How EL James Exploited the Fanfic Community for Fifty Shades of Grey

Great background on the origins of Fifty Shades of Grey and how its author built it’s success on the backs of the fanfic community – and then kicked the ladder away. Starts with the transition of the fanfic from ‘with-vampires’ to ‘just-humans’ – I never really got this part and couldn’t figure out how BDSM fiction connected back to vampire romance:

“I mean, porn for Twilight was pretty decent up until the last book, where Meyer jossed her own canon and got Bella pregnant. … until we all realized that Meyer was a moron who knew nothing about even human anatomy. By that point, everyone was just frustrated. we just wanted to create and consume some fucking porn, give us a break.

We could have totally moved to another fandom or begin writing original stories, but everyone was already there, you know? We’d already made friends and established trends in the community. Moving was not an attractive option for anyone, especially given that Twilight is a mono-fandom, meaning it was a first-and-only fandom for most of us (whereas in other fanfic communities you’d see a lot of overlap with other canons).

So Twilight All-Human AUs [alternative universes] were ultimately invented. There were stories where vampires didn’t exist (like FSOG). They got CRAZY popular within the community because they were essentially just generic romance novels with characters we already knew (made it easy to write and consume, as we already liked and cared about the characters). Though there were always nods to the original Twilight series within them, you didn’t even have to know Twilight to enjoy an AH-AU. I’ve gotten tons of reviews on my fanfic where readers say they’ve never even picked up the book.

By 2010, probably a good 75% of Twilight fanfic being produced was All-Human. It was literally a chore to find a fanfic that had anything to do with vampires.

Fifty Shades was part of this. A lot of people here are saying it’s ripping off Secretary, but it’s not. It’s ripping off another really popular Twilight AH-AU called “The Submissive“, written by TaraSueMe. It was the first very popular BDSM Twilight fic (and frankly, so much better). Whenever a fic reached mega-popularity, there always began a brief spike of fics using those tropes. For instance, there was once a really popular fic about Edward being a tattoo artist (Clipped Wings & Inked Armor), which spawned all kinds of fics about Edward and Bella having tattoos. There were even contests with prizes to see who wrote the best tattoo fic.

So basically, The Submissive spawned off tons of BDSM fic. Fifty Shades was one of them. This is really important because it indicates a very strong practice of collective collaboration in the community at the time that would later be at the root of a lot anger when Erika published. Just about everything in her books is derivative… and not derivative of other media, and not even just derivitave of Twilight, but directly derivative of other Twilight fanfics. Sure, you could say it was ripping off Secretary, but considering intent, Fifty Shades is actually a ripoff The Submissive and dozens of other insanely popular Twilight fanfics.

In reddit-speak, think of these kinds of stories as reposts. It’s generally frowned upon to repost without giving credit here, but reposts can still get a shitload of karma, because some people hadn’t seen the original, or other people liked the content more than they disliked reposts. We’re all sitting here going, “Oh that’s kind of lame they’re getting karma from someone else’s idea,” but no one really cares too much. This is what Twilight fanfic was like.
FSOG got a shitload of karma. Ask me how!

Well, the short of it: Erika is a marketing professional.

The long of it:

  • Erika made reposts of already-proven-popular content
  • Erika posted short updates to the story very frequently, keeping it at the top of the story search list
  • Since people could give ‘karma’ (reviews) for every single chapter/update, the more chapters a story had, the more karma it had

FSOG had 80 [edit: was actually 110] chapters. That means that a lot of people actually reviewed that fucking thing EIGHTY times. So even if she had only 100 super loyal readers, that’s 8,000 11,000 reviews (think upvotes). People see a story with 8,000 reviews and want to click it to see what all the fuss is about. I think it had something like 20,000 reviews when it was pulled down for publishing.

Hence, FSOG went viral.

To put into perspective the social power of the Twilight fanfic community, consider this:

There was a fandom-run charity auction to benefit pediatric cancer research. These auctions, held annually, lasted 1 week. That’s it. Just 7 days. Mostly authors would auction off stories. So if you donated in my name, I’d write you 10,000 words of porn in my Tattward universe, or something new, etc. That’s how it worked.

The 2009 auction raised $80,000.
The 2010 auction raised $140,000.
The 2011 auction raised $20,00.

This charity has raised more than $230,000 in 3 weeks.

Erika participated in the 2010 auction. A story from her fanfic (FSOG) raised $30,000 of that, all by itself. In some chats made public by another author (that’s some quality drama:[2] ), Erika freely admits to not wanting to participate in the charity at all, but felt pressured to do so by her readers.

But now, with the ability to connect the social power of the community with a monetary sum of her story’s worth, Erika shortly thereafter decided to publish.

She then leveraged the community’s sense of nostalgia and loyalty, urging everyone to buy the book and give it good ratings, so as to see ‘one of their own succeed in the publishing world’. There were multiple campaigns from her friends (tens of thousands of what she only saw herself as ‘fans’) to blast her Amazon page and send the book up the ranks. It of course worked.

Once a (genre fiction) book gets to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list, you’re done. Mission accomplished. Book and movie deals to follow. Enjoy your money.

Erika never looked back. She actually has blocked every single person I still know from fandom on her twitter account. She used the community to get her book (most ideas created by the community itself) to #1 then essentially shut the door on them all.

Pretty brilliant, really.

But then, that’s why she’s not putting out any new content, and why she probably never will. She is likely incapable of producing fiction without the use of existing characters and a collaborative community. Erika Leonard is not a creator, she is a marketer.

There’s also a great reason why the 2011 charity auction made so much less money. Because after everyone saw Erika publish FSOG and make bank, they all wanted to do the same. Not really many popular stories left to leverage social currency–it’s all going into their pockets. Most of those really popular fics (including the two mentioned here [The Submissive and Clipped Wings]) have since been published and done quite well.”

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