When it comes to promoting your self-published work, there’s no author that comes to mind as quickly as E.L. James, the woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.
There’s no doubt that this is a self-publishing miracle. Anything that sells paperback copies faster than the Harry Potter series has done something right.
Here’s how James originally promoted Fifty Shades of Grey before it went more or less viral.
1. Fan Fiction
Fifty Shades was originally fan fiction for none other than the Twilight series. In fact, James wrote under a pen name for a long while.
Aside from the use of Edward and Belle (those are their names, right?), though, Fifty Shades didn’t have too much in common with Meyers’ mega-seller… at least anything that’s on the internet anymore. But that’s a sordid saga better left for more investigative outlets.
What we can learn is that E.L. James promoted what was slowly becoming Fifty Shades on FanFiction.net by publishing episodic pieces based on the Twilight series.
She gained a following, changed the names of the characters, and put the book on her own website.
2. Book Blogs
The publisher that James originally used, The Writers’ Coffee Shop, is a small, independent publisher. Primarily, 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 idea to search for bloggers with followings who would be willing to read your book.
It wasn’t until there was some pick-up of the novel – around January 2012 – that Vintage Books, a divison of Random House, decided to it up. So yes, Fifty Shades was more or less a self-publishing success… and it only took two years and three books.
3. Accessible Material
The thing that helped Fifty Shades rise to prominence more than anything else was, of course, how accessible it is.
Erotica is already a hugely popular genre. Twilight was already a hugely popular series. Commercial books have a good chance of finding a readership, because that readership is bigger.
Thus, we have a concoction worthy of a blockbuster eruption.
The value of a following
None of these steps would mean anything if James hadn’t already established a following of fans by offering her writing, for free, on websites. That’s the most interesting part. She had readers who wanted to read more, so she wrote more and eventually self-published.
To get fans, you need to give away (some) writing for free.
This is something that I think a lot of writers who self-publish forget: you need to build a following, then publish.
Not the other way around.
This is why E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey Facebook Page is one of the only good ones among famous authors: she – and her marketing team – understand the power of an online, grassroots movement.
She was one of the first self-published authors to break out because of a loyal following (certainly not the only one), and certainly not the last.