Why E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey is Popular and How You, Too, Can Be a Bestselling Author (Pt. 1 of 2)

E.L. James' 50 Shades of GreyOur guest post today is Liz Adams, author of fairy tale erotica. We are honored to have her share with us some of her wisdom on how to be a successful author. And though she will be talking about being an erotica author, much of her insight and advice can be applied to all authors of fiction. Please help me welcome Liz Adams. Take it away, Liz!


Thank you, Beth. I’m so pleased to be here. I’ve heard a lot of erotica writers say, “I don’t get it! Why is 50 Shades of Grey so Popular?” Many of us get our panties in a bunch, jealous that someone else’s first-time work of erotica can be a national bestseller. The truth is, what Erika Leonard, aka E.L. James, did can be a guide for all of us fiction authors, and you, too, can become a bestselling author.

What’s the story behind her story?

Her book started out as fan fiction of Twilight. She released the erotic story of Bella Swan episodically on a fan-fiction websites. When there were comments expressing concern over how sexual her story was, she removed it from the websites. She later edited the book, changing the names of the characters, then split the book into three parts, using a print-on-demand publisher in Australia to get her books out there. Her own marketing efforts didn’t do as much as word-of-giggle. The 50 Shades series spread via word-of-mouth among mostly married women over thirty. Most of them never before read a book on BDSM. Are you seeing that? That’s the significant boy I want you to kiss. Most of the readers did not regularly read the genre. So what got them started? Hold on to your skirts, I’ll address that in a moment.

A lot of women say they loved her books, and a lot of others say they think her writing skills are lacking. While I never managed to finish 50 Shades of Grey, I’m pretty convinced that whether or not her writing is brilliant, that’s about as important as analyzing the ideal conditions for clover plant growth while you’re taking a hot bath. There are a lot of great writers out there (you know who you are) and there is a lot of great BDSM erotic fiction out there, too. So why aren’t those writers and books getting the publicity that 50 Shades of Grey is getting? The quality of the writing must not be the determining factor.

So why is she so successful? How can other erotica writers become as popular?


What’s a girl to do?

My book coaches said some things that gave me an idea. Ezra Barany, award-winning author of the bestselling thriller The Torah Codes, said that the best way to have people spread the word about your book is to include controversy in the story. Beth Barany, author of the grand-prize winning YA Fantasy novel Henrietta the Dragon Slayer, said the cover of the book should convey the promise of the experience for the reader.
Campus Sexploits 3: Wild Girls in College

Knowing that controversy helps spread word of the book around, I try to incorporate controversy in my fiction now. In my most recent short story, which is published in Naughty Nights Press’ anthology Campus Sexploits 3: Naughty Tales of Wild Girls in College, I reveal why women should cheat on their boyfriends and husbands. As soon as the anthology was released in September, I saw a spike in sales of my other books.

Surely there must be other reasons why books become popular by word-of-mouth. Not every popular book I’ve read has controversy. What other reasons are there for people to tell others which book to read? Amazing plot twists? Stories that stir extreme emotions from the reader? Share in the comments below why you think people talk about a book. What makes it good enough to tell others about? I want to know what you think. There must be something besides just controversy.

I think one method of storytelling that works well is retelling familiar tales or writing with familiar characters. In my erotic fairy tales, like Alice’s Sexual Discovery in a Wonderful Land and Amy Red Riding’s Hood, the appeal to read a sexual version of the already familiar tales of Alice in Wonderland and Red Riding Hood is enough to get the reader of erotica interested. But is the creation of erotic versions of fairy tales enough to titillate the reader into telling others about the books? I’m not sure. Maybe controversy is the only thing that gets readers to spread the word. If there’s any controversy at all in my fairy tale erotica, it’s that our minds think of Alice and Red Riding Hood as young girls. Even though in my fiction Alice is in University and Amy Red Riding is “wed age,” perhaps the readers’ picture of them being younger than they are in the story still stirs some images of underage sex.


So what does all this have to do with 50 Shades of Grey?

Amy Red Riding's Hood Adult Fairy Tale EroticaI’m glad you asked. The only controversy that one could say exists in her book is the BDSM relationship. But as I said before, there are a lot of great BDSM books out there not getting nearly the same amount of attention as 50 Shades of Grey. That’s when I remembered what Beth Barany said. The cover should be the promise of the reader’s experience. So like most BDSM books, the cover should show a naked woman bound and gagged, right? But it doesn’t. What does it show? A tie. What experience will the reader expect when buying or being given a book with a picture of a tie on it? “Oh, this will be a book about a dashing, well-dressed man!” I can just picture it now: a woman tells her friend to read 50 Shades of Grey because it’s a good romance, the friend buys the book seeing a tie on the cover, she gets to the part where Mr. Grey reveals his bondage toys and the friend freaks out! Not just by being exposed to BDSM for the first time, but also because now she’s wondering what her girlfriend is into.

What I’m saying is that the book was marketed to the wrong crowd. It got purchased by readers who didn’t know what experience to expect. The shock of the experience is what I think created the controversy.

In part 2, I’ll lift the skirts on another example of a book that seemed to succeed for the same reason; because it was marketed to the wrong crowd. I’ll also reveal how you can use this strategy to help make more sales of your own book. Read part 2 here.

Liz Adams, author of adult fairy tale eroticaLiz Adams, author of the erotic fairy tale Alice’s Sexual Discovery in a Wonderful Land, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. Her short story Amy Red Riding’s Hood was voted by Goodreads’ Kinky World group to be Book of the Month for October 2012. Liz studied music and creative writing at UCLA and worked as a freelance model before making her writing her career. In her spare time she cuddles with her husband on the couch to watch her favorite shows. Her books are available at Amazon!

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  • Thanks for the advice, Liz. Still not quite sure where I go from here, but I’ll watch where you lead me. 🙂

  • Great piece Liz full of useful hints and tips a fledgling author in another under used genre of erotica, like myself, could use

  • I just realized I didn’t answer your question. I recommend books that immerse me. Books that once I start I can’t put down again. What sucks me into a book? Voice and character, someone I can care about and I’m willing to imagine being.

    Hope that helps. Now I’m going to wonder if I should have had a baby on the cover of Blue Moon House so I could mislead. :p

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