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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Literature's grey area

The sellout success of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is transforming not only the book industry here, but bedrooms too.
The New Paper - September 7, 2012
By: Christopher Lim & Helmi Yusof
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Literature's grey area 'That the Singapore Writers Festival has chosen to highlight this genre as part of their programme says much of the amount of interest this genre has attained'rn- A spokesman for book distributor Pansing on the the trilogy by E L James that captured t

LITERARY sensation Fifty Shades Of Grey may have started out as fan fiction inspired by the Twilight vampire-romance books, but it's turned into a bona fide movement that's shaken the publishing industry worldwide and hasn't left Singapore unmarked in bookstores or bedrooms.

The three novels in the series by British author E L James have reportedly sold more than 30 million copies globally - and there's even a movie series in the pipeline. This time, the swooning fans are neither tweens nor teens, but married women between 30 and 60 obsessed with the kinky yet romantic relationship between a university student and her billionaire lover.

The adult spending power of this demographic helps to explain why the sales of just three books surpassed that of the entire seven-volume Harry Potter series on Amazon UK and, after months, remains at the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list and Nielsen Bookscan rankings in the United States.

And the relative success of Fifty Shades has been no less spectacular here. An estimated 150,000 printed copies have been sold in Singapore between the two distributors here, MPH and Pansing. Walk into a Prologue bookstore today and you'll find the three Fifty Shades titles taking pride of place on the No 1, 2 and 3 spots on the bestseller bookshelf. The experience is replicated in Prologue's sister chain, Popular, where the series remains in the Top 10 spots, according to a spokesman for their parent company, Popular Holdings.

Browse through a Popular bookstore's Highlights section and numerous copycats abound, such as Haven of Obedience, Destined To Play, The Diary of a Submissive and Desire Becomes Her. There's even another erotic trilogy with the painful title of Eighty Days of Yellow - as if having a numeric and a colour in the title would guarantee a literary blockbuster.

Spawning copycats

Without a doubt, Fifty Shades has spawned more copycats than Twilight or Harry Potter ever did. And book distributor Pansing, which brought in the UK editions of Fifty Shades trilogy, seems to be betting on the erotic literature surge being more than a fad, with its plans to stock more erotic titles like Jane Eyre Laid Bare and a trilogy by Tobsha Learner sexily titled Quiver, Tremble and Yearn, based on momentum from Fifty Shades.

Laugh all you want, but these copycats sell. The Popular Holdings spokesman says that Bared to You, by Sylvia Day, which was released in June and has been hailed as the next Fifty Shades, is right behind the Fifty Shades trilogy in sales.

And MPH, which brought in the US editions of the Fifty Shades books and has both distribution and retail channels, has done a lot of business, thanks to the combined interest from imitators in erotic literature.

"As a result of the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades, a lot of other erotic fiction is also getting the limelight and shelf space," says Carine Toh, MPH Distributors' senior marketing executive. "Individually, the titles are selling just 200 to 300 copies but, collectively, this new genre is giving the bookshops a tremendous boost in sales," she adds.

Of course, none of the pretenders to the throne can match the pull of the original trilogy. "It has remained on the top four spots of the MPH Bookstores Fiction Bestsellers List since late May," says Ms Toh. "Currently MPH Bookstores have been chalking up sales of 1,000 copies each of the three titles every week," she adds.

"The boxed sets were introduced later in mid-June and MPH Bookstores have sold almost 3,000 units since then. We just hope the interest will not wane in the coming months."

A spokesman for Pansing says that the success of the series could be due in part to the "massive news and online media coverage that trickled down from the US to the rest of the world", in addition to strong word-of-mouth buzz. He adds that the e-book version - the medium the series was originally released in - also has the benefit of being discreet thanks to the ability to read e-books on phones and tablets, without displaying titles or cover art for the world to see - and judge. "This also made the genre more visible and, strangely, more readers are picking up these books openly in the bookstores," the spokesman says. "That the Singapore Writers Festival has chosen to highlight this genre as part of their programme says much of the amount of interest this genre has attained," he adds.

"It's too early now to say how these other titles have done or would do compared to Fifty Shades. But publishers are aware of the phenomenon and will release similar titles in this genre to provide Fifty Shades fans with more selections."

The discreet nature of e-books could explain why Fifty Shades is also a bestseller on SingTel's skoob e-book store, in spite of the fact that the e-book industry here is still nascent.

"The Fifty Shades series has been very popular with skoob customers, as well as similarly titled novels such as Between Shades of Gray," says Cheong Hai Thoo, SingTel head of multimedia, referring in the latter case to the novel by Ruta Sepetys that isn't a spin-off or even erotic, but could have well benefited from spillover publicity from Fifty Shades given that, about a week ago, the book was coincidentally the No 50 bestseller on skoob, which is a decent ranking for a debut novel.

"Many skoob customers have been swept up in the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and this may have led to a surge in the sales of novels of the same genre or with similar-looking titles," says Cheong. "For example, Beth Kery's eight-book romance series Because You Are Mine, which is $2.64 a book, has been very popular with skoob customers," he adds.

It isn't just the Fifty Shades e-books that are discreet. Even their print counterparts are relatively subdued. MPH's Toh says that the subtle aesthetics of the Fifty Shades books could help account for their popularity in print. Women want to read romance - they just don't necessarily want to advertise to the world what they are reading. "Perhaps the staid book cover is a good disguise for the female customers," she says. "The other erotic novels usually use very sexy or racy covers and greatly appeal to male readers. Somehow, male readers are more visual in nature," the spokesman adds.

And with popularity and media visibility has come a measure of mainstream acceptance. The Popular spokesman notes that the erotic fiction genre "has been around for years", but that "the success of Fifty Shades made it all right for women to read this genre openly and talk about it".

Books aren't the only products doing well. In the US and UK, sex toys have seen a rise in demand as curious readers put down their money to find out exactly what "spreader bars" and "ben wa balls" can do for them. Although these props have been around for years, they seem to be enjoying unprecedented popularity. Ann Summers, the British lingerie and sex toys company, reported a 78 per cent jump in retail sales of sex toys in July compared with the same month last year.

In Singapore, online store discreetlysextoys.com reports a 50 per cent jump in sales since the release of Fifty Shades. "Whether our sales increased because of the books is plausible speculation as there are other factors in play. But the books definitely help," says discreetlysextoys.com owner Jessica Li. "And it is not just Singaporeans who are buying. The tourists and expats are driving sales too," she adds. Anecdotally, women here are getting more curious thanks to Fifty Shades and the buzz surrounding it. Melissa Ong, 45, a happily married housewife with three children, says she's had a chat with her husband about purchasing "some items" online, but refuses to say what they are.

"I can only say that one is more for the woman, and the other one is more for the man," she says.

Aren't these toys available at adult shops in Singapore? "I don't know - I've never stepped into them, and neither has my husband. But we might purchase them online just to try."

PR consultant Gina Daryanani, 25, who is engaged, says: "I Googled what, for instance, a 'flogger' looks like because I had no idea what the book was talking about and I couldn't understand what the protagonist was feeling when they were being used on her. After I saw these objects, I couldn't help but laugh.

Re-igniting the bedroom

"And no, I have no intention of using them when I get married. There's fiction and then there's reality."

Set in Seattle, the story is narrated by 21-year-old student Anastasia who goes to interview 28-year-old billionaire Christian Grey for her school newspaper. The attraction is mutual and they eventually go on a date, where he tells her he's into BDSM - which, for the chaste, means "bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism". As the novels put it, he likes to "flog, spank, whip or corporally punish" his women.

Anastasia agrees to have a relationship with him, but instead of being a complete submissive, she starts standing up for herself and making demands on him, upsetting the balance in their master-servant relationship. In the process, he falls in love with her and eventually marries her.

Sex toy sales aside, the novels have reportedly re-ignited the passion for many long-time married couples in the US and the UK.

Linda Koh, a 41-year-old housewife and former banker, has been married for 15 years. She says candidly: "I quit my job 13 years ago to raise our twin boys. And, you know, when you've been married for so long, romance falls by the wayside - especially when you have kids. "But since I began reading these books, I told my husband that we need to go on dates again - like we used to when we were young and having fun." "And, of course," she adds bashfully, "our date nights have naturally led to other things. Not surprisingly, my husband is really pleased with my reading the books - even though he found them very boring when he tried to read them himself - he would always skip to the sex parts."

Housewife Azizah Y, 38, who did not wish to give her full name, says: "To be honest, I have not always enjoyed sex. I didn't always - how to put it? - understand sex. But funnily enough, I understood the book and I understood the characters and why they do what they do. And it's made me see sex in a different way. And it's changing my relationship with my husband."

Madam Koh and Madam Azizah both feel that the National Library Board's decision to take the novel off its shelves is a "rash" and "short-sighted" one. They think Fifty Shades is helping to demystify sex and desire for many women.

But what is so special about these novels that make women - stereotypically more prudish than men - take to them like fish to water? After all, BDSM is something most people shy away from and associate with pornography - not bedside reading, let alone marriage manual guides.

Even smart, successful women who normally consider such books beneath their literary IQ are lapping up the trilogy and turning them it into meal-time conversation topics with their colleagues and partners.

Charmaine Loh, a 26-year-old civil servant, says: "I started talking about it during lunch with my male and female colleagues, and we began a frank discussion of what turns women and men on."

Many readers echo Ms Loh's explanation for the novel's appeal: "Beneath all the sex, Fifty Shades is just really a very romantic novel. Here is this handsome gazillionaire whom every woman wants. But he only has eyes for Anastasia, who is just an average-looking girl. Though she is not very attractive, he compliments her all the time and boost her self-confidence.

"At first, he is very domineering and wants her to be his BDSM slave - which was a little frightening for me to read. But though she agrees to accept some of his demands, she gradually learns to stand up for herself and makes demands of her own. She changes him and he changes her. They learn to compromise and accept and appreciate each other for what they are. They end up loving each other so much, they get married."

In short, the books offer the fantasy of the life-transforming romance every right-minded human being yearns for.

So why aren't the men reading it too?

Communications executive Ma Ming Wai, 36, says it best: "Men don't read these sorts of things. We watch these things. We need the visuals. Otherwise, we don't get it. Women, on the other hand, prefer to think, feel and imagine sex. In their minds, the book's sex scenes can look as smutty as they want it to be - or as romantic as they want it to be."

If Fifty Shades has indeed prompted a minor sexual revolution in the Singapore bedroom, imagine what these other books - if they're any good - will do.

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