Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades, #1)Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the short version: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is a BDSM erotica phenomenon that started out as TWILIGHT fanfic. (Links provided so you don’t have to Google anything. That could get dangerous.) FIFTY SHADES has sold an estimated 40 million copies worldwide, been optioned for film, boosted the mainstream demand for erotica, spawned dozens of copycats, and even given hardware stores an unexpected lift. (But only for items like “soft” rope.)

Now, I am not one to jump on any bandwagons, and I don’t chase trends. But 40 million is no small potatoes. So I figure, there’s gotta be a lesson in here somewhere, right? Well, here’s what I came up with:

1. Write for yourself.

That’s the whole point of fanfiction: Take a bunch of characters you love and play around. (Arguably that’s the whole point of all fiction.) The idea is that you’re making yourself happy, by writing a story that you want to read — and it’s only natural that if you like something, then other people will too. After all, even the “weirdest,” rarest niches have fan sites and Facebook groups.

Sometimes we’re so busy worrying about whether X concept will appeal to “the market,” or if Y story can hook us an agent, that we forget to ask ourselves, Does my idea appeal to me?

2. Seize opportunity.

When the author of FIFTY SHADES realized how popular her fanfiction stories were, she found a way to capitalize on them. She changed Bella and Edward’s names, retitled the series (formerly “Master of the Universe”), and self-published in digital form. Based on impressive sales figures, a small Australian publisher picked her up for print. Based on even more impressive word-of-mouth, a Big 6 publisher picked her up for re-print and mass distribution.

None of this would have happened if the author hadn’t been willing to open a few doors on her own, to experiment with the available tools, and to take a chance on herself.

3. Success is unpredictable.

(This one could also be called “What we can’t learn from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: How to become a millionaire.”)

No one saw this coming. Not the author, not her first readers, not her later readers, not her first publisher, not her second. No one could have predicted the incredible rise of this one TWILIGHT fanfic out of the millions that flood the internet. Heck, some people still don’t understand it.

You can’t worry about how to be the Next Big Thing, because that’s a trigonometric equation we don’t yet know how to solve. And let’s be honest: we probably never will, because we are book people, not mathematicians.

4. Bad reviews won’t kill you.

Or your book. Or your career. Yes, they can sting, but the best thing to do is brush them off, ignore them, or avoid them completely. (Easier said than done, I know. But do it anyway.) Most people will still check out a book if they were really interested — because one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

So don’t stress over — and do not respond to — public criticism of your work. At best you’ll have no effect; at worst you’ll lose potential readers and look like a fool.

9 responses to “What writers can learn from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY”

  1. Laura Avatar

    Great post! It’s nice to see someone finally taking an objective view on this book, and you make some really smart points here. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    “Success is unpredictable”

    Indeed. Why does Hollywood regularly spend enormous amounts of money making movies that nobody goes to see? Because (with a few exceptions) they have no idea what will be successful either. As the screenwriter William Goldman one famously said, “Nobody knows anything.”

    So, as you said, might as well write what you want. :-)

  3. Annie B.Quinn Avatar

    Very good post!
    I especially like and agree with “write for yourself”.

  4. T. S. Bazelli Avatar

    I’m always surprised at the books that become successful, and no one really knows why these became bestsellers and others didn’t. Good reminder – just write. write what you love. the rest is not in our control ;)

  5. Sonje Avatar

    I think another lesson to learn from 50 Shades — and Twilight too — is that story trumps writing. I know that fact wounds our wordsmithy souls, but the proof is in the pudding. If you can come up with a great story and get it out there so that people can understand it, the actual quality of your writing means very, very little.

  6. Mieke Zamora-Mackay Avatar

    I appreciate your objective take on the success of the series. I have to take my hat off to Ms. James for having the “balls” to do what she did. She saw the potential to bring her story to more readers and did it, despite the backlash she received from some of her fanfic fans and the fanfic community in general.

    Thank you for focusing on the positive.

  7. Tuere Morton Avatar

    SO glad to hear the plain facts. Aside from all of the hateration (and there’s plenty) about the series, you’re so right. In fact, whenever someone in my writers’ group bitterly points out EL’s trangressions against the “rules,” I continuously simply reply that she is LAUGHING HER WAY TO THE BANK. I enjoyed the series and can’t wait to see it on film. And ss tough as it is to break into this business traditionally, my inner rebel was totally championing her success. ;)

  8. Kristan Avatar

    Glad y’all enjoyed my take on it! Thanks for the comments. :)

    I agree that between the two, story factors in higher/more heavily than quality of prose. That was something that really hit me in reading TWILIGHT (though I think Meyer writes better than all of her copycats, honestly) and it was very freeing for me as a formerly-literary writer with perfectionist tendencies.

    BUT. I wouldn’t say quality of writing means *little*. I think however successful X might be, it will be 10 times *more* successful if it is well-written.

    You know, as a former fanfic reader (and yes, occasional fanfic writer) I do have mixed feelings about the origins of her work. But at the end of the day, my opinion on that particular matter doesn’t mean a thing, and the one person’s whose opinion *does* matter — i.e., Stephenie Meyer — is apparently not concerned.

  9. Kristan Avatar

    All the splashy successes get backlash, it’s true and inevitable. But I find that “hateration” (hehe, love your term) and bitterness don’t help me accomplish MY dreams and goals, so I try not to waste my time with them. (Keyword: try.) Glad you feel the same. :)