I’ve recently been struck by the realization that Fifty Shades of Grey might actually be the thing that saves book-stores – for the time being, anyhow. I know this is a pretty big thing to say, but I actually kind of mean it. Looking at the figures just for Dymocks book stores, approximately 12,000 more units have been sold while Fifty Shades tops the charts than when anything else topped the charts in a comparable week last year. I’m baffled by the sudden frenzy of non-readers seeking out these books, and I’ve been meaning to post about my thoughts on this for some time… After reading Helen Razer’s immensely enjoyable “Product Review”, I decided I’d better sit down and write my thoughts.
It’s really weird to watch this all happening. For the last two or three weeks, just about every second item I sell has been a Fifty Shades book. It’s now officially the fastest-selling paperback book in history, surpassing Harry Potter and Twilight, even this year’s earlier boom of The Hunger Games. It’s most weird because of the kinds of customers buying the book, its genre, and the feedback I’ve been getting from those customers.
Case in point #1:
“Have you read it? Is it any good?”
I started to – but I had to stop. I got up to page three, before I started thinking that if I continued reading I’d have to try even harder not to be scornful of customers who enjoy these books. I can go with bad writing – I gobbled up the first two Twilight books and quite enjoyed them, despite all the “topaz eyes” and the way that everyone in Forks “lopes” everywhere. The pages kept turning, the action kept me going, the pacing was good. What I did read of Fifty Shades felt so mechanical that I just had to stop.
So no, Customer. I have not read Fifty Shades. “It’s just not for me, but it’s incredibly popular!” Aaaand smile, don’t frown, don’t judge, just sell the thing. It’s what’s keeping you in a job.
Case in point #2:
“What’s it about? I don’t even know, I just know everyone’s reading it!”
This is said at the check-out, when they’re buying the book. I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, bought a book that I know nothing about.
Case in point #3:
Customer: “Do you have that… Hundred something… Everyone’s talking about it?”
Me: “Fifty Shades of Grey? The erotica?”
At the word ‘erotica’, customer gets flustered and embarrassed.
Yeah, it’s erotica. On the back of the book, the spot that we put price stickers over, it says “erotica/romance”. The general readership that buys the book seems far more comfortable with the word “romance”. But flicking through the book (as I’ve done many times), you’ll find a lot of passages about penetration, and the “rules” of BDSM. I have no problem with erotica. In fact, I quite enjoy reading erotica. The Bride Stripped Bare was really enjoyable, because it was well-written, plus it was brave: a second-person narrative based around the parallel stories of an old women’s guide to being a good wife, and a woman negotiating her own married life. I like the secrecy and indulgence of erotica – it’s fun.
What baffles me the most about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that “erotica” a’la some Mills & Boon etc is generally frowned-upon by the same people who are so enthusiastic about Fifty Shades. The flustered ladies who can’t stomach the word “erotica” and who ask for a bag before leaving the store are pretty representative of the readership of this wildly popular trilogy. It appears to me that the key to the books’ success lies in the fact that someone (WHO?!) said that this particular erotica is acceptable. Or that this particular erotica is not erotica at all. Women en masse are indulging the secret fun that I love about erotica, because someone made it acceptable in this case.
There’s a lot of questions about what happens going forward.
Question 1 – Is this self-contained? Will the customers who came into the store to buy Fifty Shades re-discover the enjoyment of reading and keep coming back for other books? Many of these books are being bought by themselves, but some customers buy other things. Last weekend there were many couples – she with Fifty Shades and he with Fev. More than a few told me that they’re not generally readers. Can booksellers hold any real hope that these people will realise the enriching experience that reading can be, and return when they finish these books? While Fifty Shades has boosted sales a lot during its time at the top of the charts, can we look forward to higher sales after the series loses its top-10 status?
Question 2 – Will there be many more books like these? If this smartly-marketed erotica is permissible, is there perhaps a whole genre of permissible erotica on its way? A co-worker and I discussed this question recently. I worried that if there is a whole genre of this kind coming, then would the quality of the writing improve at all? She laughed, asking if I would read these books if they were high literature.
And Yes, I probably would.
I’m not a total literature snob. I enjoyed Hunger Games, I’m okay with the fact that there is often a reason that things become as successful as these books have been. I’m curious to find out what that thing is. In the case of Fifty Shades though, whatever it is doesn’t lay in the first few pages, and I couldn’t bring myself to read further. The rabid need that people have to read this book is beyond me. I don’t understand.
09/07/2012 at 1:26 pm
I don’t understand the success of this book either, but I can tell you that its appeal transfers to libraries too. Our library service has 28 copies between us and I just placed it on hold to see how many holds there were outstanding. I figured around 500-600. I was wrong, my hold is number 1299 in the holds queue!! Go figure…
09/07/2012 at 1:33 pm
1299! THAT’S INSANE! Thanks for contributing these stats, I’d not even thought about the same issues in relation to libraries.
It’s almost worth getting more, but then – what happens when it all dies down? We’ve got the same problem. We can over-order and then have too much stock that we can’t sell, or we can under-order and continue to sell-out and possibly lose sales because of it.
09/07/2012 at 1:26 pm
Is there ‘high literature’ when it comes to erotic themes though, Sam? I would argue the terms are contradictory. Grotesque violence and death must be masked with politics, or a mystery plot, or a ‘psychological’ theme (see: American Psycho); gluttony (of the food or drug kind) within a redeeming memoir or hedonistic, rebellious exposé (Trainspotting), graphic sex within the ‘acceptable’ context of a passionate love affair. Etc etc. Erotica to me is like the horror genre: there is no overarching ‘literate’ message or revelation to applaud as reader, the sole purpose is simply to arouse (or horrify). Base human needs are not seen as cerebral enough to be validated, and furthermore they’re a little bit embarrassing. Hence all the paper bag requests. For these reasons I can totally see why this book as been a runaway hit with repressed (my guess) non-reading women. I agree with you though, no idea why THIS one in particular. I flicked through it in the school library (yes, it’s there) and it didn’t strike me as any more perceivably ‘acceptable’ than most erotica…
09/07/2012 at 1:35 pm
Good points, thanks!
I agree with your point about it not looking any different from the outside to any other erotica, and this is why it’s such a mystery. I assume it’s in the marketing, and the weird cultish following it’s got, evidenced by people buying it when they know nothing about it. It’s like owning or reading it is a kind of social capital.
12/07/2012 at 2:59 am
Great post – came over to visit via Helen’s piece. Another librarian, here, same attitude as you – loved Hunger Games, read book 1 of
Twilight but no further, can’t stomach the idea of reading 50 shades and refuse to!
I think now people are buying and reading this because they feel left out if they don’t.
They want to be involved in “what’s hot”. People are so gullible.
12/07/2012 at 4:37 am
Perhaps not gullible, but certainly not fussed by what’s involved in being part of what’s hot. The amount of people that ask me what it is WHILE buying it is astounding. Interesting though that I’ve never heard of any customers being disgusted by the book after reading it.
Thanks for your comment, Librarygirl!
22/07/2012 at 7:01 am
I have my own piece coming on this topic soon.
I agree with you – fine if people want to read it, I won’t as its not more me when really I wouldn’t waste time with bad writing when there are so many awesome books out there.
But if it gets people reading – good on them.