Columns > Published on June 8th, 2012

10 Lessons Even You Can Learn From Fifty Shades Of Grey

By now you have definitely heard of, formed an opinion about, and possibly even read Fifty Shades Of Grey, the kinked-out Twilight fan-fic BDSM trilogy that has Christian panties in a twist and schoolmarms giggling behind their Kindles. It is also a a bestseller that has managed to move over ten million units. Ten. Million.

Who cares, you ask?

You. You should care. And here is why: when a unicorn crosses your path, you look at it. You examine it. You determine what can be gained from seeing it. Even if it's an ugly, non-sparkly, bent-horned, club-footed unicorn, you still look. Because it's a unicorn. That's how I feel about Fifty Shades Of Grey. It's a literary unicorn. And while it may burn our eyes to gaze upon it, we must. We must because if we don't learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. Or something like that.

Anyway, here's what we can all stand to learn from Fifty Shades Of Grey:

1. Miracles Happen

First and foremost, like I said, this is a unicorn. It is rare. It is unusual. It is unprecedented. Don't expect it to happen to you--but know that it can. That it is possible. That it can be done, and it could be you who does it.

2. Take Inspiration Where You Can Get It

Oh, Bella and Edward inspired you to write a sexy book about sexy sex? You are either a 12-year-old girl who shop-lifts from Hot Topic and kisses a poster of Robert Pattinson at night, or you are now a millionaire named E. L. James. Either way, you are inspired, and you should roll with it. Actual inspiration tends to lend itself to better (or at least, more relatable stories) than whatever you poop out because a publisher expects another novel. Don't shrug off a good idea just because it comes from something not-great.

3. Nom-de-plumes Still Have A Place

Initially, E.L. James (real name: Erika Leonard) published her book under the name--I am not making this up--Snowqueens Icedragon. That book may not have done so well. When published by E.L. James, however, it was suddenly way more mysterious. By picking a totally non-threatening, boring pen-name, the author did a pretty smart thing--she removed any way for onlookers to judge on name alone. I mean, it worked for J.K. Rowling.

4. People Love Unapologetic Authors

Speaking of E.L. James, she has given several interviews in which she is flat-out honest about the sexy stuff, about how she wrote it during her "midlife crisis," and how she was totally blown away by the reception. Which sounds simple, but in the face of as much scrutiny as this woman has seen, it would be easy to cower and be ashamed of the fantasies and the bondage and the sex. But instead, she's just been super-open about it, which seems to endear her to her fans, and make them more ready to defend her.

5. Safety Doesn't Sell

"Sex sells" is the stupidest adage of all time, even if it is true. But even more true is that safety doesn't sell. If this was a nice, safe book that danced around all the sexy bits, it wouldn't have titillated church ladies, it wouldn't have made for splashy headlines, and it wouldn't have felt like a naughty treat. James went for it, and as a result, people talked about it. Well played.

6. Don't Be Afraid To Milk The Medium

With ePublishing, you have a few choices: turn up your nose and decide it's garbage, or play along and use it to your advantage. If you're still unpublished, pick the latter. ePublishing is not difficult, and anyone can do it. Plus, because you don't have to worry about stuff like embarrassing covers, you can make your book as erotic or dumb or Tucker Max-ish as you damn well please, and people will buy it and read it on the bus. The future!

7. Cover Art Matters--Even When It's Bland As Hell

Probably one of the most important things I learned about this book was the reason that it wasn't hidden behind the digital equivalent of a paper bag at the drug store. According to a friend who works at Amazon, traditional bodice-rippers are usually hidden away from the system's mysterious and powerful recommendations, because the covers could be offensive to some. But Fifty Shades Of Grey has a nice, tame cover--so it actually gets recommended to women who are surfing for erotica and those who aren't. Basically, bland cover = free publicity.

8. To Most of the Population, Writing Matters Less

You probably already know this, but I'm going to say it anyway: Fifty Shades Of Grey is not exactly an artfully crafted piece of literary brilliance. It is, in fact, pretty poorly written. There's even a Tumblr that just quotes the worst lines from it. But for most of the readers, that is entirely unimportant. And because the book was initially self/ePublished, there was no one to go through and red-pen it (or outright reject it) for all of the suckitude. But that doesn't matter. Because people don't care. They still think it's a "fun read" and that it's "addictive." Let's call it Stephanie Meyer Syndrome. Or possibly Agatha Christieism. Either way,the point is that if the plot is good (or, at least, hook-y enough), millions of people will wade through acres of terrible prose to get to it.

9. You May Have To Decide Between Critical and Commercial Success

Because most people don't care whether the actual writing is very good, you may be faced with a choice. Do you write the Murakami-esque pieces of genius you've been meaning to write and desperately shop it around for the rest of your life, or do you ePublish your smutty romance/erotica trilogy and ride the wave? Or, do you somehow combine the two, and if you do, could you please share with all of us how you did it.

10. When In Doubt, Piss People Off

I have seen more people writing about how much they hate Fifty Shades Of Grey than giving it any kind of a positive review. Churchladies hate it because it makes the marriage bed impure. Writers hate it because of the aforementioned clunky prose. Literary agents hate it because if ePublishing can churn out a bestseller, they are irrelevant. Schools hate it because it might give teenagers funny ideas about putting things in funny places. Feminists hate it because the female protagonist is just the worst. But they all hate it enough to write about it and talk about it. And what piques most peoples' interest more than a rave? A rant. If people hate your book but remain curious (Oh? It has BDSM? Well...I may have to get me a copy...), you'll be laughing all the way to the bank to cash that big, steaming hate-check.

Image: The first two amazing Fifty Shades books, courtesy of Amazon

About the author

Born and raised in Eugene, OR, Hanna Brooks Olsen is undersized and frequently overextended. She's a fan of physical activity, well-written sentences, and excellently employed profanities, and is unashamed to be utterly enamored by her little dog.

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