‘Fifty Shades’ of Inspiration

Saskia Vogel

The erotic bestseller is nothing new. But “Fifty Shades” feels different. For one thing, it is the bestselling book of all time in the United Kingdom. Take that Harry Potter. “Fifty Shades” feels like “Deep Throat” — a cultural watershed. XBIZ spoke with mainstream book publishers and booksellers, Good Vibrations, Smitten Kitten, The Museum of Sex, Coco de Mer and Rachel Kramer Bussell to see what may come of the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon.

Mainstream publisher Orion Books’ editor Jemima Forrester says, “There’s no doubt that the phenomenal success of ‘Fifty Shades’ has changed the market dramatically. Publishers are rushing to reissue backlist erotica titles, rushing through shiny new ones, or jumping on the parody/spoof bandwagon.”

At the end of the day, “Fifty Shades,” irrespective of the quality of the book, will become shorthand for a wider conversation that embraces sexuality and pop culture.

“Eighty Days Yellow,” an erotic romance that Forrester says is “a little more risqué than ‘Fifty Shades,’ was published just two months after it was acquired. Forrester says, ‘So far we’ve had some incredibly positive responses, pre-orders are coming in every day and we feel confident this book is going to be a great success. Seeing the popularity of other books that are coming out this month and next (‘Bared to You,’ ‘Jane Eyre Laid Bare,’ etc.), it seems the success of ‘Fifty Shades’ has opened the door for other writers in this genre to see some mainstream recognition, and I for one am delighted.”

From outside the mainstream, author and anthologist Rachel Kramer Bussell, who has been writing and editing erotica and erotic romance for more than a decade, says that there has been a spike in sales of her books. Also, three of her books have now been added to Amazon’s erotic gift list. Bussell takes this lesson from ‘Fifty Shades’: kinky sex isn’t going to scare off customers when it is in the context of a compelling story.

There is cross-over potential with mainstream publishers and booksellers. The launch party for Bared to You was hosted at Ann Summers and featured a gift-bag of luxury items for each guest. The lack of comment available from the book’s publicist suggested that perhaps there was nothing more to say about the launch. It was the right venue in which to launch that book.

An anonymous representative from a large bookselling chain doesn’t anticipate ‘Fifty Shades’ to inspire mainstream booksellers to build up their erotica sections or stock related adult merchandise. As long as a book is in demand, it’ll have a visible place in stores. While this mega-trend lasts, there is a delicious pleasure in seeing an erotic novel on display tables alongside Pulitzer-Prize-winning writers. For those looking for something scintillating to read, now is the time to reaffirm the sex shop as a place of inspiration for the mind and body. Curator Sarah Forbes at the Museum of Sex says, “People who wouldn’t have bought erotica will go out and buy something now and for some that will be a transformative purpose. They now have an entry point.”

Books are the entry point quite literary at Smitten Kitten in Minnesota. The retailer’s book section is just inside its large, street-front windows. Jennifer Pritchett, Smitten Kitten’s owner, says, “It’s appointed with a cozy seating area that invites shoppers to browse, sit down and peruse titles and converse with other customers and staff. This supports our greater mission of sex-positive community building by encouraging people to engage with the material and stay long enough to really get comfortable with the friendly atmosphere in our store.” Funnily, the store hadn’t planned on stocking books when they opened, but they soon did following customer demand.

Some stores, like Good Vibrations, have stocked erotica since they opened, eagerly stocking femalefocused and broad-minded erotica as it became available. They stocked Pat Califia, the lesbian erotic magazine On Our Backs (which author, activist and erotic anthologist Susie Bright worked on), erotic zines (which boomed in the 1990s), and early erotic anthologies, such as Good Vibes co-founder Joani Blank’s “Herotica” series with her Down There Press.

Of how Good Vibes select books, Dr Carol Queen says, “We consider our customer base and what they express interest in; whether the author is known and popular with Good Vibes’ customers (or a cultural phenomenon, like James and ‘Fifty Shades’ is); whether the book fills a gap in what we already offer. Our reviewers consider whether a book is sex-positive and/or free of bias and misinformation; how well-written it is; how it fits into the collection as a whole.”

Coco de Mer, which was founded by Sam Roddick as a place for dialogue, education and inspiration, has a diverse book section that caters to the store’s customers’ tastes with stock that ranges from rare erotic texts to photo books. Bonny Hall, head buyer at Lovehoney, Ltd, owners of Coco de Mer, says that customers are drawn to names and titles that they have heard of. “People gravitate towards classics like ‘Tipping the Velvet’ as they have seen adaptations on the television and are then drawn to reading the book. Adaptations of classics like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ that have an erotic twist are also very popular.”

One cannot underestimate the lure of the familiar and a fan’s passion when thinking of erotica. Just think of the popularity of porn parodies and before that, Tijuana Bibles. Forbes at the Museum of Sex mentioned that research in Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s “A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships,” found that 80 percent of people searching the Internet focus on 20 themes. One of those is fan fiction, a genre where women are particularly active in building on the stories of characters that excite them.

As a retailer, participating in the dialogue of fan fiction is another way to engage your customer. As part of an ongoing project, Smitten Kitten created a short film inspired by “Fifty Shades.” Pritchett says, “Our intention was to create a really sexy film that displayed a lot of agency and really claimed the fantasy for the lead female protagonist. Adrianna (the lead actress) was perfect because she’s very smart and thoughtful and has a lot of kink experience under her belt.”

Another aspect of this dialogue is the reader’s communication with the writer/editor. Bussell gets feedback from her readers: “Today’s erotica readers are very demanding, and that’s a good thing. If I have something in a book that they think is unsafe or unrealistic, they will let me know.”

At the end of the day, “Fifty Shades,” irrespective of the quality of the book, will become shorthand for a wider conversation that embraces sexuality and pop culture. More than branded energy drinks and an eponymous musical theatre show, one hopes that it will bring a multifaceted conversation about sex into the mainstream. Forbes notes, “The cultural trend is towards a more visible sexual expression.”