E.L. James – Fifty Shades of Controversy

See, there's this author who is about 7 months younger than a certain insane duck lady.  You may have heard of her - her name is Erika Leonard.  Okay, most likely you know her by her pen name -- E.L. James.  She wrote a little ole book trilogy that a couple of (Million?  Hundreds of Million?) people have read.  The trilogy?  Yes, that one - "Fifty Shades of Grey."

To me, it sounds like all the hulla-boogby- balloo caused by the bombshell effect of these books has had the same effect on the life of the author - catapulting Ms. James past fame and right into infamy.   It must be a hell of a thing to deal with, particularly for someone who wasn't out chasing fame.  One day, a little later in life than some others, Erika Leonard sat down at a computer and started writing a book.  I get that - I totally get that.  I, too, did all sorts of other writing before I (finally) sat down at a keyboard and wrote my first book.  "Brotherly Love" didn't catapult me into fame, fortune or infamy.  It was the first book I wrote and it quietly convinced me that I wanted to write others - and so I did.

I'm not sure what would have happened if "Brotherly Love" had hit the publishing world with even one-thousandth of the impact of "Fifty Shades."  I hope I would still have written more.  I hope that I would still be writing.  I hope - but I don't know.  Think about it.  Imagine it for a moment.  You write a trilogy that becomes the "E.T." of the romance genre. It's not a book that's shoved down readers' throats by a massive publicity campaign.  It's a book that becomes a phenomenon because readers discover it on their own and they turn it into a phenomenon.  Some readers love it and others hate it but very, very few who've read it are unaffected.  The initial discovery and your growing sales numbers at first delight you -- but then -- the numbers keep growing and growing.  Those sales ramp up the discovery factor and soon the media takes notice.  And you wake up one day to find you can't remain happily in seclusion behind your keyboard any longer.  You can't because you're "it" and your it-ness changes the way everyone looks at you and thinks of you.

And you know -- you bloody well know - that the next time you sit down at a keyboard you're expected to produce more than just your next book.  You're  expected to produce a next book that will do better than that trilogy.  I'd love my trilogy - I love all my work - but I think I'd grow to resent it a little too.  In a way, the trilogy would become a great golden albatross or perhaps a snipe that I never meant to chase.

Suddenly, then, the world expects that trilogy author to morph into a cross between the late Princess Diana and the late Margaret Thatcher.  And all I'd want to be would be the same insane duck lady that I've always been.  What else could I be but me?  I don't want to be anyone else - and I'll bet Erika Leonard doesn't either.  I wonder if she ever resents her E.L. James persona?  Erika can be whoever and whatever she chooses - but she must now do it within that bubble of fame, bearing the vast weight of those expectations.  No matter what she does or how she does it, she'll always give some people reason to find fault.  IMHO, the world is far too full of folks who aren't happy unless they're finding fault with someone.

What prompted me to imagine myself if Ms. James' shoes, is the controversy that erupted when the author traveled to Kansas City, Kansas this week for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.  Apparently, Ms. James wasn't even there "officially."  She was there to support a friend, author Abbi Glines.  It sounds like a good deed, right?  And we all know that no good deed goes unpunished.  Because she was there for a friend, Ms. James registered "under a different name" according to reports.  (I wonder if she had the nerve to actually register under her given name? Imagine - the daring of assuming she's entitled to retain her identity!)

Smart Bitches says:

James identified herself as the YA panel was discussing 50 Shades of Grey, self publishing and New Adult, and the correlations between them. James stood to identify herself, and corrected the suggestion that it was self published. Any reports of flouncing, pearl clutching, table throwing, ninja turtles, archery tournaments, Gallagher-esque watermelon smashing, fist fights, and wild west showdowns are false. She didn't tell people to stop talking about her book, from what my sources tell me***. She identified herself and corrected an inaccuracy.

Ms. James corrected my impression - I'd also thought that "Fifty Shades" was first self-published.  It was first published online on a Twilight fan fiction site and was titled "Master of the Universe" and Ms. James called herself "Snowqueen's Icedragon."  After fan comments about all the sex, Ms. James took it down from the fan fiction site and published it on her website.  Later, she re-wrote it as a fully original work of fiction and published it as an e-book and POD paperback via  an Australian virtual publisher, The Writer's Coffee Shop.  It went on to be picked up and published by one of the bigs - Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

I suppose it's that mixed history - the chain of incarnations - that make me think of "Fifty Shades" as self published.  In its first incarnation - as fan fiction on a Twilight fan site - it was self published.  Yet, later, it was removed to the author's on site before it was taken down, re-written and published through an Aussie virtual publisher.  My work is self-published.  These days, some of the biggest names in the biz are electing to publish their own books - keeping all the control and all the money.  But back in the olden days (6 months to a year ago) - being self published did carry a certain 'taint'.  If one could claim either conventionally published or self published - well, no contest.  While those days are largely a distant memory, it is likely that Ms. James still recalls the 'taint' and prefers to shun it - which is a shame, really.   A conventionally published book going on to sell big numbers speaks largely to the talents of the editors, publicists, artists and distribution folks at the publishing company.  When a self-published book grows into a phenomenon - well, that's due to the talents of the author in writing, promoting, designing, distributing - it's all on the author.  (Except in my case, where any modest success could be due to Mr. Duck's skizzels at graphic design - book covers, websites and all).  But there's no big company - if you're "indie" or "self published" then your success or failure is yours.

As for the "stop talking about my book" comment,  if Ms. James said it, I have to believe it was out of that resentment I was talking about before.  I get that.  I also get that the easiest image most of us have is of a watermark of fingers without end poised over the buy button superimposed of a photo of Brinks' trucks backing up every hour to Case de Leonard (James) to drop off another load of money.  I understand that can lead to a certain amount of jealousy - but still.  The Tweets cited by Smart Bitches -- and the comments left at their site - smack of a rich vein of something much, much uglier.  To all of those folks I say - try, try, for a minute to push aside that picture of the mountain of money that's not at your house, and imagine yourself in Ms. James' shoes for a moment.

It's not all "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" folks - no matter what Regis might say.  There's stress.  There has to be a mountain of stress that ranges as high - or even higher - than that mountain of cash.  And Erika Leonard is not a modern-day blend of Princess Di and Margaret Thatcher.  She's the same lady who sat down at that keyboard the first day and dared to type that first word.  So - let's give her some consideration, some space and yes - some respect.  She knocked it out of the park on her first try -- maybe we can even cheer for that accomplishment.

To Ms. Leonard/James I'd say -  acknowledge the caterpillar, thank the cocoon and celebrate the butterfly.