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?