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50 Shades of Grey was exploding in headlines once again last week, this time thanks to a very funny reading by one Ellen Degeneres. And apparently there are men who have read it… and enjoyed it? I guess it’s not so surprising, how many men wouldn’t want to read and fantasize about being a 27 year old bajillionaire dominating, in more ways than one, a beautiful, spunky college grad.

I read it. I felt I needed to know what all the hype was about. I didn’t find the content so shocking; I’ve seen Secretary. However, given that we are a self-publishing platform for the creation and distribution of ebooks, I’m fascinated by the evolution of this book. It began as a Twilight fan-fiction on fanfiction.net. Then E.L. James self-publishes the novel under completely different title, swaps some character names around, and BAM! the entire trilogy is topping the NY Times Bestseller List. Let me say it again… FASCINATING.

I’m curious to learn more about how and why this particular book “tipped”.

Here is a brief review, if I may call it that:

To get down to the basic gist of it, I wasn’t a huge fan. If you take out all of the explicit BDSM scenes, the book is very mundane and repetitive. It has very little literary merit. Christian Grey only has three looks. Who is he, Derek Zoolander?

Derek Zoolander "There's more to life than being really, really ridiculously good looking."

His face is either giving a smoldering look with those, yep, you guessed it, grey eyes, or his lips are drawn in a tight line, or twitching to smile. And how many times can we use the expression “his breath hitches,” “my breath hitches?” 18 to be exact, or at least that’s what the tablet reader is telling me. It felt more like 1800.

All Ana really wanted was this guy’s love, not his freakish bedroom practices. All I see is a bad case of limerence. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep this guy close, a guy she JUST met, mind you. She only puts up with his requests because he “needs” it, and she thinks she “needs” him.  And lest we forget, he’s Christian Grey. Sexy, smart, rich, powerful, take away the obvious 2+ over-sized bags of carry-on luggage that carry a hefty fee, and the guy is a catch. I’m sure many women would be more than willing to try to overcome the, ahem, obstacles. Ana has attained the unattainable. Aaaah sweet victory, why would she ever let go of that?  So after a whirlwind of boring not sex scenes and overtly graphic sexual escapades, it just ends with sadness and a cliffhanger. I didn’t read the whole trilogy.

So back to the meteoric rise. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool out there. If you can get people to talk about your product, then you’re set. Back to the idea of “tipping,” a phrase popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. Somehow this book got into the hands of some Connectors, perhaps loyal followers from the fan-fiction site, who also happened to be repressed housewives (who now can no longer malign their husbands for watching naughty vids on the Internet or elsewhere). These women could now whisper in the after school pick up line, the mom’s circle at soccer practice, or Jamba Juice after the morning run about this overindulgent fantasy world they gained access to ever so discreetly on their tablets.

And then the feminists, or should I say closet-submissives-guised-as-feminists-spouting-rhetoric-about-how-this-is-a-victory-for-feminists-because-it-brings-to-light-female-desires,-but-secretly-waiting-for-Christian-Grey-to-sweep-them-off-their-feet-into-his-Red-Room-of-Pain, are calling it a victory for women and exploring their own sexuality. Again, girl willing to do anything to keep man close. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the exact opposite of feminism? If in fact Ana really is in love, and not infatuated, as I have only read the first book, I think the book is more a testament to the power of love. That all powerful force which makes us do stupid things: lose ourselves, step outside of our comfort zones, take a chance even though the odds that we’re going to get hurt are great, but doing it anyway. That is completely different from being equal and sexual exploration; it’s more like completely emptying yourself in order to be able to experience something greater than the both of you.

So being a writer and a marketer here are some of the takeaways from 50 Shades of Grey and achieving commercial success:

  • Self-publishing is a viable platform.

Don’t underestimate the merit in the unknown writer. Keep in mind that traditional publishing is contingent on the economic viability for the publisher, not the writer. So one or two people decide what passes through and what doesn’t. Their tastes may not be the same as yours, so I suggest you explore the vast and entertaining world of independent writing and publishing.  There are countless people out in the world who are exceptionally talented writers who for one reason or another have chosen to self-publish. Do not discredit their work. Publishers only pounced when they saw how quickly this novel was gaining sales.

This is also where I remind you, gentle readers that Kbuuk is now signing up beta authors to test our self-publishing platform and make it awesome. Sign up here, and read about the benefits of becoming one of the first 1000 authors here.

  • Word of Mouth is still the best marketing tool.

I knew it before, but this is just confirmation. The hard part is finding the right people. The good news is, the way social structures work, you really only need a few well-connected people to start talking about your work, and then you really gain some traction. Need more information on this topic? Read The Tipping Point, it’s a great book for marketers, a personal favorite.

  • Content is not necessarily about quality. It’s about meeting an unmet need and being able to relate to the topic or characters.

E.L. James admits it’s not a great literary masterpiece. It prattles on and on, and things that could be said more elegantly and succinctly, just aren’t. So it’s not the quality of the content that contributed to its fame, BUT here’s where Ms. James wins: She fulfilled unmet needs. Lucky for her, the readers were unaware of their own needs therefore upon completion of the book felt compelled to talk about it and share because the feelings they experienced were so new, exciting, and taboo. Living vicariously through the strange and twisted world of Christian and Ana, readers were able to step into a dark fantasy they might have otherwise missed out on.

Also, Ana is a relatable character. She’s innocent and inexperienced and doesn’t understand or know what’s out in the big, bad world yet. I get the feeling that many readers made the transition from ignorance to enlightenment with Ana about a whole wide world beyond the scope of their own. And then again, maybe I’m wrong.

If you have any comments about this piece, please feel free to leave them below. We’re curious to know your opinions on the issue, especially in relation to the takeaways. How do you feel about the commercial viability of self-published works? Do you agree that commercial success does not hinge on the quality of the content? How do you get people to talk about your work?