So this sixtysomething lady pops into her local bookshop looking for Fifty Shades of Grey. Her name is Mary. She's an aficionado of what you might call niche publishing except that the niche isn't hardcore S&M-laced erotica. ''Mary's very well known to us for buying extremely rare and interesting books about the history of embroidery,'' says Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich. ''I said, 'Mary, do you know what this book is?' She said, 'Yes, I do. I have a very elderly friend who's in the hospital and I read books to her. She asked me to read this to her.''' Rooney pauses and laughs. ''So she's going to read it,'' she says. ''I hope her friend has a private room!''
Hundreds of thousands have already spent quality private time with Fifty Shades of Grey, by first-time British author E L James, along with the follow-ups Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Until now, readers the great majority of them women have had to order hard-to-find paperback copies, printed on demand by the small Australian publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop. Even more have downloaded the titles as e-books, taking advantage of the anonymity of discreet little e-readers, where no book can be judged by its cover. This month, Vintage Books expects hundreds of thousands more to join the naughty party with the American publication of the trilogy, for which the Random House division paid a cool or is it hot? seven figures. ''The books are already mainstream hits because the reader response to them has been extraordinary, fueled by explosive word of mouth among women,'' says Vintage publisher Anne Messitte. ''We have had to double our initial print run, from 250,000 copies to 500,000 copies.'' Meanwhile, after being wooed by all manner of Hollywood heavyweights, James just sold the movie rights to Fifty Shades of Grey to Universal and Focus Features for what's rumored to be close to $5 million and, even better, approval of scripts and casting.
That's a lot of ink and high hopes for a trio of dirty books that began as unpolished website fan fiction offering a kinky twist on the Twilight saga. And tied to those great expectations is the recognition that erotica + fan fiction + a book-buying female readership liberated by a choice in literary delivery systems = a whole new garden of opportunities for the publishing world in the digital age.