Fifty shades of success

There was a time, not so long ago, that Amanda Hayward was close to quitting publishing. Selling the e-book and print rights of Fifty Shades of Grey to Random House for more than $1 million had made the founder of The Writer's Coffee Shop and the book's author wealthy women, and here the big publishing houses were waving dollars at Hayward again, offering to buy her out.

Caught in the blinding arc lights of a publishing phenomenon, Hayward was spent. The publicity was intrusive and bruising, the fun of the original enterprise curdled by lawyers and confidentiality agreements.

Sitting on a panel at the Southern Highlands Writers' Festival in July, Hayward was representative of the new force of social media and niche publishing. The passion of that audience of book lovers reminded her that the real purpose of publishing was to tell stories, a dawning that rekindled her flagging enthusiasm.

Hayward's eyes flash steel and mischief when she tells me rival publishers have since been trying to poach her authors. ''You have to laugh,'' she scoffs, ''because it's not going to work. It's not the way to do it, it's not the way it works, but they will learn. It's now, 'what's the next thing?', it doesn't have to be some book, it's what else captures people's imagination.''

Three different authors in her stable are tracking the same early popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey in the fan fiction and original fiction community of her online forums. ''Same volumes,'' nods Hayward. ''It will take another four or five months from here to know.'' If, that is, she can boast a second bestseller.

With no experience to her name, the one-time quantity surveyor outwitted New York's publishing houses to bring the fan fiction story in from the sidelines to mainstream publishing. With global English-language sales approaching 40 million, the erotic trilogy has outsold Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and the seven Harry Potter books across several continents including Australia. Hayward wants to prove lightning can strike twice. And, next time, there's no way she's going to sell to any of the big publishing houses. She wants to do it all herself. ''Just once more would be lovely,'' she says, ''not to be known as a one-hit wonder.''

Our lunch venue, Crinitis at Castle Hill, is all masculine leather and polished wood, a restaurant in which Christian Grey, Fifty Shades of Grey's tycoon dominator, might have felt comfortable. ''But it doesn't have a red playroom,'' Hayward smirks, referring to the Red Room of Pain in Grey's penthouse suite where he beds his willing sexual slaves.

Hayward discovered the restaurant three months ago and has wined and dined some of ''the girls'' responsible for moderating the publishing house's 100,000-member fan fiction community, from which the publishing arm nurtures emerging authors. Until Fifty Shades came along, they were middle-aged housewives, with kids and husbands and tedious jobs they hated who led online lives as writers or reviewers of risque stories set in their favourite fictional universes.

Hayward, 36, a mother of two daughters, was a writer of Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction.

''You don't want to know what I do to the characters,'' she chortles when I ask. ''Some of the things that happen, it's hilarious, it is laughable, it's entertainment and it's something that lets you take those stories you love and continue them and not have to leave them.'' Which is the very point of fan fiction.

Stripped of its fantasies, sex toys, floggers and blindfolds, Fifty Shades is a conventional love story with a steamy twist. It follows the relationship of a naive young woman and her tycoon boyfriend who demands her submission as his sex slave. Grey is damaged and mercurial - ''Fifty Shades of F---ed Up'', whence the title comes - who has seduced many women. The romantic tension of the trilogy lies in whether he can ever give Anastasia his heart.

''People say it isn't good quality but you have to remember Fifty Shades started as fan fiction and as fan fiction you have to have action,'' Hayward says. ''You have to have a sex scene in every chapter because that's how you get your reviews. The amount of people who review per chapter shows popularity, that's how your ratings get up. In fan fiction every chapter has to give you something to keep you reading it.''

This accounts for the frequent coupling and Anastasia's vacillation. The resultant clumsy and cliche-ridden prose, the heroine's repetitious inner monologues and the numerous grammatical errors have given the book's detractors more than enough ammunition to slap down all genre fiction.

In one of the milder rebukes, Andrew O'Hagan in the London Review of Books described Fifty Shades of Grey as this decade's multimillion-selling contributor to the art of terrible writing about sex.

''It's not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E.L. James's other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote.''

Hayward doesn't buy the feminist hand-wringing but she concedes the editing job was ''horrendous''. The contractor responsible left after the author herself complained. ''I've never claimed nor will I ever be an editor, I employ people for that.''

By then, however, sales were ''crazy'' and Hayward says she could not spare the two weeks to take the book out of production. Notwithstanding the Vintage/Random House rights buyout, the story of the relationship between Anastasia and Christian remains a flawed work of popular fiction.

''It is what it is. I like books with a story, which is why I like Fifty Shades, I like that it tells a story, it's got a bit of action, it's got a bit of drama. Of course, it's got all the sex thing going on. It's a romance, it's like Mills and Boon with a kick, really. With Fifty Shades it drags you into the lives of the characters and that's what Twilight did, and it had no sex at all.''

How Hayward came to be part of the tight-knit community of fan fiction begins with a serious health scare four years ago. Recovering from health complications of pancreatitis and liver failure, depressed and on weeks of enforced bed rest, Hayward borrowed a copy of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight from her best friend, Cindy Bidwell, now her personal assistant.

''I bought the next three books the next day. I didn't get much sleep for three or four days. It took me out of a place I didn't want to be, and it was a getaway for me. I'm in a different place now, obviously, but that for me was probably the darkest moment of my life. We were told I was going to die. It was really, really bad. I wanted to die at one point, I'd had enough. From being in that dark place and being so sick to having something that interested me.''

E.L. James's Master of the Universe - the forerunner to Fifty Shades of Grey - had chapters online when Hayward began reading. The two women were ''fellow travellers'', Hayward says, ''as is everyone in the community, in the sense that they were all supportive of each other, reviewing each other's work and celebrating their individual and group successes''.

Emboldened by anonymity and a group of receptive readers weighing in with plot suggestions, Hayward began writing fan fiction stories she insists will never be commercially published. ''I've seen what has happened to E.L. James, I would not wish the press on my family. And I can't do both, I can't do the company and be a writer at the same time. It's got to be one or the other and I've chosen the side I want to be on.''

Hayward's order of zucchini flowers and bruschetta pizza crust arrives along with a bottle of crisp semillon sauvignon blanc. She had considered ordering a salad, having returned from the US only the week before where she'd enjoyed some ''fancy dinners''. Her food choices, it seems, are the basis for another intriguing story. ''I have a real visual problem. I can't eat anything with bones in it because it tells me what it was once.''

She later gives this insight into her character: ''If I set my mind on one thing I'll do it. I'm like a dog with a bone. You can't put me off for any reason and that's how everything started with the company, the name. I couldn't keep still until it was done.''

Three years ago, disaffected with fan fiction forums, Hayward put up the money for The Writer's Coffee Shop, a place ''where friends meet''. It took Hayward a year to convince E.L. James, aka Erika Leonard, to sign up. ''She wanted to make sure this was what she wanted. We were small, we were unknown, and she was umming and ahhing over whether to make it free and keep it online or write something different. Everybody in the community was asking her to publish it because they wanted a copy of it on their shelves.

''It wasn't supposed to be this huge thing in bookstores. E.L. James's ultimate dream was to find it in a WHSmith store at the airport, she thought that would be very funny. It was a dream we never thought would become reality.''

The Writer's Coffee Shop went from subsistence income to royalty heaven. How much did she later make out of the acquisition rights? A lot? ''Yes,'' Hayward deadpans. Enough to reinvest in the business? ''Yes. My husband has got a very, very well-paid job, I don't actually have to work, which is a bonus.

''This,'' she casts her hand over a pile of the Fifty Shades books, ''was just to keep me busy.''

''E.L. James said to me a few times, 'You know when I asked what happens when this gets really big?' - I didn't mean this big.''

The story Fifty shades of success first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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