Publishing has a new unlikely heroine: an unknown author named E L James who recently scored a seven-figure book deal with Vintage Books to publish her erotica trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Brimming with purple prose and racy imagery, the series had already sold more than 250,000 eBook and paperback copies through Australia's Writer's Coffee Shop Publishing. The New York Times ran a photograph of the book on a shelf at Watchung Booksellers, where a tag tantalized readers: "Yes, this is THE book everybody is talking about."
The buzz has catapulted the book to No. 1 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, but there's one thing no one is talking about — the origins of this kinky best-seller and its implications for the industry.
The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction, an online community of readers who write unauthorized extensions of their favorite stories. On FanFiction.net, readers have produced a mind-boggling mountain of work: 583,000 free Harry Potter stories, 197,000 free Twilight stories and 46,000 free Lord of the Rings stories.
A few years ago, E L James posted a novel called Master of the Universe on the same site. It retold Stephenie Meyer's Twilight — with X-rated scenes. In the original, Bella Swan meets Edward Cullen, a wealthy hunk who turns out to be a vampire; in Master of the Universe, Edward is a wealthy hunk who turns out to be a sex evangelist.
The free book became a fan-fiction smash. University of Utah English professor Anne Jamison assigned the book as part of a fan-fiction unit in her "Theories of Popular Culture" course. She estimated that Masters of the Universe counted more than 37,000 reader reviews on FanFiction.net before James moved the book to her own site. "We'll likely never know for sure how many readers it has — but certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands. It was a huge story," Jamison told me in an email.
Following this success, James removed the Twilight-specific material and repurposed the book as straight erotica. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey before a major publishing house courted her.
Shortly after the book deal announcement, Vintage acknowledged that James began Fifty Shades of Grey as fan fiction: "She subsequently took that story and rewrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The great majority of readers, including fan-fiction aficionados, have found Fifty Shades deeply immersive and incredibly satisfying."
The mainstream press dropped the issue, but book blogger Jane Litte continued to compare the two books on her site. She plugged the book into Turnitin, the academic plagiarism detection program that teachers use to nab cheating students. The program ruled that Fifty Shades of Grey and Master of the Universe had a "similarity index" of 89 percent. At GalleyCat, we posted a comparison between a few paragraphs.
Does the book owe more than just character names to Twilight? Even though the names and relationships have changed, Fifty Shades of Grey reproduced the mad thrill of reading Twilight, the moody relationship at its core and the endless emotional analysis.
Jamison argues that the story and the success of the book pose a unique ethical and legal problem for the publishing industry: "Whether the explicit, conscious use of another writer's fan base, via creation of characters known and experienced as 'versions' of the writer's characters, for commercial purposes, constitutes any kind of damage or infringement."
It's a question the publishing industry must reckon with. Publishers have a bad habit of chasing trends, and James' success will undoubtedly spawn a wave of repurposed fan-fiction erotica in the coming months.
Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora's bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.