Ever since the meteoric rise of Fifty Shades of Grey began, I’ve been watching the publishing industry’s response with a combination of bemusement and dismay. The dismay comes mostly the form of me shaking my head every time a book is marketed as being “for” readers who loved Fifty (hm, guess it’s not for me, then, huh?) or given a monotone Fifty-lookalike cover. I’m sure, like everything else, both of these unfortunate trends will pass, but in the meantime, I can’t stop myself from heaving a sigh every time it happens. (Yes, I’m sighing a lot these days!)
What bemuses me, however, is the peculiar timing of Fifty‘s rise and the corresponding rush of publishers to embrace “erotica” as the next big thing in fiction. The thing is, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
Back in the early to mid-2000s, Ellora’s Cave and other epublishers began publishing edgier, sexier books than the big New York publishers were willing to tackle. And those publishing houses became very successful. We could have a lot of discussion about whether erotic romance and erotica took off the way they did because of the discreet digital format, but the bottom line is that the traditional print houses looked at what the small epublishers were doing and decided there must be money in it. A lot of new, erotic imprints were formed, and publishers started snapping up erotic romance manuscripts in droves. Many authors who previously had been rejected by those mainstream publishing houses were picked up and became big name bestsellers–Lora Leigh, Cheyenne McCray, Sarah McCarty, etc.
The growth of erotica in mainstream publishing built to a crescendo that probably crested around the middle of 2008. And then, like most other bubbles, the market burst. Erotic lines were being cut left, right, and center. Aphrodisia (the line that published my novella anthology, Behind the Red Door) cut back from four titles a month to two. Black Lace, a British division of Random House that published erotica for 16 years, closed its doors. Avon eliminated its Red line. And, just a few months before Fifty burst onto the scene, Harlequin shut down its Spice line and rolled the books it had contracted for the line into Mira. In a matter of about a year and half, the traditional print market went from “can’t get enough erotica/erotic romance” to “don’t bother submitting erotica/erotic romance because no one’s buying it.” (Now, of course, that’s an overstatement; New York houses didn’t stop buying erotica/ER altogether, but their appetite for it definitely did wane.)
And then, along came Fifty and suddenly, it seems we’re back where we were in the mid-2000s. Erotic lines are being resurrected (Black Lace is relaunching with reprints of several classic titles, including one by Portia DaCosta). Publishers are actively pushing any book with BDSM elements as Fifty analogues and actively seeking new manuscripts that are “like” it. It’s the gold rush in erotica again, and life is good. Or it will be until the next crash.
And honestly, I think that crash is inevitable. I don’t say that because I’m a pessimist, but because it’s the way of these things. Everyone decides that X kind of book is hot because one exemplar of that genre becomes a huge bestseller. Publishers decide they must acquire mass quantities of X kind of book to meet the obvious demand. Except that demand turns out to be softer than anticipated because, while a lot of people enjoyed that one exemplar of X kind of book, one (or three or five or ten) of X is enough. The market becomes so saturated with X books that none of them has a real chance to gain a foothold. They all begin to look alike and nothing distinguishes one from the other. And then, the publishers cut back their lines and stop acquiring as many X books, and everything goes back to the way it was before.
Bottom line: I don’t think the proportional desire in the book-buying public for any particular genre changes just because one book in that genre breaks out and becomes hugely popular. Yes, I think a small proportion of readers will be “converted” to romance, erotic romance, and/or erotica by Fifty Shades. But in the final analysis, the popularity of Fifty Shades is not a signal that the proportion of readers who will regularly and religiously buy book in any of those genres has changed dramatically. We don’t need more of it to feed the existing appetite. We could, however, do with better.
Agree? Disagree? Discuss!