TORONTO – From reports of a “Fifty Shades” baby boom and “Fifty Shades” baby clothes, to a “Fifty Shades” stage spoof and even a “Fifty Shades of Chicken” cookbook, E. L. James’s erotic novel phenomenon certainly permeated all parts of pop culture in 2012.
And the trend is set to continue well into the new year, with several other authors riding the adult romance wave that swelled in the past year thanks to James’s steamy whips-and-leather-filled trilogy.
“I definitely don’t see this phenomenon slowing down. It certainly hasn’t yet,” says Beth Lockley, executive director of publicity and marketing for Penguin Group of Canada. “It sort of seems almost hotter than ever in a way.”
“Certainly E. L. James with ‘Fifty Shades’ … boosted the whole genre and it hasn’t shrunk back down to where it was before, and I’m doubtful it ever will shrink down to be that small again,” notes Nathan Maharaj, director of merchandising at Kobo.
Lockley points to American author Sylvia Day’s erotic “Crossfire” series, which became a bestseller for Penguin in the past year. Like “Fifty Shades,” the trilogy features a 20-something woman who falls in love with a troubled billionaire.
The first two “Crossfire” books, “Bared to You” and “Reflected in You,” are now on shelves. The third, “Entwined with You,” is due out in the spring.
“This is a huge, huge book. People were rampant for it,” says Lockley of “Reflected in You,” noting it sold almost 20,000 copies in Canada alone in the first week it hit shelves at the end of October.
Other Penguin erotic romance writers stirring up buzz include Maya Banks of Texas, who is gaining traction with her “Sweet” series and will release “Shades of Gray” from her “KGI” series in January.
Then there’s a Canadian author who writes under the pseudonym Sylvain Reynard and is making headlines with the recently released “Gabriel’s Inferno” series that Lockley calls “kind of a ‘Fifty Shades’ comes to Toronto.”
“I think that’s really just gone mainstream, at this point,” Lockley says of the genre. “You look at the bestseller lists and almost the first four or so are erotica or romance fiction.”
“Fifty Shades” publisher Random House, which was recently able to give every employee a $5,000 bonus thanks in part to the success of James’ series, is now focusing on its February release of “S.E.C.R.E.T.”
Written by a Canadian erotic fiction writer with the pseudonym L. Marie Adeline, “S.E.C.R.E.T.” follows a widow who immerses herself in an underground sexual fantasy society in New Orleans.
The story, which has already sold in at least 17 countries, is also part of a series.
“It’s a bit more about female empowerment than perhaps E. L. James, which was a bit more about a love story spiced with you know what,” says Brad Martin, president and CEO of Random House of Canada.
Other romance authors leading the charge include Beth Kery and her “Because You Are Mine” series, and Jennifer Probst with her “Marriage to a Billionaire” books.
While adult literature has existed for centuries, experts say “Fifty Shades” has had a unique effect on the genre for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, the series that began as online fan fiction got a boost from “mommy bloggers” who spread the word, says Maharaj.
Plus, it hit the market as ebooks became mainstream, allowing readers to enjoy the racy material anonymously in public.
“You used to have your erotica in your nightstand and now people are just like reading it wherever they are, which is fascinating,” says Newfoundland-based writer and poet Leslie Vryenhoek.
The “Fifty Shades” story setting and book covers were also uniquely contemporary and discreet.
“It wasn’t like Fabio on the cover. It was a really slick tie, which made it way more acceptable to read,” says Lockley.
“The biggest erotic novel that we’ve seen to date now has no flesh on the cover, and that’s extraordinary,” notes Maharaj. “That was completely unprecedented when this phenomenon began.”
Authors including Day, Banks and Kery have since followed suit, using slick and fancier book covers featuring virtually no skin.
Publishers are looking to capitalize on the “Fifty Shades” trend in other ways, too.
Random House’s upcoming “S.E.C.R.E.T.” series is, in fact, a result of one of its editors talking to an author about the phenomenon.
“And the editor said to the author, ‘Hey, why don’t you write one?'” says Martin.
“If you look across our lists coming from the U.S. and the U.K., and other publishers’ lists, you can see the other publishers saying, ‘Hey, here’s a category that’s working. Let’s get something in the game,'” he adds.
Meanwhile, Penguin has created an unprecedented cheeky ad campaign for Day’s “Crossfire” trilogy.
The ads are on Toronto subways and include the taglines “Pleasure Your Shelf” and “Get Off Here.” Penguin is also using the Twitter hashtag #fiftyshadeshotter for the books.
“We tied directly into (the ‘Fifty Shades’ books) because obviously they’re selling in record numbers and we wanted to make that connection … for people who are looking for the next thing,” says Lockley.
Some major publishers are also now looking to the ebook business, where “Fifty Shades” got its start, for the next hit.
And that pleases published authors in other genres, who say the financial gains can only benefit them.
“I almost think we need those books so that publishers will have lots of money to be able to publish literary works,” says Waterloo, Ont.-based author Tamas Dobozy, who won the 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for the Budapest battle tale “Siege 13.”
“I think that people who write those kinds of books are sort of like the mules that the publishers are harnessed to and they pull them along so that the rest of us can sit on the back of the wagon and have fun, you know?” Dobozy adds with a laugh.
“So I think on that level, I think they perform a really valuable service in terms of keeping these publishers going. I think every publisher should have one of those ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ make a tonne of money and then reinvest that in the kind of writing that I’m interested in.”
“Anything that actually sells books is a wonderful thing,” notes author Russell Wangersky of St. John’s, N.L., a 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for “Whirl Away.”
“To have money coming into publishing houses, to have publishing houses find new work, it doesn’t matter what the works is as long as people are reading and giving new material.”
The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon is also good for literature in general, says Bahram Olfati, vice-president of trade books at Indigo Books & Music Inc.
Olfati notes the trend “really has reinvigorated the traffic” into Indigo stores, boosted sales of other books and introduced the company to a whole new customer base. In fact, “Fifty Shades” readers are some of Indigo’s best customers.
“Any time people buy books and start reading, it is not a bad thing,” says Olfati.
“I don’t judge the content. As long as people are reading, it will improve you.”