When it comes to Fifty Shades of Grey, commenting on the poor quality of the writing has become cliché. Mentioning the book in a circle of authors requires a caveat of, “Yes, I know. The writing is weak,” before any further comment can be made. But the fact remains: the trilogy has been wildly successful. It’s sold over 100 million copies. That’s a number that makes me sit up and pay attention. Forget about the quality of the writing, to connect so well with readers E.L. James must have done something right. 100 million copies, people! How did she do it? There’s no definitive answer, of course. But here’s some observations I’ve made on the phenomenon.
1) If a target audience likes it, I should study it.
It’s tempting as a writer to focus only on writing, rather than the business of selling books. But I have bills to pay and food to put on the table, so I need to consider how to make money from the hours I spend toiling on my laptop. Even if a book neglects certain things I’ve studied, if it sells well, I want to learn from it. Learning from something doesn’t mean imitating it. One of my goals is to sell books, so I want to tap into that huge Fifty Shades fan base if I can.
2) Craft isn’t everything when it comes to selling books.
To give the requisite caveat, I would never endorse writing a book that belittles and many times ignores craft in the manner of Fifty Shades. However, what has compelled the market towards it has obviously not been the writing technique. As frustrating as it is to those of us working at honing our skills, the truth is that for a large population of readers, matters of craft are just not important. Resonating with a story and its characters, for this type of reader, is far more important than any sins of craft.
3) A niche genre can break into popular culture
Before Fifty Shades, there were other romance novels containing BDSM that sold well, but none exploded onto the widespread scene of popular culture like Fifty Shades. What’s new and shiny about it is the audience of people it has reached. Somehow E.L. James introduced the material in a way that provoked page-turning curiosity in readers. Many have latched onto the BDSM as being the defining aspect of the book, but BDSM had been done before. Something more is resonating with readers, something in the delivery and the context.
4) A tortured hero creates optimal conflict
One of the elements that may be resonating with readers is the tortured past of its hero.
Christian Grey is infamous for being a control-freak billionaire, but he’s also a “crack baby” who suffered physical abuse and starvation before he was adopted into an affluent family at the age of three. As a teenager, he was also a victim of statutory rape by a woman who taught Christian to be her submissive in the BDSM lifestyle. The curiosity E.L. James provokes while revealing his backstory inspires page- turning in some ways more than the sexual tension. The hero’s changes from depraved child to helicopter flying billionaire, from submissive to dominant, are captivating contrasts. The reader is left wondering along with the heroine page after page, why is Christian the way he is? Her wondering becomes torturous in and of itself.
5) Let your imagination go wild
E.L. James’s trilogy developed as a fanfiction fantasy on Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. How she came to Christian Grey from Edward Cullen still flummoxes me, but whatever it was, readers have loved it. A writer’s creative muscle is a boundless font. No matter how unusual or out there, you never know who might want to read the fictitious delights your mind conjures up. So if there’s anything I’ve truly learned from Fifty Shades, it’s believe in your ideas. Who’s to say yours won’t be the next viral pop culture craze?
What do you think about what writers can learn from Fifty Shades? Let us know in the comments, or using the hashtag #5OnFri!
Robin Lovett, also known as S.A. Lovett, writes contemporary romance, and her debut novel, Racing To You, will be released July of 2016. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of the L. Perkins Agency and has a forthcoming series releasing with SMP Swerve in the summer of 2017.
She writes romance to avoid the more unsavory things in life, like day jobs and housework. To feed her coffee and chocolate addictions, she loves overdosing on mochas. When not writing with her cat, you can find her somewhere in the outdoors with a laptop in her bag. Feel free to chat with her on Twitter.