What “Fifty Shades” Means for Publishing

ebook vs book

Whether you consider the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series lowbrow or high art, the steamy novels and their millions of readers have revolutionized the traditional publishing industry.


The biggest change is in how once-stodgy publishing houses now pick books they deem worthy of selling – or as is more often the case, books that have already been sold by the authors themselves.


“They have people everywhere looking at Amazon rankings, The New York Times bestsellers lists. And a lot of people on those lists are self-published authors,” says Jenny Pedroza, marketing director for The Writer’s Coffee Shop, the independent publisher that picked up E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” missives in 2011, when they were entries on a website with a growing number of fans.


Working with James, a London wife and mother of two who worked in the television industry, the tiny publishing site turned the work into what would become a three-book series that quickly sold about 7,000 copies before demand grew so fast that it exceeded the publisher’s ability to fill orders.


By January 2012, the erotica books were a global phenomenon.


“We had no idea it would do as well as it did,” Pedroza said.


Random House Inc. came calling, buying “Fifty Shades” and its two sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” for a reported $1 million. In four months they sold more than 25 million copies in paperback ($15.95) and e-books ($9.99).


Asked if she wished she’d held out for more money from Random House, Pedroza laughed.


“We’re real happy,” she replied. After three years in business, “we have almost 30 authors and 50 books in production, with 36 more books coming out this year.”


Revenue has increased 100 percent, she said.


Random House is happy with the success of “Fifty Shades,” too. At the end of 2012, it gave $5,000 bonuses to every employee, something unheard of among the Big Six publishers (Simon & Schuster Inc., HarperCollins Publishers, Random House, Macmillan, Penguin Group, and Hachette Book Group USA), all of which have struggled to remain relevant in an industry changing by the minute.


The opportunity to sell huge numbers of self-published books is not lost on Penguin, for example, which last year paid $116 million to buy Author Solutions, an Internet-based service that boasts it has helped more than 100,000 authors to self-publish.


Though Penguin announced in February that e-books accounted for 30 percent of U.S. sales in 2012, overall sales for the international publishing firm rose just 1 percent.


That doesn’t mean the end is near for traditional publishers, but it does mean that self-publishing has changed the entire playing field, industry experts said.


“Traditional publishers are now keeping a close eye on Amazon and other places where self-published books are found,” Jim Milliot, co-editorial director at Publishers Weekly, told The Financialist. That was never the case in the past.


Yet publishing houses still offer services that many writers want, whether they’re self-published or not, according to Milliot.


“The industry rule of thumb is that about 50 percent of self-published book authors are looking to get hired by a publishing house,” he said. “They still offer a lot – access to reviewers, quite a bit of marketing, distribution of print editions … and editing, which is a good thing.”


Simon & Schuster acquired “Slammed,” a self-published novel by Colleen Hoover, last summer after it reached No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list and sold 179,000 e-books. The publishing house also bought the rights to Hoover’s second installment, “Point of Retreat,” which sold 122,000 copies and ranked 18th on the Times list.


So has publishing become just a game of watching what sells? Pedroza says no. But the traditional houses can no longer underestimate readers’ hunger for erotica and bodice-rippers. Readers now buy such lighter fare by the tens of thousands on their Kindles from the comfort of their living rooms.


“There will always be the Big Six, and that’s just the way it is,” Pedroza said. “There are still going to be people who read the John Steinbecks of the world. But there are a lot of people who read just for the joy of escapism. There are some things you go to just for pure enjoyment.”