Erika Leonard laughs a lot, a deep wheezy chortle. And why wouldn't she? Leonard, a 49-year-old overnight publishing sensation, is laughing all the way to the bank. In the past few months the former TV executive has had her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, dominate the New York Times bestseller list, watched it be fought over by the big six publishing houses, and sold the film rights for a cool US$5 million (NZ$6.2m).
"I thought I would put it out, [get a] few gentle sales, I'd carry on with my work . . . I didn't even have this on my dream radar."
Fifty Shades of Grey, the first of a trilogy, is not your average bestselling novel. It's not a Booker Prize winner or penned by a seasoned author. It's not even, some say - including the author herself - very well written. But what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in sauciness, for Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel in which sex (and spanking and submission and a red room of pain) are main characters. In this case, sex does indeed sell.
Leonard, who writes under the pen name E L James, laughs when asked why the novel is such a hit with people. "I don't know, I'm so stunned by the reaction."
Writing with sexual elements to it has been around forever - think Lady Chatterley's Lover and Anais Nin. But the genre of writing in which it's the sex that drives the plot and distinguishes it from other novels, like the Fifty Shades trilogy, has only been around for the past decade or so. Technology means it has never been easier to buy and read novels that put a twinkle in your eye, whether you call it erotica, erotic romance or erotic fiction. And while it's difficult to get actual figures on how the genre is growing - calls to Amazon were not returned, and in New Zealand, research company Neilsen doesn't record e-book sales for that genre - readers seem smitten right now, if the success of Fifty Shades is anything to go by. We've had teenage vampires, boy wizards, Jesus-themed mysteries and chick lit with pink frilly covers. Will erotic fiction be the next big thing?
Fifty Shades of Grey might have stayed a niche book with a small readership or even stayed in Leonard's bottom drawer 10 years ago.
Leonard, a mum of two teenage boys and reader of romance novels, was a huge fan of the Twilight series; a teenage love story with vampires and werewolves that has been a worldwide hit. She read all four books in five days, and re-read them obsessively. Then she discovered fan fiction - in which fans of various popular books or movies take the characters and settings and rewrite them into new stories. These new works are published online under aliases. Leonard says: "I lapped it up, having been such a huge Twilight fan. I wrote fan fiction and had the idea for what would eventually become Fifty Shades and started writing that."
She got lots of feedback from readers online, and changed the characters to Anastasia Steele, a virginal 21-year-old English literature student, who falls in love with good-looking billionaire and bondage enthusiast Christian Grey. She sent it off as an original manuscript to The Writer's Coffee Shop, a small publisher in Australia. A few paperbacks went on sale in the United States and Britain, but the book was mainly available as an e-book and print- on-demand book.
It shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and when Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed followed in January, they took spots in the list as well. "It's so strange, because Writer's Coffee Shop didn't have a marketing budget, it's such a small [publisher]," says Leonard. "I had done a few tours with each of the books coming out, so I was just blown away. [It's] purely word of mouth that has spread from New York and out. I've been getting emails saying everybody is talking about it, that's how that kind of success came about, which I think is extraordinary."
The "big six" publishers swooped in with their chequebooks, and Random House bought the rights to the book for a reported US$1 million. The editions were released last month under its imprint Arrow Books. At the time of writing, the trilogy took the top three spots in Amazon's bestseller list both in paperback and Kindle versions, and three of four spots on the New York Times bestseller list. In New Zealand, Fifty Shades debuted at No 6 for the week ending April 7 - the next week it was No 1.
Leonard plans to buy a new car and redo her kitchen. Particularly un-saucy ambitions for a woman who thought writing a book in which her heroine enters into a submissive relationship with her billionaire master was "hot", who researched BDSM on the internet and with her "willing" husband ("he was just a little bit shattered for a while, let me tell you").
But then, the spanking and tying up and being punished for breaking rules wasn't the focus of her story, she says. She just wanted to write a romance.
"I wouldn't call it erotica, that's what publishers call them. I call them contemporary romance. That's what people do; they meet, fall in love and have sex, from what I remember, back in the day." She laughs.
"I think I have hit a nerve, " she says. "I got an email today that says: 'Thank you for these books, this has been ground-breaking for me.' And I'm thinking 'Wow, it was just a romantic novel'."
So who's reading it? In the US, "everybody" is reading Fifty Shades, says founder of New York-based Divamoms.com Lyss Stern, though here in Wellington, those who will admit to reading it are a little thin on the ground. Says well-known mommy-blogger Stern: "It started with wives and moms, but now husbands and boyfriends are reading it too because they want to know how to get their women as turned on as Christian Grey does. It spells out a woman's fantasy relationship, so if they're not reading it, they should be! They'll be having a lot more sex when they do."
She thinks the trilogy depicts everything a woman wants in her love life. "Every woman fantasises about a man showing up one day, who whisks her around the world and gives her everything she asks for - and if the man is gorgeous, well, that doesn't hurt. And that's Christian Grey. The bigger story is about the love behind all the glamour. Christian and Ana are obsessed with each other and she is overwhelmed with passion every time he touches her. Every woman wants that - but only a lucky few get it - so these books are a little slice into that world and women are going crazy over it."
One of the biggest independent publishers of erotica is Ellora's Cave, based in the US. Started in 2000, the publisher has more than 4000 titles and releases nine new titles every month. Ninety-five per cent of its readers are women, but it has just launched a new line for men. CEO Susan Edwards says: "Like many other genres of fiction, erotic romance provides a great escape from the routines and stress of our daily lives. Our books celebrate and legitimise women's sexuality and sexual pleasure, in a way that helps them to embrace it and accept the urges that they have been told for thousands of years are wrong, sinful, dirty, even sick. We have heard from thousands of women that reading our books has improved their sex lives."
Writer and blogger Emily Veinglory is a New Zealander living in Illinois, who writes fantasy and erotic fiction with a paranormal twist. Emily Veinglory is a pen name; she uses it because, "if someone Googles my pen name they get my books, not pictures of my dog or blog posts about my latest garden project."
She blogs about the erotic-romance publishing world on eroticromance.com, focusing on smaller publishers and e-books, and says that erotica is "booming" right now.
"Even Amazon now lists erotica as a subset of romance, which is rather strange as any sex-writing can be erotica, there doesn't have to be romance. It's like romance is engulfing erotica. Fifty Shades is interesting because it has broken out of the established readership, but that readership was already quite healthy - especially for e-books. Romance readers in general, and especially erotic- romance readers, were enthusiastic early adopters of e-books."
Leonard can see why. She'd read romance novels on her way into work from west London. "I'd sit on the tube and fold the covers back. It's always women with their clothes falling off baring these amazing torsos on these covers, telling you exactly what it is. I just couldn't deal with that on the tube having everyone know about it."
But e-books have changed that.
Erotic-romance writer and publisher Christine Leov-Lealand has a small publishing company based in Waihi and sells her books through Amazon. She says "erotic fiction does have the opportunity now to take off simply because you can have 5000 erotic novels on your Kindle and nobody would know that you were reading anything different other than by the flush on your cheeks. You could be reading a tech manual and nobody would know."
She adds that because you can buy and download online, "you can buy something as scandalous and naughty as your wildest dreams and there's no shame attached, nobody's going to be raising their eyebrows at you."
Veinglory says technology is integral to the growth of saucy fiction. "I think a lot of things are making erotica more acceptable and accessible to a wider audience, and particularly women: the internet, small presses, print-on-demand technology, e-books, sex-positive feminism, Amazon [to name a few]. It has become profitable to write material for a wide range of niches and sexual/ romantic tastes. It has become easier to discuss these tastes with people all over the world and realise you aren't a freak after all - or at least there are a lot of other freaks out there who are happy to tell you about books you might like."
Edwards, from Ellora's Cave, agrees: "There was virtually no erotic-romance genre before e-books, though there were lots of romance books and some erotic books in bookstores. E-books and erotic romance have essentially grown up together."
Traditional publishing houses have been hard to break into for new authors, but the digital revolution has opened up markets for erotic fiction writers through the likes of The Writer's Coffee Shop and Ellora's Cave, or even what was once considered the low point of publishing - self-publishing. With books selling for as little as US99c, readers are willing to take punts on unknown authors.
There are websites, like Amazon's Createspace and Smashwords.com, where authors can upload their stories and be paid for downloads. Erotica makes up 20 per cent of the sales on Smashwords.com, according to company chief executive Mark Coker. The website is a vehicle for self-publishing and small independent publishers to get their work into the public arena.
Auckland writer Eve Summers, again a pen name, has written for US publisher Red Rose Publishing since 2008. With 14 erotic novellas in her oeuvre, her erotic books outsell her women's fiction and murder mysteries 10 to one. It takes her roughly a month to write a new erotic story, but she'll labour over a murder mystery novel for a year or more. The pay is not enough to make her give up her day job at a software education company, but it's lucrative enough.
When she started writing erotica, the only publishing house she knew of apart from those like romance house Harlequin was Ellora's Cave. Now there are small publishers popping up all over the place.
Not that the big publishers are ignoring erotic fiction; Edwards says about six years ago the "big six" started to get excited about erotic fiction. "I definitely think with the huge numbers and media attention the Shades books are generating, the big six are noticing and will plunge deeper into the waters of erotic romance."
In March, Avon, a division of HarperCollins, launched an imprint dedicated to erotic romance called Mischief. "Social acceptability of erotica coupled with the discretion offered by e-reading has led to a phenomenal boom in sales, " the company says. "At a time when the cultural trend of mums at home writing erotica has made international headlines, Mischief will be driven by the desire for erotica, the underlying growth in e-book consumption and the international demand for English language content."
In its catalogue are such titles as Make Me, At Your Mercy: Tales of Domination, Submission: A Treasury of Women Who Like to Give In, and A Study in Shame: A Willing Pupil Has No Limits.
Says Veinglory, "Erotica was easy to find before Fifty Shades, just like fantasy was easy to find before Harry Potter. But having a breakthrough book might really help continue to expand the market and make erotic romance even more acceptable."
Summers says: "I think it will give it a bit more respectability. It's always been a little bit shameful to my mind to be reading erotica, and I think if it's mainstreamed and people start talking about it, and it gets on to the bestseller lists, people will think they're books like any other, it's just that it's got these very explicit bits."
Fifty Shades of Grey has already spawned its own fan fiction; but will mainstream readers be hunting out more steamy scenes for their reading fix, pushing sex-driven plots into the bestseller lists again? Edwards certainly hopes so. "The popularity of the genre has been growing steadily among fan fiction, romance and chick-lit readers for the past decade. I think women and men will try it now that they know about it. And of course, more people will admit to reading it more now that Fifty Shades has made it more of a mainstream phenomenon."
Perhaps that's wishful thinking on the part of those hoping it will boost their bottom line, but the final word rests with readers.
- © Fairfax NZ News