Indie Authors – We Can Learn From Fifty Shades

indie author handbookWhat we can learn from Fifty Shades of Grey.  By now, you’d have to be living under a rock or in a remote cave to have not heard about the phenomenal success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey (and the other books in the trilogy).  Personally, it’s not my cup of tea.  But it’s struck a chord with a lot of readers, both good and bad.  I’m sure many of you indie authors groan (or laugh hysterically like I did) when you read some of the (creative) negative reviews.  But what exactly can we indie authors learn from Fifty Shades of Grey (besides *ahem* sex stuff)?

Indie Authors – Sex Sells

When Nephilim Genesis of Evil was first released, a coworker commented that he’d read the book and enjoyed it a lot, but he also said, if you really want to sell a lot of books, put some boobs on the cover and write some sex scenes.  We had a good laugh, but he was also right.  Romance is currently the hottest-selling genre, and readers (especially women) are buying up erotica.  Why?  One theory is that women are living out their fantasy lives and they can do so easily with ebooks (no one can see a cover to tell what they are reading).  Personally, I’m not very good at writing romantic scenes and I have no interest in writing erotica, but if you do, there is a market for it.

Indie Authors – Write a Series

Long before the ebook revolution, publishers wanted series books, and the same is true today.  As an indie author, writing a series (or in Fifty Shade of Grey, a trilogy) is good business sense.  Readers get hooked on characters and if you have a series, this means a reader will likely get hooked on your first book (if you’ve written it well) and they’ll go buy the rest in the series.  E.L. James has a gold mine with her series.

Indie Authors – You Don’t Have To Write Well…

Apparently, if you fill up a novel with steamy sex scenes, you don’t have to even write well to have a bestseller.  Write about heaving breasts, repetitive climaxing, and blushing fifty different ways, and you’ve got it.  Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of romance and erotica novelists who write stellar novels and they aren’t discovered.  Why did Fifty Shades of Grey get discovered?  From what I’ve heard it was…

Indie Authors – Word of Mouth

I heard on a news story that Fifty Shades of Grey built its following through women’s book clubs.  It’s the old word-of-mouth syndrome.  If you want to be a successful writer (indie author or mainstream published author), you have to build word of mouth.  I’ve had a couple of book clubs read my books and it’s amazing when you hear I told my friend about your book, or I recommended this to my next-door neighbor.  Word of mouth is huge in selling books.

Indie Authors – Analyzing The Reviews

You knew I was going to get to the writing itself, didn’t you?  If you look at your reviews and you have 100 5-star reviews and 50 1-star reviews, I think this might be a signal that there’s some need of improvement.  To me, this is not a good good-to-bad review ratio.  In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s (at the time of this writing) 2,580 5-star to 1,769 1-star.  Wow!

Another thing to look at: if a lot of the 1-star reviews are pointing out the same thing (poor characterization, bad dialogue, etc.), your readers are trying to tell you something.  Here’s a common theme in Fifty Shades of Grey:

Ana says “Jeez” 81 times and “oh my” 72 times. She “blushes” or “flushes” 125 times, including 13 that are “scarlet,” 6 that are “crimson,” and one that is “stars and stripes red.”

I spared you the rest.  One thing I do (and my editors look for this too) is repetitive phrases.  As an author, it’s easy to miss things.  Your editor shouldn’t.  And, in my humble opinion, what lives as writing in Fifty Shades of Grey is atrocious.  Figure out a better way of saying it, for pity’s sake :).  I honestly don’t know how readers can think the writing is good…but that’s just me.

Indie Authors – What’s Left For Me?

I look at this author and equate her to John Locke or Amanda Hocking, not the writing, but the phenomena.  Because that’s what it is.  There was a spark, a breeze to fan the fire, a viola, a bestseller.  I’m sure we’d all like that to happen with our books.  My advice?  Keep persevering, write great books, and that fire just might find you.  One final thought, from another review:

Like some other reviewers, what I find terribly depressing is that this is a runaway bestseller and the movie rights are expected to sell for up to $5 million. There are so many highly talented writers in the genre… and erotica is so much more erotic when the author has a command of the language and can make you care about the characters.

Think readers don’t care about good writing?  Think again :).  What are your thoughts?

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
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35 Responses to Indie Authors – We Can Learn From Fifty Shades

  1. Loved this post, when I wrote the sex scene in Gunshot Glitter I was bloody terrified it would turn some readers off because it was so explicit, now it’s a relief to know I don’t have so much to worry about. Some excellent observations in our post : )

  2. I can’t agree more. How many times can a person have “amusement in their eyes,” “a wry smile,” “scowl” or “scuff” and “holy cow” have those kind of orgasms from the first try onward. Grrrr. There wasn’t one page where the repetition, the poor writing and the lack of verbal imagination didn’t irritate me. As I read, I keep hoping for the end of each chapter. Even so, I couldn’t stop reading it. Go figure.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      I didn’t read it, just reading the reviews about her writing was enough to turn me away (and I’m not into erotica) but it baffles me that many say it’s a well-written book. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Didn’t read it and I certainly won’t do so in future. Just not my cup of tea. But I do think you’re right, Renee, there’s a lot to learn from 50 Shades and you’ve summed it up beautifully. The first lesson is: sex sells and the last lesson: if you’re onto sex, you don’t need to write well, your style does NOT matter, ha ha!

    Thanks for this post, very useful – just tweeted about it!

  4. Jean says:

    Didn’t buy it, didn’t read it, and won’t be. I’ve read a lot of excellent romance novels with erotic love scenes as well as strong story lines, in my day. I’ve been reading erotic romance since the early nineties, and I’m certain they were out there long before I started. Fifty Shades of Grey will remain that way for me, GREY. For the record, I don’t believe this author did anything out of the ordinary to promote her books, it was just a perfectly timed whisper and before you knew it, the whisper became a shout because America is a nation of followers… Follow the leader. They follow each other blindly to go buy this book, no one wanted to be left out.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      I didn’t read it either, it just doesn’t interest me at all. And I agree about us being a nation of followers, but that’s why it’s good to promote and maybe your book will be one that “takes off”. Thanks for your comment.

    • Kathy says:

      Hi Jean,
      I was wondering if you know of any romance writers who still possess the ability to combine a good romance with a good story line. Lately, to me, the romance suffers in favor of the paranormal or the murder mystery or whatever else the story is supposed to be about besides the falling in love of the hero and heroine.

  5. Caleb Pirtle says:

    Anytime you write a post, I learn something new or I am persuaded to think about a situation in an entirely different light. You did it again. Thanks.

  6. I read the sample and just couldn’t get past the bad writing. Yes, you’re absolutely right that sex does sell, but really, couldn’t her editor (if she had one) had done something with the book before it was published.

    To say that I’m not just a little jealous of her success wouldn’t be the truth. But for those of us who work hard to write the best book we can, then send it to beta readers and an editor before we hit the publish button, it seems that sometimes our best efforts don’t always matter. Seems like these days if a book appeals to the masses, it doesn’t always have to be well-written. Go figure.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      I too am jealous, but I want to be successful with what I write, instead of chasing after the riches by writing what I don’t like. Hang in there, I firmly believe our efforts will be rewarded, even if it’s not monetarily. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Great post. Sex sells.

    The ratio to 5 star and 1 star reviews remind me of a “selling point” we had in bookstores during the late 90′s and Oprah’s book club picks. Her books were consistently love’em or hate’em books. However this sort of book does sell.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Interesting about the selling point – I am an Oprah book hater myself, but she sure got a lot of books sold. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Like you I neither read or write erotica but I like to think and have heard from my blog followers that I am a talented writer. It may not make me rich but I prefer diligence in creating a work that stands on merit rather than empty titillation ( no pun intended).
    Thanks for voicing the belief that good writing while it doesn’t always garner $5 mil in movie rights, is worth pursuing.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Those comments about your own good writing can go a long way. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  9. I just can’t enjoy a book that is written badly. (And I don’t understand how other people CAN! Ugh!) So I haven’t even tried reading this book. I’m still amazed it’s been such a success!

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      I too am amazed and I agree that it’s hard to enjoy a poorly written book. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Good advice to writing well and move forward. I tend to read reviews before buying books and one thing is clear, the world is an interesting place. We have such varied opinions.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Yeah, you never can tell with reviews, what one person likes, another doesn’t. Thanks for your comment.

  11. I found this article very encouraging. I will say, however, that although sex sells, it doesn’t move people in a way that a really good book does. I have had readers thank me and recommend my books because of LACK of sex and language. I am a firm believer that an excellent book can be written and sell without the overboard language and sex.
    Time and time again, I see reviews where the reader couldn’t get past the poor editing and excessive language. These in themselves give me hope that there is a market for “good” writing.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Boy, do I hear you, and I agree. I specifically try not to have swearing and sex in my novels because there is an audience who doesn’t want it, and as you say, a great book doesn’t need it. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Debra Dunbar says:

    I did read all three books. I don’t write erotica or romance, but do make a habit of reviewing it. It was really difficult to get through all three novels. The non-stop sex, weak plot, repetitive use of phrases grated on me. Sheesh, the guy was like a darned Energizer bunny. And Ana really got on my nerves. I really wanted to take my editing machete-of-death to it. Bet I could have reduced it to a nice clean 1 novel! But, in spite of the weak writing, the sex was wild, and over-the-top compared to most mainstream romance. I think that is a huge part of the success. As Ana constantly says “Oh my”.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      You are one brave soul to tackle all three of them :). Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such an interesting series.

  13. I am always happy to hear success stories for fellow authors. The fifty shades series is not my style, but it was marketed well and obviously there are a lot of people that like it so it has to have some redeeming qualities. I’m old fashioned, I write for me, to soothe my rambunctious soul, and it would be great if people would read my books and get something out of them, but ultimately, I write because I have no other alternative. I am usually busy in some seedy part of some city, drinking with questionable characters and listening to their “confessions”, and my books’ sales show for it, as that I have not put forth the tremendous effort it takes to market successfully. I find myself “twitting”, or on myface or spacebook, and not writing, and it drives me absolutely insane. My hat is off to EL James, because whether we like her writing or not, she has managed to go where most of us only dream about. I think I will find a country where I can live comfortably off of a few hundred dollars a month and that way I can just write again. Thanks for your informative blog, and allowing me to rant.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      I don’t know what she did to market herself, but it certainly worked, at least until the book took off, and then it had a life of its own. Marketing is difficult, no doubt. I wish people would just find my books too, so I could spend more time writing, but alas…and maybe I’ll join you in that country. Thanks for ranting, you are more than welcome to do so here :).

  14. I read all three books just so I could make up my own mind about all the hype. And, it was an ordeal! A struggle to finish, as a result of the poor writing and constant repetition of certain phrases – it nearly drove me crazy. I not only found myself found editing as I read, but begging for the end.
    The sex scenes are so omnipresent that after a while it becomes sheer overload, and actually annoying. And after persevering through it, I’ve decided that no matter how much erotica sells, I don’t want to go down that road in my books. What’s wrong with good-old fashioned romance any more? Or at least, can we keep the sex scenes to a minimum so as not to devalue the beauty of it.
    I’d rather be remembered as a good writer who wasn’t ashamed to let the younger members of my family read my books.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      You are not the only one who feels this way :). And I heartily agree about being remembered as a good writer rather than a bad one who threw sex into the mix just to sell books. Thanks for your comment.

  15. There is a lot to be learned regarding the success of this book trilogy and I think you’ve captured that here, especially in regards to how indie authors can duplicate it. The success of 50 Shades can certainly be the success of many others if the principals you speak of are implemented. Word-of-mouth, reviews, romance, developing a trilogy; all of that should be taken into account when creating one’s book.
    Thanks for this!

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Glad you liked the post. It’s at least a plan for us indie authors lol. Thanks for your comment.

  16. I write erotica and BDSM in the lesbian genre and I am not afraid to write a descriptive sex scene. I did not buy this book and was even offered it as a freebie by a friend to read but I chose not to. The amount of negative reviews were enough to tell me that this book was not up to scratch. I feel as though there could have been a lot more to offer the target audience going by most comments left on the reviews. In this day and age there definitely isn’t a book that has too much sex.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      That many negative reviews is scary, but it’s amazing that people are still buying the book. Sex really does sell (and curiosity). Thanks for your comment.

  17. Kathy says:

    I didn’t read “Fifty” because I heard about the punctuation and the excessive repetition and knew I wouldn’t be able to take it. But I don’t begrudge the author, her windfall of success. I think what I learned from the success of her book is how important it is to find a way to get your work out there where your target audience can read it and judge it. The DaVinci Code was not a romance and it had many errors in it, with regard to certain places and Italian phrases, but what an adventure for those of us who enjoy those kinds of books. True, Dan Brown is no indie. But for those of us who are, I think we just need to write our shades of whatever color, our magic stories, or Biblical takeoffs and then shift as much effort as we can into promoting them. I personally feel that people are always ready for a new and exciting author in the genre of the books they enjoy. Publishers discriminate with their criteria and their focus on what they think will sell, but readers don’t. Readers are willing to go along with a story, if it excites them at the right level. I am working on the final draft of my own book, and I am also ever seeking out the best way to promote it on a large scale.

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