The only way you used to be able to get a book with the explicit sexual content of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was in a plain brown wrapper mailed from Intercourse Pennsylvania. Today, “50 Shades,” in its understated, non-lurid cover, is prominently displayed at the front of bookstores in spaces normally reserved for Harry Potter-style books.
The display at Barnes and Noble in the Lansing Mall practically shouts at you with 42 of the “Fifty Shades” volumes on display in the windows facing mall walkers. Since it first appeared on line as a fan-fiction rip-off of the “Twilight” vampire series, author British author E.L. James’ “50 Shades of Grey” and its two sequels, have become an unprecedented publishing phenomena selling more than 40 million copies worldwide (20 million copies in the U.S. of the combined print and e-book). Schuler Books which doesn’t provide actual sales figures will say that the Fifty Shades trilogy has occupied the number one, two and three position all summer. The book features Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey who enter into a BDSM (bondage-discipline, sado-masochism) relationship. Grey is a young, handsome phenomenally wealthy businessman who seduces the virgin Steele, a recent college graduate. The book is set mostly in Seattle.
As an example, this past week “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its two sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Free” held the number one, two and three slots respectively on both the Publishers Weekly and New York Times best sellers lists. The books have held those positions for more than five months. The book first appeared in print with a small publisher in May of 2011 and was quickly purchased by a major publisher.
What does that mean in sales? Roughly one-in-three books being sold today in the U.S. are one of the titillating trilogy. In a recent week “Fifty Shades” sold 194,034 units, “Darker” sold 140,545; “Freed” sold 132,019 and the collected trilogy sold 34,851 while the remaining six on the top 10 list sold a combined total of 178, 523 books. Danielle Steele’s book “Friends Forever” with “vanilla” sex held fifth place selling 34,851 books.
So why have these books about Christian and Anastasia who enter into a contractual relationship involving BDSM caught the imagination of the reading public? The obvious answer is sex sells and it appears that the reading public is becoming less prudish in its reading tastes and more open to various sexual approaches (and positions.) Yes, there are whips, ropes, blindfolds and other devices in “Fifty Shades,” but a reader should keep in mind that book is satiric in nature and probably more akin to the 1960s blockbuster “Candy” and its satiric treatment of “Candide.”
Make no mistake the reading public has always been attracted to prurient topics, but has been unwilling or too embarrassed to admit it up until now. Books with sexual themes such as “Valley of the Dolls”, “Fear of Flying,” “Peyton Place,” “Happy Hooker,” and “Tropic of Cancer” have always sold well, and a few have even matched the current sales numbers of “Fifty Shades”, but in some instances it took more than 50 years for them to reach the numbers “Fifty Shades” racked up in just a few short months.
The e-reader, which is becoming the predominant mode of reading especially among older readers, with its built in anonymity has become the new “plain brown wrapper” freeing the public to read materials like “50 Shades” with privacy. (The “Fifty Shades” trilogy has sold about 50-50, books to e-books, but it is expected e-books will soon overtake the sale of physical books.)
For $9.99 and an e-reader you can be reading “Fifty Shades” on a back-lit screen in only a few seconds. Admittedly, it takes a little longer than that for Christian to get a hold on Anastasia, but once they do it’s “Holy Cow” using one of Ana’s oft-repeated phrases.
Most local libraries and retail outlets also carry the book with the exception of Wal Mart and Meijer which hold up“family values” as the reason for not carrying it. (One would hardly say that the “Dragon Tattoo” series both sold in WalMart and Meijer falls under any family-values moniker.)
Without question the vast majority of readers of “50 Shades” are women 35 and older which got the series tagged “mommy porn” (or “mummy porn” in the U.K). and has many observers asking why women are so attracted to a topic that involves the submission and dominance of women.
Schuler Books in the Eastwood Towne Center hopes to answer that question with a panel discussion featuring a Michigan romance author, a philosopher focused on sex and gender isues, a BDSM participant and a therapist who specializes in sex-related issues. Although Schuler does not release actual sales totals for books, local managers report that sales of “Fifty Shades” are “amazing.”
Panelists for the August 22, 7 p.m. event are: Darci Doll, an MSU PhD candidate specializing in gender and sexuality; Carah Kristel, a Lansing area resident who is a Kink (non-vanilla sex) educator and active member of the BDSM community; Dawne Prochilo, the author of 15 books of romantic erotica, and Jennifer Schwartz, a social worker and PhD candidate at the University of Michigan specializing is sex therapy.
Schwartz said from her perspective women are reading the book because today’s women “are more fluid in their sexuality and more experimental.”
“The book’s popularity is also a public sanction to read it and talk about it.” Public sanction was elevated to pop culture status this past Spring when Saturday Night Live performed a Mother’s Day skit showing what moms do behind closed doors while reading “Fifty Shades.” And let’s not forget Lady Gaga’s attire and Madonna’s book of “Sex” two decades earlier. Recently the car maker Porsche issued a release extolling the virtues of having their vehicles mentioned in the book.
Schwartz wants to caution readers however against believing they can replicate the steamy, frequent and sometimes acrobatic sex described in the book.
“I think not all the sex acts in the book are probably possible to all folks,” she said.
“If people read it as a standard they are setting themselves up for failure.”
Kristel says from her experience the sex scenes in the book aren’t realistic and cautions readers who think they can replicate the experience at home.
“Some of the acts described in the book can be dangerous if they are not done right.” She believes that in many ways the book does a disservice to the BDSM community in the way it characterizes those activities.
Prochilo who has written 15 romance and erotic romance novels, some with some serious heavy breathing, said she believes that women are drawn to these books because they don’t have romance in their own lives and don’t have their sexual needs met in real life.
“They are drawn to the books to escape the humdrum of life and to get into sexual experiences they never have had before.”
Prochilo who manages numerous romance blogs and is a consultant to the publishing industry said romance books are rated by “flames” from one to five with a “five flame” book being the hottest.
She said in the last two years erotic romance has become a powerhouse of a genre especially driven by the growth of e-books.
“A lot of women want their men in control within boundaries,” she said.
“Our writing has come a long way since it was called smut.” She rates “Fifty Shades” as a “four flame.”
Schwartz said she is in favor of any book which gives people an opportunity to talk about sex, sexuality and issues of consent.
How consent is presented in “Fifty Shades” (Christian is the Dominant and has Anastasia sign a contract listing what is acceptable activity and what is not) is a critical issue for Kristel who says the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is not a healthy BDSM relationship.
“That is not how BDSM should work,” she said.
“Christian is a stalker who seems very manipulative, and the sex is not realistic.” (And frankly neither is the scene where Grey stops into a hardware store where Anastasia works to buy some supplies: plastic ties, masking tape and rope.)
Kristel said she believes the book might lead to other people being open to alternative relationships.
“Hopefully, there will be more people to play.”
There are already numerous spinoff books to tell you the nuts and bolts of playing safely and soon there will be a sound track of classical music based on the book to play in the background along with a film which is in the works. The one thing for sure is “Fifty Shades” has made E.L. James, who eats Nutella right out of the jar, a multimillionaire in short order. A signed copy of the trilogy is available on Abebooks.com for $148.95.