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.
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?