The Rebranding of the Romance Novel

[Reposted from my article at Beneath the Brand.]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the success of E.L. James’ erotic 50 Shades trilogy. For a quick recap, the story encompasses a young billionaire professor and philanthropist’s relationship with a naïve, virginal recent college grad. It started out as Twilight fanfiction, but grew into something much more provocative — and now people are trying to wrap their heads around why. Was it the explicit writing? Was it because it branded itself as a “different,” more modern and kinky tale of romance? Maybe it was something else altogether.

Well, part of the success of the series is that the media keeps talking about it. The series’ popularity has been attributed to a number of factors: from the economic recession influencing housewives to escape from reality; to the popularity of e-readers such as Kindles or Nooks providing a private, anonymous way to read kink material; to even good, old-fashioned curiosity in the allure of BDSM and the taboo culture surrounding it.

But another reason it’s prevalent is because romance novels needed an update. And with the 50 Shades series, we saw a fresh new take on the genre emerging: it’s dark, kinky, and alternative, especially when compared to the bodice-rippers of the Harlequin genre. This simply isn’t your old-fashioned romance novel. So why is it drawing so much attention?

Strangely, although the content is more explicit than most romance novels, the cover art is actually more subdued. Where one would normally find two passionate, fit, attractive figures entwined in each other’s arms, clothes falling to the ground in the heat of the moment, they now find simply a mysterious face mask. Or a tie. Handcuffs. Something that is perhaps symbolic of the nuanced themes of dominance vs. submission that you will find within the pages of the book, but definitely not an overt symbol of lurid sex. But is cover art really a reason that women are interested in the trilogy?

“I knew it was going to be kinky when I saw a tie, hand cuffs and a mask on the covers. I think it makes your mind go to a different place seeing an item rather than a provocative cover, because then you know that item is telling a story all on its own,” says one fan who states that she has completely fallen in love with the series. “It’s like a can of Pringles — once you read one page, you can’t stop until you’re completely done with all three books. I know many people who read the whole series in under a week.” Another fan agrees: “I definitely prefer it to the more Fabio-ish covers.”

Yet, the covers didn’t seem to affect everyone in the same manner. “I wouldn’t want to read other books with this theme; for me, it was curiosity that arose with the popularity of this book series,” says one woman who became interested because of the talk surrounding the steamy trilogy. “The cover art didn’t influence me at all.”

Still another reader says that she was curious about the sex, but mostly, she wanted to read 50 Shades for what it was — a romance novel. “Overall, when I think back to those books and what I enjoyed, I liked the teasing, the flirting, banter, the love story. And that’s what hooked me…the falling in love.”

So it would seem that for some, this rebranding of romance has been extremely influential in their choice of reading material. Perhaps for people who are looking for something a little darker and more taboo, the change works very well: for those readers who have an active imagination, all they need to see is a symbol, like a tie or handcuffs, and their minds will fill in the blanks. This makes the story much more real and nuanced for them. For others, the social hype surrounding the book is enough to entice them, and they are pleasantly surprised to find that the trilogy is a good read.

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “The Rebranding of the Romance Novel

  1. Hi! My name is Jackie and I work for I recently saw that you blogged about 50 Shades of Grey. It happens to be that our next trend is all about 50 Shades of Grey – the trilogy. It’s my job to find some of the best blogs out there talking about this book so we can involve them in our next trend of 50 Shades of Grey. We are only selecting and featuring the top 50 blogs and and products and we selected you. Since you seem to know much about the series, we would love for you to pick any product that you think relates to the book and 1 or 2 sentences explaining why. Your blog will be featured on with your blog name, link and picture to help you bring additional viewers to your blog. The photo will be near the product of your choosing as well as the link to your blog. This is only through November 22 at 14:00.

    Hope to hear from you soon. My e-mail address is
    Have a wonderful day,

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