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'Fifty Shades' Is The One That Got Away. At Least From Me

Sometimes "the one that got away" is a book that was easy to overlook. A little gem of a first novel, or a memoir by an unknown writer that unexpectedly captured everyone's imagination.

But sometimes, it's the elephant in the room that you just haven't looked at yet. Everyone knows about it. It's one of the biggest sellers of all time. It's a cultural phenomenon — it's Fifty Shades of Grey. And I ignored it until I couldn't anymore.

It wasn't just that you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it. Nor was it the record-breaking sales. It was the news that every employee — every single employee — of Random House USA was getting a $5,000 bonus. They're calling it the " Fifty Shades bonus," and $5,000 is not chump change. Elena Legeros, who works in the digital marketing department at Random House, recalls the Christmas party where the news was announced. "Everyone went crazy," she says. "I mean people started cheering, and I hugged the person next to me. Everyone went nuts and the cheers went on for several minutes."

Random House has had some other huge best-sellers in recent years — after all, it also published the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Paul Bogaards, who did the PR for both series, says that in publishing, these kinds of books are known as "miracle publications" because they take on a life of their own. But, Bogaards says, nothing has ever gone as viral as the Fifty Shades books. "It took us four years to sell 20 million copies of Stieg Larssen's Girl books," he says. "It took us nine months to sell 35 million copies of E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy."

You might think readers would resist a romance novel that's as liberally laced with S&M as Fifty Shades of Grey. But Bogaards says that hasn't been a problem. "The resisters were few and far between," he says. "As a PR professional it was a unique experience, to say the least. I mean every PR guy dreams of the day when a reporter calls asking you explain the sudden popularity of ben-wa balls. These are things that are hard to explain if you haven't actually read the books. If you have, not so difficult."

And no, I am not going to explain how ben-wa balls advance the plot (though yes, I do know how). You see, I'm a bit of a prude, which is why I didn't want to read the books in the first place. But when I think about it, it might have been snobbery, not prudery, that made me resist for such a long time.

"Most people I heard that were wary of it, really it was the first. It was snobbery," says writer M.J. Rose. She adds that a lot of book people were less than impressed with the lineage of Fifty Shades. It wasn't just self-published — it began as a fan fiction, based on the Twilight series. The clumsy virgin Bella morphed into the clumsy virgin Ana, and the vampire Edward became Christian, the fabulously wealthy, unbelievably gorgeous guy who introduces Ana to the joys of kinky sex.

"I was in a bookstore in New York, in the Village, and there were like 50 copies of it in the very beginning," Rose says. "I asked the owner if she'd read it. And she said, 'No, I'd never read it!' And there were 50 copies of it and she couldn't keep in in stock."

So if a snobby New York City bookstore owner and a snobby — possibly prudish — public radio reporter aren't reading this book, who is? Random House employee Legeros says she sent a copy to her grandmother. "I thought that she and her friends would get a kick out of it," Legeros says, laughing. "I know what she enjoys reading, and I know what a lot of the people in the assisted living home where she lives in Iowa enjoy reading, and I just thought it would be fodder for conversation." She says it's not the kinky sex that appeals to her grandmother's reading friends; it's the romance.

So there you have it: The secret to the success of Fifty Shades is not sex; it's romance. Isn't that what women have always wanted? But if that's all it is, why were so many women buying all those gray ties? You'll just have to read the book to find out.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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