It would be a bit of an understatement to say E L James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” had an effect on publishing world. Looking back over the decade since its publication, the novel, which started out as fan fiction, morphed into a juggernaut, impacting both publishing and pop culture at large.
“My goal was to sell 5,000 books and to maybe see the book one day be on bookshelves,” says James. “It was just ridiculous, you know, the speed at which everything happened and the escalation of everything. It was amazing. What can I say? It was totally crazy.”
The novel first popped up on USA TODAY’s radar in February 2012, when it debuted on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list at no. 132. In a matter of months, it topped the list at No. 1 and remained there for 20 consecutive weeks, with follow-ups “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed” rounding out the top 3. It later return to the top spot two more times. Not only did “Grey” sell more than 15 million copies, making it the no. 1 book of the decade in the U.S., it is also the No. 2 book of all time on USA TODAY’s bestsellers list.
Just in time for the book’s 10th anniversary, Bloom Books is releasing a special, limited edition hardcover of “Fifty Shades of Grey” today. Only 20,000 copies are available. Special editions of “Fifty Shades Darker” and and of “Fifty Shades Freed” will be released in August and October.
Gone is the ubiquitous book cover of old, replaced by a silver flourish on a dark blue background. The design, a wink and a nod to Ana and Christian’s relationship, came from James herself: Look closely and you’ll see the flourish is really a whip. “I just thought, why don’t we do this and (the publisher) said yes!” A silver ribbon in the book is a nod to the original cover’s iconic tie.
James looks back at the past decade of “Fifty Shades of Grey” with USA TODAY.
Exclusive reveal:E L James ‘Freed: Fifty Shades’ cover is a nod to bonds of marriage
Question: Before “Fifty Shades of Grey” you wrote fan fiction for “Twilight.” Did you write other fan fiction?
E L James: Yes and no. I had never heard of fan fiction until after I discovered “Twilight,” and I’ve only ever written that. But a few years ago I remembered that my friend Jemima and I – we went to school (together) – used to write “Starsky & Hutch” fan fiction for each other. (laughs) So I guess “Twilight” was not my first (time) dabbling in fan fiction, but it wasn’t called fan fiction back then.
Q: What was it about “Twilight” that made you want to write fan fiction?
James: I had seen the movie and I really enjoyed the movie, and I remember that Christmas I said to my husband, I really want the books, because I hadn’t read the books. I sat down and read all of the books in five days. It was like a holiday. I had two reasonably small kids as well. Just ignored my children and had a vacation. It was a fantastic vacation. I just was completely consumed by the story. I thought it was masterfully told… I sat down and I’d always wanted to write, and it was like, let’s give this a go! I started writing a story and I wrote another story, and then I discovered fan fiction and I (thought), this is marvelous. I’ll have a go at this, and then I started writing what would eventually become “Fifty Shades.”
Q: Have you ever met Stephenie Meyer?
James: No, I haven’t. I’d love to, a great deal. She just flipped the switch and she (inspired) so many people and so many of my author friends met through the “Twilight” fan fiction world… I’m a Twihard through and through.
Q: “Fifty Shades of Grey” landed on USA TODAY’s Best Selling Books list and quickly went to No. 1 and stayed there for 20 weeks. What was your reaction?
James: It was amazing. I mean, I’ve said this many times. My husband and I call it the year of the great madness.
Q: Along with the success came backlash, specifically in 2015 during a Twitter Q&A. Did it surprise you?
James: No, I’m a successful woman. A successful, middle-aged, overweight woman.
Q: So you expected the haters?
James: I did. Oh God, yes… I spent half an hour before saying, “Guys, you need to get on top of this trolling,” and then it happened and I didn’t actually see any of it. It was fun. And it was one of those things where you think, “I’m not sure if this is a good idea,” and it just makes you think to trust your gut always… If you put yourself out there and you become phenomenally successful, people will be absolutely and utterly (expletive) to you… I’ve got quite sanguine about it. I try and avoid it. I don’t want to upset people. I hadn’t set out to upset people.
Q: Some say you brought the BDSM community into the mainstream. Did you set out to do that?
James: I didn’t mean to, and actually (Fifty Shades) isn’t a BDSM story. And also it’s not about the BDSM community. It’s about these two people. I have had at least seven submissives, women who are in the sub lifestyle, who’ve come to my book signings and said, “This is my life. Thank you for writing this.” And I just think this might be your (the reader’s) life. This is just these two people… These books shouldn’t be carrying the weight of the BDSM community on them.
Q: Some critics also thought that Ana and Christian’s relationship was somewhat toxic.
James: It’s their relationship. It’s not called “Fifty Shades of Black and White.” It’s called “Fifty Shades of Grey.” So there we go. It’s their relationship. People project what they think these people should be doing. People are random. People are strange. I mean, Christian is probably one of the most damaged people that I’ve ever had come into contact with, so what you think of it is down to you.
Q: You were a producer on all the films. How hands-on were you, or were you just a fan watching the film?
James: I wasn’t a fan very much. It’s very hard having your work interpreted by other people. The first film I’ve only seen once. The other two films were so much better. The films were a real learning curve for me… The actors did a fantastic job and I think Dakota (Johnson) especially was great.
Q: Looking back over the past 10 years, what has been the highlight for you?
James: I think of the response from people who love it and the letters, and I get quite emotional even thinking about it. I think about the people who have told me they’ve managed to conceive a child when they haven’t been able to. How it’s helped them through their chemotherapy or having a kidney transplant, or they’ve lost someone that they love… You think about all of the hate, but the thing that counts is the people that we’ve really touched… I think that’s just extraordinary.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
James: Oh, I hope I’m lying on a beach with a very large cocktail. That would be really nice (laughing). I have lots of stories I want to tell, so I’m continuing to write and I’m enjoying it.
Q: Will we be seeing a continuation of “Fifty Shades”? Or is the end of it for Ana and Christian?
James: I think by writing “Freed,” which is from Christian’s point of view, I filled in some of the gaps and we find out more about him and you know, why he is the way he is… I think that we’ve left them in a good place.