Why Fifty Shades of Grey is Popular

by | Nov 12, 2012 | Books | 85 comments

Yep. I read it.

I have a series of reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey:

1) This book is popular. 

I mean, really, really popular. It is bigger than Harry Potter popular in the UK, it was responsible for 20% of all book sales in the spring, it sold 25 million copies in 4 months; by contrast, it took the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy four years to sell 20 million copies.

Pop. U. Lar.

2) I called it. (Well, sort of.)

I’ve long maintained that although the e-book era favors people with existing audiences, freakish unexpected hits would come out of nowhere, including from authors without a major platform at all. Much like viral videos.

And make no mistake: This book came out of nowhere. It started as Twilight fanfiction, then was released as an e-book and POD paperback by Writers’ Coffee Shop in Australia. From there it managed to attract so much word-of-mouth attention and sales it was acquired for a rumored near-million dollars by Vintage Books, part of Random House, and has gone on to aforementioned further massive success.

The publishing industry did not see this one coming. I think it’s safe to say that virtually no one did. Even five years ago it’s hard to see how this book would have rocketed to such success so quickly, if it would have found its way to publication at all (I’m guessing it wouldn’t have).

But note that Fifty Shades of Grey needed a publisher to get truly big. Publishers may not have seen it coming, but they caught up to it very quickly. I wouldn’t use this as an opportunity to sneer at publishers. The industry’s role as gatekeeper is changing quickly, it’s likely evidence that they were missing books like this in the past and cared too much about writing quality, but they’re still making money on this hand over fist.

3) It’s not as bad people say it is

Given the howls have accompanied this book’s success and the snarky takedowns, I was really expecting drivel.

It’s not drivel. It’s not Shakespeare, but from a prose perspective I would call it competently written.

Yes, there are writerly tics, yes there are elements that are implausible, yes yes OMG a helicopter called Charlie Tango, more on all that in a minute. But the end of the world for books this is not.

I’ve read worse.

4) That said…

I’m not exactly an expert, but I can see why some people have wondered aloud if this is one step back for feminism. Much of the book hinges on very confused 21-year-old virginal Anastasia, seemingly plucked straight out of the 1950s, wondering whether this 27-year-old experienced, troubled-but-heart-of-gold self-made billionaire industrialist likes her no I mean really likes her no I mean really really really likes her.

Their times apart consist mainly of Anastasia confusedly spurning the advances of other men who are interested in her, talking herself out of the notion that Christian Grey no I mean really likes her, and finding new reasons to feel jealous about his past, aided and impeded by both her subconscious and inner goddess (separate voices!), who alternately scold her and high five her for her adventurousness. Anastasia has few thoughts, feelings, emotions, or ambitions regarding anything other than how much Christian Grey actually truly no I mean really likes her and whether she can abide by the terms of the written contract and tortured legalese (in more ways than one) that governs their relationship.

Christian Grey is the type of person who will scare Anastasia to death then introduce her to his mom, leave her bruised and then soulfully play the piano, all the while being so stricken by his attraction for Anastasia (including, it can’t be said enough times, the way she bites her lower lip) that he is willing to break all sorts of previously unbendable rules, such as being affectionate and sleeping in the same bed as her until, spoiler, whiting this part out, select it with your cursor if you want to read this: she concludes after a savage spanking that much as the great Meat Loaf sang, she would do anything for love but she won’t do that. 

Well. At least pending the sequels.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the very most popular books of all time.

5) So, um, why is it so popular?

Needless to say, I am not exactly the target audience for this book.

But even I can see how Fifty Shades of Grey fits neatly into a very old archetype that continues to resonate in our culture. The aloof, successful, mysterious, wildly attractive rogue who shows interest in a woman despite her initial resistance and even after that man warns the woman about himself: It’s not a new story. You can trace that archetype from Jane Eyre to Pride and Prejudice to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey and countless other iterations. It’s a new spin on a very old trope: romantic entanglement with a Byronic hero.

I also don’t think it’s only women who are prone to stories of an ardent and attractive suitor arriving to shake up their life, as the manic pixie dream girl movie genre can attest. Many heterosexual guys seemingly want a hot girl to come along and take care of everything as well, preferably when she’s played by Natalie Portman or Zooey Deschanel.

Fifty Shades of Grey may not break new ground, but surely it benefited from being released in the Kindle/iPad era (where onlookers can’t easily see/judge what you’re reading), it gave an urbane veneer to a romance genre that very often skews rural/suburban, and if you’ll excuse the metaphor, Twilight may well have primed the pump for a book that maintains the same archetypal romantic dynamic while allowing its protagonists to consummate their relationship.

Why now? Maybe as we sprint toward chartering new gender and relationship dynamics with more sensitive guys and greater equality there’s some appetite to escape into a story with a less complicated and familiar throwback to a dominant man and submissive woman. Maybe we’ve become such a sexually open society people were ready for the needle of mainstream edginess to be moved a little farther over. Maybe Christian Grey and his dorkily named helicopter are just that hot.

Maybe, at the end of the day, bestsellers are largely random.

What do you think? What has made Fifty Shades of Grey such a phenomenon?


  1. Jaimie

    Ha, I just typed the captcha as the comment then proceeded to be really confused for a moment.

    Loved this post, Nathan. I have no idea why 50 Shades is so popular. I think it's just "new." A lot of girls I know that love it don't read a lot and were seemingly unaware that erotica existed.

  2. Jan Priddy, Oregon

    You pretty much nailed it Nathan. It's soft core porn that reaches way back to a paternalistic archetype I'm sorry anyone still thinks about.

  3. Rashda Khan

    Excellent analysis…and you're right this book is Pop.U.Lar. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  4. vanessa

    The "book" (notice i use quotes) is only popular because when it was posted on Fanfiction(dot)net it had over 50,000 reviews. The Writers coffee shop solicits popular fanfic writers to publish their fics, then use their readers to make the fanfics sell and end up on the new york times.

  5. Steve Fuller

    Haven't read it, but from what I understand, it's mostly a book about dirty (in the best possible sense of the word) sex.

    My two cents: Women were taught for a million years to suppress their sexuality. Men weren't. Now, generations of young women are finally realizing it's okay to embrace sex. And, in our world today, (especially young women) wear their sexuality as a badge of honor.

    I'm a college professor. Many students follow me on Twitter, so I follow them back. These women aren't readers, but almost all of them read 50 Shades, posted pictures of them reading it at the pool, tweeted how much they loved it, etc.

    In my opinion, it's not about the book itself. It's what the book represents. Older women may have been hiding it on their e-readers, but younger women were flaunting it.

    Trust me, these young women talk about sex on Twitter WAY MORE than any of my male students. (One former student recently posted that her favorite flavor of popsicle was [slang for male genitalia]. We're living through a cultural shift, and books that tap into that will be wildly popular.

  6. Talei

    Because EL James already had an audience, she went from fan fiction to her own site and built on that. Also, she filled that gap for Twilight readers who wanted something saucier and were just a little in love with the MCs from the movie version. Kudos to EL for getting MOTU published under Fifty Shades. She worked hard for it. Let's not think this was an overnight sensation.

  7. Carl Grimsman

    "Maybe, at the end of the day, bestsellers are largely random."

    Ironic that the book was purchased by RANDOM House.

    I read 50 pages of 50 Shades and concluded that it was … not for me.

    People do need escapism and to each his own. I don't have a problem with it.

  8. L. Shanna

    50 Shades did nothing for me. Nothing at all. But I know plenty of people for whom it has, and that's great for them.

    My problem is that I can't walk through Target with my two young children without walking by a display for the trilogy, just a couple feet away from the coloring books.

    • Anonymous

      But the books don't have a tasteless cover so how would your kids even know what its about? Not a big deal!

  9. Wyndes

    I wonder if "random" bestsellers are made from books that people want to talk about. In order to talk about a book — even if it's only to vent loudly with all your complaints about the absurdity — you need other people to have read it, which means you need to convince your friends to read it. I haven't read Fifty Shades, but I know with both Twilight and Hunger Games, I read them because friends told me to and then I told friends to read them so we could talk about them. It wasn't that I loved Twilight — I thought it was a horrible message for teenage girls, blah-blah-blah. But I still convinced at least two or three people to read it. And I did love Hunger Games, convinced at least that many people to read it, probably several more, so I could talk to them about what made Katniss a great heroine and why she was different and whether she was a new archetype in female characters, etc. Funny, thinking back, a friend sent me a UK book once that she'd picked up on a layover, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and I talked up that book to everyone I knew because I wanted to discuss the layers and the descriptions and sense of humor. Obviously, that's not the case for all bestsellers, but it might explain some of the more unusual ones.

  10. Firetulip

    Someone asked my mother-in-law, a church going lady in her late 70's if she'd want to read this book, sneer, snicker…

  11. Stephen Parrish

    I haven't read it, but I loved this post, because you let your hair* down more than you usually do.

    *I was one of your "dig the hair" early queriers. I miss those days.

  12. Julie Luek

    Vicarious thrills. 'Nuff said.

  13. Anne R. Allen

    I don't think we should ignore the brilliance of the cover design, which has changed the covers of erotica books forever. That understated symbol of male power, the simple necktie–in subtle shades of gray instead of screaming pink flesh tones–made the book LOOK respectable. It also appealed to what really turns women on, which is power, not little Magic Mike outfits. This cover made it clear this was erotica for women that understood women's fantasies.

    • Anonymous

      I'm sorry, but plenty of other bdsm novels also use 'respectable' covers

  14. Mirka Breen

    When you call something “not that bad” and, again, “I’ve read worse” with the same breath as noting that it made a commercial splash in publishing the likes of which all the National Book Awards Finalists together will not make in a hundred years, you have affirmed that the dichotomy between art and commerce is getting ever larger.

  15. Karen Cantwell

    I venture a guess that this is a case of people purchasing the book because of the hype, but not necessarily finding it to be their cup of tea. Harry Potter has 5951 customer reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5, while Fifty Shades has 13,840 reviews with an overall rating of 3.2. My quick analysis of those statistics tell me that people are obviously snatching it up left and right, not necessarily enjoying it. I've talked to many people who have bought/read the book and I have yet to meet one who thought it was a decent story and many didn't get past the first few chapters. So – POPULAR? I'd say a better word is notorious. I believe people are buying the book to see what the fuss is about and why people like us keep talking about it.

  16. Anonymous

    I think its two fold: First, EL James writes about Mr Grey like she's in love with him and is indulging in her own personal fantasy. Same with Stephenie Meyer writing about Edward Cullen. This makes it easy for the reader to also fall in love with them and hence, become addicted. Secondly, both authors play to the fantasy of the plain, everyday woman( ie the reader) being worshipped and adored by an extraordinary male who is on the face of it, out of their league. Because the female protagonists Bella and Anastsasia are just like us, it gives us hope that the same could happen to us too.

  17. Michelle Weyenberg

    I think it became popular for a couple reasons:

    1) Its vast popularity made it "cool" to say you were reading it, whereas usual readers of erotica romance keep it to themselves — hence the widely popular genre for ebooks.

    2) The books popularity attracted new readers to the genre who never knew they could read "porn" and like it. I had so many FB friends taking pictures of them reading the book by the pool or talking about reading it this past year. Then some would ask for similar books like it.

    3) The book cover. The usual erotic romance novels have the embarrassing covers with the half naked man on the cover embracing a female.

  18. Anonymous

    Honestly, I hated the book. I couldn't get over the immaturity of the main character. I don’t what anything to do with an erotica book whose main character reads like a 16 year old.

    Why is it popular?
    1. People read between the lines. I’ve had discussions with a friend who liked the book and her interpretation and mine are totally different. She saw romance, I saw domestic violence, and I don’t mean the physicality of the book, but the emotional.

    2. One of the themes in the book was that she was willing to do things she didn’t fully want to do in hopes she could change him. I’m not sure where this came from, but many girls/women suffer from the idea that men show true love by changing for the woman. The bad guy starts of exciting, and then we try to change all the things that we were excited about. And when they give those up, it must be true love.

    3. Sex sells

    4. Popularity leads to more popularity. Either from curiosity or the assumption that if everyone is reading it then it must be good.

  19. Sara

    It's been interesting to follow the secretive reading (only your best friends whisperingly admit they've read it in all-female company) to seeing women read it at my gym and on airplanes. A male friend was on a flight where his entire ROW was reading it (all strangers) and he when asked what the big deal about it is, a multi-row conversation began where all the readers urged him to read it. Very interesting!

  20. Josin L. McQuein

    It didn't come out of nowhere. It didn't come out of close to nowhere.

    The original fanfictions were so popular and had so many fans that they organized their own fan event and flew her from the UK to the US to attend. When the books went on sale, that fanbase responded in droves. The sudden spike by someone who had never had a novel for sale before caught the attention of Amazon's algorithms. The original fans shared the book with their friends who snapped up every hard copy they could find and happily downloaded the e-version for clandestine reading. They got to feel like they were doing something "naughty" (oh, how I hate that word when applied to adults in a serious manner…)

    ELJames has basically the same story as every other success with a built-in fanbase. She gave those who already knew her what they expected and wanted, and in turn those people supported the writer they enjoy. They spread the word to people who likely had never heard of fanfiction, or might have hated Twilight, but might enjoy 50SoG.

    Though, hopefully, none of them confused it with Between Shades of Grey (or vice versa). That could make for some awkward reading.

  21. Diane

    I didn't manage to read past the first 2 chapters which were offered as a the free preview on my Kobo – I didn't want to waste my time and money after that, despite Kobo trying to sell it to me on every page of their website. Opening with her looking in the mirror was enough to put my hackels up. But as my father was a pilot, your mention of the helicopter name makes absolute sense to me. Charlie Tango is the radio call signal so the helicopter would be CT followed by a number. My father's plane was Charlie Whiskey Foxtrot. Unlike ships and boats, flying beasts don't often get called romantic names.

  22. Stephsco

    @Josin I read an article about Ruta Septys' Between Shades of Grey tour this year, and she did have people come expecting the author for 50 Shades.

    I agree with @Karen that lots of people are buying this book based on hype but I haven't heard much posistive on my end. One of my good friends who mainly reads non-fiction and self-help said she got the books because they were "something to read." That's pitiful to me. You can read a cereal box, too. But she said she wanted to see what the hype was about and none of the mysogyny bothered her. It bothers me. And the bad writing does too. I read a chapter and couldn't take it. For me, I have so many books on my list to read, I'm not looking for just anything to read because it's popular. If the reviews were stellar, yes, I would give it a chance.

  23. abc

    I really, really love this post!

    I think it's popular because it is naughty. And because everyone is reading it (or at least every female it seems, including your grandma), it gives one permission to read it. So it becomes insanely popular. And because e-readers are perfect for naughty books.

    And we want to see what all the fuss is about. That's why I read it. I wanted to know what I was missing.

  24. Jeri

    Yet it's not really that naugthy, and at times the sex is downright awkward. I will admit the cover is awesome, and if this shabbily written book makes readers aware that erotica exists, I guess something positive comes out of its mere existence.

  25. Marsha Sigman

    I think I had more fun reading this post than I would have reading the book.lol

  26. Two Flights Down

    I just realized that my comment rambled on way too long, so I deleted it. I tend to be in constant essay mode, so sorry about that long comment.

    The heroine of Fifty Shades was portrayed as the intelligent virgin. She's career-oriented; a model we can look up to. There are more graphic sex novels out there, but we can feel validated in knowing that this isn't just sex–there's a moral to be learned.

    The pure female character changes the rich, powerful man. In this way, it seems as though the female holds a special power over the male. We can feel united with this woman who is powerful and intelligent.

    Her power is an illusion that the reader is happy to look right through because it validates our desire to indulge in a book where male dominates female–something that would usually be seen as anti-woman today.

    I think this satisfaction one receives from watching an intelligent woman enjoy being dominated is where the intrigue of this book is rooted. We want the mental and physical dominance, and we want to justify it.

    The danger in holding up such heroines as a role model, though, is that it perpetuates this idea that all women want to be dominated. They may resist at first, but deep down, they want it.

  27. Laura Benson

    You really didn't think it was that badly written? Um, are you sure you read Fifty Shades of Grey? I read the first two (won't even bother with the third one) and wondered how something like that got could get published (and NOT re-edited!)As a woman who doesn't mind BDSM, that didn't bother me. The sentence structure and and poor editing bothered me. Tell me that you didn't find yourself editing it as you read it!

  28. Nathan Bransford

    Two flights-

    Ah man, I thought it was great and was going to feature it in a comment roundup tomorrow, is that okay?

  29. Joanna

    I believe that Fifty Shades is popular because the author has written most things well (sex scenes, descriptive details, lush language…) but she also did one thing very, very well… she made the readers totally relate to the protagonist. Anastasia would dismiss one thing after another (while biting her lower lip) only to work herself around to the idea as the pages flipped by (rather quickly) and I was right there with her… even if I am 3 times older! As you say, it is not Shakespeare but it is a GOOD read.

  30. Sharon A. Lavy

    I have not read this book. However as the wife of a private pilot I know where the helicopters name came from and it makes perfect sense. When we call a tower we give our planes call letters which consist of numbers followed by letters. C=Charley and T=Tango at every tower where planes fly. That IS the name.

  31. Melissa Petreshock

    I got suckered into reading it because everyone else I know read it. My sister read the trilogy then shipped her copies to me. Got them for free… Of course I'm going to read them… then loan them out to every friend of mine who hasn't read them and wants to. They really aren't so great I would want to pay to read them. EVER. I couldn't even be bothered to sign up on the wait list at my local library to read them.

    No, they aren't the worst books I've ever read. Yes, they are erotica, but definitely not the best I've ever read. Maybe if I'm REALLY bored sometime I'll read them again. (If my friends return them.)

    And I do NOT understand why they are so insanely popular. Sure, they are based on Twilight fanfiction, but doesn't that fact alone sort of make it terrible that they've become so popular? The characters are rip-offs of someone else's work!

    I find it all rather mind-boggling.

  32. Nancy Thompson

    Yes, it is true, no matter what some women may say, many women like & want to be dominated, but more importantly, they want a man who knows this without having to ask & possibly embarrass them by making them admit it. They want the man to just take over & do what he wants & still feel like they are strong women who had no choice, when actually they did. Some women feel guilty or sleazy to have these desires, so if a man can satisfy their fantasy without them acknowledging it even IS their fantasy, then that's the perfect scenario. And 50SoG feeds into & satisfies that in women who know they'll never get it. And maybe, if they're lucky, their men will want to know why they like the book so much & they can admit without feeling bad about themselves.

  33. Two Flights Down


    I'd be honored if you used my comment. Do I need to repost it?


  34. dawnpier

    I was blown away when I discovered that my super macho fireman lover was reading 50 Shades of Grey. (His sister-in-law gave it to him?) I was unwilling to pay for a book I'd heard so much negative criticism about, but when he gave me his copy (and pointed out some similarities between the characters' and our relationship), I couldn't help but devour the thing. It was mildly titillating, but annoying as heck, and I've resisted reading the sequels as a result (so many other books are, I believe more worthy of my precious time).

    The point I'm trying to make in a rather round about way is that this book appealed to people you'd never guess would like it and it contained just enough "average female angst" with respect to relationship dynamics that I think many women could sympathize. The incorporation of email dialogue modernized the couple's interaction and was something I particularly connected with.

    As far as the argument that this book is anti-feminist, well, yes, I suppose it is, but there has been so much dialogue surrounding its popularity that surely the less "enlightened" women reading it have had the concerns regarding that aspect of the work drummed into their tiny little heads so much so that the book has certainly served to open up dialogue that, as far as I know, hasn't been at the fore of social commentary for quite a long time. It got us talking. That's a good thing, right?Nathan! I have been waiting and watching for this blog! I agree wholeheartedly with your insights and loved the method you used to hide the spoiler. Cool.

    My own experience of 50 Shades began day when I discovered that my uber-macho, fireman lover was reading it. I was blown away and my curiosity was naturally piqued. I’d been unwilling to pay for a book I'd heard so much negative criticism about, but when he gave me his copy (and pointed out some similarities between the characters' and our relationship), I couldn't help but devour the thing. It was mildly titillating and admittedly great foreplay, but annoying as heck, and I've resisted reading the sequels as a result (so many books, so little time).

    The point I'm trying to make is that this book appealed to people you'd never guess would like it and it contained more than enough “female angst" to make “average” women like myself sympathize with the protagonist. The incorporation of email dialogue contemporized the couple's interaction and the fact that Anastasia could express herself more fully in that medium than when faced with the knee-weakening Grey was something I related to in particular.

    As far as the argument that this book is anti-feminist, well, yes, I suppose it is, but there has been so much dialogue surrounding its popularity that surely the less "enlightened" women reading it have had the concerns regarding that aspect of the work drummed into their tiny little heads so much so that the book has certainly served to reignite dialogue that, as far as I know, hasn't been at the fore of social commentary for quite some time. It got us talking. That's a good thing, right?

  35. AM Riley

    I think it was said already, but erotic romantic ebooks are a huge industry. I'm surprised that anyone is surprised by this. Many millions of dollars are made in the erotica genre. They used to call them bodice rippers, didn't they? This particular book is very accessible and, as you said, competently written. It isn't the best adult erotica I've ever read but it isn't at all the worst. It was also well publicized and the author knew how to put it together in a fairly polished manner.

  36. Anonymous

    I read it and did not like it.

    First, it was such a blatant rip-off of Twilight that I was offended on Stephenie Meyer's behalf. If someone did that with my work, I'd want royalties. I felt that it should have matured past fan-fiction before selling a bazillion copies.

    In the same vein, the characters were flat as a pancake. Flatter even than Stephenie Meyer's, which is impressive. Anastasia's constant shock at Christian Grey's appetites, despite the fact that they were pretty clear from the outset, was exhausting, as was the endless lip biting and obsessing about the way Mr. Grey's pants hung off of him. (Did he need a smaller size?)

    Finally, I just found it a bit, well, unbelievable. Perhaps I'm a prude, but I couldn't help but think that there would be chafing issues after a while.

  37. Anonymous

    My answer is d) Bestsellers are largely random.

    Everyone I know who has read it has done so because "everyone is reading it." None of my friends have admitted to liking it, but they all sought it out in the first place because of the peer pressure. There's a social component to bestsellerdom: once a book reaches the tipping point, everyone else reads it to see what the others are talking about. I saw this happen with The Da Vinci Code, too.

    How does a book build to that tipping point in the first place? I'm not sure anyone really knows. Whatever 50 Shades has in terms of romantic and erotic elements, there are other books that have it too, but never sell as widely. Perhaps the fan base that others mentioned was critical in building the initial buzz.

    I don't think it's anything new to publishing to have these huge sensations, to have a book that's The It Book. But because that can't be forced, and that kind of success can't be manufactured, writers and publishers just keep working at it, chasing the dream and hoping that the lightning strikes.

  38. Julia Kovach

    I haven't read it yet, but I love love love your write-up of it! Nicely done, my friend! xoJulia

  39. Tara Maya

    The only problem with the comparison of the Byronic romance with the Magic Pixie Dream Girl — and I think you might be on to something there — is that while in the Byronic fantasy, the woman is young and naive and sacrifices her own pursuit of happiness for her man, in the MPDG fantasy, the woman is young and naive and sacrifices her own pursuit of happiness for her man.

  40. Nathan Bransford


    Ha – yeah, maybe. But in both cases I think they're about "unlocking" something inside of the woman/man. The heroine confronting the Byronic hero must give in to temptation, the man in the MPDG story must waken to the world anew.

    In both archetypes the man is ostensibly giving something up too. The Byronic hero letting himself be tamed, the MPDG hero loses his powerful cynicism which allegedly weakens him — one reason why he doesn't usually end up with the MPDG.

  41. harryipants

    "Maybe, at the end of the day…" reading such an atrociously written pile of poo has you using clichés such as "at the end of the day", without even understanding what it's done to you.
    Really Nathan…

  42. Anonymous

    I've never read it however, I can't help but feel a trifle irritated by the fact that everyone, from television to blogosphere, talks about this book endlessly. And didn't the book come out months ago? Enough, already. There are other well-deserving books out there that would like to be talked about too!
    However, I have to say, kudos to E.L. James for doing an amazing job of selling her own book 🙂
    Yvette Carol

  43. Anonymous

    It was just announced last week that another popular Twilight fanfic called "The Office," just scored a two-book deal with Gallery Books. And let's not forget "Gabriel's Inferno & Gabriel's Rapture" (in the fanfic world known as "The University of Edward Masen") was recently published by Penguin's Berkeley imprint. Both of these had a huge fan base in the Twilight fandom. As an author who has been trying to get published, I'm thinking of changing my MC names to Edward and Bella…LOL!

  44. Anonymous

    It was just announced last week that another popular Twilight fanfic called "The Office," just scored a two-book deal with Gallery Books. And let's not forget "Gabriel's Inferno & Gabriel's Rapture" (in the fanfic world known as "The University of Edward Masen") was recently published by Penguin's Berkeley imprint. Both of these had a huge fan base in the Twilight fandom. As an author who has been trying to get published, I'm thinking of changing my MC names to Edward and Bella…LOL!

  45. Amanda

    I couldn't finish the series.

    It's just, ughhh, such an abusive relationship. Having been in an emotionally abusive relationship, it triggered me really badly to read Christian's constant manipulation and Ana's constant self-doubt and weeping misery. It isn't romantic, it's a nightmare.

    I was interested in reading it because it was supposedly a mainstream representation of BDSM. But the whole plot seemed to be that only damaged, abused people engage in BDSM, and the love of a good woman will cure them of their perversion. Yikes! Not to mention the fact that it wasn't even BDSM anyway– BDSM is consensual, the Dom only does what the sub enjoys and nothing more. So Christian pressuring Ana to do things that make her cry all the time isn't him being dominant, it's him being a jerk.

  46. Mira

    @ Anne R. Allen – I agree that some women want to be dominated, but some studies have shown that an equal, or even greater, number of men want to be dominated, too. How's that for setting gender sterotypes on its ears. 🙂

    So, great analysis, Nathan! Really interesting, thoughtful and perceptive. And funny.

    So, she really wants him to really, really like her? While biting her lower lip? Really, really biting?

    So, I agree with Jan Priddy, this seems like a paternalistic archtype.

    It's the archtype of a girl who is abused/neglected and/or unloved by her father, earning his care, attention and love by having him finally see her 'goodness'.

    The sexualization of a father/daughter relationship is, in part, about release of tension. When the abuse stops, it feels like a great relief. That gets sexualized.

    I think specific books become popular for all the reasons that people are saying: word of mouth, the titillation, the water-cooler effect, etc.

    But the archtype of an abused daughter finding paternal love, where her father figure transforms from a distant "monster" to a loving man, can be found all over and is extremely popular, starting, perhaps, with the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

    Twilight was definitely the same archtype. And you find it in tons of romance books, which are read by millions of women (and men).

    There is a sad part to this, though. The intense popularity of this particular archtype speaks to how many people felt abused and/or neglected by their fathers. That's sad, and very real.

  47. Seeley James

    Byronic Hero? Really? No, it's a lot simpler than that.

    Beauty and the Beast + sex.

    Peace, Seeley

  48. Julie Musil

    Why is it popular? Because it's entertaining! I read the whole series, and I have to say, I was entertained. Sure, the writing had some issues, but it was still a fun read.

    By the way, I'm totally impressed that you read it!

  49. Anonymous

    I am wondering if you read the whole series or just the first book? Because if you have just read the first one then you are truly missing out 😉

    I read the first book because I swear every girl in my office was reading it and telling me how great it was. Although, at first I did try to resist and be the conservative southern girl I was raised to be, but curiosity got the better of me and I gave in and read the first book. I read the second two because I had to know what happened and to be honest it was kind of fun to read something a little sexy.

    It should not be shocking that I purchased them on my kindle, since I already admitted to being conservative. However, I think if there was no such thing as e-readers I would have still purchased the book. I just might have resisted for a little longer.

    Needless to say I overlooked the perceptual lip biting, and enjoyed the books for what they were – Beauty and the Beast plus sex @Seeley.

    @Two Flights Down – I am glad you are letting Nathan post your first comment. I read it earlier and really enjoyed your point-of-view. I also felt like I learned a lot from it. I was actually looking back to re-read it!

  50. wendy

    Haven't read it, although I tried to but couldn't get past the first page. I'm not sure why, perhaps it was because I knew something explicit and sexual was around the corner. Not a big fan of reading about it. I wonder if it is actually the dominant male women yearn for or is it the charming, understanding and fun-to-be-with, boyish male who has confidence in himself and isn't intimidated by the woman-as-goddess type of thing. Women love men who love and admire them and are, you know, interesting. But dominant, no, I think that would get wearing after awhile and result in tension, but not of the sexual kind. I think most women appreciate a male who is smarter than that.

  51. Anonymous

    Nathan, I work in an independent bookstore, and I've been looking forward to this post ever since you announced that you were reading "that book." As a bookseller, I witnessed firsthand how this book went from an e-book that a lot of women asked about to the most popular book of the spring and summer, with a record 98 copies sold the day before Mother's Day. Practically everyone from ages 20 on up were asking about the book. I was surprised at how many of our longtime customers in their sixties and seventies were reading it. Sales have slacked off for the time being, but we're still selling at least three copies a week.

    I tried to read it, but I couldn't get past chapter two. It killed me to even devote that much time to the book as there were so many other books I wanted to read. But as a bookseller, I felt like I had to find out what all the hype was about. In the end, I went to the customers and they said that "Fifty Shades of Grey" was a compelling story with fun characters, but the writing was mediocre. They also said books two and three were better than one. Most of them said that at first the books were about the sex parts, but then those parts got old, and they sped through the sex parts to get to the action parts.

    I know it would have made less money for Random, but I wish they had combined all three books and edited the crap out of them to make one well-written book.

    Today, we received the book, "Fifty Shades of Chicken." It's a cookbook with a humorous story about an inexperienced chicken being dominated by a chef. I'm not joking. We've already sold three copies. And we've sold a lot of other Fifty Shades parodies, too. But the best writing based on Fifty Shades has to be the Amazon reviews of the books. Those are hilarious.

  52. Anne R. Allen

    @Mira–I did NOT say women want to be dominated. I said women are drawn to power. Look at that woman who got mixed up with David Petraeus. You think she'd have gone for it if he'd been a grocery clerk? Or that she fell for that cute receding hairline? She wasn't attracted to his power over HER–but his power in the world. She wanted that power to rub off on her. It's the primal appeal of the tribal chieftan.

  53. Mira

    Anne, I'm sorry! I got confused. The comment I was responding to was Nancy Thompson's. Sorry.

    I agree with you, in that I think people are often attracted to someone who has what we don't have and want. I don't know about women in general being attracted to power, although, since they have been denied power for many centuries, that makes sense.

    I have met men who are attracted to powerful women, though.

    Interesting discussion.

  54. K L Romo

    The romance and sex. And sex, and sex. And more sex.

  55. Karen

    It's a fantasy. No one really wants to be dominated or hurt in real life but it is fun to read about it and imagine what you would do in the same situation, especially given that Christian, (and Edward) is so beautiful, dreamy, athletic, not to mention rich. Plus, he is vulnerable at heart so she can fix him. We all want to fix people.

    I thoroughly enjoyed all three books and am prepared to forgo beautiful writing in favor of the occasional ripping yarn. I think excessive editing and tailoring a story to suit a publisher's idea of what's fun to read sometimes spoils the fun. Just saying . . .

  56. Crystal Parney

    I haven't read 50 yet, but I think it's about fantasy, like other posts have said. I think often fantasy is much better than the real thing.

  57. Cecelia Dowdy

    I read 50 Shades because I enjoyed a few of the Twilight books, plus, as a writer, whenever hoards of people are reading a book and telling how great it is, I have to see what the fuss is.

    I think it's popular for a number of reasons:
    1. The author is building off of her Twilight Fan Fiction base (as a few people have already mentioned.)
    2. Far as I can tell, she's bringing something out into the open, mainstream life, that people rarely talk about. To tell you the truth, I'd never heard of a Dominant until I'd read this book! Of course, I knew about BDSM, but…I think she's bringing a "somewhat secret" lifestyle out into the open, almost saying it's "okay" to do this.

    The writing was horrific, but, I was compelled to finish the first story, and then I felt compelled to read the second story.

    Things started going flat for me after about the third or fourth chapter of the second story. I felt the second book had a VERY SAGGING MIDDLE! I was bored with 2nd book, almost did not finish it.

    The 3rd book was not as entertaining as the first, but, not as SLOW as the second one.

  58. Anne R. Allen

    @Mira Oh, good. I didn't want people to think I was into that sub stuff. I have a recurring character in my books who's a dominatrix, though. 🙂

    The lure of power does work both ways. The scullery maid who ends up with the prince is one archetype (Those Regency romances are always about the girl who falls for Rakish Duke, not the Rakish Stable Boy With Great Abs.) But another archetype is La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the unattainable high-born Lady of the troubadour poets. Both archetypes live on in our fantasies.

    50 Shades works because it has tapped into an archetypal fantasy. It's the fantasy, not the prose that people are attracted to.

  59. Mo Akoth

    I think Fifty Shades, aside from the 'billionaire guy' fantasy many women have, hit precisely because it was raw and 'flawed' on so many levels.

    It was simple. Something the average person…alright in parts… can relate it. It didn't pretend to be intellectual, or a writing masterpiece. It was just a story about a girl. Believable or not in some places was irrelevant.

    Think 'Gangnam Style' which if I'm not mistaken, has taken the slot for most viewed Youtube Video ever. What makes this song great? It doesn't follow convention or rules… it's just an odd dude, doing odd things and not giving a toot what anything thinks.

    I think most of us are pretty basic creatures. And for reasons we can't fathom, we relate to basic things. Primal things.

    I think Fifty Shades gave that to many people. That's why, even people who don't read… could relate to it. E.L just told her story exactly how she envisioned it.

    Does this always work? Who knows. It did for her.

  60. EM

    It's sexy. Point, blank and period. I read it and I was not impressed from a prose standpoint. But I have a slew of girlfriends who for months could not do anything but quote the book lines and wonder about who is going to play Christian in the movie. And I have to admit I will go see the movie. In the age of reality tv where someone named Snookie is rich and famous, are we really surprised that this book has been so popular?

  61. Mira

    @Anne, so it's more that you're into dom stuff, right? 😉

    Just kidding. 🙂

    I totally agree. The writing needs to be good enough so it doesn't distract the reader. But after that, it's the fantasy that will sell a book.

  62. Krystal Miller

    Absolutely HATED the whole twilight series but LOVE the fifty shades series! Weird, right lol

  63. Amy Saia

    Here's what I find weird: I have never heard an actual plot mentioned in relation to this book. I mean, is there a journey? A pivotal moment? What's at stake for the main character? I keep hearing about sex, sex, sex, but nothing ever happens.

    Logline: Girl meets hot businessman; they go on a sexual journey.

    Okay, I guess I can buy that. But still, I'm feeling mental pain over this. *hits head with Fifty Shades*

  64. Amy Saia

    Adding: Maybe I just don't like the idea of my mom reading this thing. If she does, I'm moving to Pluto.

  65. Mira

    When I read your comment that FSOG 'gave an urbane veneer to a romance genre that very often skews rural/suburban' I thought 'YES!'. For years now I've been a disenfranchised chicklit reader. From once being cool stories about smart, metropolis dwelling singletons meeting & falling in love, chicklit has descended into a twee genre about second time rounders, empty nesters & heroines knitting their own houses. They don't even focus on a relationship anymore – they're all to do with setting up a business, saving a shop or a building (insert as appropriate). Yawn.
    It's why I dumped chicklit, serendipitously found fanfic & never looked back.
    I'd hoped the publication of FSOG would give chicklit/romance the kick up the pants it needed, would make it flirtier, sexier, funnier and more relationship centred but alas, the sniffy, superior response of most chicklit authors suggest it'll be another twenty years of heroines baking cupcakes & knitting tea cosies.

  66. Russ Linton

    No, you don't have to even write well to sell porn. Seen any porn flicks up for screenwriting at the Oscars lately?

    Book opens with a mirror scene, terrible dialogue, an entriely unbelievable setup and then proceeds to write about bondage type relationships making it dreadfully plain not only the protagonsit is clueless, but the author didn't do a bit of research to lend any sort of believability to the scenario.

    How is this "not bad?" Have literary standards REALLY sunk that low?

    Porn, written by a woman, coattailing Twilight. If a man had written it, he'd be labeled a mysoginistic a$$hole, and it might still sell millions, cause it's porn.

    I should point out, I don't have a problem with porn. I'll read/watch it like the next guy and get some thrills, but I won't sit back and try to rationalize it by saying it is well acted/written/directed. I'll openly admit I was looking to get stimulated by it, end of story. 🙂

    What I read (no, I didn't finish) was AFTER the big publisher got a hold of it and presumably sent it to their editorial department. It was still atrocious.

    Yes, it was poorly written.

  67. Anonymous

    The book was so entertaining for some. However, the dominant and submissive aspects were on and off and interchangeable between the two main characters.

    A non-fiction book about this dynamic is "Leading and Supportive Love: The Truth About Dominant and Submissive Relationships".

  68. Anonymous

    But why are people acting like this is the first romantic novel with a BDSM theme/sub theme (ha, get it, 'sub'). I just done get it??? There are so many other books out there like this, pretty much this book is exactly the same concept as so so so many before it. So why is this causing discussions about women's rights and sexism and all these other discussions,(and i am woman). I get ppl love to rehash topics that have been beaten into the ground a million times over but come on, this is the book ppl are gonna do it on???!!

  69. Pat Powers

    Liked your review, found it refreshingly honest even though yu kind of danced around the kinky content. Blogged it. So there!

  70. jane jan

    I am almost done reading it; but would not have bought it – it is a library book. The subject matter is interesting but I was stunned at how poorly written it was; this girl has such low self esteem – all she cares about is jerk CG who I would have told to take a hike from the beginning. I had just read "The Siren" Tiffany Reisz (sp) which is so much better, and can't wait to read "The Angel". She is a much better writer.

  71. Anonymous

    stupid girls. try to watch porn sometimes.

  72. wordwan

    This book's premise sounds no different than a hundred different movies I've seen. Boy and girl love, nothing new there. And quite a popular concept as far as I know.

    Funny some get so hepped up by the female character. We're so used to reading boy-based novels where the character in question is talking with his guy friends about what he'd like to do to THAT hot babe that just walked by. This kind of talk is so accepted, it's unreal. This kind of talk is so accepted it leads to date rape, but that's another subject.

    We are so lopsided as a society. It's amazing.

    I recently read a post of a woman genre writer who was miffed at being dismissed by 'real' writers. (Read: old white males in an old style genre.)

    I also read that romance is one of the most popular genres right now in ebooks.

    The fact that, like Madonna in the new age of MTV videos, ebooks are there to offer any kind of story a guy or girl wants to read, no worries about subway riders seeing their book covers.

    Add to that an internet process that's come to fruition, that being fanfic fans growing a bestseller book, I'm not really surprised this book did so well.

    It PROVES you don't need a publisher for discoverability. Something to think about. And time to start looking more closely at what the people on the internet are tinkering with.

    The customer has ALWAYS been right, because it's the customer that buys things. NOT the writer. NOT the reviewer. NOT the publisher. NOT the marketer or vanity press.

    The READER is the one who runs things. But so many of these entrenched and overpriced and overhyped and overself-important entities forget that.

    The ebook readership, I imagine, was always there. You just weren't OFFERING them the flavors they wanted. You know? *grin*

    It's the same with people's view of Stephen King. He wrote horror. And in the early days, people poo-pooed HIM. And he laughed, all the way to the bank.

    Why do we keep believing a bestseller is ONLY some kind of high-fallutin' literary fiction?–which I believe someone suggested is not as big a reader base as some other kinds of books.

    BestSELLER means just that.

    Slurpies from 7/11 are a popular bestseller. You don't hear people comparing it to MILK now, do you?


    I haven't seen much of this book, but now I make the connection as to why greedy-as-business Amazon has started this fanfic subsect.


    The WORLD I live in.


  73. Anonymous

    I’m coming into this discussion way, way late, after doing a search online about why “Shades” is so popular. There are a number of factors, I think, contributing to its success.

    (a) I think women run their households and hold down jobs and at times, dominate their husbands, (reference divas on reality TV). Oprah featured a sex therapist way back in 2008 or 2009, who said something like: “When you’re telling your husband what to do, he becomes another child, and you can’t become aroused by that.” A super-domineering fantasy hero like Christian Grey, uber-rich, handsome and obsessed with the heroine, who feeds a Cinderella wish in some women – plus, his “deep dark secret” and his equally dark past, make for a page-turner.

    (b) Declining literacy is another factor. This is not a demanding book to read. Think of how graphic / comic books are flourishing, the “Nerd” books with the stick figure sketches. There is little text and more of an emphasis on pictures. Magazines are becoming coloring books – large photos, not a lot of text. Many magazines resemble web sites. High school teachers have told me that they can’t assign sophisticated, lengthy books, because their students don’t have the attention span for it.

    (c) I think women are lonely, because of factor (a). They re taking on a lot and feel overwhelmed and have a fantasy of a male lover from a fairy tale. They want to feel helpless at some level, for someone to “take over” and take care of them. Having a corporate career, raising children, feeling (often) overwhelmed, has not turned out to be this glamorous lifestyle that it seemed to be.

    (d) we’re living in a hook-up culture where sex is no longer romanticized. Girls are told they can have sex and be “empowered,” and it’s still very difficult for some women to do this – we tend to want to romanticize a sexual relationship. Women still crave some romance.

    (e) we’re living in the post “Sex & The City” culture, where women were told their sexuality and careers were paramount, and this has contributed to a cultural narcissism, (that was already in place 30 or so years ago).

  74. eve lindblad

    I just finished this book. I friend talked me into to reading it. It give it a C at best. Must be the something I missed but it was not a book I could with good conscience even recommend. I've read Harlequin books that were juicier. lol I found Ana were annoying with the "I don't want your money" but because you're "hot" I want you "dirty sex". Give me a break. For a Virgin she sure got into his world fast and with little reserve. Contact aside-everyone know you never write a letter and/or you never destroy one. Sure recipe for Blackmail. Don't bother with hate mail. This is just my humble opinion. I got it from the library.

  75. eve lindblad

    Sorry for the mistakes in my previous review. I'm at work & did not edit before pushing the send button. *contract , my friend recommended it, etc.

  76. Anonymous

    I just finished the first book (yes I'm trailing the pack) I can't understand all the accolades about it. My coworkers devoired it, although they are much younger than I am.
    First of all; a beautiful, intelligent, post college virgin—-seriously??
    Secondly; a super rich gorgeous unattached bachelor? Talk about pure fiction! I agree that the writing is mediocre. How many times can you say 'inner goddess' and refer to 'lip biting'. Also the way too numerous e-mails. Not to mention 'my sex' –who has ever called it that? Don't know if I'll read the other 2 books.


  77. Anonymous

    I'm not sure why it is popular. It is yawn of a story and the writing is of high school quality. I didn't get through the first half of the first book. Fiction like this, except much better, has been around for a long time. This one wasn't the first. It's not new. I'd rather read Kitty Thomas any day. She can write beautiful stories with all the kink you could want and they are worth every cent. How 50 Shades made a fortune I'll never know.

  78. Steve

    Sex, drugs, and as they used to say rock and roll but for this generation its better put as sex, power, i'm more beautiful than you, and repeat over and over. Just how people get these things or use them doesn't matter as long as you can be ignorant enough to feed off your animal instincts and buy it.

  79. abbie

    the book has the right amount of romance and smut. That is why women bought it but the men are not fans. Too much romance and not enough smut.

    I wonder if the first versions were less "commercial" than the final version?


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

My blog has everything you need to know to write, edit, and publish a book. Can’t find what you need or want personalized help? Reach out.


I’m available for consultations, edits, query critiques, brainstorming, and more.



Need help with your query? Want to talk books? Check out the Nathan Bransford Forums!