Is Fifty Shades of Grey Literally Making Romance Sexier?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

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. 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:Sexual Content of 50 Shades of Grey

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:Content Graph of His Mistress by MorningAnd 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):Sexual Content Graph of Letters to PenthouseAside 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.

Confusions of a Young Torless Which brings us back to Fifty Shades of Grey. Is it erotica or romance? As I’ve already said, it’s almost certainly erotica. Here’s why.

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?  🙂

Expert Publishing Blog
Aaron Stanton

About Aaron Stanton

Aaron Stanton is the founder and CEO of and the Book Genome Project, a technology-based book analysis platform built on computer-derived BookDNA. He's an outspoken advocate and critic of the role of technology in book discovery and predictive publishing, and the role of computers in powering the connective threads of the publishing industry. He's lectured in venues as diverse as Hong Kong, Germany, New York, Denmark, and Stanford University on the challenges of technology disruption in publishing. Stanton's work has been profiled in media outlets such as Mashable, TechCrunch, FastCompany, Popular Science, Macworld, Wired Magazine, CNET, PC World Magazine, NPR, the Huffington Post, the Seattle Times, ABC News, and others. In mid-2013, he wrote and contributed to the final chapter of Hard Listening, a collaborative book by Stephen King, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Mitch Albom, James McBride, Ridley Pearson, Matt Groening, Greg Iles, Sam Barry, and Roger McGuinn.

16 thoughts on “Is Fifty Shades of Grey Literally Making Romance Sexier?

  1. Julia Gabriel

    \Erotic romance\ is, in fact, an established subgenre in romance publishing and not new at all to romance readers and publishers. If you read all three Fifty Shades books, it clearly fits into the subgenre of erotic romance. It has an HEA (happy ever after) and even marriage and children. Erotica doesn’t require the HEA. If you take the BDSM out of 50 Shades, the sexual content is no more graphic than some of Harlequin’s lines (although, yes, it does have more sex scenes than the typical romance). But I believe you’re right — the success of the Fifty Shades books is leading to an uptick in erotica and erotic romance publishing because more non-romance readers are now aware of these books.

    1. Aaron StantonAaron Stanton Post author

      Hey, Julia, you’re absolutely right, of course. Erotic Romance is absolutely an established subgenre, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. You’re also right that there are several different aspects of how you can define “sexual content.” But to be clear about this particular approach, it’s measuring a combination of both how many scenes in the book contain sexual content, and also the degree of that sexual content (i.e. lots of kissing and hand holding is a very different type of sexual content than… well… something more graphic). 🙂

      In fact, your comparison about how its sexual content compares other romance if you separate out the BDSM is part of the discussion that prompted me to look at the data. In this case, the measure is not paying attention at all to whether or not the type of sexual content is more or less socially acceptable; for example, it’s not counting a scene as more graphic because it has BDSM in it, only the way the sexuality is described and how often.

      I’m not surprised about the comment of HEA, at all, and there are of course many subtle aspects to different genres. In terms of sexual content, though, our data doesn’t seem to support the idea that if you take the BDSM out of 50 Shades that it falls in line with other romance, as that’s exactly what the tool does in these numbers. If you ignore the BDSM nature of the sexual content, it still contains more sexual content than 98.54% of titles in the romance BISAC in our corpus.

      So at least with this methodology, either the Harlequin series you mention falls in the 1.46% of romance titles with more sexual content, or they’re likely not being published with any level of romance BISAC, themselves. That’s not meant as a challenge, as I’m absolutely sure that you are well informed that there are romance titles that are more sexual than 50 Shades, without doubt, they’re just not that common by this measure, and the vast majority of books we’ve encountered that do contain more sexual content appear in the erotica BISAC.

      Oh, you know what might be cool? Did you have a specific book in mind with your comment? It might be interesting to see how it compares, as well.

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  3. Selene

    I for one would like to see a comparison to some erotic romance titles! Here are some. At least Dirty was originally published by Harlequin Spice:

    Dirty by Megan Hart
    Gabriel’s Woman by Robin Schone
    The Principal’s Office by Jasmine Haynes
    The Darker Side of Pleasure by Eden Bradley


    1. Aaron StantonAaron Stanton Post author

      I’ll take a look. I won’t be at all surprised if they’re fairly spicy, as I’d expect them to fall at the upper range of Romance as well, given what I know of Erotic Romance. Sadly I can’t paste the graphs in the comments.

      Most of the books you mentioned, Selene, would fall higher than 50 Shades of Grey on our measure of sexual content. Dirty is closest to 50 Shades, with more content than 99.64% of Romance, and 43.00% of the Erotica that we have data for. Each book you mention – in order – gets progressively higher (with the exception of Gabriel’s Woman, which I don’t have any info on), with Darker Side of Pleasure with nearly 100% of Romance. Letters to Penthouse, of course, wins basically the entire prize; it sets records even in its genre with 100% of Romance, and 99.01% of Erotica. 🙂

      It’s worth mentioning that in the case of Darker Side of Pleasure (and possibly others) the actual BISAC classification of the title by the publisher is Erotica, not Romance. ( Which in a way is the question. It’s likely that at some point in time what we think of as Erotic Romance would simply have been “Erotica” without any modifier, but over time has become more accepted into the Romance category. It’ll be interesting to see if the success of 50 Shades of Grey has an impact on where the lines get drawn, or how it impacts the speed of change.

  4. Diane J. Reed

    I’ve never seen anyone graph the sexual content of a novel before, which takes the discussion out of the mere “conversational” realm and vaults it into concrete statistics that can be discussed more thoroughly and accurately. In the case of 50 Shades of Grey I find this helpful, because one person’s “steaminess” is another person’s flat out “erotica”, and at least with your graphing data it gives us the ability to decide that for ourselves based on the actual evidence. I like the idea of bringing more factual matter into the discussion. Thanks for posting!

  5. Sapphire Phelan

    Instead of one book with HEA, it is a trilogy. But it is erotic romance, and honestly, there are better ones out there and with the BSDM themes. That is where I think it is different than a plain erotic romance. Plus it is not as sexual as others I have read, or what I myself have written. I don’t write BSDM theme novels/novellas though. To me still close to abuse. But that’s my own feelings and taste.
    But it is not erotica, Erotic doesn’t need a HED (Happily Ever After), but even erotica is not porn. After all romance and erotica are shades of gray themselves.

  6. Helene Greenstein

    it seems you left out comparisons of the usual romantic fiction authors, like jude deveraux, johanna lindsey. compare them and then you will have a more accurate idea of where 50 should be.

    1. Aaron StantonAaron Stanton Post author

      Helene, I’m sorry if I gave the impression that we didn’t include usual romance fiction authors like the ones your referenced – the analysis included data from more than 20,000 titles labeled by the publisher as Romance or Erotica, including a wide variety of well known Romance writers. We didn’t include graphs for each of the books, but that doesn’t mean that they were not included.

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