Is Fifty Shades of Grey Literally Making Romance Sexier?
Fifty Shades of Grey made a huge impact on the publishing industry — but its impact may be more lasting than you know. This genre-bending best-seller isn’t really a romance novel, but it’s been generally treated as one by the mainstream reader. Why is that important? It very well may have changed the “sexiness” of romance forever.
The Data of Fifty Shades of Grey:
“My wife reads Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway,” my friend says to me, sitting in his office at one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan. He looks thoughtful. “I don’t think you could get away with reading Letters to Penthouse on the train, though. Wonder what the difference is?”
This started me wondering. What is the difference between Fifty Shades of Grey and something like Letters to Penthouse? As Fifty Shades has become more mainstream, I’ve increasingly heard it referred to as a romance title instead of erotica, as if being widely read makes it more traditional than it was before. When Fifty Shades of Grey was originally published as an ebook and print-on-demand title, there was little doubt that it fell into the realm of erotica. But as it gained popularity, it began to blur the line between the two genres. A lot of bestseller lists don’t typically include erotica titles, and as a consequence it confused people when they couldn’t find Fifty Shades of Grey on the lists after they heard about it on NPR.
At the moment, I believe that the consensus is that Fifty Shades of Grey is a pretty sexy romance novel, and has been adopted into the romance category over time. Barnesandnoble.com currently lists it as romance, for example. Other retailers dodge the question, listing it as either both erotica AND romance, separately using two categories, or together as “erotic romance.”
But listing Fifty Shades of Grey as romance is incorrect. The data shows that it is most likely an erotica novel hiding in the romance category, not the other way around. How much so?
Below is a graphical representation of the sexual content, scene-by-scene, of Fifty Shades of Grey as identified by the Book Genome Project, where I work. Each block represents roughly 1,000 words. A green block means that scene has very little or no sexual content. Yellow means it’s more likely to have sexual content. Red means there’s definitely something going on. The three stars are the three highest points in the book:
This is a computer generated graphic based on an analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey, but having read most of the book I can assure you that what you’re seeing here is an accurate reflection of the content. The first third is remarkably free of anything controversial. Let’s look at another book, for context, this time one that’s generally acknowledged as safely in the romance genre, an Elizabeth Boyle title:And as a final example, since it was referenced earlier in this post, here’s a breakdown of a book that I feel pretty safe putting in the erotica genre (though Amazon lists it as Self-Help -> Sex, Social Sciences, and Letters and Correspondence):Aside from that one yellow spot in the middle where the authors may have lost focus, you can see that this book has a great deal more sexual content than either Fifty Shades of Grey or Elizabeth Boyle. No question there; being caught reading that on the subway would be awkward and a little weird. You’ve been warned.
To give you a sense of how standards have changed over the last 100 years, here’s another book originally published as erotica in 1906. At the time, it was classified as erotica mostly because it was about a man discovering he’s gay in the military. Now days it’s typically listed in retail stores as literary fiction.
When we try to identify whether a book is likely erotica from the written content of the book alone, we compare it to what we typically see from trusted publishers — books that have metadata we know to be correct. If we flag a book as erotica, what we are saying is that roughly 95% to 99% of the time, a book with this content published by a mainstream publisher would have been classified as an erotica title. In that way, we can create an objective sense of what the industry historically considers to be one category or another.
The question is, when you look at Fifty Shades of Grey, does it get flagged as likely erotica using this measure?
Fifty Shades of Grey Contains More Sexual Content than 98.54% of Romance Titles
If you compare the sexual content of Fifty Shades of Grey to other romance books (meaning books published under a romance BISAC), it contains more sexual content than 98.54% of romance titles in our corpus. In other words, while there are a few romance titles that have more sexual content, Fifty Shades of Grey is an outlier in the romance category.
On the other hand, when you compare it to books in erotica (books published with an erotica BISAC), you find that Fifty Shades of Grey has LESS sexual content than about 70.38% of erotica titles.
This means that while it’s possible that Fifty Shades belongs in the upper range of what is considered acceptable for romance, it’s far more at home in erotica.
Not the most erotic of erotica, admittedly; it’s not like we as a society pulled a book from the deep depths of erotica and reclassified it into a genre that’s innocent and free of cheesiness. I don’t believe anyone is being caught off-guard when they pick up Fifty Shades of Grey… but it’s still interesting to see where it objectively falls among its peers.
A Prediction and a Bet
Why does it matter? Personally, so long as the book is getting into the hands of people that will enjoy it, I tend to be fairly happy. The question isn’t without consequence, though. If Fifty Shades of Grey is really erotica published as romance, then its success likely sets a trend others will follow — a sexier, more “erotica-like” version of romance.
The reason this is a problem — specifically for retailers — is that there’s already a lot of pressure on publishers to “genre hop” when a book is published. Every time you move down the genre list into a narrower, more specific field, you end up limiting your audience – if you list a book as Sci-Fi, you make it more likely to be found by that audience, but you are also now unlikely to be seen by anyone that likes, say, general fiction. As we already mentioned, erotica rarely makes it to the bestseller lists. So if a title is on the cusp between erotica and romance, there can be a lot of pressure to choose one over the other for reasons other than the content of the book itself. Since classification by genre is typically self-selected by publishers and there’s no really good rules about which books fall in what category, this can lead to a bit of a gray area (50 shades of gray, perhaps?). This makes it difficult for retailers to make sure the right books get to the right readers. This is a bigger problem as independent publishing grows, where metadata is often only reviewed by the original author for accuracy.
Since Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrably pushes the limits of what is considered normal in romance, will we see romance as a category get more “sexy” as other books follow the leader? This is what I expect, but I haven’t looked at the data yet to confirm. Nor do I know if the impact will be large enough to be observable.
But here is my hypothesis, though, which I will try to look into it somewhere down the road: If you look at the average level of sexual content in romance for each of the three years before the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, and compare them to the average for each of the years after it came out, I bet a relatively nice dinner sometime down the road that there’s a measurable uptake in sexual content across the industry.
Anyone want to take my bet?