Saturday, April 21, 2018
Books

'50 Shades' turns up the heat on e-book sales

What's black and white and Grey all over?

The book industry in 2012.

E.L. James' blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey erotic trilogy dominated (sorry) bestseller lists and book news from March through the end of the year, with 35 million copies sold in the United States alone.

But that is less a sign of a new blush of popularity for erotica — which, after all, has been around at least since early humans began chipping pictographs into rocks — and more an example of the exploding power of the e-book.

James' books broke no new ground with their subject matter (and, in terms of writing, they're dreadful). They simply hit the sweet spot at which female readers seemed to realize en masse they could indulge in something spicy on their e-readers without anyone else seeing a book jacket and tut-tutting. And Grey is just one chapter in the ongoing epic of the growth of digital delivery of books.

The trilogy's 2012 dominance (although part of it was originally published in 2011) led Publishers Weekly to name James its Person of the Year. And Grey definitely had a silver lining for Random House: The books' exuberant sales meant that all of the publishers' employees, from top editors to warehouse workers, got $5,000 bonuses this month.

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was back in the news this year for a couple of reasons. One was digital: The April launch of her Pottermore website brought new content to fans and also made the seven novels about the boy wizard available as e-books for the first time. The other was the September publication of Rowling's first novel for adult readers, The Casual Vacancy. A gritty social satire about a small English town, it met with mixed reviews but sold a million copies in its first three weeks.

This was an election year, so candidate biographies abounded. But the presidential books that made the biggest splashes on bestseller lists were about assassinations: Killing Lincoln (a bestseller for 15 months now) and Killing Kennedy (released in October), both by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.

Killing Lincoln was dinged for factual errors, but its fate has been much gentler than that of Jonah Lehrer's nonfiction book Imagine: How Creativity Works. After numerous examples of plagiarism and fabrication (such as nonexistent Bob Dylan quotes) in the bestselling book were exposed in July, it was pulled from sale by its publisher, and Lehrer resigned from his plum staff position at the New Yorker.

Closer to home, the Tampa Bay area had a starring role in one of the year's big novels. Live by Night by Dennis Lehane, who has a home in St. Petersburg, is a gripping gangster tale set largely in Ybor City during Prohibition. Tampa resident Michael Connelly published his 25th book, The Black Box, which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in November. Connelly received the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction in September.

Death turned the last page on several major authors this year, among them feminist poet Adrienne Rich, science fiction lion Ray Bradbury, witty journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron, caustically erudite novelist Gore Vidal and beloved children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

One of the greatest living American authors put down his pen voluntarily. At 79, Philip Roth announced that, after an accomplished career spanning half a century, his "struggle with writing is over." He's happily working with his biographer — and catching up on his reading.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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