The Horrible Success of Fifty Shades of Grey : Does it Show the Dangers of the Self Publishing System?

Fifty shades of grey is an overnight success. It’s the book version of the Friday Rebecca Black YouTube sensation. Even though most people think it’s horrible, it’s selling one book per second.Most people who have any literary sensibility will argue that it is a horrendous bit of writing based on a slightly less mediocre piece of writing in twilight. There are some staunch defenders, but it seems to me that these are the same people who might defend a trashy reality show. Let’s face it even the author herself admits it to being , well, mediocre.
According to countless Amazon reviews : There are countless mistakes splattered around the series, and even a series of TYpos. ( Get it? 🙂 )It lacks a plot, glorifies an arguably abusive relationship,lacks authenticity , and is filled with countless Britishisms’ despite all characters being American. Yet it has garnered success worldwide, as well as guaranteeing a million dollar movie deal . What went wrong here?
It seems to me that this success story is a cautionary tale on Self publishing. Much like YouTube, having absolute freedom to publish anything you want without any sort of limits on quality that publishing houses offer can be dangerous. This does not mean people should not publish what they want because everyone has this right. However, the quality might be compromised. Should pedophiles be allowed to publish on taboo topics? Should it be allowed to be promoted on websites? Yes, they can write about it but should it be readily available to everyone ?
Why was it successful? Essentially, the book has all the characteristics of a literary meme. She was writing within a group or community that already had a built in fan base. She posted this to discussion boards within the fan base. Thus, she had access to thousands of readers already. She then revamped her novel and self published within a small Australian self publishing community. The book took on a life of it’s own. In the world of sharing , liking, pinning, digging, and our absolute glee over doing this without any sort of restraint this was a bomb ready to explode. The problem with technology is that many times we share things without thinking that if we do, we are contributing to it’s subsequent popularity even if we think it isn’t that good. There were no editors, framework or barriers to restrain the floodgates of popularity of this horrible piece of writing. This will only get subsequently worse now that Hollywood has it’s jaws on it. Writers all over the world might take this as an interesting business model, but it is unlikely that most writers would ever achieve this level of success….
Furthermore, despite the argument that parents should not allow kids to read this how can they prevent it? There are no parent controls to prevent kids from purchasing this off amazon, there is no clear warning that it is only for a certain age and up. It is the number one hit on amazon and you are telling me that kids won’t be morbidly curious?
To sum up : Self Publishing is currently lacking any clear limits of what can be published, zero editorial review and no way to make sure some level of quality control is given might present a big problem. Perhaps it is unfair to blame this on self publishing-publishing houses can create miserable garbage it was responsible for twilight after all and this book is not the norm. In light of this here are some questions for you: is it as bad as this self publishing disaster? Is there a happy medium between the elitist and limited publishing house system and the free-for-all self publishing system? Is self publishing eliminating meritocracy? Do we have any right to stop horrible writing with characters who show signs of an abusive relationship? Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and it’s overall effect on society? Does this book open the door for even darker things to be published and accepted? How do we contain or protect our children from harmful self publishing literature in the advent of IPads and Kindles? Is Self publishing getting an unfair bad wrap over this? What can be done to prevent this from happening?


53 thoughts on “The Horrible Success of Fifty Shades of Grey : Does it Show the Dangers of the Self Publishing System?

  1. I’ve thought a lot about this very thing. Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: Reading a self-pub book is no different than going to see a live indie band that has no manager or isn’t affiliated with a record label. You go to the bar/club pay your $3-$5 and take the risk because your friends told you the band was great. Maybe their lyrics are awful and even suggestive or violent? As a parent if I don’t want my child reading trash, watching awful television shows or going to see less than impressive bands sing tasteless music than its my job to well…parent. We can’t police the world, and even the worst of self-pubbers have the right to write and their readers have a right to read it and heck, even like it.

    1. That’s true… I love the analogy. I mean AI produces a lot of mediocre singing talent. It’s just worrying that this book panders to a specific pre teen market . Hollywood allegedly even hired Ian Somerhaulder- or is about to- who has a very specific teen fanbase.
      But, you are right. We can’t police the world… we do however need to be critical of the effect phenoms have on our way of thinking.

      1. I agree. My biggest fear is the way young girls who know nothing about sex are going to view sex after reading these books. They aren’t old enough to understand the difference between “role playing” with a loved one and being used and abused by someone who wants to be authoritative and dominant because of power not love. That’s what scares me the most I think.

      2. Yes, indeed. The thing is too, the character in the book is probably not role playing. He has deep psychological issues and has clear signs of being abusive. What if some girl reads it and says oh wow, that’s like me! Maybe he will end up changing if I just stick with it!

  2. I could not disagree with you more. I have not read word one of Fifty Shades of Grey, but free speech is one of our basic freedoms. That is what is allowing you to say what you are saying. It may be trash to you, and maybe to me, but to some it is not. What will decide if it is a success is how much it sells. The people, the readers, are the final say. One last thing, before casting stones, you should look over your post; I see at least a half-dozen grammatical errors. Now if I was a censor …

    1. But see, that’s why I would never self publish unless I had a good editor. It’s not even the grammatical errors that bother me- believe me it would be hypocritical- it’s just the overall BAD writing.
      Censorship is perhaps the wrong word. But really, under this criteria we would say anyone would be allowed to visit porn sites ( even if they were say 10 years old) without any warning or parental control.
      I am not making a statement either way, or advocating censorship but I am taking a critical view of what the overall effect it might have on our society .

    2. By the by, thanks for pointing out the errors! That’s always a good thing… maybe we don’t need censors but definitely good editors in self publishing 🙂

  3. I have not read, nor do I intend to read the book (or books). My problem is with the public who actually want to read material of this type. What does this says about us as a society?

    1. Hype? Nowhere in the media does it warn people off on the negativity of reading this. It’s just promoted on t.v. as ” hot , hot, hot”. It’s really irresponsible journalism. All they do is talk about how steamy it is without clearly giving an idea on notion that it promotes.
      The power of social media has a lot to do with this too. Much like anything viral, it takes a life of it’s own without really knowing why
      As far as what it says as a society, it’s pretty scary notion..

  4. I sincerely don’t believe that the 10,000,000 copies sold in six weeks were sold to young girls. Over the past few weeks, it’s been impossible to turn to a morning “news” show or even a cable “news” show and not run into well over thirty, married women who can’t stop gushing about this book. I read an article yesterday by a therapist who talks about a forty year old female patient who had never been able to talk about sex with her spouse. According to the therapist, her patient was able to address her sexual issues just from reading “Fifty Shades…” The book is popular because of the sexual taboo, BDSM and the fact that the young protagonist “changes” the young, handsome billionaire into a caring husband. The book stuck a common fantasy of a lot of women – “I can change him.” The sadomasochism? I can’t really explain other than some people, men and women do like “rough sex” as a personal choice.

    1. Well, I am sure that that’s the main audience but it’s hitting mainstream, and that means extending beyond the particular niche audience.
      Thirty something housewives also read twilight and were one of the most ardent readers. Both markets sometimes go hand in hand.
      Yes, the common fantasy of I can change him… sigh.

  5. Hopefully the publishing industry will land in a place where good writing and good stories are recognized. Right now, it is nearly impossible for an unknown author to get an agent or a publishing deal, even with a great book. The result is a self-publishing market that is hit or miss as far a good read goes. Some filtering systems in place include looking for independent authors who have gotten good reviews and won awards. Also, using Amazon’s “Look inside” feature can be helpful. Because of 50 Shades, we will now be flooded with erotica novels. Where are the new Sue Kidd Monks and Alice Hoffmans (two of my favorites)?

    1. That’s really good insight. Yes, a trend will follow ( just like vampires before that)… and not in a good way. Publishing houses are definitely elitist, and it scares me to the point where I didn’t for a long time send anything in for review.
      Unfortunately, the books who garner awards are not necessarily the ones that get the most reads
      I mean life of pi probably does not have as many reads as say, twilight. Maybe our educational system is to blame for the love all things trashy… I have no idea.

      I love the secret life of bees. I have never read anything from Alice Koffman what books has she done?

    1. I adore magical realism. Favorite book of all time is one hundred years of solitude. The titles sound familiar 🙂 Let’s hope good literature will prevail eventually… Have you ever read eva luna or of love and shadows by isabel allende?

  6. I haven’t read this particular book, but I’ve heard a great deal about it. I have seen some excerpts, as well. But, what this made me think of is the very old debate that comes up anytime a controversial book comes out (usually related to sexual material). It’s freedom of speech vs. censorship, just as we’ve seen with books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catcher in the Rye, and so on. Ultimately, if one wishes to obtain a copy of something, whether in book, magazine, electronic, or other format, he or she will find a way. With any “story” comes the decision of whether to write it, distribute it, and then read it. Apparently, 50 Shades has struck a chord with a large number of people, so it will make money and get into the hands of those who seek it out. It might be junk, it might be provocative, but the public has spoken, and it’s a hit – like it or not. Self-publishing is just one of the ways to get the material out there, and it happens to be the way to do it without proper editing. More will follow, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing the topic on your blog!

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment. It probably is an age old argument, the problem is the speed by which works like this is distributed in the advent of social media…without any apparent concern over the outcome.. ( ironically I am contributing by talking about it as well…)

  7. Unfortunately, Maryann, bloggers are as guilty of the kinds of errors that you describe. It is one of the reasons that blogging is having such a difficult time gaining respect. Your own blog has several errors. (“million dollar movie deal .”; “cautionary tale on Self publishing”, to pick out just two violations). At first I thought you intentionally used them as a parody, but if you did, it went too far.

    On the other hand, bad writing is not exclusive to electronic writing. How do you explain the success of people like Danielle Steele. The most god-awful drivel I have ever had the misfortune to read; yet the lady is a multimillionaire.

    1. Touche 🙂
      Thanks for pointing those out….
      Yes, blogging does have grammatical errors. It’s probably because of the diary-like nature that happens when you blog. I hope this does not happen for self publishing.
      Not disputing my blogging mistakes- although I didn’t really revise it much by trying to make a point- which is why I never would publish a book that people would have to pay for without hiring an editor. But as it stands , most people can publish without hiring an editor, and get rewarded for it. What happens to all those self publishers who take the time to self edit, or hire expensive editors? It’s a bit of a slap in the face
      Yes, Daniele Steele is a good example of trash. But honestly, this is mediocrity at a whole other level. Check out the reviews of her book on amazon.

      1. I refuse to accept “the diary-like nature” as an excuse. As a writer you should want people to respect what you say. However, good readers (that is to say open-minded, intelligent readers) will insist that you say it well. If you don’t, they will look elsewhere for reading material. There’s plenty of it out there.

  8. Being rejected by the establishment, despite my literary books, this frightens me.Trying to balance competence and knowledge with marketing and uninformed public/poplar levels of taste and knowledge is impossible–particularly in the contemporary world. Sad-suiicidal..

      1. Do not intend to be a crybaby, but my experience, and that of many that I have met is not “lover-ly.” I left college teaching and began my first love, writing twenty-six years ago. Stories, poems, and articles sometimes published. Spent two years writing first historical novel. Google my work–including Found an agent, who found publisher after twelve years w/classes and workshops ongoing–after four university degrees. I write creatively. Have not made one penny, have spent tens of thousands on marketing, touring, book-fairs. Excellent comments, few sales. Not what the pop market wants, regardless of favorable reviews by those who know what they are reading. Latest: rejected by publisher whose reader-reviewer had no business evaluating my work. Wrong world-view–and bias.

        Trying something different. No money, health and age. But, I am mad as Hell.My goal was “to make a contribution–with skill, style, and content.

      2. Here is what a friend of mine told me :
        Do it to share to the world, even if only a couple people read it. Writing is a scary and confusing and entirely frustrating business.

        Like most art, who is successful is entirely arbitrary. Remember that Van Gogh died penniless and alone. Steig Larsson died before his books became successful
        Unfortunately, this woman was piggybacking off a fan base, and people gobble up trash. Will she be remembered in twenty years? Probably not.
        God gave you a talent, and I commend you for having the strength and courage to use it.

  9. Nowadays more than ever, “freedom of the press” gives anybody who knows how to form a letter the right to put whatever they want on paper. This author obviously built up her fan base long before she published her book.

    I wrote a book once that I wondered about whether or not I should publish, because in the book I invented an unusual weapon that would kill people. I didn’t want people to use my method and therefore pulled the book. But the essence of the book was worth reading. Now I’m thinking of publishing it again, but this time with a warning.

    Unfortunately bad things happen everywhere. Some people experience it. Some people write about it. I think we need to hold ourselves to a high standard, though, and not just write drivel. But I’ve noticed that some people like drivel, so who am I to tell people what to read or what not to read? Parents SHOULD be observing their children, but we all know that parents can’t watch their children 24/7.

    So I will be a little jealous of Fifty Shade’s success, but I will aspire to higher literary output (absolutely no porn).

    1. Yes! That is all so true and such a reflection on how we prefer low brow entertainment to things that make us think.
      I love that you are thinking in that way – as writers we all should be responsible on the material we bring out. And parents cannot possibly protect their children from the world, the only thing they can do is give them tools to discern things for themselves. However, I still think we are irresponsible at times when we give out material that we fully know has a completely different fanbase.
      Yes, I think she must have had a huge following enough to have given that tipping point , and then the media snowballed the effect.

  10. I have not had the chance to read the book and now I will not, thanks to you. I am someone who wishes to pursue self publishing one day and from what I am reading this paves the way for horrible editing and worthless reading. Maybe I should not self publish… That is if this is what people expect from self publishers. I thank you for your candidness and being open and honest because it makes me think twice. I am a huge fan of your work and have subscribed before under a hotmail account (boo hotmail) but since it is not working I have switched to Gmail. I hope that I can still receive your posts there! Wishing you all the luck in the world!
    Much love and abundant blessings,

    1. I have been “properly” agented and published by a traditional, respected small publisher without the distribution and marketing needed. I’ve spent thousands on marketing and touring touring on my own nickle. Everyone who reads my work likes it, although I am not mainstream. Self publishing, electronic and print are the only ways at this time, and both are in their infancy. Be careful, study, ask questions, find assistance. This is my plan as I move from trying to make it “the old fashioned way.” And I am a grandma.

      1. That’s a good plan. I think you are definitely going at it in the right way. Systematizing your next step is definitely important.

  11. I think it’s more about our society and its interests. Sad, but true. Today, society thrives on evil, crime, sex, violence, riches, good looks, and that’s why 50 shades was so successful. The author
    knew that and she fed into it.

    1. Yes, it’s an interesting case study to ponder about. It’s the jersey shore of book reading. I loved it when i heard a podcast praising how it was getting women to read. That was just insulting on so many levels

  12. We live in a country where people are free to read hackneyed garbage … for better or for worse. To me, it’s a lot like bad art or misogynistic music. I believe, now, music comes with labels like “explicit.” Consider Rhianna’s S&M music video. It went mainstream, glorified what amounted to acting out victimization on women (her). And, yes, I believe it was too easily accessible to suggestible kids. Free speech is imperative … but, with that comes garbage. A kid can easily log on to, say, any number of “hate” websites (including those owned by the KKK). As parents, it’s our duty to instill critical thinking skills, values, morals. Consider Nabakov’s Lolita. A stunning book, in my opinion, deftly crafted. Sad. Abhorrent, but the language rendered it in such a way that we know Humbert Humbert is a self-deluded pig… and in the end, he has a moment of epiphany. Not a redemptive epiphany, but one that points to the tragedy that has ensued under his exploitation. I suppose there is no easy answer. Censorship, when it begins, isn’t a good thing. Education, frank discussion with our children may be the best disuader.

  13. (Disclaimer: didn’t read the books. read excerpts/reviews online) The issue is not what the author did. She’s fine. The mainstream media promoted the book without ever saying it is terribly written. The success was amplified exponentially by media stories ABOUT THE SUCCESS (not about the book). It’s a meta-phenomenon that is happening more frequently in our culture. (I’m sorry .. the Kardashians are … who exactly? They’re on the covers of magazines for being on the covers of magazines.)

  14. I haven’t read any of the Fifty Shades of … books but I don’t think this cautionary tale is exclusive to self-publishing. The mainstream of any biz (music, film, books) pumps out crap too. Just because something has the backing of a “respectable” label/publisher doesn’t mean that it is authentic artistry.

  15. The writer was on “THE VIEW” and I watched that interview. She is an admitted mediocre writer.
    She seemed to have “”TIPED A NERVE” which anyone that wants to be or thinks they are a writer wants to do. We have to “PARENT our own children”– she will enjoy her fast flowing wealth that we are creating by giving her notoriety! Mean while let us all enjoy our 1st Amendment right and guide our children. I could go on and on but to no avail. All of the above has been spoken to very little avail, except to make her richer. I think I’ll go out and buy her book. Maybe I can write the next one. See you all at “BARNS & NOBLE!

    1. There is no solace in repeating recent observations such as “the dumbing down of the culture,” and rending our garments in dismay and disgust. Every day I feel multiple assaults in the nearly complete inability to express a grammatical sentence, complete thought and critical idea orally or in writing. No plural, no sense of subject and object,,, We are in a low point, a “Dark Age” in our nano corner of a universe, Unless Mother-Father EVOLUTION changes the “mix,” we continue in deep-doo..

      1. i have no doubt that Gwendoline’s observation is dead on. Not a recent occurrence, however. My father who attended college in the 1920s was a chemist who could write circles around just about anyone getting paid to do it today.

        My college days were in the late 59s-early60s and I made a good buck writing for law students.

        One of my first jobs was teaching English to high school students. A colleague, an English major from Colgate University no less, was unable to put together a test without several grammatical and spelling errors in it. Out of embarrassment, I edited his tests before he ran off copies.

        Later I wrote manuals users of computer programs written for fast food restaurant cash register and inventory systems. I spent hours editing for a colleague who had just graduated from Hamilton College one of the most prestigious small colleges in the country. He had a degree in communications but couldn’t write a lick.

        There will always be good writers as long as there are good readers, but the percentage of us compared to the number of college graduates and the general population is no doubt dwindling.

      2. Like Breeze, I am appalled by the lack of language skills that my generation had to learn before we left elementary school. High school is too late in many cases, for, as Noam Chomsky pioneered, “generative grammar has not been laid down. We cannot expect all parents to be literate and pass on language skills–as I did. BUT, I attended school in the segregated south with schoolmates with illiterate parents. The under-funded elementary schools (not all, for lack of funding) instilled grammar, spelling and syntax. We had NO non-readers, and the vast majority learned to use the language well. Sometimes, a plural or a verb might be inaccurate, because the ear does not have the referents, but we were literate, by 6th grade, with continuance in high school.

        Today, with text messaging abbreviations and misspelling, the awful grammar in all public media, young people have idea that it is incorrect to say “Between he and I.” They’ve not been told nor heard what they are saying on several levels.

        My son was correcting himself as a toddler. He heard correct speech. It was automatic for him.I only noticed this when a visitor, a psychologist, called it to attention, saying that, with a doctorate, she had to monitor her speech, for she did not learn it in her home–only late in school. Our youth are hearing “good” language almost NOWHERE.

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