E.L. James' saucy novels sold 25 million copies in just four months—a benchmark that Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy didn't hit in four years. What does that mean for the book industry?
By now, it's accepted wisdom that the Fifty Shades of Grey books have had a major impact on the publishing industry. The amazing velocity of sales of this erotic trilogy has boosted overall industry revenues even as several publishers--with the notable exception of Random House Inc., which had the very good fortune to acquire the books--say the E. L. James phenomenon has by comparison made their own numbers look softer.
But the saga behind Fifty Shades of Grey's impact -- not the content of the books themselves, which is a whole different subject -- is fascinating in its own way. Technology is, of course, changing the industry drastically, but Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest example of another profound reality about books: Periodically, they can ignite a cultural fervor so intense that tens of millions of people respond to join in a common experience in a relatively short time, as they do with movies or television. The 150 million U.S. print copies sold of the seven books in the Harry Potter series and the more-than 50 million copies in print of the three Hunger Gamesbooks are examples of how young readers can be the catalysts for these kinds of cultural crazes.
What's remarkable about Fifty Shades of Grey, though, is the breadth of its appeal to women and the speed with which it became a household name. The book initially was thought to strike a chord mainly among married thirty-somethings, but now enjoys a readership ranging from teenagers on up, reportedly selling more than 25 million copies in paperback.
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