British newcomer E L James drew more than 500 men and women at a morning book signing and was scheduled to speak later before a sold-out crowd at the historic Biltmore Hotel. It was her second-ever book signing, yet the size of the crowd snaking through the store with mimosas and books in hand drew comparisons to the response previously seen for writers such as Anne Rice and even politicians.
"This is a literary phenomenon," said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, the independent bookstore where James was signing copies. "E L struck a nerve, and her storytelling speaks to so many people."
In a few short months, James has snagged a seven-figure contract with Vintage Books, and Universal Pictures and Focus Films have purchased the rights to all three books in the trilogy about an unworldly college student who begins an unusual romantic relationship with a wealthy young businessman. The books have been called "mommy porn" for their sexual content and large, mostly female following, though men are signing up for autographs as well.
"I read it through lunch breaks and I'm giggling," said Laura Vargas, 31, an executive assistant at a large insurance company. "I'm like, `I can't believe she just wrote that."'
James began writing the books as fan fiction to Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series and quickly developed a cult-like following of her own. The romance between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey is surprising because of its unconventional nature: Grey asks Steele to sign a contract, and she agrees to be his "submissive" and to partake in a range of erotic activities. The stories were first published online, and as word of mouth spread, droves of people -- many of them not traditional readers of romantic or erotic fiction -- began downloading them on iPads and Kindles.
"I'm staggered by this," James said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I never set out to do this."
Until recently, the affable, laid-back author had been mostly preoccupied with her work as a television producer, taking care of her two teenage sons and doing mundane house chores. She was raised in London, studied history in college and dabbled once in a while with writing, but never spent a large amount of time on it until reading the "Twilight" books.
"I tried a couple of times, but never thought I could," James said of writing novels.
Even now, she's not sure she'll be able to write another.
"It's really quite daunting," she said.
A broad swath of mostly women, of all ages and backgrounds, showed up Sunday at the bookstore in Miami's Coral Gables neighborhood, a family-oriented, upper-class enclave of the city. A young server went around with a tray of bright-colored drinks, and fans exchanged giddy stories about their experiences reading the books.
Teacher Mayreny Objio, 33, said the books have taken her work colleagues by storm. They talk about who should play Christian Grey in the movie and his dominant nature. She read all three books in a week and brought her husband to the signing, encouraging him to read them, too.
"I think couples should read it," Objio said. "It will bring a lot more spice. It's something different."
Emilia Diaz, a 57-year-old aesthetician, said it was a man who introduced her to the books. They had been talking online and over the phone for months and finally agreed to meet in person. On their first date, he suggested she read the books.
"Maybe he wants you to be his submissive," joked her cousin, Sandra Sousa-Druckman, an interior designer.
Diaz came in a group of four women, the eldest being Sousa-Druckman's 87-year-old mother, Cathy Perkins. Perkins, who was married for 60 years, said she usually reads Danielle Steele but wants to take up "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its two follow-up novels next. She had a copy of the second book, "Fifty Shades Darker," for James to autograph.
Stephanie Madison, 59, a bioterrorism coordinator at Jackson Hospital, said her boss had recommended the books to her. She then approached her daughter, Chantele Cogdell, about buying her a copy for Mother's Day.
Cogdell, who works in medical billing and coding, went online to find out what the book was about. Cogdell usually buys her mother flowers, purses or gift cards.
"I said, `You really want this?"' Cogdell recalled.
"Yes!" her mother enthusiastically replied.
Anne Messitte, the publisher of Vintage Books, said the overwhelming response to James' second book signing, and the first in her tour, was unprecedented for a new writer.
"I think at the heart of it, these are wonderful, modern stories that engross the reader," she said.
James herself is at a loss to explain why the books have become so popular, so quickly. Fans who have written or spoken with her at events relate different reactions; some say their sex lives have improved, while others have said the book helped them in dealing with an adopted child. The fictional character Christian Grey was adopted at a young age.
Dressed casually in a jean jacket and with an arm full of silver bracelets, James sipped a glass of water at a quiet bar on the bottom floor of the Biltmore before her appearance. The hotel has hosted several presidents; President Barack Obama held a fundraiser there recently. It's also a popular choice for weddings, with a church just across the street.
James said she conceived the plot as she went along and identifies with both main characters.
"For various reasons, but that would be giving too much away so I'm not going to say more," she says with a laugh.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" is slated to be translated into more than 30 languages, and James will be stopping in eight other cities along the East coast. When she goes out now, she's now asked for photographs from fans.
She's tried not to let too many things change in her life: She's still doing laundry, and there are at least two people by her side who have not read the books -- her sons.
"Good God," she says. "I would be mortified."