What Independent Writers Can Learn From E L James

independent writers

The Fifty Shades phenomenon would not have happened were it not launched as a self-published series. There are many lessons for independent writers in E L James’ success story.

E L James — otherwise known as Erika Mitchell — is the most commercially successful fanfiction author of all time. But that didn’t happen by accident.

James was inspired to start writing by Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series. James posted a story called “Master of the Universe” on a Twilight fanfiction website under the name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” She also published the story on her own site a few days later.

After removing references to Twilight, a practice known as “filing off the serial numbers” in fanfiction circles, James later developed “Master of the Universe” into an original trilogy. Encouraged by the response of her readers, she self published the first book as an eBook and as a print-on-demand paperback through The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher based in Australia. Word of the book spread quickly, eventually turning into a sort of frenzy that culminated in James’ selling the publishing rights to Vintage Books in 2012.

What made James and her trilogy so successful?

James faced an uphill battle from the start. While her writing prowess was questioned early and often, the Fifty Shades trilogy was attacked for being a kind of sexual playbook. The reality is these books were, at their core, love stories — stories people could connect with on multiple levels. Readers related to the main characters and, in a way, lived vicariously through them. That’s what makes many best-selling books so successful.

But with Fifty Shades, James tapped purposefully into the often underserved market of literature written for women, and in the process, evidenced the potential of that niche.

She designed her books to be easily accessible, and in addition to the women’s lit market, she wrote her books to target erotica — already a hugely popular genre. Moreover, James knew which format her initial readers wanted — eBooks — so she made sure her work was available digitally. James also proved a fantastic self-promoter.

Purposeful promotion

Of course, James didn’t just rely on the quality of her stories — she promoted them purposefully.

Publicity for the first iteration of Fifty Shades stemmed from book blogs. Book blogs are useful tools for authors who are published but haven’t really been marketed. Not many get that much traffic, but it’s still a good place to cultivate a following.

So is social media. James used Facebook to help stoke the flames of the Fifty Shades frenzy. But she didn’t just use Facebook for promotion — she used her page as a canvas for extending her fictional universe, creating content and engaging with fans.

Here are three tactics James employed that were particularly strong:

1. She posted lots of personal photos. Sharing photos of yourself on Facebook may seem creepy, but it can build a connection with your audience. If someone sees your book on Amazon and you put a Facebook URL there, there’s a good chance they’ll click it and, in the process, engage in a more meaningful relationship with the mind behind the story.

2. She posted creative, inspirational photos. James added texture and context to her Fifty Shades universe with photos of things like Christian Grey’s apartment and the room in the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon where Grey and Anastasia spent their first night. Done correctly, this sort of content can add a whole new dimension to your fictional work — and readers love engaging with that.

3. She shared related content. James also picked up related posts to share on her page, such as the work of a baker who created Fifty Shades-inspired cupcakes. Of course, not many authors can count on having cupcakes crafted in honor of their books, but authors can sift through other Facebook photos from similarly themed pages and share them on their own. It amounts to engaging with the community.

Community building

Speaking of community, James engaged with her fans better than most authors ever do — traditional or otherwise — which proved instrumental to her success.

Let’s not forget, she started her journey by publishing episodic pieces of her Twilight fanfiction on a fanfiction site. But from there, she actively encouraged feedback and then utilized the feedback she received. That’s one asset of the fanfiction world that more authors should utilize: the community is eager to provide feedback or input regarding what an author should change or include in the next chapter or episode. James understood this and used it to both improve her writing and encourage a community of followers who became emotionally invested in her work.

The key here is actively listening to the feedback. It’s not enough to respond to readers when they leave comments for you. James used the feedback she received to internalize the fact that her sexy stuff was the most exciting, and that setting her stories in the Twilight universe was too limiting.

The adjustments she then made were exactly what readers wanted.

For decades, the publishing and literary world’s definition of “good” was the only one that mattered. If the gatekeepers didn’t think something was good, it didn’t get published. E L James has shown the entire industry that huge numbers of readers just want a really good story and she was only able to prove this because she self published.

Self publishing grants authors certain advantages and abilities that traditional publishing simply does not, like absolute creative control over your work, control over your timing and marketing schedule, and the ability to quickly make your book available to readers across the world.

So how can independent writers emulate E L James’ success? Focus on all the things E L James did well: engage with a community of readers who can simultaneously help you improve and widen the reach of your work, build your own website and author platform early on, and focus on creating genuinely relatable and captivating stories.

Plus, in the process, James also gave her work away for free — and that’s something all independent writers should consider doing. The goal, in the early stages, is to build a following.

Of course, you probably won’t attain the same world-shattering success that James did, but you can implement her practices in your work. And, who knows? Because of James, publishers are now looking for talent in the fanfiction and self-publishing worlds. If you position yourself correctly, maybe you could be next.

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Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and President Emeritus of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self-publishing service provider. After a successful career with companies including Mattel, Hasbro, and Pinnacle Orchards, Steven joined AVL Digital in 2004 as Chief Marketing Officer, leading the direct-to-consumer marketing teams for music industry-leading brands Disc Makers, Oasis, and CD Baby. The native Oregonian was tapped to lead BookBaby, the company’s new publishing division, in late 2014. BookBaby’s growing book-printing operation is located outside Philadelphia, PA, and employs over 100 book-publishing experts across the United States to meet the printed and eBook needs of thousands of self-publishing authors around the globe. Steven retired as brand President in 2022 and continues to contribute via weekly emails, industry guides, and posts on the BookBaby blog. He’s in the process of relocating full-time to southern France in early 2023. Steven loves to hear from authors, editors, and publishers in the BookBaby community with tales of publishing trials and triumphs. To tell him your story, write to steven@bookbaby.com.

10 COMMENTS

  1. EL James was NEVER self-published. She went with a small indie publisher, The Writers’ Coffee Shop, before Vintage Books acquired the titles. It really irritates me when people tout her as this self-publishing genius and she’s not. She started as a Fanfic writer, the website she was publishing on got squicky about the sexual content, so she made her own website and continued publishing the fanfic. Back then, it was still using the Twilight name and brand. When she was a few chapters away from finishing the story, she took it down and essentially told her readers they now had to buy the book to read the rest of the story that she had been publishing as free fanfiction. It worked for her, and to a lesser extent, Sylvain Reynard, but it’s not something people should emulate, especially with the likes of Anne Rice suing fanfic writers who *don’t* do what James did and flip their fanfics for a couple bucks.

    • This is one thing I’ve always wondered. How can writers who write fanfiction which is based on someone else’s work publish it and make money? That seems so illegal. It makes all the sense in the world that writers like Anne Rice or any other writer of her calibre would sue some of these fan fiction writers. I understand being inspired by other writers and following genre conventions. But writing fanfiction and then trying to sell it seems weird. But money talks I guess. I do agree with building a community around your writing first though, I think that’s going to be the thing that propels new writers and of course writing a good story for people who enjoy your genre.

  2. […] Develop a passive income stream. The Internet has created an immense opportunity for those who decide they want to escape the rat race of wage slavery. You can share affiliate links (like I do on this blog occasionally) to promote products and services that you believe in. You can develop your own products to market and sell on a website. There is a huge demand for steamy romance novels currently, so if you enjoy fantasizing about that, you could turn those fantasies into a passive income stream by publishing them online. I have a number of friends who have become quite wealthy doing just that. In fact, I have explored that option personally. While I am much more comfortable sharing my personal experiences to help others, you may find that writing romance novels both enjoyable and lucrative. If so, I highly recommend it. My friends report that they receive thousands of dollars a month in book royalties from their romance novels, and E. L. James became very wealthy simply by converting a piece of Twilight fanfiction into a book series. […]

  3. I have a feeling 50-Shades might not have been as popular if it didn’t 1) Originally start as a fanfic of what was already one of the best-selling books of the decade 2) Therefore have a massive install base of Twilight fans that only found it because they were looking for Twilight fanfiction and 3) Center itself around controversial “edgy” subject matter that people are naturally drawn to talking about with their friends and being distracted with (whether they are for or against it).

    If this were a totally original book, about anything else… would its marketing have worked?
    I’m afraid it was the Twilight install base and super-saucy subject matter that mostly carried it.

    While this might work for writers of erotic fan fiction, I’m still not sure if social media is a great business model for writers of tamer subject matter. Social media is very competitive place for people’s attention, and more often than not, you’re going to be fighting with much more attention-grabbing, modern, instant, sexy things than books, which require time and investment. But I’d love for someone to prove me wrong!

  4. Steven, I think you made some very important points. Thank you for this example. As you say, E. L. James found a niche market and took advantage of that brilliantly. She also was both creative and smart with her marketing.

  5. I am really disappointed that you chose this book/movie/huge success as an example of great self-promotion–was that with BookBaby? My family and I have chosen not to take any interest in either the book or the movie, out of a sense of its indecency and further “normalizing” of kinds of sexual expression we do not care to hear about–or have the young women in our family hear about. Yes, I understand all the kinds of platform building and self-promotion its “nom-de-plume” author mastered and you would applaud, but–that work and that title? My aversion to just what I heard about it, its hints online, etc. is great. Did BookBaby publish it? Right now, I’m dealing with the financial fallout from having a scammer invade my computer, so I am feeling very down. But I kind of had BookBaby in mind as a great opportunity to self-publish. I get your point, and you certainly got mine and many others’ attention with that photo of the fetish-like necktie–but, really? Steven, I’m already kind of sold on you and your BookBaby in so many, many appealing ways. Don’t let me down, please.

    • Hello Charlotte – To clarify, BookBaby had nothing to do with publishing “50 Shades..” or any of the follow up novels by Ms. James. The point of my post was not to endorse – or condemn – the subject matter. It was an academic examination of the methods the author made to promote her book and build an audience. Her techniques could work for almost any other fiction genre, from historical novels to YA titles. No matter the content, EL James’ literary career and publishing journey is worth sharing to the 1000s of authors and authors-to-be in our blog audience. I wish you great luck in getting your book finished and hope that BookBaby can help you on your self publishing journey

    • Your choice not to read or view certain entertainment is just that: YOUR choice.

      I chose not to read it, or see the movies, because I felt it was badly written and just not something I was interested in reading or seeing anyway.

      Obviously, “Fifty Shades” was hugely popular with millions of people who didn’t make the same choices we did… because they don’t have to. It’s a freedom thing.

      Taking someone to task for not sharing your views, especially a business using “Fifty Shades” as a case study of sorts, is kind of ridiculous. We can still learn even if we don’t care for the source that resulted in the lessons.

    • Charlotte, you’ve allowed your bias to influence your opinion of the article. As unintended as your reply, it demonstrates what the article attempted to point out. It shows how expertly, the author of this book wormed the conversation of her book into the discussion for a person who has no interest in the subject of the book.

      The enemy of a successful marketing campaign isn’t having people opposed to the subject, it’s not having people talking about your book. The article didn’t focus on the subject of “Fifty Shades.” Instead, it points out how the author motivated people to talk about the book. Even those people vehemently opposed to the topic.

      My suggestion is to reread the article. This time instead of focusing on your disdain for Fifty Shades, concentrate on how the author formulated her marketing campaign. How she was able to place a book which many concedes as being distasteful, into the mainstream discussion. If you do, I think you will find ways to market your own work in a way to find success.

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