would be interesting if we could see the break down of people who bought the books who have actually gone on to find other similar stories or branch out and those who were just along for the ride because of the hype and have already jumped off the bus.

  11. 11
    KRGrille says:

    We’re launching a new trilogy acquired by Harper Australia specifically geared to interest and entice the 50 Shades market.

    This is what disturbed me the most in the entire piece. I don’t want to read a scientifically-engineered book-type product manufactured to look/taste/smell just like a regular book; I want to read an actual book. You know, something written by an actual author who has an original story with compelling characters doing interesting things. It’s already hard enough for me to find good books these days without the market being saturated by knock-offs of a knock-off of a crappy book.

  12. 12
    Lynnd says:


  13. 13
    Sophydc says:

    Kind of like George Carlin said, “Chocolate flavor means no fucking chocolate!” I don’t want to read product, I want to read books that were written by people who feel compelled to write stories. Some of them are good, some of them not so good, but they are real.

  14. 14
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    I detest the alph-hole/doormat trope. It has always bothered me, but even more so now, when someone who is very close to me is finally escaping that exact relationship after more than 25 years of misery and abuse. The worst of it is, she wasn’t always a doormat, but he turned her into one through a steady campaign of manipulation and isolation. Having seen how that relationship turned out, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read another book like this again.

  15. 15
    Kate4queen says:

    I’m sort of torn. Like a lot of authors, as a long time writer of angsty erotic romance, I’m pleased to see the effect these books have had on the general market, but concerned that by the time all the publishers catch up and start publishing their ‘50 shades brand’ they will have missed the boat and the unique circumstances that surround the success of these books.
    On the other hand, seeing my books in a Walmart for the first time right next to the 50’s, makes me happy because that market was not available to me until 50 Shades.

  16. 16
    Jen says:

    I can take alphahole heroes/innocent heroines in small doses but this over-saturation is killing me, I can’t buy a pair of freaking shoes online without seeing “Fifty Shades of Fashion” – OMGSTOP. I have not read 50 Shades yet and I’m pretty sure it’s not my bag but I’ve buckled and put it on hold at the library (I’m currently number 56343348302943 in line). I have read Bared to You and thought that it was okay – Gideon’s permaboner got old rull quick, but I liked Eva because I felt she held her own.

    I am interested in reading the sequels even though I doubt there’s much more to say about his boner and copious amount of semen but $10 for an ebook is insane and I will not be purchasing them.

    I have to agree with KRGrille – I want an actual book!!! Enough with the knockoffs.

  17. 17
    Kui says:

    Ugh!  I dont want younger heroines!  Im getting older not younger- I dont want to read about young girls that are perfect(cause they always are).  Im not it high school anymore-i cant sigh over the 16-21yo getting the manly-alpha-laird/duke/viscount etc.(unless i read you in high school-hello 1995!) And the multiple book thing-nooooo! i love having 1! book to go to for a HEA.  On the plus side (even though i didnt care for 50 shades)Im glad there is more dialogue going on about romance & all its genres

  18. 18
    SB Sarah says:

    @kate4queen – perhaps that’s the balance: new opportunities for authors, but alongside books specifically cultivated to grab the 50 Shades audience. I think seeing your books in Wal Mart is a big bonus!

  19. 19
    Jimthered says:

    In fairness to a book I disliked, there’s NO RAPE in 50 Shades.  There’s fairly extreme BDSM, but there’s no forced, non-consentual sex.  While there are numerous criticisms to be made about this book—from an amazingly poor writing style to the hyper-cliches of romance novels—saying it’s about glorifying (or including) rape is just inaccurate.

  20. 20
    Olivia Waite says:

    I just started working in a Seattle-area used/new bookstore, and in my first three days I’ve already sold several 50 books AND had a customer come in hoping for the second in Sylvia Day’s Crossfire trilogy. Since that book isn’t out until October, I sent her home with Maya Banks, Tiffany Reisz, Lauren Dane and Shelli Stevens.

    I’ve worked in this bookstore before, and occasionally I’ve gotten to wax passionate about romance with a customer, but never about erotic romance and never in such numbers. Much as I loathe alphole heroes and blink-blink-innocent heroines, it’s pretty exciting to have some light shine on what is usually a pretty overlooked section in the bookstore.

    And when women of the grandmotherly persuasion come in with their grinning husbands for the second book in the trilogy—well, that just melts my romance-reading heart.

  21. 21
    Teri Stanley says:

    Read the first one, but didn’t love the writing or the cliches…but then bought the second one, because I did want to know what happened to the H&H…so yeah, I’ll probably buy the third…even though I do think there are a lot of better kinky ero-rom writers out there (Joey Hill, Tiffany Reisz, Roni Loren, Emma Holly).  But it’s not so much the Alpha hero/ innocent heroine, it’s the damaged hero thing that does it for me.

  22. 22
    Flo_over says:

    Over-saturation in the media is a knee-jerk reaction for me to OMFG AVOID AT ALL COSTS RAWR RAWR RAWR!

    Not because I’m some snob “literati” but because the media has a terrible history of screaming about schlock.  They wouldn’t know a good story if it came up and humped their collective legs.  They don’t WANT a good story, they want sensationalism.  And sensationalism makes for very very poor reading.  Or at least so I have found.

    I’m saddened to see 50 have so much impact.  I wish it had been one of the Loretta Chase books or something well written and well researched.  But I guess impact towards the positive in this particular genre is good… maybe?

  23. 23
    Carrie says:

    Unfortunately, disco is back. Only this time it’s masquerading as techno-pop.

    Personally, I wish everyone would stop recycling old styles…70’s clothing styles, colors, furniture styles, music…bleh! It wasn’t that great the first time and it hasn’t aged well.

  24. 24
    LauraN says:

    Well, I think I can report on another way 50 Shades has changed markets.  I went to a *ahem* specialty store to buy a friend something for her bridal shower a week ago and noticed a large endcap display with a variety of “Intro to BSDM” -type packages.  There were all sorts of varieties with different kinds of toys.  I wanted to chat with the clerk to see if they’d seen an increase in BDSM paraphernalia since 50 Shades came out, but she was with another customer, so I lost patience and left with my question unanswered.  Can anyone else confirm this?

  25. 25
    JM says:

    I’m just so freaking tired of all the hype around these silly books. Now there’s knock offs??? Oy vey. I’ve been reading romance and erotica for years, and the way people carry on about this trilogy like it’s something fresh, new, and groundbreaking, with a huge cultural impact, is truly hilarious. Yes, I read the first book, and no, I didn’t like it. AT ALL. My first reaction was to be incredibly annoyed that such atrocious writing and piss poor editing is getting rewarded so handsomely. Then I read an Eloisa James book and my soul was soothed. :-)

    No offense to those who enjoyed 50 Shades, but I just can’t get into badly written fanfic with constant repitition, and characters who run the gamut from boring to annoying. And if some dude tracked me down by tracing my cell phone, I wouldn’t think he was hot, I’d take out a restraining order. Just sayin’.

  26. 26
    nightsmusic Igrisan says:

    One of the things that disturbed me about this article is the fact that no one interviewed said anything about how they’re looking for anything well written. They’re just looking for the same thing as 50 Shades. The writing is appalling in the “favored excerpts” I’ve read and I can’t see wasting my time when there are so many books out there that are wonderful, well written and smart. That and the fact that my Hn has to have a backbone, at least a tiny one, please!

    @JM, I’m with you. Trash is trash. 50 is trash and now, we’ll have tons of trash.


  27. 27
    Zulma says:

    Publishers! FYI…I hate sequels! Just give me a to-die-for alpha male lead and a strong kickass heroine and you got me. Just don’t string me along.

  28. 28
    Rei Hab says:

    I see your point (although I actually thought the BDSM in 50 Shades was pretty tame) but – while there may not be rape, there is emotional abuse, manipulation, controlling behaviour, stalking, intimidation…the list goes on. And they portrayed to the reader as romantic. Even Christian Grey’s stalker tendencies, while acknowledged as such, as sort of passed off as “aww, he’s being a creep, the little scamp – isn’t that adorable?”

    So it maybe doesn’t glorify rape. But I kind of think it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs when that’s the nicest thing you can say about a book.

  29. 29
    Knoxus99 says:

    I didn’t read 50 Shades but I did read the first Twilight and thought it was rather sweet for YA Fiction. I didn’t think the heroine was that clumsy either. I love vintage romance books and still mainly read Harlequin Presents with a little Emma Holly, JAK, and MC Beaton thrown in.
    I would love to be able to say that I read a wide swath of books but I can’t stand 70% of what’s out there. If I see one more book with a chick in leather vest/pants and a tramp stamp I will scream!
    I like alpha heroes and “innocent” heroines.  I think there’s some moving about still being open to love…something that’s harder to pull off when the female lead is older. Would it probably make for a complex story…suuuuuure…but it wouldn’t be very escapist. Isnt that what chick lit is for? Cynical “older” women who’ve been around the block a few times still beating the pavement to find a man? Yikes!!!
    I don’t think I want the heroes to get any younger. I like how JAK has raised the average age of her heroes by 8-10 years.

  30. 30
    MandaC says:

    I hated 50 Shades, and I hate that people think it represents romance.  But, I have been able to direct some people who liked it to some well written romance.  I’ve also sent some people to this site. 

    I really hope the alpha asshole heroes are not back for long.  I like the strong, broody heroes, but I can’t stand it when they are jerks.  And Christian Grey is a creepy, controlling stalker.  I didn’t even think the sex in the book was that interesting or good.

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