For the world of letters, 2012 was supposed to be the year of Charles Dickens. The Dickens-at-200 hullabaloo actually got off to an early start at the tail-end of 2011, with newspapers offering exclusive sneak previews of the centenary celebrations in store, and their books editors marginalising coverage of new releases and instead devoting valuable space to rereads and reappraisals of the eminent Victorian and his much-loved output. In many respects he got the party he deserved, but only for a while. It wasn't long before the retrospective festivities were overshadowed and then eclipsed by a glut of bigger, more contemporary publishing events, including some surprise meteoric commercial successes followed by a bombshell of potential game-changing news.
Looking back, perhaps most striking of all was the unprecedented amount of new novels by literary heavyweights. We saw releases from John Irving, Peter Carey, John Banville, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, JK Rowling and Michael Chabon. A whole literary set delivered in the second half of the year: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and, with the posthumous Mortality, Christopher Hitchens. Roberto Bolaño proved once again to be the world's most prolific dead author, while Hilary Mantel was a whole different kind of unstoppable. Some writers finally crawled out of hibernation: Zadie Smith served up NW seven years after On Beauty, and Tom Wolfe gave us Back to Blood eight years after I Am Charlotte Simmons (although James Salter will trump both in 2013 with All That Is arriving 34 years on from Solo Faces). Often, as ever, the anticipation was greater than the quality, but at least the seasonal catalogues made for exciting reading.
If expectations from such luminaries at times fell short, then at the opposite end of the spectrum we watched, practically dumbfounded, as a virtual unknown hit the big time. Master of the Universe was a Twilight offcut published on fan-fiction websites by someone going by the name of Snowqueen's Icedragon. The writer later removed it, rewrote it as three separate instalments, and had them released in e-book and print-on-demand paperback format by a small Australian virtual publisher. Vintage snapped them up in April 2012, EL James was taken as a less fantastic nom de plume and the three books became known as the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. The series has sold over 60 million copies worldwide, with Grey overtaking Harry Potter as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
Critics have been sniffy about the literary merits of James's blockbusters. Lines such as "His mouth is very … distracting" are unwittingly ridiculous and grate as often as the barrage of Batman-esque expletives ("Holy cow!" "Double crap!"). And yet millions of readers have been entranced and entertained by the exploits of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, viewing all three books as either self-help manual or just plain escapism. Many a literary writer is ridiculed for his or her attempt at the bedroom scene, an episode capable of blighting an otherwise solid read. James, on the other hand, upping the ante from her forebears and making Jackie Collins read like Beatrix Potter, manages to make each encounter ring true. If only she were able to craft a plausible, well-written novel around them.
But the quality of the books is immaterial. What bears closer analysis is Fifty Shades as a publishing phenomenon. James was initially a self-published or indie writer, who relied entirely on virtual marketing to shift copies. Word-of-mouth recommendation and book-blog publicity snared readers and in turn a big-name publisher. The self-published writer may stand as much chance of making it as the writer whose unsolicited manuscripts end up on agents' and publishers' slush-piles, but the message is clear: miracles do happen, rags can turn to riches. The accumulated US$70 million (Dh260 million) in revenue is only one side of the Fifty Shades success story; on the other we have movie options, tangentially connected memorabilia and of course a slew of derivative spin-off titles. Both bookshops and Amazon group the newies around the original to entice paid-up fans to sample more of the same.
There are numerous stand-alone clones and two notable series - the Crossfire Trilogy and the double-act A Touch of Winter and The Pleasures of Winter. Each stakes its claim to a ride on the bandwagon by having near identical artwork to Fifty Shades. We can carp about these shameless attempts to lump them all together and have us believe they have been penned by the same author, until we remember that marketing by nature is a kind of benign coercion. Comical imitations like Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will always be more novel, but what's the harm in other authors variegating those 50 shades and giving hooked readers more of the same?
James's readers are kept sweet, but her publisher is the real winner here. Vintage is an imprint of Random House, one of the world's Big Six publishers, and one that is about to get even bigger. When the forthcoming merger with Penguin was announced, it created seismic tremors throughout the industry. For some it sounds the death knell of edgy, risk-taking writing, a slow silencing of more individual voices; others feel it will inexorably lead to a mad clamouring among the smaller presses to join forces and offer a united front in order to stay afloat - that is, compete. What is incontestable is that publishers large and small are finally feeling the need to take action to buffer the insidious influence of the digital revolution, particularly with regard to Amazon's monopoly on book pricing and the ever-cheaper e-book. Analysts don't expect Random-Penguin to be the sole supersized publisher; it is only a matter of time before we see further mega-mergers of this kind involving the remaining Big Four, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Macmillan.
It is worth pointing out that publishing acquisitions are in no way new. We only have to look at the last 30 years, with Penguin consuming Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton in the 1980s and Random House absorbing Secker & Warburg and Heinemann in the 1990s. Both publishers have expanded and thrived. In addition, neither has made secret of the fact that plans for consolidation were discussed by the publishers' founders way back in the 1950s. The current chief executives have been quick to assert that the new conglomerate will result in greater financial benefits for their authors; but as the majority of writers have complained of being underpaid from time immemorial, it will be interesting to see if their paymasters can stay true to their word.
Even if the writer does finally profit, there is one player who could lose out - the literary agent. Simply stated, the more mergers we get, the bigger the challenge for agents in placing books. At present, agents cannot pitch to more than one imprint within the Penguin group. Over at Random House, bidding wars among imprints are permitted. Both houses remain tight-lipped about the pitching rules that will apply to Random-Penguin. In any case, it is doubtful whether every imprint will survive. Cost-cutting is par for the course with any merger and in the publishing world imprints may have to be shut down and editors laid off to pay for authors' advances.
Random-Penguin could be a destructive behemoth that cripples creativity, views books as brands and kills off the middleman. Alternatively, it could help shore up a foundering industry and provide a valuable counterbalance to rival kingpins Amazon and Apple. Whatever carnage ensues, it is a safe bet that the writer will still write. If the giant publisher becomes too big for its own boots then perhaps we will see more of the like of EL James (or even Snowqueen's Icedragon) who shun the big guns and resort to self-publishing. We are frequently warned of the imminent death of the novel but any corporate unfair play is more likely to hasten on the demise of the publisher.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.