Fifty Shades of Commercial Success

Fifty Shades

Kate Ellis is a freelance editor and runs Ellis Editorial, specialising in commercial crime, thriller and women’s fiction. She is also an editorial mentor for the WoMentoring Project. Here, she chats with Norah Myers about the popularity of EL James’s Fifty Shades series.

1. Why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular?

Fifty Shades was a total market game changer. It had three things that really spoke to people: a shock factor, a passionate love story and a brooding, mysterious antihero. Market changer books are the ones that take a well-known genre and do something unique with it. We saw it with Gone Girl in 2012 that gave birth to psychological thrillers (and the market hasn’t looked back since), and Fifty Shades was no different. These books – they have talking points. They have the shock factor and marmite storylines, people either love them or hate them. They aren’t your typical run of the mill narratives, they don’t conform to what’s come before them. I think what really helped give it such widespread popularity is that it has such a unique talking point. Everyone who thinks of Fifty Shades thinks of BDSM; it gave something to the market that no other book was doing. I mean, BDSM wasn’t exactly a popular topic of conversation, not in my friendship circles anyway! It created such intrigue that almost made it forbidden that only made people more intrigued and need to pick it up. I also think that digitalization came at such a significant time for Fifty Shades. It meant that millions of people could get away with reading it on an eReader and no one else would be none the wiser! On top of this, E L James had such a great platform to build from, having been published on and then on her own website. Fifty Shades already had a fan following and who better to shout about the book than readers? No one’s opinion is more valid.

2. What chord has it struck with readers that other erotic books haven’t?

I think that it offers more than just erotica. For women’s fiction fans, this is pure romance goodness. At the very heart of the story, if you can navigate through the cable ties and leather floggers, is a love story (SPOILER ALERT!): innocent girl meets troubled boy, girl wants to change boy, boy tries to resist but can’t, boy and girl eventually marry and live happily ever after. It’s the same tale that’s been told a million times over, just with a flogger or two thrown in. Speaking as a big romance fan, you don’t want to read the same story over and over again, but you want a romance book to tick all the romance boxes. That’s the rule! They need to have angst, pain, tragedy and a big fat happy ending. They need to make you laugh and want to cry at the same time. Fifty Shades ticks all the romance boxes and then some. Although the erotic scenes are a big part of the book, there’s also a storyline sandwiched between the red room of pain and Ana’s divaish subconscious. There are two characters who affect each other, try to change each other and effectively can’t live without each other. For romance fans, this is everything. Every once in a while, you read a book whose characters will stay with you forever. Iconic characters like: Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Cathy and Heathcliff, Emma and Dexter, Lou and Will, and Christian and Ana, too (please don’t hate me for putting Mr Darcy and Christian Grey in the same sentence).

3. How has Fifty Shades made this sort of book more mainstream, and how has the genre progressed as a result?

I think it’s made people realise that erotica isn’t something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. It’s a genre that really is holding its own and has done for years. The last time E L James released a book (Grey) back in 2015, it was the bestselling book in the UK and it appeared in the Irish and US top 3, too. It stormed to number 1 in the Kindle chart as soon as its release was announced. Although Darker hasn’t quite achieved the success of Grey (let’s face it, book two is always difficult), I think we should expect to see similar stats at the end of the year. I think before Fifty Shades, people (including me) thought erotica was just Mills & Boon: mass-market fiction that’s consumed quickly. Mills & Boon is the absolute queen of erotica and romance, there’s no doubt about it, it publishes 20+ titles a month, which is just incredible! So there’s no doubt that erotica is extremely popular and has been for a very long time, but I think Fifty Shades opened it up to a brand new audience and a new way of writing (and to a whole load of new critics, too). From women in their twenties to women in their sixties, this trilogy has reached more people than erotica ever has. It’s made way for authors like Sylvia Day, whose fifth book in the Crossfire Trilogy knocked Lee Child off the top spot and proved with its incredibly impressive sales figures that erotica is still pretty much a frontrunner. There’s a market for romance books with erotica in them, Fifty Shades paved the way, and I hope we’re in store for more.

4. How has Fifty Shades affected the attitude towards self-publishing?

Self-publishing is incredibly popular at the moment. Is that down to Fifty Shades? Maybe partly so. It did incredibly well as Fanfiction and then as part of The Writers’ Workshop website, building up a legion of faithful fans. I think it’s a prime example of just how successful self-publishing can be, but it also shows how powerful and influential a big power house like Penguin Random House is. Would Fifty Shades have been acquired by Penguin Random House had it not been so popular? Maybe not, it was a big risk to take. Would it have done as well as it has without the power of a big publisher behind it? Possibly not. But what it has done is prove that even if publishers say no, there are still people out there who want to read your book, and the readers may be the ones to get you the book deal you want. E L James has added to the growing list of incredibly successful self-published works. But I don’t think we should forget that it did have the Penguin Random House extraordinaire team behind it, too. They may have done a thing or two to help get it to where it is now! But, It’s incredible to think that something so popular and incredibly successful has come from a site that attracts people who need to know what happens to characters beyond book pages or movie screens, never underestimate the power of story telling! Where there’s need and desire, there’s a market.

5. How are these books typically marketed, especially when there is sensitive subject matter?

You’ve got to use the subject’s sensitivity to your advantage, you build your campaign around it. When you’re marketing a book, you always ask yourself, what’s the hook? Where does the intrigue lie? As an editor, it’s all you think about as you’re reading. You’ll really try to bring that hook out as you’re working through the editorial process, and that’s what you build your marketing campaign around. For Fifty Shades, the shock factor is, surprise surprise, BDSM. You take what’s gripping about the book and splash it all over your marketing. Avon did it with the number 1 bestseller The Teacher, using the tagline ‘not for the faint-hearted’ and the hashtag #DoYouDare? It’s clever, eye-catching, intriguing marketing. You make the pure shock factor a talking point, tease people with it by intriguing them and drawing them in, leaving them no choice but to pick up the book and read it. I think it worked brilliantly with both titles. You simply have to find that pure shock factor and be prepared for people to go one way or the other, as we know they have done with Fifty Shades.

6. What advice would you give writers who would like to work in this genre?

Do something different that no one else has done yet, easier said than done, I know! Just look at Maestra, published by Bonnier Zaffre. It rocketed up the charts, combining erotica and psychological thriller – what a combination! It’s all about taking something well known and well loved and doing something completely different and utterly shocking with it. I mean who would’ve thought that psychological thrillers and erotica have something in common? But why not? There’s obvious demand for these genres right now and I think pairing them and appealing to fans of both is pure genius publishing. I think for writers, it’s important to know the market and where it’s going. What’s hot right now, what do we need more of, what are publishers going to need to add to their list next? That’s where the shock factor book comes in. A wildcard. It’s all about being one step ahead of the game and Maestra really did that.