It’s titillating, it’s full of taboo subjects, and it doesn’t even come with brown paper wrapping.
I’m not referring to the latest issue of Penthouse – I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Fifty Shades trilogy has certainly shifted our perceptions of housewives – rather than fitting neatly inside the June Cleaver mold, today’s women are confidently talking about a book filled with S&M. What’s more shocking than this shift is the fact that many didn’t see it coming. Many were instead asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Creating a Product for People Who Don’t Think They’d Want It
In a society full of polar opposites – the U.S., for example, is home to both conservative Christians and liberals fighting for gay marriage reform – it wasn’t expected that a series on erotica would find such mainstream appeal. Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with boosting Barnes & Noble’s sales, setting new records in Britain, and launching lines of everything from sex toys to cookbooks.
Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book; books are well-written or badly written.” This is the distinction many publishers and reviewers failed to make. People have always been interested in things considered inappropriate for polite society. The presentation is what piques consumers’ interest. It’s debatable whether the book sold because of its eloquent writing, but immoral it is not. E.L. James has simply made talk of hardcore sex a little more acceptable in common conversation; a frowned-upon act has become a little less dirty.
B. Cameron Lee, a writer of horror fiction, admits, “People may be scandalized, or pretend it, but still, they have interest. If you want to write something that really sells, you wrap it in ‘mummy’ porn.” Even if people were embarrassed about reading it, they did it anyway – or at least did so behind the cover of a magazine.
Easing Yourself in
It’s easy to understand that people will gobble up dirty subjects; it’s another thing to write about such subjects. If you venture down this path, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself confronting some of your own discomforts. Are you comfortable writing a play-by-play of oral sex in a bathtub? Here are some simple ways to ease yourself into the process so you can write what you know:
- Use humor: Everyone laughs about sex. It’s a topic we find funny at 13, and it still amuses us at 50. “Humor allows you to relax with the subject,” says Dr. Jacobo Schifter, who’s written more than 20 books on sexuality. The more relaxed you are, the more honest and relatable your writing will be.
- Make it easy-to-read: Academic jargon, although comfortable to fall back on, turns readers off. Including facts is important, but make them relevant. Don’t insert data that pulls away from your story – tell your story. The author of Fifty Shades doesn’t use flowery language, but writes in the simplest of terms: “Grey gives me a wicked grin, the effects of which I feel all the way down there,” Ana says when she and Christian discuss having sex for the first time.
- Become the character: Slide in and become the character, as Lee does. What would you do if you were Ana, experiencing her first sexual encounter with someone more experienced than she was, 15 times over? Arrange the story to fit your morals, experiences, or imagination.
- The point is not that you need to be comfortable with a topic, but to become comfortable with the concept of research. Many readers don’t know what it feels like to be whipped by a flogger, and in order to describe that successfully, we imagine that James had to do some “research”. Don’t let yourself be stiff with the subject – no pun intended – or your audience will have a hard time relating.
Writing to Your Audience
Half the writing journey is about what you have to share – but the other half is about the people who will read your work. How do you find a Fifty Shades of Grey-caliber audience? How do you talk to them? What would they like to read about? In this case, it’s something they don’t know much about or have little experience with: dominatrix-oriented sex.
Try to speak to them as individuals. While this is always a good idea, it’s particularly vital when touching on taboo subjects. “Write as if you are having a conversation,” says Diane Carter, a digital publisher and marketer. “Make a connection, one person at a time. In reality, you are connecting one-on-one; everyone who reads your book reads it differently.” Ana is a shy, inexperienced and caring character, making it easy for readers to relate to – and connect with – her.
You don’t have to dilute your message to appeal to a large group. What makes work appealing is its ability to confront what we find awkward, cringe-inducing, sexy or exciting. You can unload your deepest thoughts on dirty talk – if you’re thinking it, someone else is too.
One thing that set Fifty Shades of Grey apart was its willingness to find an audience. To accomplish the same goal, you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur, not just a writer.
Research your competition via Amazon or Barnes & Noble, as Carter advises: What other books have Fifty Shades’ readers purchased? What did reviewers like – or dislike – about the series? Who are similar authors? Assessing the marketplace will help you develop a niche in both writing and marketing.
You also need to have some minimal marketing tools:
- A blog or website, particularly one with a specialty URL
- A Facebook fan page
- A Twitter account
- A LinkedIn account
These tools will help you connect with existing readers, garner new ones, and inspire conversations. (You’d be surprised how vocal people will be when they can talk about taboo subjects behind a computer screen.)
It’s not hard to establish a Fifty Shades of Grey-worthy reputation; it’s harder to get out of your own way and really delve into the topic so what you say has resonance. Break down your own barriers, reach out to your audience, and start thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur. You may not sell as many copies of your book, but you’ll likely develop just as loyal a following.