I have a few ideas.
Having been pubbed in the romance genre (in print and now digital) for more than 2 decades, I have witnessed trends. BIG ONES.
The appearance of this erotica series of 50 SHADES… on the best seller lists at numbers one through three seems unbelievable until, I think, you look at the trends in romance and in society over the years.
In the 1980s, the romance genre exploded into the marketplace. With boomer women getting college degrees and getting fabulous jobs, they wanted relaxing entertainment at night. (Yes, they needed it after all those household chores were done!)
By the 1990s, these same women had grown older, wiser and began to read more serious fiction. While these novels were female-focused, they were also relationship books which more often than not included a romance. The boomers’ younger sisters came along—and so did the boomers’ daughters—wanting to read the romances Mom and Big Sis had liked. What had begun as women reading romances that were 15% of the paperback sales, climbed steadily to more than 50%!
But in that decade of the 90s, other events occurred within the publishing industry and society as a whole.
Within the industry, costs of producing a book rose. This included the cost of paper and ink, copyediting and design. But also the venues where books were sold declined in number. With fewer places to buy books, readers had to go to Big Box stores to find them. Did they? Yes, but in fewer numbers.
This meant that back in New York Traditional Publishing Houses [NYTRPH] the accountants began to run the editorial decisions and the marketing ones, too. They told editors what they could buy and should buy. The Big Boxes added to the fray by telling publishers what sold quickest and best. Other types of books, said Big Box, will not be ordered in any great quantities.
In the offices of NYTRPH, the scissors came out. Authors who didn’t write this popular sub-genre or that one, saw their order numbers drag, their covers reduced to flowers or objects that sold few if any books. The result? These authors either conformed and wrote what “was selling” (vampires or fairies, anyone?) or the “newest trend” or died on the vine. Amid all this, if an author wrote a steamy book, she might get published, but more often than not, she was asked to temper her prose. Use euphemisms. Allude to passion in metaphors.
In society as a whole, tolerance for all types of lifestyles and parenting choices meant that readers were more open to bigger themes in novels. But were they finding those novels except in what we call literary fiction? I would answer, No.
By the turn of the century, many readers frustrated with few choices in the genre, began to ask, Is that all there is? And publishers in the U.K. and in the U.S., began to respond. Using the internet as the distribution means, publishers like Ellora’s Cave saw the way to distribute erotica in a manner that was safe, secure from prying eyes and immediate. And between the covers, readers got what they had not seen in novels. What had been verboten to them because of Big Box tactics or publishers’ demurring from printing hot sexy stories was now available.
The sales of erotica blossomed. The number of publishers did too. Most of them were on the internet using that platform to sell the books. Readers responded in the millions. While I generalize here, I will say that word-of-mouth and ease of access to the internet certainly provided the impetus for this proliferation.
Suddenly readers had erotic romances at their fingertips and with a few clicks could have instant gratification of purchase and reading!
To say that the internet and on-line publishers have changed the publishing industry is a given. To recognize that both have spawned the rise of self-publishing mechanisms is also a fact.
The 50 SHADES success story is, I am certain, built on the 3 previous decades of growth of the romance genre from Harlequin category types to single titles that have broadened women’s perspectives and their aspirations. These thousands of romances have also broadened women’s appetites to read about marvelous, intimate, mind-blowing sex.
Women not only desire to be entertained by well-written stories that help her escape to another world. They demand it. And 50 Shades is the explosive proof that erotica is not an aberration on the book shelves. It is a manifestation of readers’ growth and sophistication.
True, 50 Shades had a fabulous marketing and PR introduction. The well-oiled machine that created the series’ business plan is one we authors would love to learn more about! While we are not likely to hear those secrets, we do applaud the success.
It means women are becoming more savvy about their bodies, their communications and their intimate relationships. It also means we will see more and more erotica on the best seller lists. Already, we have seen 5-6 in the top 20. Move over 50 Shades. We’re coming through!