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Once considered taboo, romance and erotica books have exploded in popularity recently. Steamy novels are nothing new, so why have they become so popular now? Is 50 Shades of Grey so different from the rest of the romance and erotica genres that it has seduced readers everywhere? There may be more to it than the theories about lonely housewives fulfilling their needs through the printed word, it may have more to do with the anonymity that technology provides.
Some praise 50 Shades of Grey and the other two books in the trilogy, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed, for making erotic literature accessible. And erotic it is: the book goes into detail about the bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) involved in the relationship between college student Anastasia Steele and businessman Christian Grey. The wildly popular erotic trilogy was written by British author E.L. James and was originally available as an e-book or a print-on-demand paperback. Buzz about the book grew on literary blogs as the print-on-demand publishing company, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, had a very small marketing budget. Once the books became so successful, Vintage Books picked up publishing rights to the trilogy and re-released the books in print. It has now sold more than 31 million copies worldwide. The series has been especially popular with women over thirty, leading media outlets to refer to it as “mommy porn.”
The main drawback to 50 Shades of Grey is that everyone recognizes the title, so anyone who spots you with it will know that you are reading some steamy stuff. Thanks to e-readers and tablets, you don’t have to be seen walking into a bookstore or library to read the hottest book on the bestsellers list. A report on publishing sales in 2011 showed that adult fiction e-book sales were up to 30 percent of total net publisher sales in the category from 13% in 2011. This has beat out sales of hardcover adult fiction, but it still less that the combined print versions (trade paperback, mass market paperback, and hardcover.) It makes sense that this category would have a jump in popularity because there has also been a jump in the popularity of e-readers and tablets, plus the smash-hit 50 Shades was first available in e-book format in 2011. Purchasing an e-book is discreet, as is reading it. Ivy Rabinovitch, a circulation clerk at a Montreal library, said that she “spoke to a woman who was reading [50 Shades] on her iPad to travel so that no one on the airplane could see what she was reading.”
Those who don’t own e-readers are joining waiting lists to take the book out of local libraries; some cardholders at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library are on a four month-long waiting list to borrow the book. Before the library purchased the book, they already had a waiting list of 23 people. Borrowing the book from the library may be embarrassing due to being seen taking the book out, but it has positive points. First off, once you return it, there will be no proof on your bookshelf that you ever read it (you know every house guest judges the books in your bookcase.) Secondly, you can return it in the book return drop box under cover of darkness to keep it discreet. Thirdly, it’s free.
Not everyone who reads 50 Shades is so concerned with discretion. A friend of mine was seated beside a woman who was reading a paperback copy of the steamy novel on an airplane. She fell asleep with the book open to a description of BDSM, which my friend promptly photographed and posted to Facebook. In fact, millions of people have embraced the physical copies of the book. It has set the record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time, a record formerly held by the Harry Potter series. If you’ve ever been anywhere Harry Potter books are sold at midnight on the day of the release, you know how surprising it is for adult fiction to surpass it. I almost got trampled when I went to a 24-hour drugstore the night of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’s release without realizing the significance of the day. By the time the 50 Shades trilogy became available in stores, there was already plenty of buzz for the books, which is likely why it has sold so well in print. Plus there are some people who aren’t quite sure what it’s about when they buy it, they are simply trying to keep up with the latest literary trend. Another friend of mine said that she was reading 50 Shades because she heard it was the next Hunger Games. Whoever told her that neglected to mention that it was only similar to the young adult novel in that it was a hit trilogy. The Hunger Games doesn’t involve any spanking for sexual pleasure or BDSM contracts; it would classify as safe for work.
So not everyone is embarrassed to be seen with the explicit book, but its popularity has certainly been helped by the fact that it can be obtained discreetly. The book allows for an escape from daily life for many readers. Its popularity has made it more acceptable to be left out on a coffee table than a pornographic DVD, so it is allowing many readers to explore erotica who may not have felt comfortable to do it before. Still, without starting off with the privacy of e-books, the trilogy may never have reached the levels of popularity it has now achieved.