It’s almost Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about the sexy side of book publishing. When Fifty Shades of Grey hit the mainstream book market, it caused such a stir that the whole of Europe ran out of the silver ink needed for the covers. This erotic romance novel sky-rocketed author E. L. James from online fan-fic writer to the highest paid author in the world, with a staggering $95 million from book sales and film rights. Yet these same books are widely criticised by both critics and readers alike. So, what can we learn about publishing from the success of Fifty Shades of Grey?

#1. Publishing is about making money

There is often a romantic notion attached to “getting published”, but when it comes down to it, publishing is a commercial business—and that means it’s about making money. When publishers receive book submissions, they hedge their bets on whether that particular book will draw in a big enough audience to make them a decent profit. This decision is about understanding the market and knowing what readers want. 

This explains why publishers tend to publish books on current topics or the same kind of books as other big publishers; it’s because they respond to market need. It also explains why publishers might reject a beautifully written book—they don’t perceive a big enough audience for it.

#2. It’s not just about being well-written

Fifty Shades of Grey is widely criticised for its inaccurate depiction of the BDSM scene but also for its clumsy writing and poor grammar. In other words, it’s accused of being badly written. However, the fact that a publisher jumped on it—and that readers lapped it up—demonstrates that less-than-stellar writing is less important than the book’s contents. 

In essence, a publisher’s decision to take a chance on a book is not necessarily based on the quality of the writing (and it pains me to say that as an editor). On the contrary, publishers have in-house editorial teams who can fix clumsy writing, but it’s often time-consuming and costly to have their editors fix poor content or a weak plot. 

#3. It’s about what readers want

In fact, even a book is well-written and has a good plot or idea, it still depends on whether the publisher thinks readers will want it. If they think the book has an idea or plot that nobody wants to read, it will be rejected. Of course, no publisher has a crystal ball to predict whether any book will be a hit. However, they do need some degree of confidence about it.

This is why a beautifully worded book with a dull plot is likely to get rejected, and why eight major publishers rejected Harry Potter before Bloomsbury took it on. It was destined for the rejection pile again when the publisher’s daughter Alice read a chapter and loved it. Even then, Bloomsbury were so uncertain that they only printed 500 copies, and it went to sell 500,000.

#4. It pays to build an audience first

All of this teaches us that any book proposal or submission must demonstrate audience interest and market need. There are of course ways to demonstrate this need through keyword analysis, competitive title research, and so on. However, the easiest way to prove reader interest is already having an audience. 

With Fifty Shades of Grey, the book had been published (in a sense) as Twilight fanfic online, where E.L. James already had 5 million readers. As a result, the book was picked up by a small indie publisher who sold a few thousand copies. This was enough to create a buzz around the “New York moms” scene, a buzz that caught the attention of publisher Vintage. In other words, Vintage already knew that the book was likely to be a hit. They didn’t have to hedge their bets on an unknown writer or an unproven concept. This explains why celebrity books or memoirs that honestly aren’t very good get published; it’s because the publisher knows that person already has an audience.

The “Fifty Shades” lesson 

Whether you love Fifty Shades or loathe it, it can tell you a lot about how to achieve success in publishing. You stand a much better chance of success if you have a concept that readers love, and you have proof that they love it. You stand a better chance of landing a publisher if you’ve already created a buzz around your book. This way, you can prove that readers really want your book—and there’s no better way to prove that than already having an audience who love your stuff.

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