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There’s Explosive Action Between The Pages As Publishers Play Catch-up With The Runaway Bestseller Fifty Shades Of Grey. By Paran Balakrishnan And Varuni Khosla   |   Published 23.09.12, 12:00 AM

Imagine for a moment that you’re an international publisher. You’ve been watching with increasing envy as Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic account of a sado-masochistic relationship, breaks all the records and becomes the biggest bestseller of all time. What would you do about it?

For most publishers, the answer to that one would be a no-brainer — you’d hunt for the next E.L. James, the London-based former TV producer (her real name is Erika Mitchell) who penned Fifty Shades almost in her spare time and self-published it on the Internet after she couldn’t find a publisher willing to take on the novel.

And that’s exactly what many big publishers have been doing. So, you have sexual romps like Haven of Obedience, Naughty and Bride Stripped Bare. Penguin India, the Big Daddy of the

Indian publishing industry, is turning over a new page with Bared to You by veteran author Sylvia Day, who has climbed to fame by churning a mix of erotica and vampire tales.

“Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. We have a number of books coming. up. This is the current trend for publishers,” says Daniel Watts, regional director, Pan Macmillan, which is bringing out eight books under the erotica head with names like Seduction, The Strip, Naughty and Untied. They’re even giving the classics a carnal twist with titles like Jane Eyre Laid Bare.

There’s big money at stake in the publishers’ quest for the next E.L. James. Fifty Shades has sold about 40 million books worldwide which puts it second only to the seven Harry Potter books put together.

Even in India, which has traditionally been coy about sex, Fifty Shades has been flying off the shelves at an extraordinary speed. Its publisher Random House says that 150,000 books have already been sold since it was released in this country in late April. “It’s not surprising other publishers are looking to the erotic genre and using the surge of interest created by Fifty Shades to release their own titles,” says Caroline Newbury, head of publicity and marketing at Random House Publishers India. Step inside any bookshop and it’s obvious that the Fifty Shades phenomenon is set to run and run. At one store, about 50 copies of the book are piled next to the cash counter, where they can easily be handed over to customers who ask for the title. Says Sidharth Pansari of Calcutta’s Crossword Bookstore: “We’ve been placing orders for the Fifty Shades series in the thousands. It’s always sold out.” Adds Priyanka Malhotra, director, Full Circle Publishing India: “A lot of people are coming to us and saying, ‘so we’ve read Fifty Shades, what are you bringing to your shelves next’?”

Jhoomur Bose’s Confessionally Yours is about a modern young woman and the sexual twists and
turns of her life

The publishers may draw fine lines but the fact is it’s tough to distinguish much of the erotica from good old-fashioned porn. What has changed is that big dollops of straightforward sex have become acceptable in today’s hi-tech world. So that’s how you have books like Haven of Obedience by author Marina Anderson, published by Little Brown and released in India by Hachette, and others like Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body from Harper Collins and more on the way.

Nikki Gemmell is a pseudonym and her first novel Destined to Play had over 100,000 downloads soon after it appeared on the Net. Perhaps not surprisingly, the publishing companies decided they couldn’t let this one go so her second novel With My Body was quickly snapped up. This one’s about a young girl in a passionate relationship with an older man who persuades her to try out all manner of kinky sex.

Or look at Haven of Obedience. The story — such as it is — revolves around Natalie, a commanding and controlling business woman who cannot seem to hold on to any of her relationships. Natalie’s life takes a complete U-turn when her friend Jan introduces her to a sex tutorial organisation, The Haven (you get the drift). This story line allows for the introduction of huge amounts of sex and every imaginable kink in the book. So, you have orgies (obviously essential for a student of sex) to old-fashioned S&M and even a dungeon or two where pretty maidens can be tied up. The book has only been released, so no sales figures are available for it yet.

Or take a look at the offerings from publishing house Harper Collins which has just released Destined to Play, the first of its erotic Indigo Bloome series. There are many more in the pipeline. “I feel erotica has always been on the list of publishing houses. There have been several age-old novels on erotica. We at Harper Collins too have a whole series on forbidden reads,” says V.K. Karthika, publisher and chief editor, Harper Collins India.

It should come as no surprise that, Harlequin, the publishers of the Mills & Boon books, is also racing to get into the act and spicing up its offerings for women with oodles of sex. Once upon a time, their romances ended with the heroine falling into the arms of her tall, dark, handsome and sexy hero. Now some of the novels are going into graphic detail on what happens next.

Harlequin has recently published two titles — 12 Shades of Surrender, Bound and 12 Shades of Surrender, Undone — under its Spice subsidiary label and is bringing both to India this month. “Harlequin has traditionally made erotic content available to readers, but it has now gained momentum. We are coming up with a few more stitles on erotica,” says Manish Singh, country manager, Harlequin Mills & Boon India. Another x-rated love story, The Siren, from Harlequin is also on its way to India in the not too distant future.

That this flood of erotica has been inspired by Fifty Shades is all too clear if you check out Amazon. “Want more than Fifty Shades? Mills & Boon have the answer with 12 Shades of Surrender!” says the online blurb for the Harlequin book.” Don’t miss the word shades used strategically there.

Slither by Indian American author Urmilla Deshpande is a collection of short stories with a distinctly dark edge

And Penguin India is advertising Bared to You as: Sexier, Hotter, Greyer. Yep, and if you are wondering why greyer, it’s a direct comparison with Fifty Shades and its millionaire hero Christian Grey who’s perfect in every way except that he has an inordinate fondness for sex with a touch of S&M thrown in. Bared to You, incidentally, is doing roaring sales abroad and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. The book, which was originally self-published on the Net, has now sold about 1.4 million copies — including print and digital — worldwide in the space of a few months.

Indian publishers have been relatively slow off the mark possibly because they serve a market that’s still relatively conservative compared to many other parts of the world. But even here you have young women willing to tell all — and occasionally bare all — without the coyness that might have inhibited their mothers.

Peep in to the world of Jhoomur Bose whose book Confessionally Yours is about a young journalist in a publication whose editor has been known to use the sF word 28 times in a sentence. The book starts with a bang — literally. The first chapter’s called Sex, Sweat and Sharon Stone and starts out: “The first time I had sex I remember it being very sweaty.” Bose, was originally commissioned after her lively blog was spotted.

And Westland (under the Tranquebar label) can rightfully claim that it has been publishing volumes of erotica long before Fifty Shades turned the publishing world upside down. Westland has volumes of erotica like Blue, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka. The volume has been put together by a noted Sri Lankan author Ameena Hussein and she has persuaded several emerging stars in the Sri Lankan literary firmament to offer their short stories on sexual encounters of a very day-to-day kind. So, you have stories like Me and Ms J, a young woman’s account of her lesbian encounter with her teacher, and Undercover by Ameena Hussein about a young woman’s anonymous encounters in a movie theatre.

Also, Tranquebar released other books in 2011. There was Electric Feather, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and also Close to Close, The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. More recently there has been Slither: Carnal Prose by Indian American author, Urmilla Deshpande, which is a collection of 18 short stories with a distinctly dark edge. Says Deshpande: “It was a conscious attempt to name my book ‘carnal prose’ and not erotica, to distinguish it from any other erotic prose. There’s a difference about writing for deliberate arousal and writing about sexuality.”

But so far the homegrown bare-all-and-tell writers haven’t racked up huge sales yet.

Don’t imagine that the book trade is being bashful about selling volumes that might once upon a time have been consigned to the top shelves of bookstores, tucked away from all but those who knew where to look. In fact, the success of Fifty Shades has come at an important time when everyone is watching nervously to gauge what the impact of the Internet and e-readers like Kindle will be on the publishing trade. Bear in mind also that financially times are tough. The venerable US book chain Barnes & Noble announced a loss of $147 million this year and conceded that this figure might have been much larger if it hadn’t been for the income that came in from Fifty Shades.

E.L. James’s Fifty Shades has sold about 40 million books worldwide, second only to the Harry Potter series. Picture by Michael Lionstar

Says Thomas Abraham, publisher, Hachette India: “Any trend that boosts sales is good for the industry. And it’s great that every few years there is a breakout category. A few years ago it was vampires with Stephenie Meyer, and now it’s Fifty Shades, whatever category you choose to put it under.”

What do these unabashed tales of sex, tell us about society? The fact, is that the Internet has put sex and even pornography within easy reach of everyone including the underage. And that’s changing people’s attitudes even in conservative countries like India — at least among the middle class. Most importantly, women are stepping forth to talk about sex more than they ever did in recent decades. Says clinical psychologist, Aruna Broota: “Even 10 years ago, this did not happen in this country. Now women are talking about their (sexual) needs.”

Will the shelves in all the top bookstores be crammed with more and more erotic from now on? Publishers reckon it’s too early to say: Says Abraham: “Right now it’s a fad. A wave from the West resulting in a curiosity buzz here and corresponding sales. Whether it makes the transition from fad to trend remains to be seen.”

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