The erotic trilogy has not been widely available in stores – but it's already a New York Times bestseller

By Rennie Dyball
Updated March 23, 2012 01:45 PM

Does the name Anastasia Steele mean anything to you? If not, ask your girlfriends.

“Ana” is the heroine in Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic novel in what started as fan fiction by British writer E.L. James and that’s become a huge (if not covert) hit among American women – many of whom find out about the blush-worthy book from each other.

Largely sold as an e-book, the title has garnered a massive following without even being widely available in stores.

Currently No. 1 on The New York Times digital bestseller list – along with the rest of trilogy, at No. 2 and No. 3 – the book will be released in hard copy form in the U.S. in early April. Still, it’s easy to speculate why it’s best enjoyed in the more furtive form of a tablet or e-reader. (Yes, it’s that X-rated.)

So where did this 528-page sensation come from? Why is it such a hit? Read on for the answers to those questions and more.

1. What is fan fiction?
Fan fiction is a genre in which fans of an original work (in this case, reportedly the Twilight series), take characters from that work and spin them off into a new story. Fan fiction novels are rarely published, though some attract a bevy of cult-like followers. So it makes sense that Shades has its roots in an already loyal audience: Ana is said to be a re-imagined Bella, while her man Christian Grey is a revamped Edward (though no vampires are involved in this series, nor anything supernatural). But make no mistake: The series is definitely not Y.A. material or intended for kids in any way!

2. Just how popular is this book?
The first book of the series catapulted it to the No. 1 spot on The New York Times e-book fiction best-seller list for the week ending March 3 (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are the second and third in the series). The first book also shot to No. 3 on Amazon’s best-seller list. According to the Times, the title that was first released by a small publisher in Australia has been acquired for a pretty penny in the States: Vintage Books won a bidding war for the rights to the trilogy, shelling out seven figures for it.

3. So what’s it about?
In brief (and in PG language), Shades of Grey is about an innocent college student, Anastasia Steele, and Christian Grey, an older man (and mega-millionaire) who quickly falls for her. But Christian has a taste for sexual deviance and only engages in dominant-submissive relationships with women. Despite her inexperience, Ana decides to give things a try with the mysterious businessman, and falls hard for him in the process. The book “is pornography, plain and simple,” writes Frank Santo in New York’s Daily News. “It is a kind of pornography that attracts only women, and thus far it is selling off the charts.”

Predictably, the book has attracted a range of reactions, from the obsessed to the conflicted, to the opposed. “What I found fascinating is that there are all these super-motivated, smart, educated women saying this was like the greatest thing they’ve ever read,” Meg Lazarus, a 38-year-old former lawyer told The New York Times. “I don’t get it. There’s a lot of violence, and this guy is abhorrent sometimes.” Adds Santo, “For me, being a straight, white male of rather vanilla sexual inclinations, the experience of reading 50 Shades of Grey on the subway was enough to make me feel like a complete psychopath.”

4. Will it become a movie?
Obviously, any mainstream, big-screen version of Shades will have to be heavily watered down, lest it be slapped with an NC-17 rating. But that hasn’t stopped the movie studios from salivating over the Twilight or Hunger Games-like franchise potential. “Over the last few days, top executives from Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Fox 2000, Universal and Paramount have – or will – deliver presentations, some of them highly elaborate, to convince author James … that they are the best candidates to transform the popular material into a movie,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “The studios think the racy material can be turned into a movie a la 9½ Weeks,” the1986, almost-too-hot-to-handle Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger film that slowly grew into a home-video and international phenomenon. Others argue that this novel is actually a “female empowerment story” in which a young woman is awakened sexually by the unconventional methods of her older, controlling lover.

5. Who is E. L. James?
The author behind all the hoopla is a West London-based TV executive, wife and mother of two. All of this attention “has taken me totally by surprise,” she Tweeted March 14. Added the author in a statement released by her publisher: “I’ve heard from so many readers trying to find these books in their local bookshops and libraries. It is gratifying to know that they will soon become widely available in the U.S. and around the world.” According to her website, having this sort of literary success has been a longtime aspiration: “Since early childhood she dreamed of writing stories that readers would fall in love with.”

Oh my, Ms. James. Mission accomplished.