Photo by Adrian Midgley
Erika Mitchell, better known as E.L. James, has had remarkable success with her self-published novel, 50 Shades of Grey. Most of my clients and social media friends know I don’t promote erotica, however, there are many lessons that her success offers. While I have researched this book as a publishing case study, I didn’t read the book, nor do I endorse it.
The top five things that 50 Shades teaches indie authors are:
1. Use familiar characters. 50 Shades started out as a fan fiction series, Master of the Universe. Mitchell refined it and created an original novel. Her characters are based on very successful characters from Twilight, most notably Bella and Edward reworked as Anastasia and Christian, with other hints of Bella’s mother and Jacob thrown into the mix through other characters. I am not suggesting stealing characters directly from other works. Identify what people like about the character archetypes in successful novels; use what works about them, leave out what doesn’t, and add your own signature touch through new characteristics.
Characters can drive reader interest even more so than plot, therefore analyzing what the public likes about iconic characters can be a great way to come up with characters that work for you. If you decide to create a series the way that J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer did, you have to start with great characters. The plot will change and the characters will develop throughout the duration of the series, and following the characters is often what motivates readers to purchase the next installment.
2. Use passion and fantasy. Whether it is the dismal economy or a certain dissatisfaction with modern life, fantasy sells. Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades, and The Hunger Games all incorporate some kind of fantasy and offer a departure from reality for readers, which is, after all, the point of fiction. This is not to say that you can’t make money with a book that is not in the fantasy genre; 50 Shades is only fantasy insofar as it explores sexual fantasies. Bring passion, fantasy, and imagination to everyday, ordinary scenes and people, whether it’s in the form of an over-the-top character, a character with the kind of quick wit that only exists in fiction, or a character who does extraordinary things, even if he/she is just an average mortal.
3. Push the envelope. Don’t include gratuitous sex and violence in your stories to capitalize on sensationalism, but consider what edgy content would be appropriate for your story. A portion of the success of 50 Shades can be attributed to the curiosity factor. If you’re concerned that people might be offended by the content of your book, you can hold yourself back from succeeding by giving readers a product that insults their intelligence by watering down incidents, dialogue, and subcultures.
4. Don’t let your day job or your age hold you back. E.L. James is a 49-year-old woman who leads a modest life as a wife and a mother. As a former television executive, her background is not one that is related to books, literature, or writing. No one is more surprised by the success of the novel than James herself, who typed 50 Shades on her Blackberry during her commute to work.
Although you shouldn’t break driving laws to write your book, James’ story shows that no matter how busy you are, there is time that could be spent writing your book. She also shows that starting late in life after leading a fairly normal, less-than-notable lifestyle in an ordinary job does not disqualify you from becoming an author. There is no reason to allow your age, job, background, or time schedule to hold you back from writing the next bestseller.
5. Get involved with your research. James’ husband, Niall Leonard, has famously complained about growing tired of the “experimentalism” that she used for her research. Although James’ research is far different from the kind of research that you might do for your own book, she proved one thing without a doubt: no amount of reading and fact-finding can compare to first-hand research. James’ book resonates with readers because she lived her book and what her characters would have gone through, enabling her to write 50 Shades in a compelling, realistic, relatable, and accessible manner.
If you’re writing a book about someone on safari, go on a safari yourself, rather than reading about people who did. If you’re writing a book about New York high society, visit the famed watering holes and restaurants yourself so that you can describe the ambience and total sensory experience in exact detail, rather than relying on the Zagat guide for insight into the world in which your characters exist.
James is not the first self-published author to experience tremendous success, nor will she be the last. By analyzing what made James a success and how to make it work for you, your book may be the next international sensation.