Culture Features Magazine

Whips and Chains

A year at the heart of the Fifty Shades of Grey storm.

In this time of Netflix and podcasts, the overused marketing line ‘the book everyone’s talking about’ has taken on a parodical status. Not that many people are talking about books. Fewer still are all talking about the same one. But ten years ago, I was involved in a book that everyone did talk about.

Back in February 2012, when I was a newly minted marketing executive at Random House, I was asked into a meeting to discuss the potential acquisition of a self-published trilogy of erotic novels that started life as Twilight-inspired fan fiction.

Initially, I wasn’t convinced. There were so many things about Fifty Shades of Grey that made it feel like a book we could never sell. The reply to my various concerns was brief: ‘It’s sold 100,000 copies already.’

These were numbers that most publishers would dream about – for a book that, in the ordinary course of events, no one would’ve dreamt about publishing. But this was no ordinary course of events.

Fifty Shades of Grey was circumventing the acquisitions process from day one. There were no manuscripts and sales meetings for E. L. James. Instead, everything was done at what constituted breakneck speed for the book world, as we looked to get her away from self-publishing and into the traditional model immediately.

‘Gail’s very keen,’ my manager said, referring to the Random House CEO at the time. ‘It looks like the US are publishing it and they want us to go at the same time.’

Which is exactly what we did. The trilogy was acquired and we committed to repackaging, editing, printing and publishing within six weeks. To give you an idea of timescale, this process usually takes a year for most books. Sometimes two.

The compressed schedule meant packing a lot in post-acquisition. We were trying to create some sort of buzz around it and convince supermarkets to dedicate significant amounts of shelf space to erotic fiction – something the Asda buyers were particularly hesitant about.

It all kicked off at the London Book Fair, where the services of a couple of male models were engaged to wander around in black underwear and silver ties, offering out sample chapters of the book. The industry responded with cynicism. Even within our own ranks, the editors grumbled about the resources dedicated to the book. That cynicism didn’t last long.

By the end of April – just weeks after publication – Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller, vindicating the rush job and resources spent. Then in June, the records began to fall.

First to go was Anaïs Nin, who had held the title for most copies sold of an erotic novel in one week for decades. But at 510 copies, that was small beer. The big news was revealed in an all-company meeting, at which editors would describe the books that would come out in six months to drum up excitement. Unusually, the sales director stood up first to deliver a bit of news about that week’s bestsellers.

Fifty Shades of Grey, he announced, had shifted just shy of 400,000 copies in a week. Beating its own record of 205,000 copies set one week previously, as well as poor old Dan Brown’s paltry effort of 141,000 copies.

Cue much cheering and hollering, doubtless inspired by the promise of some champagne later that day. The sales director continued. Darker had also broken the record, with 245,000 copies sold. As had Freed, which had sold 212,000 copies.

The delirium that broke out was ludicrous. It went beyond the celebrations when James Patterson scored another hit, or one of our various celebrity autobiographies enjoyed a decent Christmas run. The editor of the literary imprint – and so the man in charge of our most highbrow authors – led a raucous chant of ‘E. L. JAMES. E. L. JAMES,’ as though she had just scored a stoppage-time winner in the cup final.

The Bollinger duly arrived as it became clear that we were in the midst of a bizarre phenomenon. Along with the upcoming London Olympics, our book was the story of the year. Every TV host had a Fifty Shades quip to open their show. Publicists were now concerned about the front pages of the tabloids, as well as the Guardian’s review section. Meetings with agents all began with a conversation, speaking the same lines of code I’ve translated below.

‘It must be such an interesting time to work here.’

I’ll be expecting more on my author’s next advance

‘Have you met her?’

What’s she like then, this James woman?

‘Have you actually read it?’

I can’t believe this book is selling so well.

We were also flush with cash – an unusual state for a book publisher to be in, and like a new lottery winner, we didn’t know quite what to do with it.

Parties were the obvious answer. And party we did. A hastily organised do for the venerable old literary imprints of William Heinemann and Hutchinson at Brasserie Zedel’s Bar Américain saw so much cash put behind the bar that the authors, journalists and publishers present failed to get through it.

We also approached every auction for a hot new book with our paddle in the air. Occasionally this worked out, and no doubt we boosted a few advances with continuous bidding in auctions we lost, though a year or two later more than a few Fifty Shades-era acquisitions were notable for lopsided balance sheets.

Then there were the apocryphal stories about the money; ones that ran around the junior staff like Christmas party gossip. Rumours of buying five years’ worth of champagne, which was now stockpiled in the office basement. Or whispers of an imminent bonus (still less than our American counterparts), or the vague threat that if we didn’t burn through our cash bonanza by year’s end, the capricious German holding company that owned us would merely absorb it on to their own balance sheet.

It was generally assumed that we’d be back to square one financially on 1 January 2013, as anything beyond our profit target (calculated before E. L. James was a thing) would disappear off into shareholder dividends. So, if we could throw money at something, we would. Gradually, as summer ended, the unusual became commonplace.

We took delivery of a range of branded sex toys, as part of the merchandising deal that came with creating a new global phenomenon. All of them had book-adjacent names like the ‘Twitchy Palm Spanking Paddle’ and ‘Inner Goddess Silver Pleasure Balls’. Soon after their arrival, several items went missing from the publicity department, in an apparent inside job. No one was ever caught.

In November 2012, we read that Fifty Shades of Grey was being cited in a divorce case – an odd coda to the stories of marriage and relationship reinvigoration we heard before that summer. And towards the end of the year, rumours of paper and silver ink shortages began to circulate, as print suppliers struggled to keep up with the ongoing demand for the books.

What of E. L. James herself? My memories of her are vague, really. On her first visit to the office she seemed, like most new authors do, delighted and a bit stunned by it all. She took some proofs, had a small Champagne reception (of course) and that was that. As the year went on, there were reports of her becoming more strident and assured about it all. But hers was not any sort of author and publisher relationship that we were used to. Because this wasn’t a book that we were used to.

The year ended with the much-gossiped-about bonuses. And 2013 did indeed begin with a blank slate, giving kudos to that theory that Bertelsmann nabbed all the money. While the books continued to sell well, we had less financial freedom for auctions, parties and getting plastered on sparkling wine. There was a rumour that E. L. James was writing another one, but we couldn’t bank on it. So everything went slowly back to normal.

And that very much felt like it. One year, three books, millions of copies, a never-to-be-repeated experience of seeing erotica – erotica! – become the world’s dominant cultural trend.

In words spoken by Anastasia Steele 72 times in the first book: oh my.

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