If you’re out to write the next run-away best-seller in erotic fan-fiction, I can’t help you there.
For everyone else, I’m going to pull apart the book’s success and look at five major sales tips we can learn from it.
If you didn’t already know, 50 Shadesstarted out as Twilight fan-fiction. The author E L James used Twilight’s main characters and put her own twist on their relationship (before editing said references out to avoid copyright infringement when the book was published).
Remember when all you heard about was Twilight? When Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart starred in every conversation with females younger than 65?
The huge success of the Twilight series acted as a springboard for James’s work.
Once the Twilight book series was complete, fans had nowhere to turn for more literary adventures with Bella and Edward, except to re-read the novels. Their hunger for more of these characters provided an immediate reason to start reading an unknown piece by a new author.
Eventually the book sales went far beyond this group, but as a starting point the connection to Twilight was a way to hook readers.
Lesson: Ride the coat tails.
2. Get controversial
Apart from its incredible popularity, 50 Shades is probably best known for being lascivious and racy.
While erotic fiction is nothing new, with the addition of BDSM themes and the explicit nature of the sex scenes 50 Shades took fan-fiction to a new level. Especially so for any young Twilight fans who might be interested in the series.
The raunchy writing gave people a somewhat controversial topic to discuss, adding to the word-of-mouth wildfire.
Lesson: Take risks.
Despite not being a reader of fan-fiction, not having a television or radio and not reading newspapers, I heard about 50 Shades of Grey. The power of word-of-mouth for this book drove it into the interest of mainstream audiences.
To begin with, 50 Shades was only available as a print-on-demand paperback or an eBook, and sold primarily through word-of-mouth. It has become such a widespread craze now that everyone wants in – even people who haven’t read the book want to talk about it.
Everyone wants to be part of the club.
Lesson: Make it shareable.
4. Start humble
Before a book deal was ever on the table, James posted 50 Shades on a popular fan-fiction website under the title Master of the Universe. As it grew in popularity, she removed the references to Twilight’s characters and moved the work to her own website.
As word-of-mouth continued, more eBook and print-on-demand copies sold and the book became popular enough to interest mainstream publishers.From there it has spiraled into deals with publishers around the world and a movie deal, but it all came from humble beginnings.
The demand of the audience drove the product to larger and larger heights.
Lesson: Start small and scale.
5. Be different
Erotic fiction is not new. Fan-fiction is not new. Unknown authors finding unexpected mainstream success is not new (Remember J.K. Rowling, or Stephanie Meyer?).
What is new about 50 Shades is a unique combination. James took popular characters from a successful franchise which emphasizes the unsatisfied sexual tension between them and transplanted them into explicit erotic situations.
A new connection between existing things makes for an exciting project.
Lesson: Look for unique connections.
Before you run off to write your own blockbuster erotic novel, let me leave you with this gem.
But be warned: it is most definitely NSFW (not safe for work), and you’ll probably need some tissues (expect tears of laughter).
Belle has spent the past four years as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She has written for The Next Web, Desktop Magazine and Social Media Examiner.
Belle now spends her days wielding a pencil as Attendly's Head of Content.