Then I read that she was in fact a self-publishing sensation, until a leading blogger commented that she'd never heard of E.L. James before seeing stacks of her books piled high in her local bookstore. And this from a leading US blogger who prided herself on keeping abreast of the leading Indie authors. So, wrong again!
In the end I heard the full account from my agent over dinner a few weeks back. Fifty Shades in fact started life as fan fiction based loosely on Twilight. She built up a steady online audience through weekly instalments, and at some stage the transition came to serious standalone erotic fiction.
In the midst of this an agent did in fact approach London publishers, who roundly told her to get lost. Same story too in the USA. Too this, too that, not enough this, too much of that... the old familar comments that are now cliched at a time when 'cliche' seems to be the in word with editors: cliched characters, cliched plots, scenes, etc.
Along the way she then teamed up with a small Austalian ebook publisher, almost a literary blog community - by which time she had two books in the final trilogy finished. This small ebook publisher managed to sell 75,000 copies, a whopping result for the Australian market.
It then swung back to US publishers, then UK -- some of whom had in fact given it the thumbs down 18 months previous. A 'transitional', unconventional publishing route to say the least - so not easy to categorize simply as self, small press or trad published. In the end it appears to have been 'fifty shades' of all three.