Fifty Shades 2

Reading & Writing

With regard to the post about ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ below, I want make my intentions a little clearer.

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.

13 comments on “Fifty Shades 2”

  1. Angelia says:

    Assessing something’s worth based solely on how much revenue it can produce is becoming a frightening norm, as evidenced not only by the possibility of publishers’ attention to trending alerts, as you note in the post above, but also in your earlier post “How Much is a Hill Worth?”

    Frankly, the latter worries me far more than the former.

    Trends in fiction (and in television, film, and music) and the attendant bandwagon-leaping are nothing new. I’ll use film to illustrate my point, but all the arts reflect the same tendencies.

    Think back to all the campy sci-fi movies of the 50s, the disaster films of the 70s, the horror films of the 80s, the recent boom of superhero films: they’re all part of the same pattern. Aping is inevitable: one “type” is a blockbuster, so everyone leaps at the chance to profit. From a financial standpoint, the respective industries’ motives are understandable: whatever is lucrative they’ll milk until it’s dry, until the next big thing appears. Typically, the trend dies on its own, usually because of over-saturation of the market and decline in quality. Granted, FSoG isn’t quality, but its novelty in the mainstream is undeniable. As with everything else, though, the novelty will wear off.

    I don’t see doom for publishing, either. While millions are reading FSoG, they, and millions of other readers, are also enjoying other novels, are still reading the genres they love. I read the first FSoG just to see what the fuss was about but never abandoned what I love, what satisfies me as a reader. Those genres are where I’ll stay. Always. I know I’m not alone.

    Perhaps I’m naive, but I credit most publishers with some sense, believe they’ll sit back and assess the situation without glassy-eyed dreams of bloated profit margins. Surely they’re not so myopic as to think only this kind of novel will make them money, or that trending reader interests are the only reader interests. Publishers have core readerships with varied tastes, and those readers, myself included, will go elsewhere for what we need if some publishers fail to deliver. We’ll support authors we love no matter where they end up, and if it takes kickstarters to keep those authors working, we will donate. Publishers who underestimate or discount reader loyalties and broad ranges of tastes are fools.

  2. Bob Low says:

    Another excellent comment from Angelia-the optimism is refreshing. When I first read the quotation at the top left of your post, my immediate reaction was that it had to be a spoof. I was dumbfounded to read in the post itself that this is actually a genuine lift from the book. Putting aside the whole fan fiction thing for a moment, is it possible that the FSoG phenomenon started off as some kind of practical joke which is now completely out of hand? If so, it would mean that Admin’s mean spirited-but admittedly very funny-speculations about the actual gender of the author would make some kind of strange sense. Is FSoG the literary equivalent of ”Springtime for Hitler”?

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    The Producers with “Springtime for Hitler and Ger-man-y…” Excellent.

  4. Angelia says:

    @Bob: Thank you for your kind words!

    Re “Springtime for Hitler” – oh wow, if that’s what’s going on, then I’ll just sit back and enjoy the show! I do know FSoG was intentionally raunchy because the fan-fic folks wanted it to be, but if using BDSM for comedic effect was the intention, then bravo!

    And now it’s…
    Kink time for Master and sub
    Ana is happy and gay!
    Christain’s panting at a faster pace
    Ana, don’t look at the Master’s face!

    Or something like that

  5. J.Folgard says:

    Love that quote: I thought it was a parody, not something lifted directly from the book!

  6. snowy says:

    PR and marketeers may think they shape peoples personal stories, but only the press and media care. The public are fickle and have short memories, once you are a “name” they couldn’t give tuppence where you came from. Unless you do something spectacularly stupid.

    Was it planned in a boardroom sure, spotting a chance to ride on the coat tails of the Twiglet saga, in some industries this is derided as “me too marketing”, placing a similar product in an already crowded market. But they had the smut factor, the magic factor, that has always sold books back to the days of Lady Chatterley and before.

    And it’s not hard to write a bit of smut if someone has already drawn out your characters for you.

    “Nora lay there like a painters radio as Compo wiped himself down on the curtains. Her once wrinkled stockings, now taut as they bound her to the bedstead. She felt the intense pressure of the gimp mask, and now wished deeply that she’d taken her rollers out first.”

    Angelia is right this is just imitation, with a twist (or perhaps that should be a kink). It will burn out in time, like all fads. Due to the costs of production, the worst are winnowed out, the marginal are made once, but never reprinted. Only that with intrinsic merit lives on.

    A lot of people are reading this book, it maybe the first book they have read since school, (given the demographic I’ve seen). Perhaps a few might now carry on reading, but they will quickly tire of this pap and move on to better things.

    Anyone trying to catch a trend, will always come unstuck, eventually. The lead-times from commissioning to delivery will kill you nine times out of ten. The tail does indeed wag the dog, the writers provide the raw material without which publishers would be limited to just republishing old back catalogue. They could sustain this for a while, as they control manufacture and distribution.

    But in the near future there will be a brief chance for authors to wrest back more control and a bigger share of the profits. The e-book will eventually catch up with and then surpass the dead tree version. Once an author no longer needs someone to produce a physical artefact, the power balance changes. They are then merely publicists, and can be dismissed at a whim.

    Social media is shifting the way products are judged, this is both a good and bad thing, as seen in the case of this particular “book”. One thing I am surprised not to have seen yet, is releasing the first chapter of an e-book free. A practice common in physical books for some time, and given the ease with which a link could be added at the end, to buy the rest of the book it seems inevitable.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I can see a few publishers thinking that a golden shower from one successful garbage book could fund the publication of some much better writing. Cross-subsidisation is a valid financial plan and has been used by publishers in the past, but although bells are ringing in my faulty memory I cannot give you examples. It is not a philosophy that appeals to me because tar has a tendency to stick.

  8. snowy says:

    Did you mean to write “shower of gold” because “golden shower” is something quite different O_o

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Golden shower is the name of a South asian orchid.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s also the English superhero with the least sponsorship deals.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    It’s also the name of a tree, but there, another example of where you write and where you read. Perhaps shower of gold would give a more definitive image to the sentence. I stand (sit) corrected.

  12. snowy says:

    Sorry Helen I was being naughty, the phrase you used in your original comment is a slang term, and if you are not aware of its meaning that is probably for the best.

    (If your interest has now been piqued, before you look it up, I would suggest that you, firstly not do so at work, and secondly go into private browsing mode, before you do.)

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Naughty doesn’t even come close! No, I don’t need details.

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