E. L. James

Author E.L. James, seated at right, signs copies of her book "50 Shades of Grey" at Comic-Con. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times / July 14, 2012)

SAN DIEGO — They came alone, in pairs or with their children. Some wore costumes, most did not. But nearly all of the 200 fans waiting patiently in a long line inside the San Diego Convention Center late Thursday afternoon were in search of one thing: a moment with their favorite new author E.L. James, the 49-year-old West London woman who penned the literary sensation "Fifty Shades of Grey."

James, a mother of two teenage boys, was at Comic-Con International to sign copies of her racy romance trilogy, which has sold more than 20 million copies in the United States. The novels center on an S&M-heavy relationship between a recent college graduate and a billionaire named Christian Grey.

Nicole Freiner-Curd, 33, had been trying to get pregnant with her third child for the last two years, and she credits James' novels with helping her succeed.

"Trying is exhausting," said the Gardena resident, who is expecting. "It takes some of the fun out of it. But after reading 'Fifty Shades,' I was like, 'Come here, honey.'"

Jeremy Cammy, 38, from Toronto, expressed a similar sentiment. He asked James to sign his wife's e-reader with a silver Sharpie. He then high-fived the author, after declaring to her, "My love life is awesome. Thank you!"

James has yet to process the magnitude of the phenomenon, nor the potential influence her work has had on readers' intimate lives.

"My only ambition was to see the book in a bookshop. That was it," she said, while nibbling on a muffin outside a hotel adjacent to the convention center Thursday.

"50 Shades of Grey" famously began life online as "Twilight" fan fiction, and the trilogy is set in a similar Pacific Northwest locale to author Stephenie Meyer's young adult novels. In the story, Christian Grey, a gorgeous 27-year-old with a penchant for rough sex and utter control, meets the virginal college grad Anastasia Steele, who isn't convinced the submissive lifestyle is for her. The graphic series charts the course of their subsequent relationship.

Initially released through a small e-book publisher in Australia, "Fifty Shades" created such intense word-of-mouth buzz that New York publishers clamored for the paperback rights, which went to Random House's Vintage Books imprint, and a bidding war erupted among Hollywood producers for the movie rights. Universal emerged victorious in that contest and recently announced that "The Social Network's" Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti will produce the planned film.

At the time, James was still working at her job as the president of production of a small independent television production company. She quit on the eve of her first trip to New York to meet with interested suitors.

"This is hugely surreal, and I've had no time to digest it," James said. "The first book came out on the first of April [in the U.S.]. The next two came out two weeks later. The U.K. followed the week after that. That was April. This is July. We've done a film deal. Gone into 42 languages. So yeah, no, I haven't had time to process this."

Despite her fear of crowds, the author took time to tour the convention floor before her signing and she even spent some time with fellow "Twilight" fans, though none of them realized the author's identity. She said that she loves talking to readers about her work, and as for the popularity of the series, she contends it all boils down to escapism.

"The whole book is a fantasy: fantasy lifestyle, fantasy man," James said. "He's ridiculously accomplished, ridiculously wealthy, ridiculously good in bed and it's a fantasy. You either buy into it or you don't. And that's it.

"I think living with someone like that would be hell on earth," James said. "We all secretly know that. At the end of the day, we want someone who's going to do the bloody dishes."