When I first heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, I was baffled. A women’s erotica novel making it to bestseller was not unbelievable – but it seemed to have popped up from nowhere. How did E.L. James to go from total obscurity to one of the biggest names in writing overnight?
Whether you like Fifty Shades of Grey or not, its journey to publishing is fascinating – and with the Fifty Shades Darker movie in cinemas this month, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the history of these books. Prepare for a tale of the most shocking kind of drama: Internet Drama.
To set the scene: it’s the early 2000s. The last Twilight book has been released, and fans on the Internet are busy writing their own, not-for-profit stories about Edward and Bella – fanfic.
Oh yes, did I mention? Fifty Shades of Grey originated as Twilight fanfic.
The shock! The horror! The … okay, you probably knew that already.
After the last Twilight book, it became in-vogue for fans to write alternate-universe fanfic in which vampires didn’t exist: Edward and Bella were just ordinary humans who fell in love, and had a lot of graphic sex (well, fanfic is rather famous for its erotica). Writers borrowed ideas from each other, shared stories, and worked together. If one person wrote a fanfic about Edward having tattoos, then four more tattoo-fanfics would crop up, and that was fine. It wasn’t copying; it was flattering. The community was collaborative in a way that’s only really possible when money isn’t involved.
Out of this community appeared a new fanfic: Master of the Universe by Snowqueen’s Icedragon. AKA, the original Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.
Master of the Universe wasn’t an entirely new concept: sexy stories featuring BDSM already existed in the world of Twilight fanfic. I don’t mean that to be disparaging – as I said, this community often bounced ideas off one another. It was normal. But Master of the Universe quickly became the most popular, for the simple reason that E.L. James was a flipping master of marketing.
The website Master of the Universe was displayed on had two key front pages: one that showed the most recently updated fanfic (as fanfic is usually posted online chapter-by-chapter over a series of days or weeks), and one that showed the fanfic that was getting the most comments.
E.L. James wrote short chapters, and posted them frequently. This meant she was always at the top of the Recently Updated page, which earned her some interest. Then, since readers could comment on each chapter separately, she also received a multitude of comments and got to the top of the Most Comments page. This meant Master of the Universe was always visible, and kept attracting more attention and getting more popular. Ingenious, really!
But now is when the drama kicks in.
Hmm. I feel that didn’t have enough dramatic tension.
But now is when the ~*~*~*~DRAMA!!!!!!!~*~*~*~ kicks in.
There we go.
E.L. James admitted to another person in the Twilight fanfic community that she didn’t enjoy being part of it anymore. They held a charity drive, and although E.L. James took part, she later complained that she hadn’t wanted to. However, she made more money that any other writer in the charity drive. And if she could make money doing that …
Bella and Edward became Ana and Christian. The other characters’ were changed (often to rather similar names: Carlisle became Carrick, for instance), and the chapters were split neatly from one whopping story to an easily-digestible trilogy. The plot was mostly untouched. When E.L. James published Master of the Universe under its new title, Fifty Shades of Grey, she already had an army of readers behind her ready to buy it – fanfic readers desperate to support one of their own.
When thousands of people on Amazon.com buy a new book at once, it hops to the top of the bestseller lists for the day. Which attracts interest from other people, so they buy it. Which gets it to the top that week. Which attracts more interest. And so it snowballs, Fifty Shades of Grey swiftly gaining a reputation for its human interest aspect (it was self published, three cheers for independence and the wonders of the Internet!) and for … well … all the spanking.
You’d think Twilight fanficcers were E.L. James’s biggest fans to this day, but alas no. Many of them now say that James betrayed them, taking the collaborative efforts of the community and using it all for her own gain – and topping it off by blocking many of them on social media, in an effort to distance herself from her roots. In fact, it’s from these ex-fans that I got much of my information for this post. You will not believe how tough it was to be unbiased when, righteous or not, my sources were overflowing with salt. Like a good essayist, I’ll pop links to them in the bottom if anyone wants to check them out.
So now you know. Yes, E.L. James was a fanficcer. But more than that, she was a clever fanficcer. She knew how to entice people to read long before she hoped to make money off her work – and then knew how to use her readers to propel her work to the top when she was making money.
What do you think? Is E.L. James a genius, or a skeevy backstabber? Is publishing fanfic a good way to become a ‘real’ writer? Please comment and let me know!
Links to my sources: