Fifty Shades of Grey, a not-very-well-written book by a previously unknown author, is the best-selling novel of all time in the United Kingdom -- a nation that has produced no shortage of great novels. It has sold 40 million copies around the world, inspiring parodies, fan fiction, an album, and lines of sex toys and lingerie. It is being adapted into a major motion picture by the producing team behind "Moneyball" and "The Social Network." In short, it is the publishing sensation of the year -- maybe even the decade.
How did a book that seemingly emerged from nowhere get so big so fast?
Well, for one thing, it didn't actually come out of nowhere. Fifty Shades of Grey began its life as a work of Twilight fan fiction titled Master of the Universe, which author E.L. James, using the nom de plume Snowqueen Icedragons, published in August 2009 on the popular fan-fiction site fanfiction.net. This website is one of many that hosts thousands of pieces containing new scenarios imagined by fans about their favorite fictional worlds, from Star Trek to High School Musical. Though these pieces are technically illegal to distribute - the characters are copyright properties, after all - most authors don't get upset as long as people aren't making money from their creations. There, Master of the Universe was reviewed by more than 37,000 people -- presumably just a fraction of the total number who read it. "We'll likely never know for sure how many readers it had—but certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands," says Ann Jamison, a professor at the University of Utah who has studied the link between Twilight and Fifty Shades. "It was a huge story."
Fanfiction.net has almost 2.2 million users, and Twilight is the second most popular genre in the books section on the site, right after Harry Potter. By pitching her novel to that audience, James tapped into a huge community of readers. Moreover, she gave those readers something they had been hungering for: Twilight with juicy, explicit sex scenes.
Because she was writing for young-adult readers, Stephanie Meyer had to keep the relationship between Bella and Edward chaste -- frustratingly so, to the millions of adult readers who discovered the series as its popularity exploded. "If readers find Master of the Universe on a fan site, it's probably because they enjoy imagining the characters in Twilight in these situations—or enjoy imagining Robert Pattinson (and, to a lesser extent, Kristen Stewart) in these situations," says the University of Utah's Jamison. (Twilight's creator, Stephanie Meyer, says "“Good on her, she’s doing well, that’s great" though adds that she hasn't read James's work).
In Twilight, Bella and Edward cannot consummate their relationship because his vampiric nature is too violent. He might hurt her (but boy, does she want to be hurt!). Anastasia and Grey, by contrast, do little except consummate. Jamison points out that James's fan fiction essentially literalized the eroticism (and underlying sexual BDSM tones) already present in Twilight: "'Fifty' (as he was known in the fandom) likes to withhold orgasms, and withholds certain kinds of romantic and physical (non-sexual) closeness, while Edward withholds sex (and therefore orgasms) but provides romantic and non-sexual closeness."
E.L. James' novel didn't voluntarily leave the world of fan fiction -- it was pushed. After Master of the Universe was flagged for its sexual content, James moved it to her own site, fiftyshades.com. James changed the names of the characters from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian.
In terms of plot and character, Twilight and Fifty Shades remained remarkably similar. Both feature an insecure, average-looking young girl who likes to bite her bottom lip a lot (Bella Swan in Twilight; Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades). In both, these girls fall in love with mysterious, perhaps dangerous boys (the vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight; the BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey in Fifty Shades) whom they desperately want to tame.
Eventually, a small Australian publisher, TWCS, discovered James and picked her up via ebook and print on demand. James took off in the UK even more at that point, so much so that she caught the attention of Random House, and they then bought all three of her books.
(James' American publisher, Random House, has made a point of arguing that Master of the Universe and Fifty Shades of Grey are "two distinctly separate pieces of work." However, when the two texts were compared on the website turnitin.com, a plagiarism detector sometimes used by teachers, they were found to be 89-percent identical.)
If Harry Potter and Twilight were the books that made it safe for adult women to read young-adult fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey gave them permission to read erotica. Yes, some women hid their interest by reading on a Kindle, but others brazenly exposed their print copies in public. The world didn't end. Nobody was all that bothered.
If Fifty Shades has a legacy, that may be it. The novel may not be that good -- "The story lacks any trace of passion, and the sex scenes are so awkwardly written they're almost embarrassing to read," says RT Book Reviews web editor Elisa Verna -- but it nevertheless ushered a genre that, despite its popularity, has long hidden in the shadows out into the open. "I think it has done a lot of good for romance in general," Verna acknowledges. "In an industry struggling to survive, romance is a genre that's keeping many publishers afloat, and Fifty Shades' success just further proves that romance is a genre that sells."
Says best-selling romance novelist Jill Shalvis, "Hopefully my audience has widened now that reading romance is suddenly 'in' again."
Part of the genre's newfound popularity has to do with branding. Nobody wants to be seen carrying around a bodice-ripper with a Fabio lookalike on the cover. James’s subtle cover with solely a necktie in demure colors gave readers an out from those embarrassing covers. "Object covers are a huge trend among print erotica books now," says RT Book Reviews web editor Elisa Verna. "Many major publishers are buying self-published work, or re-releasing older work and giving them more demure covers that readers now associate with 'Fifty Shades.' A single feather, a piece of men's clothing, a silk scarf. Simple, yet seductive images that can be easily turned into covers and let readers know it's a sexy read."
Perhaps inevitably, Fifty Shades has now inspired its own fan fiction, raising the possibility that this offshoot of one megapopular series could spawn a megapopular heir of its own. And you can bet that publishers looking for the next big thing are already following the fans.
Clarification: Language has been added to indicate that Twilight's status as the second-most popular genre is in the books category.