Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why 50 Shades of Grey is fine by me

50 Shades of Grey recently beat out Harry Potter/Deathly Hollows to become Britain's best-selling book of all time. In any language, in any country, the book is a smash -- except with critics and those in the literary community. 50 Shades has been bashed as a poorly-written piece of crap. I haven't read the books, so I can't judge, but all I hear are negative things about it. Awkward dialogue, paper-thin characters (which are based on someone else's characters), simplistic plot. I'll admit, when I first heard about 50 Shades' success, I got ticked off. We perfect our manuscripts and query letters and get rejected over the slightest shortcoming, but then EL James comes out with amateurish Twilight fan fiction and is a hit. And even Twilight has received its fair share of crappy reviews. Add it to the list of ways the world is unfair.

But you know, I'm actually happy about 50 Shades' record-breaking success. I'm always happy when a book sells like gangbusters. Books like 50 Shades and Twilight are bringing in a broad audience outside the demographic of hardcore readers. People who usually never step foot inside a bookstore are charging in and buying books. They're choosing reading over watching TV, surfing the net, or going to the movies. Maybe some of those sporadic readers will turn into voracious ones thanks to these critically-maligned books. They'll continue to buy books, share them with their friends. None of this is bad for the publishing industry. True, it would be nice if people were going gaga over more well-regarded books, but the real victory is that they're reading. In an industry that's fighting off decline, that's nothing to turn your nose up at.

Also, a handful of mega best-sellers can fund the publishing of a ton of smaller, acclaimed books. The film industry is loaded with loud, expensive tentpole films. Many of them receive critical drubbings. The Transformers trilogy comes to mind. Critics HATED those films. As an action fan, even I couldn't stand them. They had weak story, bloated action sequences, and unnecessarily long running times. But they also made billions of dollars worldwide. Why do these films make a boatload of cash, but better films like The Artist and Moonrise Kingdom can't even top $50 million? Add it to the list of ways the world is unfair.

But without Transformers, there would be no smaller, artsy films. Studios make a bulk of their profits from these tentpole films, which allows them to bankroll riskier, cheaper films. Even if they lose money, the studios still have their cash cows to keep them in business. In the same year as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, its studio Paramount also released the great film Young Adult. That film only made $16.3 million in the US -- 1/20th of Transformers:DOTM's gross. Summit made bank on the Twilight films, which allowed it to release The Hurt Locker and 50/50. Thanks to 50 Shades' and Twilight's (the book) success, those publishing houses were able to release lots of books that may not contribute much to the bottom line, but still hold a place in readers' hearts.

So yes, 50 Shades of Grey may not be the best thing that's happened to literature, but it's a pretty good thing that's happened to publishing.