The PR and media machine’s drumbeat is so hard to drown out. This past weekend at Baycon, we were privileged to make a number of new friends, and get to know great writers like Leslie Ann Moore and Deborah Pratt. When talking with Leslie, the topic of “50 Shades of Grey” came up. Those books were bestsellers, no question, I said — but just how much? And did those sales hold up over time? I told Leslie I could probably get some in-depth answers pretty fast.
Answer: no, sales of the 50 Shades trilogy did not hold up over time. The books had more than a 90 percent year-to-year dropoff between 2012 and 2013. There’s no way to tell for certain, but overprinting could be one reason for high book returns for 50 Shades‘ parent company in 2012 as well.
According to AG Bertelsmann’s annual report to shareholders, 50 Shades of Grey sold seven million print, digital and audiobook copies in 2013, including English, German and Spanish-language editions. The sales figures are for the 50 Shades trilogy, which were all published by Vintage Books (imprint of Penguin Random House) starting in March, 2012. The company’s annual report for 2012 notes that 70 million copies of the trilogy were sold between March and December 2012. The biggest bestseller for Penguin Random House in 2013 was Dan Brown’s Inferno, with a reported 7 million copies sold; the report noted that 7 million copies of the 50 Shades books also sold (in a different location of the report); overall, that doesn’t quite “add up” with all the information, all-told across the Penguin Random House portion of the report. But even if we give the 50 Shades books the total, it doesn’t add up to the 100 million books “officially reported” in several news locations. 70 million plus 7 million = 77 million, not 100 million. And from 70 million sold in one year to 7 the next = 90 percent dropoff.
In 2012, Penguin Random House made over 315 million Euros, with its reported 70 million 50 Shades books sold, but they also experienced a high rate of return on sales — 15.2 percent — with a rate of a little over 10 percent the prior year, and 11.5 percent returns noted in 2013.
The 50 Shades books appear on numerous online lists of the “bestselling books of all time.” Yet the Harry Potter books, which may or may not appear on such lists, have officially sold over 450 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 69 languages. The Guardian reported 400 million copies sold of the Harry Potter books in 2008; it’s likely they’ve crossed the 500 million mark by now. The final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 11 million copies on its first day of release in the U.S. and U.K., according to a Time Magazine overview of the series.
Can the 50 Shades books have outsold their inspiration? It’s unlikely. The story of Christian and Ana was originally fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series. These books are published by a different company, Little, Brown, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group/Lagardere. The four Twilight books are estimated to have sold over 130 million copies worldwide, according to Forbes Magazine in 2013, yet they typically do not appear on online book lists, and there are only a few publicity releases saying they’re among “the bestselling books of all time.” Actual figures are difficult to come by, but the difference between the movie revenues for the 50 Shades of Grey film ($166 million) and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II ($292 million) show differences in overall level of interest that publicity releases and poorly-made online lists of “bestselling books of all time” can’t mask.
And these are just figures among books which have some similarities (50 Shades and the inspiration, the Twilight books). What about other popular recent book series that have also inspired movies?
According to Dan Brown himself, his books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide. The Robert Langdon series of books (Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and the other two) are reported to have sold over 120 million copies by their publisher (the same publisher as the 50 Shades books). The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins are reported to have sold 65 million copies. Considering the difference between the gross of the Hunger Games movies (Mockingjay: $440 million gross) and similar films (see Twilight, above), and Scholastic’s tendency to exact reporting, it’s likely that these books, in reality, have sold more copies than the 50 Shades hyped total of “100 million copies sold.”
If you believe the hype machine, you’ll think that books about masochistic sex and stalky, hyper-controlling billionaires and 21 year old virgins experiencing this type of relationship for the first time are all people want to read. You might think that people’s reading abilities aren’t very good, and they just don’t get books with complex subject matter, strong young heroines, or plotlines about mysteries at the Vatican. You might even think that young people prefer reading about domineering, sexually-demanding men like Christian Grey, and young women who think they can “fix” guys like that if they just have enough sex with them, like Ana (whose last name escapes me … and I won’t look it up). One of those millions of copies of 50 Shades sold was to me: I was assigned to write an article about it when the phenomenon first hit, and I thought it would be wrong and unfair not to buy and read the book.
People are people. They can get curious, and the 50 Shades hype, along with its good first chapters, hooked a lot of people. But as the New York Times noted in its likely-untrue report that 50 Shades had legit sold over 100 million copies, “the book’s success didn’t translate into a new interest in other erotic romance books.”
Here’s another data point. One bestselling author you may not have heard of is Iris Johansen — when I ask my students which authors they most enjoy reading, one or more students mentions Iris Johansen in every class. According to Iris’ own website, she has had 17 consecutive New York Times bestsellers, and earlier this year, her book on the NY Times bestseller list was the only one with a diverse main character (Catherine Ling, an Asian woman) and a non-stereotypical thriller plot. I haven’t read a book by Iris recently, but I recall her work as fast-paced, featuring realistic female characters, and very readable. You can tell she maintains her own website (with the help of her son and daughter) and is also a down to earth person. Hype and reality are seldom one and the same. I guess that’s why they call it “hype.”
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Originally published at www.amysterlingcasil.com on May 25, 2015.