Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Fifty Shades of Hype

As a noun, we now consider hype to mean ‘extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion’ and as a verb, ‘to promote or publicize a product or idea intensively, often exaggerating its importance or benefits.’ I think that we can all basically agree with those two definitions. But how many of you have ever heard of the ‘Hype Cycle’?

It consists of a trigger, peak, trough, slope and plateau. Naturally the trigger is what sets the whole thing off. This is followed by a rocketlike climb to the ‘peak of inflated expectations’, which in turn is followed by the ‘trough of disillusionment’. You hear about a thing…you love a thing…then you are disappointed when the reality of what it is, sets in.

But while reality is part of our minute-to-minute existence, so is realization and that realization is usually contrary to our two knee-jerk reactions: first climbing the peak and then plummeting to the trough. So we realize that maybe that thing wasn’t a great as we had hoped but it surely isn’t as bad as we thought, so we begin to climb the ‘slope of enlightenment’ until we reach the ‘plateau or productivity’ or in other words the ‘mudflats of the mundane and the mediocre’.

Such has it been with many of the ‘mega-sellers’ in the book world. Some start with word-of-mouth, others with a good review or even a great review in a well-respected newspaper or magazine like The Times or The New Yorker.

Bloomsbury in London was so entranced by J.K. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that they only printed five hundred copies of it. Stephen King gets three times that number for his Limited Editions! But word-of-mouth and reviews—the odd award thrown in for good measure—made the rest of the seven-book series sell almost half-a-billion copies worldwide. The hype surrounding the final four instalments was monumental with people lining up for hours to be able to get one of the first copies when they went on sale, sometimes at midnight on the release date.

The bookstores were delivered the book in advance but there was actually an embargo placed on the books under a severe threat—that they not be sold until the release date. When it’s a book about wizards, you don’t play around with breaking embargos.

Dan Brown had published three books (Deception Point, Digital Fortress and then Angels and Demons) before he hit the motherlode with The DaVinci Code. The hype around DaVinci was worldwide even to the point where author Lewis Perdue accused Brown of plagiarism for allegedly copying his books Daughter of God and The DaVinci Legacy. Perdue lost the lawsuit launched by Random House (Brown’s publisher) but the ideas of the books are strikingly similar.

That is what keeps many writers plodding along when they see a single mother who had to write her book in a coffee shop—because she couldn’t afford the 50p for the gas heater in her apartment—become a billionaire and a relatively obscure thriller writer increase his net worth to over than $100-million!

There’s always that hope, that thin chance, that one of us will hit it big. A few years ago, a woman with absolutely NO writing experience had a dream about a girl and a vampire falling in love. She wrote down her dream at it eventually became Twilight and Stephenie Meyer also became astoundingly wealthy. The hype about Twilight spawned another three books along with films (that’s where the Hollywood hype machine takes hype to another level).

And now we have Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (the pseudonym of Erika Leonard), a woman who had read history at the University of Kent and who had been in television production since then. When she read Twilight she became a fan and under the pseudonym ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’, she began an episodic story using Meyer’s characters Edward Cullan and Bella Swan. Due to the sexual nature of the story, including bondage and sado-masochism (he IS a vampire after all!!) she removed her story from the fan-fiction websites and created her own website.

While initially titled Master of the Universe, James changed the names of the main characters to Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. She then reworked and expanded the story and broke it into three parts. Fifty Shades of Grey (being the first part), was initially published by an Australian print-on-demand publishing house, The Writers’ Coffee Shop (with no nods to Joanne Rowling I imagine).

So a year ago in May 2011, it was released but with a limited publicity budget, most of the hype here was word-of-mouth. The second volume, Fifty Shades Darker was released in September 2011 and the final volume, Fifty Shades Freed followed in January 2012.

The Vintage imprint of Random House picked up the rights to all three books and in April 2012, the three were released with great fanfare and massive hype to an eager thirty-or-forty-something female population. That target audience is the primary reason for the tag ‘mommy porn’ which has been attached to this trilogy almost since the print-on-demand copies were first reviewed.

Finally, hype has other things that it creates, apart from the initial trigger, peak, trough, slope and plateau. It also produces copycats. Sometimes it can create an entire sub-genre like The Hunt for Red October when it created the ‘techno-thriller’ in the mid 1980s. When the Harry Potter series became super-popular, there was an avalanche of young adult fantasy books, most nowhere near as good as the originals.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series had many copycats and most, if not all, using the same style for the cover art: black and white soft focus with usually only one predominant colour. So over the next months expect to see tons of ‘mommy porn’, some better-written, some not but all riding the coattails of Fifty Shades of Grey and the ever-present hype machine.

I can even seen food guru and butter-lover, Paula Deen bringing out her next book…Fifty Shades of Gravy.

Al Navis is the owner of Handy Book in Toronto for the past 28 years, a used and out-of-print independent bookstore. He was chairman and host of Bouchercon: The World Mystery Convention in 1992 and 2004. He has also been on and off Toronto radio for over 30 years. Books are his business and first passion. Other passions are most sports (except basketball), most music (except C&W and rap) and radio. More recently he has gotten back into editing and writing as well as appraising book collections for insurance or for loss.

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