The DNA of a Successful Book
Fifty Shades of Grey is the most successful eBook in the world. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing book series of all time, surpassing Harry Potter.
The trilogy has combined to sell over $20 Million in less than five months. By comparison, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with A Dragon Tattoo trilogy took over three years to sell that many books.
E.L. James’ trilogy is a juggernaut. It’s been ranked atop the New York Times’ best sellers list for 22 weeks. Its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are currently ranked No. 2 and No. 3. A compilation of all three books ranked No. 9. The movie rights to the series have been sold for millions of dollars. These jaw-dropping sales figures are the pinnacle of a historical rags-to-riches story that touches on the emerging phenomenon of self-published fan fiction.
And while the rags-to-riches angle has undoubtedly helped the book get more attention, the same could be said for a wave of controversy that has surrounded the books due to their overtly sexual themes that revolve around a racy relationship between a submissive college student and an older, domineering man with a mysteriously dark side. The books are filled with graphic NSFW passages like this:
“Hmm… he’s soft and hard at once, like steel encased in velvet, and surprisingly tasty.”
I’m not here to judge. We all have our guilty pleasures. But it’s fascinating - why does Fifty Shades of Grey succeed where so many other seemingly similar romance books haven’t? Is it the equivalent of winning the lottery, or is there an underlying pattern?
The publishing world is running off a cliff, like Wile E. Coyote suspended in mid-air. Borders went out of business, Barnes & Noble is winding down its brick and mortar presence and talented authors, editors and publishers are bemoaning the end of reading as we know it.
Yet here we find Fifty Shades of Grey , a book that is essentially fan fiction, and yet it has captured the imagination of millions of people and has become a part of our cultural zeitgeist. What I'm wondering is, “what can we learn from this book? What might books like this one tell us about the future of publishing?”
Fifty Shades of Data
eBooks are the future of book publishing. This is hardly a bold claim. Anybody can look at sales numbers and see where things are heading. In 2011, eBook sales surpassed print sales in all trade categories, and eBooks are now the most popular format for adult fiction titles.
However, the publishing world can’t fully optimize eBook sales without truly understanding the digital market. Publishers don’t know the DNA of a successful book, and they don’t know how to build an online marketing campaign without the right data. Thus far, publishing has been ill equipped to move fast enough to adapt and prosper in the digital age. Imagine running a business, and not knowing how customers use your product. Imagine running a business, and not knowing why your customers share your product with their friends, and how that predicts future sales. This is essentially the publishing world in 2012.
When I think of a future model for book publishing, I think of the model created by The Huffington Post. They fully embraced data-driven publishing for the news, with key data-driven team members like Ken Lerer, Jonah Peretti and Paul Berry. They were innovators in Search Engine Optimization. They split tested headlines and photographs. Their technology team build custom analytics tools to track traffic sources, time on site and bounce rates. They quantified reader engagement to determine the value of each visitor.
The Huffington Post has the DNA for a successful news website, and this helped them create a successful business model for news in the 21st century. Others said it couldn’t be done, and HuffPo proved them wrong.
Fifty Data Points Freed
Publishing needs a little bit of that same DNA that encourages a “hacker” culture, where data wins arguments. The publishers that figure this out will be tremendously successful and profitable, and the ones who don’t will go away.
If book publishers had a way to capture relevant data about who is reading their books, how they interact with the books, and what persuades readers to buy a book or talk about a book to their friends, they'd be able to produce successful books instead of rolling the dice when they publish.
This would allow them to create more blockbuster successes, and thus create a more successful publishing ecosystem, one that has the money to support important scholarly works or artistic achievements that don’t make a ton of money but create a bunch of social currency.
I believe we’re at the forefront of a new digital publishing revolution, one in which data-driven participants will be more successful, readers will be happier, and ideas will be more easily shared.
And I for one can’t wait to discover what exactly it is that makes up the DNA of a successful book, and finally understand why it is that everyone is going so nuts for Fifty Shades of Grey .