AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish and sometimes we miss great books, a little gem of a debut novel or a memoir by an unknown writer. They are the ones that got away, as we're calling our series about arts and entertainment we missed this year. But, and this is a big but, sometimes the one that got away is the elephant in the room.
Everyone knows about it. It's one of the biggest sellers of all time. It's a cultural phenomenon. Yep. I'm talking about "Fifty Shades Of Grey." NPR's Lynn Neary admits that she did her best to ignore it until she couldn't anymore.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It wasn't just that you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it, nor was it the record-breaking sales. It was the news that every employee - let me say that again. Every single employee of Random House USA was getting a bonus of $5,000. I had to take notice. They called it the Fifty Shades bonus, and $5,000 is not chump change.
Elena Legeros, who works in the digital marketing department at Random House, was at the Christmas party where the news was announced.
ELENA LEGEROS: And everyone went crazy. I mean, people started cheering, and I hugged the person next to me. Everyone went nuts and the cheers went on for several minutes.
NEARY: Now, Random House has had some other huge best-sellers in recent years. After all, it also published the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. Paul Bogaards, who did the PR for both series, says in publishing, these kinds of books are known as "miracle publications" because they take on a life of their own.
But, Bogaards says, nothing has ever gone as viral as the"Fifty Shades" books.
PAUL BOGAARDS: No series of books has sold more copies in a shorter window of time. It took us four years to sell 20 million copies of Stieg Larssen's "Girl" books. It took us nine months to sell 35 million copies of E.L. James' "Fifty Shades" trilogy.
NEARY: But surely, I asked Bogaards, there were others like myself who resisted the allure of a romance novel heavily laced with S&M.
BOGAARDS: The resisters were few and far between. And, you know, as a PR professional, it was a unique experience, to say the least. I mean, every PR guy dreams of the day when a reporter calls asking you explain the sudden popularity of ben-wa balls. These are things that are hard to explain if you haven't actually read the books. If you have, not so difficult.
NEARY: And no, no, I am not going to explain how ben-wa balls fit into the plot. And, yes, I do know how. You see, I'm a bit of a prude, which is why I didn't want to read the books in the first place. But when I think about it, it might have been snobbery, not prudery, that made me resist for such a long time.
M.J. ROSE: Most people that I heard that were wary of it, really it was the first. It was snobbery.
NEARY: That's the writer M.J. Rose. She says a lot of book people were less than impressed with the lineage of "Fifty Shades." It wasn't just self-published. It began as a fan fiction version of the "Twilight" series. The clumsy virgin Bella morphed into the clumsy virgin Ana, and the vampire Edward became Christian, the fabulously wealthy, unbelievably gorgeous guy who introduces Ana to the joys of kinky sex.
ROSE: I was in a bookstore in New York, in the Village, and there were like 50 copies of it in the very beginning. And I asked the owner if she'd read it. And she said, no, I'd never read it. And there were 50 copies of it and she couldn't keep it in stock.
NEARY: So if a snobby New York City bookstore owner and a snobby, possibly prudish, public radio reporter aren't reading these books, who is? Random House employee Elena Legeros has an idea.
LEGEROS: Actually, I sent a copy to my grandmother in Iowa because I thought that she and her friends would get a kick out of it.
NEARY: Wait. Your grandmother in Iowa?
LEGEROS: Yes. I thought that she might enjoy it.
NEARY: Why your grandmother?
LEGEROS: I know what she enjoys reading, and I know what a lot of the people in the assisted living home where she lives in Iowa enjoy reading, and I just thought it would be fodder for conversation. It might give them something to talk about.
NEARY: You're telling me that your grandmother and the people in her assisted living facility like reading about S&M?
LEGEROS: They like reading romantic stories. This might be a new thing for them.
NEARY: So there you have it. The secret to the success of "Fifty Shades" is not sex; it's romance. Isn't that what women have always wanted? But if that's all it is, why were so many women buying all those gray ties? You'll just have to read the book to find out. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.