Friday, February 13, 2015

50 Shades Readalikes Project: A Recap

In 2013, I set myself the task of reviewing readalike suggestions for the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James with the idea of coming up with some kind of consensus on what the best books to recommend to patrons might be, depending on their interests. After perusing articles, blog posts, pinboards, and lists by librarians and others, reading and reviewing double-digit books, and sitting on this information while it slowly digested like that creature in Return of the Jedi, I am here to share the results of a project I ceased updating more than a year ago.

Given the imminent release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie and the announcement that the sequels will also be filmed, patrons are bound to return to the library for the books. As a result, they may also be casting around for similar reads, especially when it turns out all the E.L. James books are missing from the shelf. There are no doubt books that have been published in 2014 and early 2015 that also fit the description of "Fifty Shades readalike," but, as this project left me suffering from Erotic Romance Exhaustion (check your DSM-V), I haven't read them. Nevertheless, I hope that this wrap-up will help librarians think about the cycle of popular books and their readalikes--panic about which is highest at the peak of an item's popularity--as well as offering some go-to titles when constructing displays.


Appropriately, I ended up with fifty different sources by searching online for "readalikes" and "if you liked/loved Fifty Shades," etc. I began by giving an author/work combination one point (in my fantastic Excel spreadsheet) for every mention in a source. After a while, it became clear that some series were being recommended repeatedly, so I combined all mentions of a single book in a series and the entire series. The total number of books/series recommended as readalikes was 373, but 223 (about 60%) of were mentioned only once.

To give an idea of the variety of single-mention books, they included:

The Notorious Rake, Mary Balogh
Forever..., Judy Blume
A Lick of Frost, Laurell K. Hamilton
Submitting to the Boss, Jasmine Haynes
Lolita, Nabokov
The Witness, Nora Roberts
The Dying Animal, Philip Roth
Aftermath, Zane

The sheer volume of suggestions offered--come on, Philip Roth?--gives an idea of how desperately bloggers, librarians, and industry experts were grasping at straws to find something else to give a theoretical population of enthusiastic Fifty Shades readers looking for readalikes. For the purposes of this project, I focused on books and series that were mentioned six or more times among the various sources.

Top Readalikes for 50 Shades [in 2013]:

The title and author are followed by the number of mentions. Hyperlinked titles are titles or series in which I have read and reviewed at least one book.

Crossfire series (Bared to You, Reflected in You, Entwined with You, Captivated by You, One with You), Sylvia Day (31)
Sleeping Beauty series, Anne Rice (26)
Sweet series, Maya Banks (18)
Wicked Lovers series, Shayla Black (16)
Kushiel series, Jacqueline Carey (14)
Dirty, Megan Hart (14) [DNF]
Smooth Talking Stranger, Lisa Kleypas (13)
Gabriel's Inferno, Sylvain Reynard (12)
Broken, Megan Hart (11)
Nature of Desire series, Joey W. Hill (10) [read one but didn't review]
Beautiful Disaster, Jamie McGuire (10)
Masters of the Shadowlands series, Cherise Sinclair (9)
Vampire Queen series, Joey W. Hill (8)
Bound Hearts series, Lora Leigh (8)
The Story of O, Pauline Reage (8)
Play-by-Play series, Jaci Burton (7) [read but didn't review]
Liberating Lacey, Anne Calhoun (7)
The Edge of Impropriety, Pam Rosenthal (7)
Black Dagger Brotherhood series, J.R. Ward (7)
Wild Riders series, Jaci Burton (6)
Too Much Temptation, Lori Foster (6)
Rough Riders series, Lorelei James (6)
Nauti series, Lora Leigh (6)
In the Cut, Susannah Moore (6)
The Siren, Tiffany Reisz (6)
The Lady's Tutor, Robin Schone (6)
House of Rohan series, Anne Stuart (6)

Additional titles reviewed:
The Librarian, by Logan Belle
The Dark Garden, by Eden Bradley
Beautiful Bastard and the rest of the Beautiful series by Christina Lauren

Even these most popular suggestions were all over the map in terms of tone, theme, "hotness," setting, and date of publication. Some, like The Story of O, are considered classic works. Some are e-originals that may or may not have been put into print. In my reviews, I tried to place each readalike suggestion in terms of the 50 Shades trilogy. I also found a few new favorites that I would be comfortable handing to almost anyone looking for sure-bet romances, such as Sweet Talking Stranger and Christina Lauren's Beautiful series.

Appeal Factors for the 50 Shades Trilogy
  • Romantic redemption
  • Alternative--“kinky”--sexual practices
  • Dominant male hero
  • Lifestyles of the rich and famous
  • Wounded twentysomething characters
  • Virginal heroine awakened
  • Explicit descriptions of sex
  • Writing—inner monologue, first-person perspective
  • Fanfiction origin
  • Epistolary communication
  • “Everyone else is reading it”
The wide range of appeal factors in Fifty Shades of Grey means that there are several different kinds of books that a patron might be looking for. Many past, current, and future romance novels will fit several of these descriptors, and there will also usually be a given Book of the Moment that fits the "everyone else is reading it so I want to read it" criteria, such as Gone Girl or, more recently, The Girl on the Train. Fifty Shades of Grey fell in to this category for a lot of readers. Books like these inspire the most panic among librarians, because their popularity is their primary appeal, but ideally there was a reading population that picked up the James book and discovered the allure of erotic romance as a subgenre. Those are the people who might come back for readalikes.


I created a readalike handout for a presentation to the New York Library Assocation--Public Libraries Section and have since added links to my reviews on this site. These books are scored 1 to 10 in terms of their readalike potential and their explicit erotic content, both of which are important to keep in mind when making suggestions to library patrons. Feel free to use the handout with attribution.

2015, the Movie, and Beyond

With the advent of the movie upon us, a new set of posts recommending books to read after Fifty Shades of Grey have emerged:

Some of the authors listed I also encountered in my search two years ago, but the books are largely different. Publishing, and by extension reader's advisory, is a moving target. A project like the one I've discussed here takes an immense amount of time, and the results are ephemeral. Librarians can't possibly find the time to read everything that is being published in a subgenre like erotic romance, let alone all new and forthcoming fiction and nonfiction. Give up right now on the idea of reading everything and use the tools available: review blogs, articles, NoveList, Twitter librarians, and your own good sense. It's good to read the benchmark or hotspot books in a genre, which I'd argue Fifty Shades has ended up being, but for everything else there's How to Read a Book in Five Minutes