Fifty Shades of Grey: letting others do the sex talk for you

It has been dubbed ‘Mummy porn’ – and praised for rescuing marriages. But what is certain is that Fifty Shades of Grey has become the fastest-selling novel in the UK.

Fifty Shades of Grey, published by Random House
Fifty Shades of Grey, published by Random House

People might pick up the book because they hope they are going to be titillated by the sex scenes they have heard about, the publisher Random House admits. But it has focused on it as a fiction phenomenon when marketing it, rather than using sex as a selling point.

Laurence Festal, deputy marketing director at Cornerstone Publishing, part of Random, says: “Our marketing has not been about sex at all, it has been about the discovery of a book that everyone is talking about.

“We took the book to a mainstream audience in a mainstream way. We have tried to replicate a recommendation. Very often you come to books when friends recommend them.

“There is nothing raunchy about our ads, we have just used packshots and a plain background. The book is quite classy and very discreet in a way.”

On billboards and online, the advertising uses the line: “Discover the book that 20 million people can’t stop talking about.”

Much of the marketing uses Twitter and Facebook. Vintage Books, also part of Random House, used social site Get Glue to help publicise the book in the US when it launched there, before its UK debut.

“We used social media as a research tool to start with and then we applied our findings to developing a UK strategy which also used social media,” Festal says. “We treated Twitter as a place where influencers and the chattering classes go, where things get started and where word of mouth starts.

“On Facebook, we wanted to create a hub where all the fans could congregate and not direct them but be part of their conversations and share information with them.”

Facebook is where people often congregate during and after reading the first book – Fifty Shades of Grey is the first part of a trilogy, followed by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Free – and Twitter is often where people comment having read all of the series in quick succession.

Festal claims that 44 per cent of the followers of the official Fifty Shades Facebook page comment whenever the publisher posts an update – far higher than most pages. At the time of writing, it had more than 287,000 likes and about 114,000 people talking about it.

Using social media also gave Cornerstone an insight into who was reading the books to start with – mainly women aged 35 or over – which Festal says is information the publisher wouldn’t normally have.

This is partly to do with the fact that the rights to the book were bought from Australian independent digital publisher The Writer’s Coffee Shop, so there was already online chatter around the book before it was launched in the UK. The marketing campaign was created quickly to capitalise on the fact that the publisher thought the book was likely to be sought after.

Festal claims that most of the chat on forums has been about the book’s main characters and their romance, rather than the nature of the sex scenes in it.

“There is a real difference between what readers are saying, and the debates the press have gone into. The readers are very much talking about the characters and how they identify with them or not. They are interested in the relationship and in the US they will talk about the love story a lot. It is a certain type of love story but it is a love story.”

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