Having just returned from holiday (Urbino in Italy) I allowed myself some summer reading, and found myself with a copy of E L James 50 Shades of Grey. Everyone I know has read it, my friends on Facebook are talking about it and so I thought I ought to see what all the fuss was about.
Now this post is NOT about the merits of this novel, in fact – as literature goes – it’s pretty poor, BUT it had me hooked…and within 3 days I had finished the first novel, and half way through the second.
So, why is this book so successful?
It’s hardly shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, in fact, the writing is fairly awful, but it struck a chord and hooked me in, and before I knew it, I was finishing the first book and devouring the second.
So, it got me thinking; what is it about this book that has made it one of the all-time best sellers of the last 20 years (out selling Harry Potter within the first 2 months of its release)? Well, I’ve distilled it down to two things.
It’s simplicity and it follows a true and tested formula – one that has worked for many a century – a story about love.
Now for those of you who haven’t read it, this book is simply about a dark and brooding protagonist, who meets an innocent and feisty young girl, and her journey to fix him. (oh, and a bit of sex along the way… 😉 )
It’s been written about many, many times. Jane Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Catherine, Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, Thomas Hardy’s Tess and Mr. d’Urberville. Even Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew comes to mind, and of course more recently Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ diary. In fact the list of books is much longer, but it’s interesting to note, that most of these follow a simple pattern. And that is, a love story and all its glorious complications.
So what can we learn from this? I mean a book all about sex is one thing, but what is the lesson that this book can teach us? (Getting a better copy editor aside)
It comes down to 2 things: (As mentioned above)
- Using a formula that works (other novels before it)
- Keeping it simple (it’s hardly a plot twisting story!)
And whatever you think of its content, its writing, its lack of finesse – you can’t argue with the numbers of books sold, and the consequences EL James now finds herself in. She has a movie deal in the bag, a spin off music CD and no doubt a truck load of, …er, accessories that can now be branded with her name. She really is an editors and marketers dream.
So what can you do to make your book as readable and hopefully successful? (Without having to write a book about bedroom antics and domineering protagonists!)
Well a few of the rules which this book follows come to mind;
- Keep it unpretentious and appeal to a specific audience
- Don’t try and re-invent the wheel, instead give it a twist.
- Appeal emotionally to the core of the problem/issue
- Make it sexy, not boring
- Don’t be too clever and use tech speak. Keep it real.
Love it or loathe it, EL James has broken a new barrier. Her books have swept the best-selling lists on both sides of the Atlantic, her stories have gone viral (the only marketing I’ve seen of the book has been on Facebook) and now she is wealthy beyond her imagination. And all because she wrote a book about love but in a way that put a new twist on a well-tested formula, and made it modern and sexy but ultimately kept it simple and easy to read.
Let’s see if you can apply these lessons to your book!
Your Book Coach.