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From “Whips and Chains,” which appeared in Issue 11 of The Fence.

Back in February 2012, when I was a newly minted marketing executive at Random House U.K., I was invited to a meeting to discuss the potential acquisition of a self-published trilogy of erotic novels that began as Twilight-inspired fan fiction. Initially, I wasn’t convinced. There were so many things about Fifty Shades of Grey that made it feel like a book we could never sell. The reply to my concerns was brief: “It’s sold tens of thousands of copies already.”

Fifty Shades circumvented the acquisitions process from day one. There were no manuscripts and sales meetings for E. L. James. Instead, everything was done at what constituted breakneck speed for the book world, as we looked to get her away from self-publishing and into the traditional model immediately.

The trilogy was acquired and we committed to repackaging, editing, printing, and publishing it within six weeks. This process usually takes a year for most books. Sometimes two.

It all kicked off at the London Book Fair, where a couple of male models were hired to wander around in black underwear and silver ties, offering out sample chapters. Even within our own ranks, the editors grumbled about the resources that had been dedicated to the book. That cynicism didn’t last long.

By the end of April—just weeks after publication—Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. Then in June, the records began to fall.

First to go was Anaïs Nin, who had held the title for most copies sold of an erotic novel in one week since 2004. The bigger news was revealed in a company-wide meeting. The sales director stood up to deliver the news about that week’s bestsellers. Fifty Shades of Grey, he announced, had shifted just shy of four hundred thousand copies in a week, beating its own record of 205,000 copies set just the week before, as well as poor old Dan Brown’s paltry effort of 141,000 copies.

Cue much cheering and hollering, doubtless inspired by the promise of champagne. The sales director continued. Fifty Shades Darker had also shot up on the lists, with 245,000 copies sold, as had Fifty Shades Freed, which had sold 212,000.

The delirium that broke out was ludicrous. It went beyond the celebrations that occurred when James Patterson scored another hit, or when one of our celebrity autobiographies enjoyed a decent Christmas run. An editor of the imprint—the man in charge of our most highbrow authors—led a raucous chant of “E. L. James, E. L. James,” as though she had just scored a stoppage-time winner in the cup final.

It became clear that we were in the midst of a bizarre phenomenon. Along with the London Olympics, our book was the story of the year. Every TV host opened their show with a Fifty Shades quip. Publicists were now concerned about the front pages of the tabloids.

We were also flush with cash—an unusual state for a book publisher to be in, and, like a new lottery winner, we didn’t know quite what to do with it. Parties were the obvious answer, and party we did. Then there were the apocryphal stories about the money, ones that ran around the junior staff. Rumors of buying five years’ worth of champagne, which was now stockpiled in the office basement. Or the vague threat that if we didn’t burn through our cash bonanza by year’s end, the capricious German holding company that owned us would merely absorb it into their own balance sheet, and we’d be back to square one on January 1. So if we could throw money at something, we would.

We took delivery of a range of branded sex toys—part of the merchandising deal that came with creating a global phenomenon. All of them had book-adjacent names like “Twitchy Palm Spanking Paddle” and “Inner Goddess Silver Pleasure Balls.” Soon after their arrival, several items went missing from the publicity department. No one was ever caught.

The year ended with bonuses. And 2013 did indeed begin with a blank slate, giving kudos to the theory that Bertelsmann nabbed the money. So everything went back to normal. And that very much felt like the end. One year, three books, millions of copies, a never to be repeated experience of seeing erotica—erotica!—become the world’s dominant cultural trend.

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July 2022

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