Johnson's World: Shades of Grey

The book’s tortuous route to success is filled with lessons.

May 1, 2015
Steve Johnson10773449

Steamy sex scenes. Hot bodies in various states of undress. Kinky moves with naughty toys. Also, I’m told, lame dialog and the thinnest of plots. I’m speaking, of course, about Fifty Shades of Grey, the web post turned ebook turned self-published print-on-demand book turned commercially published and printed trilogy turned major studio motion picture.

I haven’t actually read the books or seen the movie, but I have followed the meteoric rise of the Fifty Shades franchise with ever increasing interest. The book’s tortuous route to success (please, please forgive the expression) is filled with lessons.

I haven’t counted fifty, but I do see several grey areas that the phenomenon of this book’s success illuminate for us.

One fallacy readily accepted as black and white is the inexorable march away from print toward “new” or “e” media. Fifty Shades is an obvious repudiation of this idea, having begun life on the internet as a series of postings on a vampire-themed fan fiction website. After complaints by fellow fans that the story had more sex than vampires (no accounting for taste) the author moved it on to a website of her own, where it began to go viral.

Opinions vary as to E.L. James’ ability as a writer, but her business acumen is spot-on. Observing the success of her narrative, she took it off the web and repackaged it as an e-book, which is the standard first step toward self-publishing. The e-book took off immediately, and she followed with a print-on-demand edition, as is always the case when an e-book is successful.

Next stop, sale of the publishing rights for millions of dollars to a traditional publishing house, who promptly ordered millions of copies from a conventional offset print book manufacturer.

Print is the high-end of any product. True, not everything is printed anymore. Only the best, the finest, the most important, the most popular make it onto press.

This isn’t just true for books. Anyone can send an email or e-greeting card. If you want impress, to seduce, to stand out from the crowd, mail a notecard or write a letter on letterhead.

Migration of print to digital is a two-way street.  In the examples above, both the ebook and egreeting card aren’t really anything new; they are just digital re-packagings that strive to emulate their print counterparts, but fall short.

Another black and white belief is that digital media is the enemy of print. In fact, this is another grey area.

There are many routes to success. The book Fifty Shades of Grey would have had zero chance with the traditional publishing model, yet that is where all of its monetary success lies.

The book has been nearly universally panned by critics as poorly written trash. In the pre-digital age, this manuscript would have been sent to an agent or a publisher who would have promptly rejected it as unworthy, if they bothered to read it at all. By first self-publishing digitally E.L. James was able to develop her fan base.

By the time she was ready to call in the professionals, the agents, publishers and movie studios were lined up at her door, checkbooks at the ready.

As author Lizzie Skurnick opined in The Daily Beast, “Blogs made us self-publishers. Now social networks have made us a world of self-sharers, tapping out our stories in tweets, Facebook statuses, Pinterests, and, on a hardworking day, comments.” Tellingly, the title of her article was “50 Shades of Grey, a Self-Published E-Book, Is the Future of Publishing”.

There may be only fifty shades of grey, but literally hundreds of billions of pages of ink have been printed on paper in the past three years that owe their very existence to the digital formats that came before.

“Fifty Shades of Grey has put loads of cash into publishers’ pockets around the world, who can buy more books, and has opened up the market in an incredible way,” says literary agent Lorella Belli.

Viva la digital media! And long live print.