50 Shades of Grey (James 2011) is the fastest selling book of all time, selling six times the amount of digital copies as paper copies (Acuna 2012). ‘High art’ pundits have almost universally panned the literary skills of EL James, but most concede that there’s a guilty pleasure in reading it, with one critic saying “If this is the future of publishing, things could be a lot worse” (Colgan 2012) The phenomenon has commonly been rationalized as having been enabled by the fairly recent advent of digital self-publishing, as though this technological determinism is the only possible way to explain the uptake of James’ “unequivocally dreadful prose” (O’Toole 2012). To help the critics sleep at night once again, I will create some support for the theory of the success of 50 Shades of Grey as being technologically determined. But then, unfortunately, I have to temper that with some social and cultural factors that have, let’s face it, equally driven its production and sales.
The case for technological determinism and “50SoG”
Maxwell describes technological determinism in fairly ‘lay’ terms, saying “Technological determinism suggests that technological development has a logic of its own . . . that progress is inevitable, that technology gets better (cheaper, faster and more mobile) over time” (Maxwell 2012). He cites the example of music going almost completely digital with the arrival of the iPod, and says that the technologically deterministic assumption was that books would go ‘e’ or ‘i’ too. The scale, speed and volume of sales of 50 Shades of Grey has been enabled by digital publishing, the price and convenience permitting readers to exercise less purchasing discretion. The novel was initially self-published online as ‘fan fiction’; The internet gives would-be ‘amateurs’ democratic access to the publishing world. Finally, critics have cited the Kindle as reducing the social stigma attached to reading ‘trash’ in public places like the subway (Slate 2012). In all of these instances the technology is framed as having “(set) the conditions for social change” (Williams 2003, p. 5).
The case against technological determinism for 50SoG
Undermining the argument for technologically enabled success, is the fact that large scale sharing of fan-fiction is an off-label, socially and culturally constructed use of the internet. The form has actually been around since the 40s; As such, technology is not in fact “central” to this genre (Williams 2003, p. 6). In addition, Pan MacMillan’s digital VP believes that the eBook is a bit of a misnomer, a product of the book industry’s obsession with sales of reading devices (in Maxwell 2012). She insists that the ‘product’ is the content, which has been consumed via multiple platforms for some time, for example, the internet and digital audiobooks. While the digital angle of 50 Shades has been much-hyped, James’ audience is very fragmented – the paperback version is the fastest selling book of all time (Acuna 2012). Many high-culture commentators struggle to believe that James could possibly sell her work for social or cultural reasons. But here are just a few: Maybe people like to be titillated; maybe we’re suckers for online hype; maybe it’s a recession and we women secretly want some hot weirdo to buy us expensive presents (Daum 2009).
Acuna, K 2012. By the Numbers: The ‘50 Shades of Grey’ Phenomenon, Business Insider, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://www.businessinsider.com/by-the-numbers-the-50-shades-of-grey-phenomenon-2012-6?op=1>.
Colgan, J 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/13/fifty-shades-grey-el-james-review>.
Daum, M 2009, ‘The recession heats up romance novels’, LA Times, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/04/opinion/oe-daum4>.
James, EL 2011, 50 Shades of Grey, Vintage Books, London.
Maxwell, J 2010, ‘Ebooks and Technological Determinism’, viewed 11 January 2013, <http://thinkubator.ccsp.sfu.ca/wikis/PUB802/EbooksAndTechnologicalDeterminism>.
O’Toole, E 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey is no one-handed erotic read for me but …’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013,
Slate 2012, ‘The Audio Book Club on Fifty Shades of Grey’, podcast, viewed 11 January 2013,
Williams, Raymond 2003, “The technology and the society” in Williams, E (ed.), Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge Classics, London, pp. 1-25.