If anybody should be slapping themselves over James's success, it's Harlequin. Why didn't the world's leading publisher of romance fiction launch this erotica revolution itself?
"Oh, if we had a dollar for every time we asked that!" laughs Susan Swinwood, Harlequin's executive editor. Harlequin has many authors tied up writing erotic novels, "frankly, better," Swinwood says. "It's just one of those things. It's lightning in a bottle. If I'd seen that manuscript come across my desk, I don't know that I would have bought it. But for whatever reason, it hit the market at the right time with the right buzz and the right marketing."
But Swinwood was quick to acknowledge that "Fifty Shades of Grey" has been a "game changer" for Harlequin. "Erotica had been something you wanted to hide, and women were afraid to be caught reading it. 'Fifty Shades' changed all that. Now, when everyone's talking about it, you feel like you've got to find out what's going on."
As the popularity of James' books soared, Harlequin was able to reissue novels from its backlist and find new readers. Megan Hart, a Harlequin author since 2009, saw one of her reissued books hit The New York Times bestseller list after James supercharged the market for erotica.
But not everyone agrees that "Fifty Shades" spread the love far and wide. Sylvia Day, the president of the Romance Writers Association and the author of 19 novels, says: "It's changed the market in a lot of ways, but I'm not sure it has impacted erotic fiction. We haven't seen the sort of surge you might expect."
In a sense, James' millions of readers have remained handcuffed to her books alone. Day thinks "Fifty Shades" is another peak in the rise and fall of erotic fiction that's happened before. "In 2006 we saw the launch of erotic imprints from Kensington and Harlequin and HarperCollins. They flooded the market for about a year, and then it disappeared." "Fifty Shades" has not spawned "a huge wave of erotic bestsellers," Day says from her home in San Diego. "It sells well for particular writers, and they're mostly the same writers who put their books out in 2006."