50 Shades of Mistakes That Sell Books #MondayBlogs

I warn you now, this post is for the open minded.

There are some books that are bound to cause controversy. 50 Shades of Grey is one of those books, so it makes sense that I don’t know many people who actually admit to liking it. But I don’t get it. There have been at least a hundred million copies sold worldwide, which puts it in the realm of the top ten selling books of all time. And that 100m figure was the from two years ago, with film releases it’s only going to boost book sales.

So somebody has to be buying it and reading it.

Most people I talk to are vehemently against the book.  The trilogy seems to ignite more ferocious battles than all the recent political Brouhahas. Most argue their dislike is because it’s written badly, or the subtly abusive connotations around how the male love interest treats the female protagonist.

If you didn’t know, 50 shades of Grey is actually fan fiction of the Twilight saga written by Stephanie Meyer which also sold in excess of a hundred million copies despite being yet another series of books that received significant critical attention.

But here’s my point, and the driver behind this post, if these bitches can sell nearly 300 million copies despite nearly everyone I know wanting to shove their books in a woodchipper, then there has to be something they’re doing right, and I wanna know what it is.

I don’t care if you’re Shakespeare himself risen from the dead to craft word-gold to hit the NYT best seller list, you don’t sell 300 million copies without giving your audience exactly what they want. And that, my dear sweet cherry pies, is the point of being a writer. I don’t know about you folks, but I sure as shit wouldn’t mind selling 300 million copies of my book.

So here’s me, suggesting to you, we all put our disjointed noses and misplaced egos aside for a moment and deconstruct what in the shizzle they did to make themselves so successful.

I’ll admit, I’ve only read the Twilight series not the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, but I have seen the films, and I 50 Shades Darker just last week.

Other than exceptional timing, having the glorious blessings of the karmic book Gods on her side, and a bucket load of luck, there are three things that I think EL James did to skyrocket her to the top of the charts.

 ONE – THE CONCEPT

I read an interesting book recently by Steven Pressfield, called Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit – why that is and what you can do about it.

In it, he talks about why the most important thing you can do when trying to sell your book is nail down the concept.

“A concept establishes a frame of reference that is greater than the product itself.”

“The concept frames (or, more frequently, re-frames) the issue entirely.”

“One of the seminal concepts in advertising history is Avis Rent a Car’s “We’re #2 so we try harder.”  All three quotes  by, Steven Pressfield,  Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, P 18.

Avis has re-framed the concept of being second best. Being second best is usually negative, I mean, nobody remembers who won silver at the Olympics, right? You’re too busy remembering the gold winners.

And before you start, I know it’s the taking part that counts. I just happen to like shiny gold things with the number 1 against them or the letter A+…. :p

But… And this is where the genius comes in for Avis’s advertising; they flip being second best (a negative) into a positive by saying that they will try harder in order to be number one.

Image from Gify.com

BOOM.

Damn,  they some goooooood advertising apples. Anyone else’s mind blown?

There are concepts everywhere:

  • Nike’s Just Do It
  • Breakfast of Champions – Wheaties,
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • De Beers ‘A Diamond is Forever’.

But it isn’t just advertising. Books and stories have concepts too.

Pressfield talks about the film Die Hard and the fact that it’s high concept, because

a) You can convey the story in 10 seconds flat,

b) When you do, you understand the entire film and plot.

DIE HARD – Maverick cop ends up in building which has been taken over by a gang of thieves trying to steal a fortune.

and here are some more examples:

Cop trapped on a bus with a ticking bomb – Speed

The whole world is a computer simulation –  The Matrix

Alien race camoflagues as humans to take over the world – V (TV series)

So what about 50 Shades of Grey

The unlikely girl manages to win elusive control freak bachelor’s, heart.

In other words:

Unlikely girl, meets unlikely boy.

OR, and here’s the winner…

Submissive woman overcomes everything to dominate the heart of elusive bachelor.

Why? Because there are a lot of pissed off, bored housewives out there that feel suppressed.

TWO – THE CHARACTER ARC

Image from Amazon

At first, I thought 50 Shades of Grey was so popular was because of the character arc of Christian Grey, but the more I think about it the more I realise that Ana Steele has half decent arc too.

And I know someone’s going to say you can’t have a decent character arc unless you write well, but 100 million copies say you’re wrong. So get back in your fucking box and pipe down.

People read books for characters. We can do as much world building and scene setting as we like but it’s the characters that drive every story and if your readers don’t buy into them because you don’t have a good enough arc, then your story ain’t gonna sell.

A character arc denotes the change or growth the character goes through during the story. The character starts in one place at the beginning and by the end, they’ve grown into something else.

Readers’ want to know if the protagonist is going to make a better decision this time.

  • Will they save the world?
  • Can they trust in someone enough to accept their help?
  • Will they stop cheating on their wife?
  • Can they make the ultimate sacrifice to win the girl’s heart?

What works so crazily well in 50 Shades, is that Christian and Ana’s character arcs are high concept. Let me show you:

Christian- The ultimate elusive bachelor, never fallen in love, complete control freak.

End of the book?  Christians – Married, a father and a doting husband. It’s the ultimate 180 degree u-haul change.  Bad boy turns good.

Ana is the same:

Ana – meek, mousy woman, suppressed at work, submissive in the bedroom.

End of the book? Confident and dominant enough to stand up to Christians arrogance, so much so she is the catalyst for his change.

Deep down, we all want to be loved. Sure this might not go for every woman on the planet, but most women I know go weak at the knees at the thought that somebody could love them enough to sacrifice everything for them. And that right there, is what makes the story so appealing.

The fact that it’s erotica is completely beside the point. When you break this down scientifically, the erotica is nothing more than scenery and world building. This sold because it’s the ultimate love story.

THREE – VULNERABILITY 

Image from Amazon

Which brings me to my last point, vulnerability.

If you want your readers to love a character who is elusive, arrogant, and a control freak (all negative qualities) then the quickest (although not the only) way to do that, is to make that character vulnerable.

Why does that work? Because you immediately endear that character to the protagonist, and the protagonist isn’t really the protagonist, are they?

The protagonist is the reader.

If someone makes themselves vulnerable to you, it makes you want to look after them and care for them and make sure that nobody damages them.

That’s exactly what EL James does with Christian Grey. Slowly but surely Grey opens up about his past, he lets Ana touch him for the first time (something that was out of bounds previously) and piece by piece, gives a little more to Ana, which really means, piece by piece he gives us a little more.

And that is addiction 101. You’re hard-wired to want what you can’t have. So if EL James gives you tiny pieces chapter by chapter, you’re going to guzzle those pieces up and keep turning till you get what you want. Forget the fact the writing isn’t Shakespearian, frankly, I think she’s a fucking genius.

Want to read these puppies? Buy from AmazonCOM, AmazonUK

LET’S PLAY A GAME In the comments, (aside from anything you want to say) add another comment… I want you to write down the ‘concept’ of a super famous book or film. DON’T tell us the name of the book or film until we guess it. Everyone’s welcome to join in.

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188 comments

  1. I have read all of the 50 shades trilogy despite moaning about them because I HAD to keep going to see where it lead. I suppose that meant I did care for the characters after all!
    My concept film ‘Abandoned little boy brought up by a load of singing animals!’

    1. Oooooh I know this one too – won’t spoil it though I’ll let others guess first.

      Ps SEE exactly – everyone hated them but HAD to go on! That’s exactly why she sold so many copies! πŸ˜‚

  2. 50 Shades can start a war in my house. I loved them all, the way their relationship grows was masterfully done, but Anita hates them. Personally, I think that all the people who slate them, protest just a little too much!

      1. Nope – don’t focus on the gods as there’s just ‘as flies to wanton schoolboys are we to the gods’ as a mention near the end to explain what has happened. Think about the woman!

        1. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I was forced to read it at 16 for GCSE English over 20 years ago, and have worn out three copies over the years.

  3. That’s an excellent post, thanks – opened my eyes to some things I need to do with my WiP πŸ™‚

    and… “Lonely young boy stands up against the biggest baddie ever and wins the day”

  4. I bought the first book at the airport on the airport when I was on vacation. I read a third…. and got soooooooo bored…. lol! After having it lying at home for months I even threw it away. My best friend was crazy about the books. She wanted to know how it all turns out… but I was so bored that I did not care at all… lol! So, I think I got many of your views unconsciously… haha!

    1. Absolutely and there really was SO many people like that. That’s what makes this so interesting that people swing one way or another over it. The couple of chapters I read were pretty dull too but I didn’t give it a chance. Plus and I maintain this, she had to of done something well to have sold so many!

      1. Oh, yes, I did not bother to read on once I got tired of the “story”….haha! She definitely hit a nerve of enough people to make it a huge bestseller. But that proves again whether bestseller or not… we don’t care, do we? πŸ˜‚

  5. Two crack shot bounty hunters join forces to achieve different goals

    I think the singing animals is good, but that’s because I can guess it without even seeing the film.

    Like you I’ve read twilight but not 50.

    I thought the first three twilights were good but the last was abysmal. It became ridiculous.

    I think twilight wasn’t just boy meets girl, but there was always the secondary love interest in there too. I mean, which to choose? a vampire or a shapeshifter/werewolf? Decisions, decisions.

    I prob ought to read fifty to see a) if the writing is bad and b) if the characters/plot are good. I do read erotica, many of which are just HEA romance with graphic sex and handcuffs and spanking thrown in, which does not make for a riveting read. The problem with a lot of them is that they play to standard fantasy imagery: average pretty young girl meets slightly older unbelievably sexy billionnaire who is smitten with pyg. People, this does not happen IRL. Well, unless your name is Melania (and DT is not unbelievably sexy).

    These are fantasy novels just as much as LOTR. My gripe is that they reinforce the stereotypical crap girls are fed from day one ie one day your prince will arrive and you will be his princess, loved, cherished and cared for. And that is your goal in life to be passively discovered by this amazing prince. I reckon that’s at least half of the popularity of books like this. Shut up roughseas /rant

    Oh and the other thing is that taking off other books often results in success eg P&P. Look at Bridget Jones.

    1. ummmm, True Grit? Not sure, could be a few movies, unless it’s a book?

      haha!! Yes the Twilight love triangle turned semi-incestuous child love square.

      PAHAHAAHAHAAHAAH your DT comment I nearly spat my juice out. I suspect there are other reasons for that financial pairing… I mean devoted in love couple.

      Yes I agree- and so do a lot of people I’ve spoken to. Unfortunately both Twilight and 50 enforce those things.

      P & P ??

  6. Fantastic post, Sacha. You hooked me in and I had to read to the end! I haven’t read the books but I enjoyed your deconstruction.
    “Young girl gets off scot-free after home invasion and vandalism.”

  7. Interestingly, some brands will protect their concept so fiercely they’re even willing to lose money. Tiffany’s whole thing is that they’re a luxury brand, only accessible to the wealthy. A few years ago, one of their charm bracelets ended up being affordable to teenage girls. Tiffany’s risked being equated with naff teenage jewellery. They actually raised their prices so only the wealthy could afford the bracelets. They lost sales but they maintained their prestige. Their concept is still alive and kicking now!

    1. Yeah very true and isn’t that something, to have the balls to take that big of a risk. It’s true though. My dad has done the same with his products – kept the price high, the quality exceptional and his company is BOOMING too.

  8. Personally, I think 50 Shades got big because it started as Twilight fan-fiction (got a loyal base for free) and then was promoted as naughty reading that wasn’t exactly porn. It got enough steam from its target audience and then people bought it to see how bad it was. Many times I was told to simply read it myself to get how bad it was. I also wonder if you have religious people buying multiple copies to destroy or save the masses. Seen a few people claim to do that. Guess this does prove that quantity of sales doesn’t mean high quality.

    Sassy young man gets sick and then in an accident before he has to save his girlfriend from a psychopath.

    1. I don’t know that they have the same fan base though? Surely not. Twilight is YA, 50 Shades is Erotica… not sure I’d let my teen read erotica no matter who it was based on. Lol that could be true – I’ve heard of people bulk buying books to destroy before.

      I’ve gone completely blank – you’ll have to tell me the book/film

      1. Twilight was YA, but had a lot of older people interested. I met more adult women into it than teenagers. At least with the high level of fervor. These went on to 50 Shades and probably brought friends. Fan fic also gets a lot of traction from mockery.

          1. When’s your birthday? Leigh Bardugo is releasing a Wonder Woman book thing shortly – she wrote Six of Crows. Ah every time we do a food shop we accrue points which we can swap to various vouchers haven’t paid for the cinema in ages, not that I get to go that often – the rare occasion the boy is with grandma!

  9. Thanks for your insights on this and many other areas, Sasha. Very much enjoy the content. I think 50 Shades opened the door to explore parts of ourselves without exposing it to anyone else. It makes people uncomfortable, yet draws them in like a well, spun web.

    Young boy charts his course by trusting the Universe to help him follow his path.

  10. Great post, Sacha! Just goes to show there’s something to learn in everything really… Regardless of whether you give the material much credit or not… *cough* Anyway! Here’s mine:

    Young prince flees land after his fathers death, but returns to overthrow his evil uncle…

    1. You sly dog! You threw me there by saying prince but when I thought about basic plot it just has to be lion king? TELL ME ITS THE LION KING πŸ™πŸ½πŸ˜‚

      Haha but absolutely positive or negative there’s always something to be learnt!

  11. Excellent explanation of how marketing to readers through concept can be powerful. On your recommendation, I bought the book (the one about no one wants to read your shit not the shitty unlikely love story). πŸ™‚

    “Sea captain takes on a giant underwater foe.”

  12. Huh. I didn’t even know this blasted thing was a trilogy. I seriously didn’t. Interesting thoughts on this. I’m not entirely sure these all sold because of the “love story” aspect (I think a lot of people were morbidly curious), but your post is an awesome look at the what/why/how of it all.

    I’ll need your help later with my novel(s). Worrying about the “arc” has been the death of my writing.

    Let’s see… I’m really bad at boiling something down to a short concept.

    ***

    Four siblings find a portal to another world and learn they are predestined to save it

    ***

    1. Lion Witch and the Wardrobe baby! LOVES IT.

      Wait WHAT?????? You didn’t know there were three?! several lols!

      I’m always here to help πŸ˜€ I think you ought to tell me more about this novel you speak of…….

      1. But of course it’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Told you I wasn’t very good at this. It was difficult and I really like this exercise. Going to try it with some other books/movies.

        No, I really didn’t know. But now I do. Lucky me. πŸ˜‰

        It’s THE novel, girl. Think water. Shh…

  13. I haven’t read 50 Shades, but then I haven’t got round to Harry Potter yet…

    Flighty girl leaves boring, noble prince for dashing, sexy cad but is saved in the nick by the retreat from Moscow and boring, middle-aged gent.

          1. Well then I don’t feel so bad. Read a lot of plays, oh and Shakespeare and a fair number of modern classics but none of the ones I’d called hard core, unless audio books count.

          2. Have a virtual hug, Sacha. We’re in this together. If it’s books, we’re in it together. if it’s personal, we’re also probably in it together. Start fizzing again, please. I count on your enthusiasm to counter my own depression;

  14. Girl bangs head tumbles into a possible drug induced state or concussion! She hallucinates for several hours then wakes full of jibber jabber recalling her colourful journey.
    . Wow! A great post Sacha.
    I haven’t read ‘Shades of Grey’ not for any reason other than two of my sisters were hooked, and constantly talked about the books so it dulled my interest some how. My theory is that (i have evidence of this) a huge amount of women who were of a certain age ( 60 plus) probably naive, led sheltered lives, purchased them to find out what they were to shy to ask ( yes for some, almost educational).
    Also there was/is an element of… this was/is a woman brave enough to write explicitly about a subject that not many women would admit to knowing about; let alone writing and publishing. The worlds press slated her every step of the way, this made some want to wave the flag, show support almost on a par with bra burning. Then there are people who simply like the genre and choose to buy it because sex sells. Somehow by a woman writing it, it made it respectable, or more respectable. Then we have the men that were scared that their girls would know more than them so they paid for the books and took themselves off in secret to catch up. Just another view on how it sold so many copies and still is.

    1. Wizard of Oz?

      Hmmm, I agree on the bra burning support – but on the first point I would ask why now? Erotica has been around for ages, so why not that level of support and success for another woman before?

      1. No not Oz I’m afraid. Because of the media hype they didn’t have to look for it, my 95 yr old mother-in-law asked me if I’d read it, she looked disappointed that I hadn’t.

          1. Sleep tight Sacha, coffee will make you twitchy…
            Erotica has always been a bit shady not put in the shop window but discretely farther back. This time it began in America, got prime tv and news, the internet took it viral. Uptight Brit writes erotic S&M blah blah blah… Her PR escalated it and the rest is history as they say. People who would never have looked and would not have noticed had their curiosity nudged.

  15. Hero who looses everything before he becomes a hero. Princess who champions the underdogs and fights against the tyranny. Cocky self assured guy who on the surface looks out for number one. Ancient religion with a dark side.

  16. 2 men interact with a butterfly collector’s dog and get muddy
    4 sisters have to get married which they do but it takes forever
    An entrepreneur has bad dreams and buys a turkey

  17. Man must kill shark terrorizing beach community.

    Great post, Sacha. You make some awesome points. I couldn’t agree more on the importance of well-developed, relateable characters and their arcs.

  18. Quickly passing by here Sach and just wanted to add for 50 Shades that also, sex sells – bad or good. I also got sucked into reading all 3 books, why? Because for one, I don’t like starting a series and not finishing, and two, I was hoping that somewhere along the stories it would get more interesting, and because of all the buzz, I was sure it would, but disappointed I invested so much time on 3 books. πŸ™‚ Buzz and sex sell. Period.

    1. Yes, you’re right it does! I know if I start reading I’ll have to get through it all too because I have to know what happens GAH. Think I will have to continue to avoid it or else face the same fate.

  19. You did something here, Sis. You actually got through my thick skull to my thinky-thoughty thingy and made me “get” marketing concepts. This may seem like a small task but I LOATHE marketing. Can’t wait to pass on the good word. Oh, and thanks. As always, you’re aces.

  20. Well, 300 million copies sold or not, cant say I’ve been tempted to read either. Watched some of the Twilight movies with my sons when they were younger… dire! Not enough story, and I suspect 50 shades to be the same. But clever ladies, they knew how to make money, and gotta admire them for that! What I like about ELJames is that she started as an Indie. Just look where it got her! That’s an amazing success story.

    1. Not going to lie, I quite enjoyed the Twilight books, although they weren’t the greatest ever written they are still a good story, and I guess that’s the difference between lit fic (written well) and a good story which is more than the sum of it’s parts. I didn’t know EL was an indie? I thought she just published the books in weekly installments on her blog?

          1. No. Its probably me. I never read her books so I didnt pay close attention. I probs got her mixed up with someone else… you know how bad I am at remembering names! 😁

  21. I don’t mind admitting that I loved this series! I still do! I thankfully read the series when it first came out in ASDA (I’m so hipster!) so I’m glad I wasn’t reading it based on all of the negative hype.

    At the end of the day – this is a story. There are hundreds of characters in the literary world that we think are abusers, woman beaters, sadists…the list goes on. But there never seems to be the same reaction to these characters, but there is for Christian Grey.

    E.L.James is a very clever woman. Not the greatest writer of all time, but she is certainly very clever. She spotted a gap in the market and gave people what they wanted. She has made a ton of cash through book sales, merchandise and also the movies! I applaud her!

    Not forgetting my concept; Singer on the run from murdering partner reluctantly finds Jesus.

    1. Haha, at last, someone that loved it! I agree, there are hundreds like that in fiction, I guess the others don’t get as much negativity because they aren’t as well known.

      I agree she’s super clever, and did what most can only ever dream of.

      ooh. I don’t think I know that story – tell me what it is.

      1. I also enjoyed them, despite the less than stellar writing(though the following book retelling the same story from Christian’s POV was awful IMHO.)

        In the end, Fifty is a redemption story, which is like crack to a hopeless romantic.

        Concept: “Sister Act?”

  22. The Fifty Shades series reminds me so much of The Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve not read the Fifty Shades series and have asked lots of people if they have. Most said no, some said they gave up on it, and one said they had read it but that it wasn’t really them. Debby is right what she says – sex sells. Plus, when there is a frenzy about something, it seems just about everyone has to buy the product. I remember it happening with The Telly Tubby toys back in the 1990s, where people queued for hours (and even overnight) to get their hands on something which the marketers had managed to whip up a frenzy about. Most went back empty handed and there were lots of unhappy youngsters on Christmas morning because Santa had got them a Telly Tubby toy.

    Now, back to Eurovision, Sacha. I know how much you enjoy it (as mush as I do πŸ˜€) How many people have said to you that they never watch it? Yet, it gets over half a billion viewers every year and is now into its 62nd year and has launched some very successful artists. It must be successful to have survived, yet most people will deny they watch it. Those viewers must be coming from somewhere. Just like all those Fifty Shades books – somebody must be buying them.

    1. Sex does sell. You’re totally right. And I really love the comparison to the Eurovision too. It’s a really good point. I reckon like eurovision 50 shades appeals to a wide audience. Perhaps that’s why?

      1. Maybe. I just don’t get why people deny reading 50 Shades or watching Eurovision when the selling and viewing figures are something I can only dream about when it comes to blog stats or book sales. πŸ˜€ At the Bash, ask people if they do/do not read my blog and see if you get the same results. I’m not a betting man, but I bet you 50 shades of you favourite nail polish that I know what the reaction would be. πŸ˜€

        1. I know right, makes no sense. But something Alecia said makes sense to me. When success gets that big, you’re not just engaging typical readers, you’re engaging the ones who only read a book once every few years – and given all the people we know are pretty voracious readers – we’re probably not connected with the mass market which is why lots of people we know haven’t read 50 shades because they know its trash.

  23. Maybe we should all pay attention to Fifty Shades when we write our next novel! Love it or hate it you can’t argue with it’s saleability and marketability. And the part about the vulnerabilty of Christian the dominant is really interesting. Must employ that in my writing!

  24. My guess is that 1) Mostly younger (16-22 yrs.) people are buying & reading the book and 2) People who may read one book every 5 years are reading it.
    I have’t even considered buying it (or seeing any of the movies), but I have heard several bestselling authors say it is some of the worst writing they’ve ever seen.
    Sooo . . . I guess that means: Sex sells, S&M sells, female bondage sells. Of course, I have only heard 2nd hand what the books are about, so, please correct me if I’m wrong.
    Peace, love & respectful love making to all,
    Sherrie

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, you could well be right there, it could be a lot of younger people, although most of the people I know that read it are over 40, but that’s not to say a whole group of younger people didn’t read it. I definitely agree on the people who read a book every 5 years. I think that’s the vast majority of explosive box office hits. Alecia mentioned this too – that that’s the only way you get such a huge hit is by engaging those readers who don’t normally read. And sex will always sell sadly!

  25. They sell because sex sells. Even my non-erotic book ‘No Sex Please, I’m Menopausal!’ sells more copies than any of the others, probably because it’s got ‘sex’ in the title. Write a book with ‘sex’ in the title, and you’ll see what I mean!

    1. It’s true, sex does sell. But do you think that was the only reason? I know sex sells, but wouldn’t erotica be the biggest genre over romance if that was the only factor?

      1. It’s the title that helps to sell the book I think. Yes, I’m sure more readers prefer romance to erotica, but if there’s the word ‘sex’ in the title, whatever the genre, it’s going to sell. Many readers have told me they bought my book based only on the title.

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