According to an announcement at the London Book Fair, worldwide sales of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey erotic fiction trilogy have now passed the 100 million mark. This comes courtesy of the trilogy’s publisher, Vintage Books, a Penguin Random House imprint who – let’s remember – were not the first book’s original publisher. That honor goes to The Writer’s Coffee Shop, “an up and coming independent publisher based out of New South Wales, Australia.” So let’s just dig back in to what made this all possible – including a hefty dose of viral reader uptake, indie promotion, serial releases, and under-the-radar online buildup, completely outside the orbit of the traditional book publishing industry that the London Book Fair is now implicitly buttressing by releasing those figures.
Fifty Shades of Grey has outgrown even the bestseller category and become a worldwide popular culture and marketing phenomenon, comparable with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, with all the usual paraphernalia of gifts, games, film-tieins, metooist copycat branding, etc, etc. Yet it began life on FanFiction.net in 2009 under the working title “Master of the Universe,” before evolving bit by bit into its current incarnation. Does all this make it a self-publishing success story? Sort of. The Writer’s Coffee Shop is an independent publishing operation of sorts, so not quite the same as doing everything yourself through Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords. Yet as commentators point out repeatedly, it did not have the marketing or distribution muscle in itself to promote the book commensurate with its potential. E.L. James had already taken care of the word-of-mouth and discoverability side herself through the fan fiction and online writing grapevine. Vintage Books only picked up her work for “a seven-figure sum” in March 2012.
At that point, according to the New York Times, total sales of the entire trilogy were somewhere over 250,000 copies. While respectable for a self-published author, that figure is obviously far short of 100 million. Vintage is presumably responsible for making up much of the difference, though given the buzz around the series that led to the publisher bidding war in the first place, you suspect that sales would have gone up and up from that point whatever happened. But it’s not rocket science to work out that traditional publishing did nothing either to foster the property in the first place, or to secure it initial exposure, preliminary sales, or its first deals.
That really doesn’t come across as a convincing argument for the traditional publishing structure as a creative and cultural forcing-house, does it? What’s more, E.L. James’s achievement may reflect the eternal power of the individual human creative spirit. But if her work was able to capture and energize an unmet market demand, it makes you wonder what all those publishing executives who presumably missed out on it in the interim are doing to justify their job titles and salaries.