I know many of the marketing and PR companies in the UK who shape writers’ personal stories for public consumption; There’s a reason why everyone has an image of a penniless JK Rowling writing notes in a cafe – PR company Colman Getty made the image stick in the public mind, and what’s wrong with that? It was true, and it’s a good image. The young Agatha Christie was famously photographed in a short skirt, and the press put it about that James Hadley Chase wrote ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ on a single plane journey. This is all legitimate PR.
Ms James has a history degree. She’s no dummy. She writes fan fiction. Nothing wrong with that, either. In a way, this isn’t about her at all. It was purchased commission from a company whose marketeers had decided an agenda and found someone to fit it. They went looking for fetish porn that they could repackage with tasteful covers. A massive marketing campaign was agreed and orchestrated. Did Jilly Cooper, old-school bonkbuster maven, suddenly appear from the woodwork and volunteer her approval? No, that would have been sought. This is not a grass-roots cultural phenomenon but something planned in a boardroom.
So what’s the big deal?
Nobody is pretending that ‘Fifty Shades’ is art or that Mills & Boon is a respected publishing house. But after the press conference, which consisted of sycophantic journalists pussyfooting around Ms James without a single strong opinion or critical question, James will be lifted to a level of legitimacy, even importance. It was taught to me that if more than five million people are interested in anything, you need to know about it. But in this case, five million people did not discover this and raise it to a level of importance. It was planned for them. As numerous commentators have pointed out, there was a growing (albeit manufactured) interest in BDSM – you only have to look at the TV series ‘True Blood’ to see that – and I’m sure the Powerpoint graphs were presented in the campaign plan.
Remember when the Vatican stupidly pronounced on Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’? It turned a perfectly legitimate novel (which I happened to enjoy for all its absurdities) into some kind of inflated cultural marker. I think it would be very hard on Ms James if the same thing happened here. So far she has been reluctant to say much because her PR team are making damned sure she doesn’t. Ask how much you know about her – the first rule of PR is that when you create something, you have to be sure you can control it.
None of this would matter if it didn’t mean that beleaguered publishers now have legitimate reason to use trending alerts in order to commission books. In this way, you play to a pre-created market rather than allowing the market to create itself. The tail wags the dog. The knock-on effect is that as James’ sales figures soar, finite budgets for career writers plunge. We saw this with Rowling and Brown, and here it is again, more aggressive than ever. I know of no writer currently working who was paid more for their latest book. To most, writing is not a vocation but a living. And if you’re not represented on next year’s Powerpoint trending graph, you won’t be published.
Writers are adaptable. Edgar Wallace, the English author of ‘King Kong’, wrote around 175 novels, 24 plays, hundreds of articles and short stories, and about 160 films have been made from his work, including ‘The Edgar Wallace Mysteries’. I count 12 novels written in 1929 alone. He could do this because he knew how to hook readers, and publishers bought his skills. What would he have done in a time when the agenda was set by marketeers?
This, by the way, is not doom-mongering. I think writers are wonderfully resilient, and will find ways back. But it’s getting harder to do so. BTW, the left-quote is from Buzzfeed, who have selected 15 of the most hilarious quotes from the books.