Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fifty Shades of paper

EROTIC NOVELS straddled competing facets of publishing -- ebooks and 'legacy'

  • Print

NEW YORK -- The story of 2012 in publishing was the story of Fifty Shades of Grey, in more ways than one.

E L James' erotic trilogy was easily the year's biggest hit, selling more than 35 million copies in the U.S. alone and topping bestseller lists for months. Rival publishers hurried to sign up similar books and debates started over who should star in the planned film version. Through James' books and how she wrote them, the general public was educated in the worlds of romance/erotica, start-up publishing and "fan fiction."

But the success of James' novels also captured the dual state of the book market -- the advance of ebooks and the resilience of paper. In a year when print was labelled as endangered and established publishers referred to as "legacy" companies, defined and beholden to the past, the allure remained for buying and reading bound books.

James already was an underground hit before signing in early 2012 with Vintage Books, a paperback imprint of Random House Inc., the house of Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison, a house where legacy is inseparable from the brand. She could have self-published her work through Amazon.com, or released her books from her own website, and received a far higher percentage of royalties.

"We had a very clear conversation back in January about the need for a very specific publishing strategy," says Vintage publisher Anne Messitte. "We talked about distribution, a physical format, publicity. And she was basically clear that she needed what we did as publishers to make that happen."

Fifty Shades began as an e-phenomenon, understandable since digital erotica means you can read it in public without fear of discovery. But according to Messitte, sales for the paperbacks quickly caught up to those for ebooks and have surpassed them comfortably for the last several months. Everyone was in on the secret. The series sold big at Amazon.com, but also at Barnes & Noble and independents, at drugstores and airports.

Publishers from several major houses agreed that ebooks comprise 25-30 per cent of overall sales, exponentially higher than a few years ago, but not nearly enough to erase the power of paper. And the rate of growth is levelling off, inevitable as a new format matures. Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said e-sales were up around 30 per cent this year, less than half what she had expected.

"We saw all these huge sales for tablets and huge sales for other machines coming out and assumed there would be a lot of new ebook readers," Reidy says. "But in retrospect there were a lot of current ebook readers who were upgrading their machines. And tablet owners do not use ebooks as much as those with dedicated ebook readers" such as Amazon's Kindle.

"There are some people who think that print will go away, but Fifty Shades is an indication of why that's not going to happen," says Messitte, who added that the books attracted many non-readers who don't own e-devices. "You're going to need a mix of ways to read."

The rise of ebooks has shaken, but not broken the way books are published and sold. Membership in the independent stores' trade group, the American Booksellers Association, has increased three years in a row after decades of decline. Amazon is a draw for many self-published authors, but its efforts at acquiring and editing books -- "legacy" publishing -- have been mixed.

An in-house imprint, headed by former Time Warner Book Group chief Laurence J. Kirshbaum, has so far landed few works of note beyond a memoir by Penny Marshall and an advice book on cooking by lifestyle guru Timothy Ferriss. Rival sellers have refused to stock Amazon's books, limiting their sales potential. And if publishers suffer from their reputation -- often earned -- of being slow to adapt to technology, they benefit from a reputation -- often earned -- for being nice to their writers.

"There certainly is the comfort factor, and part of that comfort factor is the culture of old publishing, which is very collegial and warm and friendly," says Richard Curtis, a literary agent who represents several writers publishing with Amazon. "Authors contemplating Amazon are concerned about a loss of that warmth."

Amazon, the acknowledged leader in ebook commerce, remains the dominant player in what could still become the dominant format, and two of the year's major stories would never have happened without industry concern over the Internet retailer and publisher.

In April, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers for alleged price fixing of electronic books, a lawsuit originating from Apple's 2010 launch of the iPad and iBookstore, which publishers hoped would weaken Amazon's ability to discount works so deeply that no other seller could compete. In October, the corporate parents of Random House Inc. and Penguin Group (USA) announced a planned merger, widely believed as a way to counter Amazon.

One of the publishers, HarperCollins, sued and settled in the fall and prices for such new works as Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue dropped from $12.99-$14.99, common under the Apple model, to Amazon's preferred $9.99. But Chantal Restivo-Alessi, HarperCollins' chief digital officer, said there was no noticeable difference in sales, adding that bargain hunters tend to seek out older books.

"With new books, if you want to read that book, you're going to read that book," she said. "You're not going to replace it with a cheaper book."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 C20

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Glenn January won't blame offensive line for first loss

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.
  • Geese fly in the morning light over Selkirk Ave Wednesday morning- Day 22– June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should the city grant mosquito buffer zones for medical reasons only?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google