The lessons of Fifty Shades for bookstores, publishers, and media
July 1, 2012 | 4:46 pm
The popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey continues, and people keep trying to make sense of it. The Bookseller’s blog had a couple of interesting posts lately on the phenomenon. Scott Pack writes of how the book came from right out of nowhere, completely overturning established expectations, and now publishers and bookstores are scrambling to capitalize on the momentum. Expect a bunch of copycat covers to appear over the next few months.
Pack believes that this is a great thing, regardless of the quality or lack thereof of Fifty Shades itself, not because it will get people to read more (an argument he describes as “patronising”), but because it means people will buy more books.
The book world is currently the centre of attention. The eyes of the world are on us. We should make the most of it. And if that means selling loads of books that look, feel and smell like Fifty Shades of Grey then that is fine by me, because that won’t be all that happens. There will be a knock-on effect into other genres, other authors and other books, and the money going into tills will help our industry fight the recession which is causing those poor bankers so much grief.
And he suggests that “the continued rise of social media will inevitably create more success stories such as this in the months and years to come.”
Meanwhile, Julia Kingsford looks at the clichés surrounding people who read Fifty Shades. It seems that a lot of articles are attributing its success to the traditional “bored housewives” who are too embarrassed to be seen buying it at a bookshop so they order it online.
Surely they can’t be ‘real’ readers whose papery passions have traditionally been our bread and butter and who shop in ‘real’ bookshops? No, these must be a different sort of reader, new and not as good, ‘silly’ and to be only temporarily humoured and nervously served before we gladly see them off as they return to whatever form of entertainment they normally enjoy. Far from intellectual snobbery about readers being the preserve of the book trade, it runs rife through everyday media and culture, constantly perpetuating the view that books are for the few.
Kingsford suggests that this kind of ghettoization, pushing the view that books are only for some particular kind of person rather than for everyone, is one of the biggest dangers to the culture of books and reading. Books aren’t just meant for some people, they’re meant for everybody.
Meanwhile, on FutureBook, Nick Harkaway notes that the overall book publishing market is still slipping despite the success of Fifty Shades, and points out that the industry should not be relying on “tentpole books” to carry itself at the expensive of a flourishing midlist.
We have to do what Hollywood didn’t: support the midlist, which is where readers are nurtured and sustained, grow the readership and the idea of reading, and make a culture which supports us as an industry rather than yelling at our readers for ‘pirating’ books and not wanting to pay £15 for the digital version of a book which sells in hardback at £8. If that means embracing difficult discussions like whether publishers’ traditional close partnership with conventional bookshops is sustainable, whether books have to be cheaper, whether accounting systems have to be changed to allow for new ways of selling, whether the quest for effective reader-friendly DRM is a ridiculous snarkhunt, whether there’s a way of doing digital lending or a Bardowl/Spotify model for books, whether publishing houses have to move out of central London, then that’s what it means. The alternative is a slow collapse culminating in the same conversations playing out when it’s too late to take real advantage of a changing marketplace, under new ownership.
And to think all this discussion and controversy has stemmed from a piece of Twilight fanfic, which most literary agents wouldn’t even have given a second look a year ago. I guess it drives home the lesson that there are still plenty of surprises out there waiting for us in the publishing and e-book world, and the next trend-setter might very well pop up in the most unlikely of places.