5 key developments in books in 2012
Millions of readers pushed the Fifty Shades trilogy into bestseller status. (Random House/Associated Press)
2012 was a strange year in publishing, with an erotic trilogy dominating the bestseller lists as other hit authors flailed. The publishing industry is finding its way through readers' newly developed taste for e-books, but this digital transition may have sparked a publishing upheaval that will continue well into the new year. CBC News outlines five key developments of 2012.
The "Mommy-porn" sensation
Who would have thought a book about a sexually inexperienced young woman and a man with a taste for sadism and bondage would pull millions of readers out of the woodwork? But that's exactly what Fifty Shades, the erotic trilogy from British writer E.L. James has done, selling more than 35 million copies to date. The series was, in part, linked to the rise of e-books — with myriad mild-mannered mommies able to surreptitiously read the series on the subway or with half an eye on the playground, no one the wiser about what they were reading.
British writer E.L. James dominated the bestseller list with her Fifty Shades trilogy, which was inspired by Twilight. (Associated Press)
Many of these Fifty Shades readers were people who had apparently skipped right over The Story of O or even Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy over the course of their reading career. Instead, they opted for a series openly modeled on The Twilight Saga, with its similarly helpless heroine and a repugnant, but handsome hero obsessed with control from the start. Ultimately, Fifty Shades has been so successful that Random House gave all of its staff $5,000 bonuses this Christmas.
Fifty Shades has also kicked open the door for scores of erotic fiction writers, among them Sylvia Day, Indigo Bloome, Vina Jackson and Justine Elyot. Cosmopolitan magazine and romance publisher Harlequin are even starting a new erotic e-book venture, with plans to release two e-books a month. Expect more publishers — and writers — to cash in on the trend in the coming year.
The sleeper hit: Secret Daughter
Shilpi Somaya Gowda, who was born and raised in Toronto but currently lives in Texas, first published her mother-daughter tale Secret Daughter in 2010. A readable, sometimes poignant debut novel, it features the parallel stories of an Indian woman who gives up her female child and an infertile couple in America hungry for a child. Secret Daughter hit a milestone in 2012, selling 500,000 copies in Canada in November.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda is a canny user of social media. (Shilpigowda.com)
Though HarperCollins initially issued Secret Daughter in Canada as a trade paperback — meaning it sold for a lower price than a hardcover — the publisher did very little promotion for the book by an unknown writer. The trade paperback version emphasized Gowda's Canadian roots, but it wasn't until an astute Costco buyer agreed to carry the novel that it seemed to catch on with Canadian readers. Its story reflects the immigrant experience, reflecting on issues of family loyalty, generational change and being torn between different cultures. Secret Daughter experienced the kind of word-of-mouth popularity that turns books into sleeper hits and became Canada's top-selling book of 2010.
HarperCollins took notice and finally put resources into promotion. Gowda manages her own social media persona, spending 10 hours a week taking part in book clubs via Skype and personally answering Facebook messages. The novel became a New York Times bestseller last year as well as a top seller in Norway, Israel, Poland, Germany and Malaysia, with rights sold in 22 countries.
The disappointment: The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling 's record-smashing Harry Potter series was a godsend to its publishers worldwide, including Bloomsbury in the U.K., Scholastic in the U.S. and Raincoast Books in Canada. But with her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, the British writer changed publishers, part of the signal she was preparing something completely different. The book was kept under careful wraps to avoid leaks — since, naturally, it had received a great deal of advanced press. And then, Rowling did exactly as promised and delivered something completely different.
J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy received mixed reviews and surprised Harry Potter fans with its grim outlook. (Associated Press)
Anyone picking up The Casual Vacancy hoping for the quirky antics and magic of Harry Potter was sadly disappointed. The British press howled at the book's profanity. "J.K. Rowling and the Goblet of Filth" screamed the Daily Mirror. Critics and readers were divided on its literary merits. The novel, about the competition for a vacancy on a village council (one preparing to debate what to do about the local low-income housing estate), treads into serious territory. Some critics found it plodding, with no clever literary tricks to leaven the reading.
True to Rowling's Harry Potter legacy, The Casual Vacancy is long, with dozens of characters broadly drawn. And like her teen wizard series, her new novel has a definite moral centre. The story explores the impossible life of one teen living in the housing estate and attempting to raise her baby brother while keeping her mother off drugs — grim stuff for both Potter readers and publishers. Though the book sold a million copies in its first three weeks — a good result — the sales are nowhere close to those of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.. The final instalment of her wizard world series sold 12 million in its first week of release and 44 million in its first year. Still, The Casual Vacancy is being adapted into a BBC television drama for release in 2014.
Seismic shifts in publishing
This fall, Vancouver-based publisher Douglas & McIntyre, which also owns Greystone Books, filed for bankruptcy protection in October. The publisher of such noted titles as Carmen Aguirre's Something Fierce and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony is seeking an investor or buyer. Meanwhile, German media company Bertelsmann announced it would merge its Random House subsidiary with Britain's Penguin, creating the world's largest trade publishing house.
Readers have embraced e-readers and publishers are racing to keep up. (Associated Press)
These moves follow a 2011 that saw Key Porter Books and H.B. Fenn disappear from the Canadian publishing scene. This wave of bankruptcies and mergers has book-lovers worried about the long-term health of Canadian publishing and who else might be facing a perilous situation. Still, there is a strong contingent of small presses publishing Canadian fiction and non-fiction.
The distribution of books, concentrated in a few hands, is still a problem. The pricing of e-books remains a huge question mark. While publishers race to embrace the digital format, it may change the entire book publishing model, perhaps compressing the time to market as well as the way titles are marketed to consumers. This year's changes mark a seismic shift that's only just beginning.
The unknown quantity
However, it's not all doom and gloom. One of the great unknowns in the changing publishing landscape is the impact of promising new forums like Wattpad and Byliner, which publish online only. How will they affect how authors write and how we read?
Wattpad, a Canadian site backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, aims to be the YouTube of storytelling. It holds out the hope of serialized fiction, as with Margaret Atwood's zombie tale, and also offers stories in fantasy, mystery, teen and other literary genres. It even has its own awards. The reader pays nothing — but then, the writer isn't paid either.
Margaret Atwood, left, is writing a Wattpad zombie novel with British author Naomi Alderman. With the pair passes the writing baton between chapters. (Rolex Mentor and Protégé Program)
Byliner, a social network that carries original short stories as well as long-form journalism, has a tighter control of what it accepts and publishes. Organizers curate the best stories from publications such as the Atlantic, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker while also accepting stories from selected writers. Hazlitt is following a similar approach in Canada. Like Wattpad, these services play best on all those Kindle, iPad and Kobo reader have snapped up in the past year, as well as those who read on their computers or mobile devices.
Yet another unknown quantity is how quickly readers might adapt to these new sources and how to charge for this new content. But that's a story for another year — most likely 2013.
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