Quote from Sam Sykes on Twitter

I stumbled across this tweet the other day and found myself wondering, why shouldn’t I sneer at books that soared to popularity by appealing to the lowest common denominator? Why would I care what makes them tick?

If you’re the kind of author who doesn’t care about the quality of their work nearly as much as becoming famous, you may be thinking “I agree with this tweet! What’s the magic formula that makes inexplicably popular books so successful? And how can I apply it to my own writing?!” In that case, here’s the breakdown.

If any lesson is to be drawn from recent smash hits, it’s that it doesn’t take some magic quality to succeed. Hard work, engaging stories, and unique ideas sell books; but so can sensationalism. Some authors find fame by riding the coattails of other popular novels. They boost their reach by publishing more and more controversial content in order to stay in the headlines. Which marketing tactics leave a bad taste in your mouth will determine the best direction for you to take.

In light of Sam Sykes’ tweet, here are some lessons we can learn from inexplicably popular books.

What we can learn from Game of Thrones: rape and incest sell. Most people are woefully uneducated about historical accuracy, so an author facing criticism can easily claim that they’re “just being historically accurate.” If the author is already massively popular and doesn’t have a ton of original ideas left, including controversial and offensive content can keep them in the headlines.

What we can learn from Fifty Shades: abuse sells. Most people don’t know that BDSM fetish and sexual/physical/emotional abuse are completely different things, and can’t tell the difference between the two.

For those still unsure whether Fifty Shades is kinky fun or abuse fic, check out this article.

An analysis of the first book found that the so-called romantic relationship between Christian and Ana was characterized by intimate partner violence. Using the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions, researchers found that emotional abuse and sexual violence were pervasive throughout, noting that emotional abuse was present in nearly every interaction. This was evidenced in stalking, limiting Ana’s social involvement, intimidation and threats.

Researchers identified various instances of sexual violence, including Christian initiating sexual encounters while angry, ignoring Ana’s boundaries and using threats and alcohol to compromise Ana’s consent.

In short, Fifty Shades is nothing more than a book that went big by taking something shocking, representing it particularly badly, and bringing it to mainstream audiences. Kinky romances are a dime a dozen. If not for the terrible editing and grossly inaccurate representation of BDSM, the book probably wouldn’t have garnered nearly as much attention as it did.

What we can learn from the popularity of the Twilight series: teenage girls love broody teenage boys and glitter. Cash in on the paranormal romance craze by making the broody teenage boys into werewolves and vampires. Make the vampires sparkle. Watch the money roll in.

YA fiction is a huge market. Some of it is really good, but a lot of it makes wrote-it-on-my-phone romances sound well-written. If you’re not too proud to write to a market that loves glitter vampires, or you’re not too clear on the difference between their and they’re and are looking for an audience that isn’t either, YA may just be your niche.

What can we really learn from studying books like these? Marketing professionals have known that sex and violence sell for a long time. Sexual assault, abuse, and sparkly bad boys aren’t what made these books smash hits. They got lucky, caught a wave of publicity for their content, and rode it onto the best seller list. Can you, the aspiring author, find fame and fortune by doing the same thing? Probably not.

As many others have already discovered, copying the sensational tactics used by certain literary successes is anything but a reliable recipe for achieving fame and fortune. As an aspiring author, the choice is yours. Where do your talents lie? And what do you want your work to be remembered for?

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4 thoughts on “Tackling More Questionable Writing Advice

  1. Copying someone is never a good idea and there are far easier ways to become famous than writing. But I think he may have been addressing the other side, that some people tend to dismiss things because they are popular. I made it through one book of twilight and it was a chore and have no interest in Fifty Shades of Grey. But not everything popular is bad. I was reading George RR before I had heard of A Song of Fire and Ice and still prefer The Sandkings, but I enjoy most of what he writes despite it sometimes making me uncomfortable. I also enjoy Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time and of course Lord of the Rings which were all hits as well as being well written (at least in my opinion.) And I do think that it’s worth considering what makes even the terrible books work. You can say sex sells and dismiss it or you could decide that perhaps there is room for more depth in the romantic subplots of traditional fantasy books.

    • Leland Lydecker says:

      Oh, I get the basis of what he was saying. The point I’m making is that altogether too many people seem to equate “popular” with “good,” or worse, with “worth emulating.” That’s why there was a veritable flood of Twilight knockoffs, and why abuse fic had a huge surge in popularity after Fifty Shades went big.

      Sure, the folks thinking they’ll find fame by copying that kind of writing probably have less of a chance of succeeding than they do of winning the lottery… but it’s the cultural outlook I want to address, not some people’s lack of realistic goals.

      Writing that leverages sexual assault and abuse for entertainment value doesn’t deserve to be considered good. Some people will always enjoy that stuff, just as there’s (apparently) a market for snuff films and books where all the bad guys are stereotypical people of color. But the fact that so many people are willing to jump on the bandwagon just because something appalling is getting 15 minutes of fame… that erodes what little faith in humanity I had left.

      And yes, romance writing has needed more depth for ages–but I don’t think that patterning it after an (even more) abusive type of relationship is the solution.

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