Fifty Shades of Grey is a publishing success story like no other. Author E. L. James has come a long way from writing fan-fiction on specialist sites – she has hit the mass-market, big time, and even created a new genre: “mummy porn”. She has now sold more than 100m copies worldwide. This “overnight success” did not happen by chance. She very carefully grew her author platform long before she wrote her first novel, and mastered word-of-mouth marketing. So let’s have a look at exactly how she did it:
- Like all good authors, she started as a passionate reader. She LOVED the Twilight series “I just sat on my sofa and I read them and read them and read them and read them. I love them, and then I sat down and wrote a novel,” she explained to ABC News. It seems she was particularly keen to recreate the sexual tension between the main characters, teenager Bella, and her vampire boyfriend, Edward.
- She started small. She explored short-form fiction, writing stories that featured the Twilight lovebirds. This allowed her to develop her craft before tackling a full-length novel.
- She wrote whenever and wherever she could. As a busy working mum, she did most of her writing on her Blackberry during her daily commute.
- She actively encouraged feedback and took it all on board. A wonderful part of the fanfiction world is that authors usually only post a short section of text and then ask for feedback or input (e.g. on what should happen next) from the community (who are only too happy to oblige, being big fans themselves). The authors can then use this feedback to constantly improve their writing. Also, the fan community readers feel very involved in the writing process and want to see it through. They make an emotional investment in the work. It seems the feedback was that the sexy stuff worked best, so she moved into the erotica genre. Then, when her readers started to complain about the limitations of setting her stories in the Twilight world, she looked at how the stories could be adapted to a modern-day, real-world setting. She always listened and gave the readers what they wanted.
- She had her own website and started building her author platform very early. As her work became more erotic, she took it down from the fanfiction sites (where it had amassed over 35,000 views), and moved it on to her own site, taking her loyal following with her. This obviously gave her the creative freedom to write and publish whatever she wanted, but it also diverted a solid flow of traffic from the fan sites to her own. She grew her audience and engaged with her readership of thousands, whetting their appetite by giving them small sections of her writing for free, and leaving them wanting more. This created a lot of pre-release hype around her first full-length novel.
- She knew which format her readers wanted – eBooks – so she made sure her work was available digitally. This is because readers feel less self-conscious reading romance and erotica titles in public on eReaders. Surprisingly, she had interest from Hollywood film-makers before she had interest from Random House. She was open to the idea of seeing her story in a different media to build her brand.
- She used word-of-mouth to grow demand for her books. Word-of-mouth has always been the most powerful and cost-effective marketing tool in the book industry. She created the kind of content girlfriends wanted to talk about, giggle over and share. Then it wasn’t just the girlfriends; it was the women’s talk show and radio hosts, and then mainstream media. Not to mention social media! Fifty Shades of Grey currently has over a million ratings and 68,000 reviews on Goodreads, and thousands of reader reviews on Amazon – this is content people like commenting on. To get the buzz started in the first place, she utilised the book blogging community and her fans.
- She capitalised on her readership by quickly producing follow-up books. Having created a hungry audience, she knew her sequel books would be well-received.
Lots to learn from her phenomenal success with bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, but if you take away just one thing from this blog post: building your author platform is the key to successful self-publishing.