Why is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so popular?

When success becomes viral, by Richard Stone

This morning, whilst doing an emergency milk run to my local garage, I was presented with yet more evidence of the success of EL James' racy novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

The counter staff and a couple of their regular morning customers were sharing some banter over whether or not they or their partners had read, 'that book'.

Fifty shades of grey
There; many shades of grey!
They, and everybody else in the queue, knew which book 'that book' was. Nobody had to say the novel’s actual name or mention its author.

EL James and her publisher have succeeded in making the book's word of mouth success viral. We all know about the 100,000 copies sold in the first week, about the competition amongst publishers to re-print older raunchy books for women and about the mobs of readers who greet James at every signing as if she were John Lennon reincarnated.

But why is it so successful?

My contention is that the book has done so well because its publicity machine insists on telling us that it has done so well - perpetuating its own success.

I don't hold with the 'e-book readers make racy fiction acceptable' angle. I've seen a Harry Potter-esque amount of copies being read openly on trains and beaches this year.

Zlata Faerman argued in her article, Sugar and Spice, that, “The New York Times bestseller is a hit because it has no demographic, no age limits and no (insert rude word that we don’t use on our Blog for fear of being Spam listed - Ed) limits. Simply put, it just provides (insert similar word –Ed) satisfaction to women and men who otherwise wouldn't be privy to such experiences. Now, more than ever before, exploring desires has become the norm with the social acceptance of Fifty Shades of Grey. It's really that simple.”

However, the book is both awful and not very rude for quite a long time, according to this hysterical Blog post by Cassandra Parkin, '50 things that annoy me about Fifty Shades of Grey '. I’m inclined believe Parkin over Faerman personally, if only because she’s funnier.

In the Wall Street Journal, Virginia Beach writes, “For all the popularity of Fifty Shades, more than 1,700 Amazon readers have given it the lowest rating of one star (versus 2,500 five-star reviews). What's striking about these citizen critics is how angry they seem, how strongly they feel they had been hoodwinked by the media. "I was duped," one wrote. Another complained, "I bought this book against my better judgment because of all the hype." A third: "I bought the book after so many people at work were raving about it. I certainly know more about my co-workers now."

So, we know it’s not quality of writing, technological phenomenon or even subsumed desire that makes Fifty Shades of Grey so popular. I think it’s merely that we know that everyone else is reading it – people like well-liked things.

All this makes me think about the often quoted reason for not promoting success in the business to business environment, “we don’t want our competitors to know who our customers are”. The trouble is if no-one knows who you work with, they might think no-one believes you are worth buying from at all.

So, next time you are deciding whether to announce that new customer, press release your record sales or give the go-ahead on a case study, it’s worth considering the lesson of EL James’ success.  

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Richard Stone - Stone Junction

Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.


Peter Swanson said...

"Fifty Shades of Grey" - I thought it was about the weather!

Couldn't agree more. This reminds me of the furore over "The Da Vinci Code" - a very poorly written book with no merits I could see to justify its amazing popularity. Nevertheless, an initial viral effect must have been enhanced with some clever marketing.

Richard Stone - technical PR said...

Agreed. BTW Peter, I've just followed your Twitter account and read your Blog - excellent taste in music!