How E.L. James Promoted Fifty Shades of Grey

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 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.

*Author photo is from The Telegraph

13 thoughts on “How E.L. James Promoted Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. When you use copyrighted/trademarked work to promote a product you can’t do it for free or without the righs owner permission/license, right?

    1. Yeah, you can’t really use copyrighted material to promote your own work. The Internet has definitely made “copyright” kind of a liberal term, though. Just check out any Buzzfeed article with enough GIFs and you’ll see plenty of movies being “sampled” without any proper attribution.

      1. In theory whoever owns the rights for movies and tv shows being GIFed can sue if the use of said GIFs doesn’t become a transformative work. And I can add examples of the opposite happening: you can’t sample a song when creating a new one and profit from it without paying the due royalties, you can’t sample movie scenes in another movie without paying royalties.
        I’m also not talking about simply using someone else’s work to create another one, using an entire product and its copyrighted material to ADVERTISE another is a different matter, you can’t create an ad using copyrighted works (songs, images) without asking for permission and paying royalties for them. Companies pay more money to air ads during successful shows, Youtube and revenues that allow singers to cover other artists’ songs pay blanket copyright royalties. Why should it be different for books?
        Most authors haven’t gone after fanfictions sites because people were not making money out of fanfictions. That’s changing. Posting a story on with the aim of gaining advertisement breaches the site’s rules. I’ve also come across many aspiring writers lately that have been posting their original stories on fanfiction sites to promote them, only to be damaged when someone else stole them or from them. Usually most beginners don’t have the means to find out or to sue when that happens. You should warn your readers this is something that can happen too.
        This way of promoting books is basically possible for now because it’s not yet regulated by copyright laws when it comes to books, doesn’t mean it’s right.

  2. Love this post and the one you did where you coined the term periphery marketing. It makes so much sense. I wish more writers did that with their books, extend the world of their books. It’s kind of what kept me into Harry Potter, the details of the world. I used to think that only worked well with fantasy but then I read you posts on how authors could learn about Facebook marketing from EL James and it blew my mind. Brilliant strategy and post!

    1. Thanks! I think authors are definitely missing out on what could really help build a more immersive world – most of the time because it hasn’t been done before. Every website about a book could at least have photos of different scenes, or quotes on top of photos, things like that. We see companies doing it and there’s really no reason authors can’t do it, either!

  3. I really like this post because I started my blog about my YA fantasy novel. Its somewhat a cross between Lord of the Rings and Twilight.
    Im trying to get a following slowly but surely.
    Now I can improve my blog and get a better reader experience.

    1. Hi Leone,

      Glad the post was helpful! I think there’s a big opportunity for YA fantasy authors to create interactive experiences & compelling websites with enough content. Good luck with the book!


    1. It’s definitely true! I think fan fiction is an interesting proving ground and, with digital books the way they are, you could use it as a way to sell your more “premium” work, too.

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