50 Shades of Grey was a fluke. So was the Immortal Instruments Series.
There are self-published authors and then there are self-published authors. They are not the same thing at all. I’m talking about the household name “Self-published” authors like Cassie Clare and EL James. Versus the rest of us, who many of us did have our origins in some sort of fandom. (Not all, but many.) And a lot of people like to use the success of these two authors as a sort of benchmark for other self-published authors and how they rate success. It doesn’t work this way.
Sure, you’ve all heard the stories of how people like E.L. James and Cassandra Clare who were fanfiction writers became big name traditional publishers. All by taking their stories, changing some names and submitting them to agencies or self-publishing them. If they can do it. Surely any moderately big name author can do it too!
50 Shades of Grey is the bigger example than Immortal Instruments. 50 Shades at least got a second movie. (We’ll see if it gets a third.)
It’s common knowledge to some extent that EL James was/is a fanfiction writer. She wrote a human only AU for the Twilight Series that eventually became 50 Shades of Grey. In it Edward was a suave businessman who like BDSM and Bella was the submissive woman who ended up changing him through the power of her love and he stopped doing BDSM.
What isn’t as common knowledge is that at the time EL James was writing 50 Shades of Grey, the Twilight fandom was full of human only AUs. In fact, from what I can gather, most of the Twilight Fandom didn’t want anything to do with the vampires or the shapeshifters and their imprinting and magical babies and so on. They liked the characters. And wrote them doing other things while being human. (One could argue in my opinion that the characters of Bella and Edward were so bland that this was rather easy.) There were a lot of these Human Only AUs running around. And EL James took ideas from all of them for her story that became 50 Shades of Grey.
Call it a fanfic of other people’s fanfics if you will.
Then, she posted her fanfic in bits to fanfiction sites. Only a few hundred words at a time. The first story had hundreds of chapters. This did one thing. It kept her story visible. It kept it at the top of the “just updated” rankings. And what this does is means she got more followers, more kudos and more comments asking for more, more, more. And as she got more followers, other things started happening. There were websites and she had fans dedicated to promoting her story.
EL James marketed the hell out of a fanfiction. She built a huge platform for it.
Then, then! She went to an agent/small publishing house. Rumor has it there was someone she knew in said publishing house. She already had a connection. She got to thwart some of the gatekeepers. (Big deal for any author.) She pointed out her rankings on AO3, all the followers she had and her reach with the websites and such for 50 Shades of Grey. She had a following. She had people who would no doubt buy her book. The book had a fantasy style plot line of the girl changes the guy with the power of her love that is popular. So, they snatched it up. Didn’t change much more than the names and published it as original erotica BDSM fiction.
And she had to take everything down from AO3 of course. And the fires started in fandom, EL James and her traditional publishers didn’t care. Because they bet (and they were correct to an extent) that those who were angry about James taking the book down, would buy the books on paper just to see how they ended.
The publishing house threw some money at it. (Also a big deal.) The simple structure of the book and its risqué nature did the rest. It went viral. And it set the standard for any and all fanfiction authors who wanted to publish original work that followed.
For that alone 50 Shades of Grey makes me furious. The bad writing. Eh. The simple story structure that was decent planning on her part. The ripping off of other writers. I feel horrible for them. The terrible portrayal of BDSM makes me grit my teeth in rage. The high expectations that EL James created for other fanfiction authors in trying to build their platform? I see red.
There is a reason why I haven’t broadcast who I am as a fan fiction writer. I never had the platform that would translate into original fiction sales.
Most self-published authors will never be EL James or Cassandra Clare. Because they don’t have the type of aggressive platform that those two writers did before they started publishing. If they have any knowledge of fandom, many of them don’t want to be the type of self-published author that EL James or Casandra Clare are, because they know what the two did to get that status.
And no matter how you publish now, you end up wearing many hats. You have to edit your own books. Format and typeset your own books. Market your own books. Build a platform for your books. On top of writing your own books.
The great thing about being a self-published author is you get to define your own success. Success can be simply publishing the book. It can be hitting a certain sales mark or having a certain ranking on Amazon. You can play with things that traditional published authors can’t. You can play with covers and categories and SEO keywords. Sure, traditional published authors have decent covers, but most of them have no control over them at all.
If you traditionally publish your book, you have to play by the traditional publishers rules. Instead of making your own. You may have to write to a formula or stay within a certain genre or even have to fight to include accents. As an self-published author, you can choose to do these things. You can choose to write to market (write to Amazon charts for underrepresented readers) or not.
I’ve sold about 8 bucks of e-books. And guess what, that’s 8 bucks more than I had in August when I published them. I call that success. And if I publish more books like I want to this year. Then I will have a tiny bit more success.
And if suddenly someone throws a million dollars at me and wants a movie or a television series. Then I won’t refuse. Ah, only in my dreams.