The official story: "Fifty Shades of Grey" was a Twilight fan-fiction that had over two million downloads online. The publishing giant Vintage Press saw that number and realized there was a huge, previously-unrealized demand for stories like this. They filed off the Twilight serial numbers, put it in print, marketed it like hell, and now it's sold 60 million copies.

The reality is quite different.

I spoke by email to Anne Jamison, author of "fic: Why Fan-Fiction is Taking Over the World", and the person who originally reported the "over two million hits" that has been widely reported as "over two million downloads". The number two million was much too large to be possible given the size of the fandom, so I asked her about it. She replied,

The "millions" numbers I had were not public; I had them from screenshots from various writers. The counts were from which, for the Twilight fandom, remained the biggest hub--most if not all stories that were also posted at and TWCS were also posted on tallies reads but doesn't--unlike Wattpad or AO3--make them public.

But for all the sites, read or hit counts are for every time someone clicks on the story--so if they click through the front page to get to chapter 37, that's 2 reads.

Fan-fiction is published one chapter at a time. "Fifty Shades of Grey" has 26 chapters, but when it was originally published on as "Master of the Universe", it had over 100 chapters.  Let's say 120.

The number of hits a person generates while reading is determined by how they read it. adds 1 hit every time any page of the story is reloaded. If you go to chapter 1 and read all the way through to chapter 120 in one sitting, that's 120 hits. If you log in, see it updated, go to chapter 1, and then go from there to the new chapter, that's at least 239 hits to read the book. If you refresh the page, that's another hit. (I just verified this myself by refreshing one chapter of one story of mine 3 times on, checking the stats before and after.) If you read half of one chapter one day, and log in again and finish it the next, that's at least 2 hits. If you leave it in an open tab on your computer, that's 1 hit every time you open your browser. If you reread the story, the hits double. If you click on the story each day to see if it's updated, hits go way up.

The number of people who finish a multi-chapter fan-fiction is, surprisingly, almost always 40-60% of the number who clicked on the first chapter, with the very best reaching 60%, and the misspelled, grammar-free, plot-free, alphabet-soup-vomit of ten-year-olds retaining about 40%. I've checked this on a large number of stories on, which records readers per chapter based on username and so avoids double-counting. The quality of a story has very little impact on whether someone who started reading it will finish or not.1

So two million hits on a 120-chapter story means a theoretical maximum of 2000000 / 121 = 16,529 readers finished it, assuming half of all readers quit after chapter 1. More likely, given re-readings, users who always go in through chapter 1, users who quit halfway through, browser refreshes, etc., perhaps 4,000 readers finished it. That would be about as many as finished a pretty popular story on The Twilight fandom had a larger fan base, so I don't find that number at all impressive.

So what actually happened was that a moderately-popular fanfiction that had been read by a few thousand people was reported on in a way that misled publishers into thinking that it had millions of readers, when really, it just had an unusually large number of chapters. They put a major marketing campaign behind it. And since 40% of readers will finish anything, absolutely anything, that they have started reading, they sold millions of copies. Just as they would have with almost any book they'd marketed as heavily.

 1.  This percentage range applies only to stories found by fans through the site itself. The exceptions are not exceptionally good stories, but astonishingly bad stories--89% of readers finished this piece of crap. I think this is because people aren't looking for good stories, they're looking for the sort of thing they want to read. Some people want to read very bad stories, and such stories are easily identified from their descriptions.

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So what actually happened was that a moderately-popular fanfiction that had been read by a few thousand people was reported on in a way that misled publishers into thinking that it had millions of readers, when really, it just had an unusually large number of chapters.

Trying to prove that someone acted stupidly, when their allegedly dumb actions were followed by tremendous success, generally makes for a weak case, even if you're right. You take on the burden of showing how their success happened in spite of their stupid strategy.

You attempt to meet this burden here: "They put a major marketing campaign behind it. And since 40% of readers will finish anything, absolutely anything, that they have started reading, they sold millions of copies." But this logic is far from tight. You showed that "enough people finish reading whatever they start", but what you really need is "enough people buy whatever is heavily marketed."

Your argument that the publishers' strategy was stupid would be stronger if you found a similar case where the publishers bet big on the same strategy but lost.

As Eliezer once wrote, "I try to avoid criticizing people when they are right. If they genuinely deserve criticism, I will not need to wait long for an occasion where they are wrong."

In the publishing industry, it is emphatically not the case that you can sell millions of books from a random unknown author with a major marketing campaign. It's nearly impossible to replicate that success even with an amazing book! For all its flaws (and it has many), Fifty Shades had something that the market was ready for. Literary financial successes like this happen only a couple times a decade.
To my mind the counter is: if a big marketing campaign alone is enough to sell books, why bother with the rest of it? Couldn't you form a more competitive publisher by accepting scripts at random and not bothering with editing?
Well, even the best marketing campaign couldn't make a bestseller out of a book that was so low-quality that virtually everyone who read it would hate it and consider it total garbage. I think you underestimate how bad the typical manuscript really is.
People could notice the pattern. "Oh, another novel by Random Script Publisher. No, thanks!" You could keep changing the name of your company, though.
Yeah, even if the publisher would know the numbers are misleading, it would still be a sensible strategy to pretend to believe them. It would be a bet that no one will be interested in the mathematical details, maybe except for when it will be already too late.

She replied,

The "millions" numbers I had were not public; I had them from screenshots from various tallies reads but doesn't--unlike Wattpad or AO3--make them public.

I don't understand what this means. How can she have screenshots of E.L. James's official view statistics, if does not make the numbers public? Did James hand them out freely to 'various writers'?

Or, do you/her mean 'I have statistics from various random other Twilight fanfic authors'? That's interesting, I suppose, but I'm not sure what to make of that.

Yes, maybe the way tracks page views implies that 1 million page views translates to perhaps 4k complete readers of that fic, and so if we assume 'Master of the Universe' had 1m page views in total and was the only source for it, then it had 4k complete readers before it was published as the book 50 Shades of Grey. OK, but why would we assume that? The whole point is that it was an amazingly popular breakout best-selling phenomenon practically without precedent, so why would we think its readership was just like the other relatively popular Twilight fanfics (none of which became NYT bestselling books)?

... (read more)
She had screenshots that various writers had sent her. I infer that James was one of those writers, but she didn't say that outright.
That's the basis for your 2 million number, the number which largely determines the result, some guesswork about something your source never says and probably would have said if it was actually the case? Then the entire analysis is bunk - garbage in, garbage out. And you should especially not infer that low number of total pageviews when everything else disagrees with it.
You can send her an email and ask her yourself. She came up with the 2 million number for this particular story; she said she came up with numbers for stories based on screenshots. It isn't too hard to connect the dots.
Give me a break - why should I have to do that when a plain reading suggests otherwise and you're the one trying to make these sweeping generalizations based on your own guesswork?
Fanfiction writers are writers. That's who the "various writers" are. EL James is a writer. If the average reader leaves 2.7 comments, and the story had 37,000 comments at the time when people started writing articles about it, I certainly accept 10% of readers leaving comments--the % is lower on most stories--which would indicate 137K readers by that time. But all that is guess work, whereas it is a fact that that a 70-chapter story with 2 million hits can only have been read in its entirety by at most 28,571 people. That's the theoretical upper limit. I suppose it's barely possible that as many as 15,000 people read it on, but no more than that. And most readers, according to Jamison, read it on
And how would she know?
She was there. She was an active member of the community when the story came out.
Being an active member of the community does not grant knowledge of statistical regularities like you need it to for the argument to work. There is no way she can know 'most' readers read it there, because most readers will never say anything and there will be differences in who does say things - the readers that an author hears from are not random readers, to say the least.
The number of reviews that you're trying to infer more readers from is also from The 2 million hits are also from There are no numbers from anywhere else. I've already demonstrated that it's theoretically impossible for there to have been even as many as 29,000 readers at that time on, and you're apparently still claiming there were 127k on It's your analysis, not mine, that's been debunked here.
A "review" on is a comment. Many readers who leave comments, leave one on many chapters or even every chapter. A reader saying "MOAR PLZ" on chapter 1 and "OMG LOL" on chapter 2 counts as 2 reviews. Oh, I see you know that. I'm interested in your data on average # of reviews per user. 2.7 seems low. I checked this number by downloading all the comments on HPMOR today for chapters 1-4 by hand, extracting the usernames into one username per line, and comparing line count of that file to line count of sort -u . The result is that, in chapters 1-4, the average user left 1.48 comments. It therefore seems unlikely to me that it could be 2.7 over the entire story. But these distributions are non-intuitive. Extending this to chapters 1-8 I get no increase in average comments per user; it changes to an average of 1.45. A command to do this with downloaded chapter comments pages from is for i in `ls hpmor*`; do echo $i; perl -pi -e "s#<a href='/u/\d+/.+?'>(.+?)</a>.+#\nQZW USER=\$1#" $i; grep "^QZW USER" $i >> u; done; sort -u u > u.uniq; wc u*
Um... I am well aware of that, and already dealt with that in my analysis. So, any response to any of my other points? EDIT: when you edit a comment which has been replied to to substantially address that reply, please don't do that. It may seem low; nevertheless, when I downloaded all of MoR up to ch82 or whatever it was up to when I did that analysis, that was the average count. You can reuse my provided scripts if you doubt it. I don't find it too hard to believe: there's high reviewer mortality, and I noted that people tended to leave reviews on either the first chapter or last chapter and avoid middle chapters, so ch1-4 would not be a representative random sample. EDITEDIT: Yep, like I said. Reviews are very non-uniformly distributed; besides the start/end effect for completed fics, there's also the accumulation of reviews on the latest chapter, where chapters posted right before long hiatuses accumulate more reviews than chapters which are part of regular update periods.

The title's a lot funnier if you s/as/of/.

Agreed. Done. Thanks!
What does "s/as/of/" mean?
Replace the word 'as' with the word 'of'.

That's the colloquial meaning. To do that with a real regular-expression operation you'd also want terms to match word boundaries; ignoring those to do something foft hof nofty side effects.

Right. It is not originally programmer jargon, but something teachers use when marking essays. It also isn't meant to be applied throughout a text, only on one instance of that word, which would be on the same line as the correction.
Assuming s is short for substitute, it would make more sense for it to be s/new/original. It's kind of annoying how people say "substitute x for y" when they mean "replace x with y".
This isn't necessary in this particular situation, as the string "as" only occurs once in the former title. (I checked.)
That's more of a problem with s/foo/bar/g than s/foo/bar/

Interesting analysis, and somewhat surprising.

The number of people who finish a multi-chapter fan-fiction is, surprisingly, almost always 40-60% of the number who clicked on the first chapter, with the very best reaching 60%, and the misspelled, grammar-free, plot-free, alphabet-soup-vomit of ten-year-olds retaining about 40%.

Huh, that's unexpected.

perhaps 4,000 readers finished it.

I understand the calculation, but it seems very low, are you sure you haven't missed anything?

So what actually happened was that a moderately-popular fanfiction that had been read by a few thousand people was reported on in a way that misled publishers into thinking that it had millions of readers, when really, it just had an unusually large number of chapters.

If this was enough to get published, Worm would have been by now (not a fanfic, much better story, more readers, active online discussion and fanfic groups, large enough to be serialized into 10+ volumes). Yet from what I understand Wildbow has not had a single editor/publisher approach him yet.

I suspect that, while an inflated number of readers might bring a story to the attention of a decision maker in the publishing business, it is but one of many many factors going into a major decision like publishing a manuscript. 50SoG was simply lucky to get picked up, and lucky to do well. So the "self-fulfilling prophesy" bit is a big stretch.


I didn't really intend to discuss this any further (because it's not like I care in the least about Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray qua Twilight/50SoG), but a random link on Reddit turned out to be relevant and give some more of the backstory, which if accurate explains a lot:

...FSOG got a shitload of karma. Ask me how! Well, the short of it: Erika [Leonard James / E.L. James] is a marketing professional. The long of it:

  • Erika made reposts of already-proven-popular content
  • Erika posted short updates to the story very frequently, keeping it at the top of the story search list
  • Since people could give 'karma' (reviews) for every single chapter/update, the more chapters a story had, the more karma it had

FSOG had 80 [edit: was actually 110] chapters. That means that a lot of people actually reviewed that fucking thing EIGHTY times. So even if she had only 100 super loyal readers, that's 8,000 [edit: actually 11,000] reviews (think upvotes). People see a story with 8,000 reviews and want to click it to see what all the fuss is about. I think it had something like 20,000 revi

... (read more)
50SoG was also written by someone IN the publishing business. So, once again, it's not what you know; it's who you know.
Probably, though I am not sure that "a former television executive" counts as being in the publishing business.
Fair enough, but I think for 'people with connections to get something pushed through', it still counts.
Depends on whether she used her connections. Did she know media people who wrangled her a personal invitation to talk to a book editor and shop her fanfic around, or did she get picked out of the slush pile or contacted independently with no particular connection to happening to be a former TV exec? (I don't know much of anything about how 'Master of the Universe' became the published '50 Shades of Gray'.)
But more likely is that a television executive simply has their finger on the pulse of the type of garbage that the average person enjoys (and is willing to pay for either with dollars or their attention to advertisements).

This belongs in Discussion, not Main. It's barely connected to rationality at all. Is there some lesson we're supposed to take from this, besides booing or yaying various groups for their smartness or non-smartness?

Downvoted for being trivia on Main.

This is about the rationality of society. It is about how opinions are formed. The idea that the market works by editors identifying books people want, and then being rewarded for their good judgement, was false in this high-profile case.
Which one of these do you claim? * the editors failed when identifying this book as "people want", since it only sold tens of millions * the editors weren't rewarded for their good judgement * since not every single person on Earth likes it, it should not be allowed to reach those who do * there is no market for romance novels
None of the above. See the title of the post.
Understanding why which memes spread in society is important for rationality.
I am not sure what exactly is the lesson here. This is one data point, but what is the proper generalization? The lesson for the publisher seems to be: always double-check the data; and if you don't understand what exactly they mean, ask an expert. The lesson for the author seems to be: wait until there is a wildly successful product that no one really understands why is so popular (Twilight), then create something that seems similar and pretend you have data that people will like it even more. But make is sufficiently different to avoid a lawsuit. The lesson for the meme seems to be: make people believe that many people have seen you and liked you; then they will also want to see you. Once. Perhaps Alicorn or someone else could write a rationalist vampire novel that does not include characters nor events from Twilight (but with a lot of sexual tension, because that's what Twilight really is about, and 50SoG doesn't even pretend to be anything else), and we could make a campaign for the book, and then Alicorn would have more money, people would have more sanity, and LW would be happy to accomplish something huge in the offline world.
No in this case the publisher made a lot of money with the book. Case studies are a good tool to understand things on a qualitative level. The value of a case study doesn't depend on whether you can generalize it message into a single sentence. If you want a one sentence generalisation you however could go with: "Books become best sellers for pretty random reasons that have little to do with quality of the actual book."
I imagine were it anyone else, it would be. But the author is willing to argue ad nauseam about Main versus Discussion, so it's much less drama just to let it be.

Some of us don't let drama steer our lives. Moved to Discussion.

I wish you the best, meyven.

Just as they would have with almost any book they'd marketed as heavily.

Data point #2: Eragon, which is better known for having being written by a 15-year-old than for being an especially good book, but has gone on to sell lots of copies anyway. (According to what I've heard, it's good enough to be entertaining to young people who are new to reading epic fantasy, but it's no better than any of the other fantasy books out there.)

I read an article about Eragon before I'd ever heard of it; apparently his parents were small-book publishers or something, and went around promoting his book heavily. I found this rampant nepotism and an example of how media success is not a meritocracy, but I decided I should read the book before I jumped to negative conclusions about it being a bad fantasy book whose success represents the triumph of luck & marketing - after all, maybe the dude was a prodigy. So I read it and.... it was a bad fantasy book: the writing was clearly immature & inexperienced, and the setting/plot practically plagiarized Tolkien in a number of places. The author is no Brandon Sanderson, to be sure. Even the Sword of Shannara pulp fantasy series is better.
Interesting fact about Brandon Sanderson: He finished writing seven novels before any of them were published. (This is why Elantris doesn't read like a first novel - it wasn't one.)
That's a very generous way of putting it. I picked it up off the bargain shelf not realizing the age of the author. The plot is totally derivative and every character speaks in the same, implausibly stilted voice.
Incidentally, I once very much enjoyed a book written by a twelve-year-old.
How old were you when you read it? I loved the MacDonald Hall books when I was little, but I don't know how well they'd stand up to a more critical eye.
Probably somewhere around 12 myself. Looking back at the series, the characters are indeed paper thin, but the jokes are still funny.
Axe Cop comes to mind, even though it was a partnership with one (very in the beginning, now noticeably less so) junior partner.

"The publishing giant Vintage Press saw that number and realized there was a huge, previously-unrealized demand for stories like this."

It's the "previously-unrealized demand" that I simply don't understand here. The numbers for romance novels took seconds to look up.

74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. (source: RWA Reader Survey) with an estimated $1.350 billion for 2013. If the author did indeed write 120 chapters, it shows that the author has the ability to produce for the publisher. Taken together with the above average number of online readers, I can't see how this was a case of pulling the wool over the publishers eyes so much as the publisher being particularly good at finding material for their readers.

To me, it seems the demand was being realized just fine.

This seems highly exploitable.

Anyone here want to try to use these bogus numbers to get a publisher to market their own fanfiction?

I'm interested, but who reads Captain Planet fanfiction these days?
As someone who has occasionally pondered how a Captain Planet Rationalfic might work (I even had a dream that tried to munchkin powers and villain plots, but it was riddled with dream-generated rules), I'm guessing "less than I'd like, dangit." It'd certainly be a fun topic for /r/rational, IMO.
For a start the villain who is powered by nuclear waste should be used in a cooperative fashion to do waste disposal. Then he doesn't need to keep attacking reactors.
Yes, absolutely! There was even one episode where he and Dr. Blight held Captain Planet hostage so the Planeteers would bring him a lifetime supply of nuclear waste, when he could have just spent a weekend in France. I imagine a rational Planeteer would try to determine precisely what does and doesn't qualify as "polluted" for purposes of their powers. Oil spills are bad for marine life, but would it be sensible for "too high a concentration of hydrocarbons x, y and z" to count as polluted? Then again, their powers aren't particularly reductionist: "earth" is a category of materials, hydrokinesis that cares about water content would need to contend with salinity and plankton, and "heart" is an incredibly high-level interface for emotions and neural processes, even across species with very different brains. (Wind suffers the same problems as water, but fire can get away with being a thermal energy hack.)
What would you do about MAL, the very unfriendly AI?
Yes. What's the market for a Transformers / GI Joe / MASK / Robotech / G-Force / Star Blazers crossover?
I'm still waiting for the Gurren Lagaan / Warhammer 40k / HPMOR crossover
I thought it was just Rationalist!Gurren Lagann/Warhammer 40k.
So it was. I'd also like to see a Rationalist! Godel Escher Bach / Call of Cthulhu / Beatrix Potter slash crossover.
The goat with a thousand bunny rabbit young may itself be an idiot but the behavior of the bunnies constitutes a hive intelligence that has refined tastes that extend to counterfactual television, in which they view what we call real life, and life on Earth will be ended when they change the channel?
Deep beneath Mr. McGregor's radish garden, a Great Old One sleeps fitfully, feeding upon the psychic energies of a tortoise in a waistcoat, who, to win the forbidden love of a robotic hedgehog, has gone meta enough to faintly reflect the Old One's psychic energies. Ry'leh's infinite depths plumb but one degree of madness, and there are infinitely many more...
You hit the three continuities, but I'm not seeing the rationalist connection. For that matter, I don't see it in mine either, except in that it's a simulationist setup, which is weirdness-exercise but not directly rationalist.
I think the big problem is the "filing the serial numbers off" part of it. I never read "Masters of the Universe", but it seems to me that it didn't actually involve all that much in the way of vampires or werewolves. Whereas if you had a fic about time traveling robots, a human resistance from the future, and UFAI, it would be really hard to get people to believe that it wasn't Terminator. Or if you had a story about a superhero who works as a reporter and his evil genius nemesis, people are going to see that it's Superman unless you file the story away so hard that you'd be better off rewriting it from scratch. The best way to go about it seems to be to just start with a story that doesn't rely too heavily on whatever canon you're working with, so that once you have the readership, you can make the jump without having to refactor too terribly much.
I wrote what could best be described as a proto-rationalist Sailor Moon fanfic. Bear in mind that it's really old--I last worked on it around 2000 and it predates even HPMOR. It doesn't try to sell rationalism, but it has Sailor Moon do things that make sense. I never finished it but I got to the Doom Tree story.
You could even tell the publisher how your fanfiction has as much readers as 50 Shades of Gray had before it was "found".

The analysis is fascinating but the conclusion (including the title) doesn't seem to follow. It would be a mistake to attribute a significant amount of the success to poor calculations by a few fanfic commentators when more standard explanations are possible.

They put a major marketing campaign behind it. And since 40% of readers will finish anything, absolutely anything, that they have started reading, they sold millions of copies. Just as they would have with almost any book they'd marketed as heavily.

You don't create the fastest selling book of all t... (read more)

+1 for excellence in interesting original research!

I see a major flaw here that I have to point out.

The pitch to the publishers was absolutely a fabrication of true readership of the fan fiction, that is fair call. But to say that any book with the same amount of marketing would reach the same level of appeal is short sighted.

Simply, the book had the X-factor. The story was provocative, sensual, shocking and ultimately all elements contributed to it's appeal. People talked after it was published, people talked about how it effected them and that raised awareness with the millions of people who were u... (read more)

The number of people who finish a multi-chapter fan-fiction is, surprisingly, almost always 40-60% of the number who clicked on the first chapter, with the very best reaching 60%, and the misspelled, grammar-free, plot-free, alphabet-soup-vomit of ten-year-olds retaining about 40%.

That means that if you want to write a successful nonfiction book, you don't have to optimize for getting a reader to finish the book but have to optimize for the reader telling other potential readers about the book so that they also start reading.

My vague impression is that Fifty Shades of Grey is popular beyond what you would expect just given a big marketing push by a major publisher.

My vague impression is that Fifty Shades of Grey is popular beyond what you would expect just given a big marketing push by a major publisher.

It's the first BDSM soft porn book that was given a big marketing push by a major publisher. That made it "OK to read" for a large number of people who are interested in what they think of as "kinky sex" but do not allow themselves to actually go and read obvious porn.

Another display of Asch's conformity at work?
What do you mean by "soft porn book"?
Um. Nothing special, just plain meaning of the words. What are you asking about?
And what do you think the plain meaning of the words is? "Soft core pornography" is generally understood to refer to video or photographs of people who are naked but not having sex (and that's not the "plain meaning" of the words, but common idiom). My understanding is that the Fifty Shades of Grey book does not contain any photographs, and the people in the book do in fact have sex.
Some people are easily sexually aroused by pictures, some by words. Stereotypes say that men usually prefer pictures, and women prefer words. Also, if the product is too obviously designed for the purpose of sexual arousal, that is considered low status. So, the trick is to create a book sexually arousing enough that it will increase sales, but not too much so that it would reduce the status of customers; we need some plausible deniability that the customers are buying a piece of art. Twilight plays it safe, Fifty Shades of Grey tries to push it as far as possible.
Indeed they basically made up the term "Erotic Romance novel" to game this.
Porn is not limited to just images, of course. There is a lot of porn in the form of text. The location of the boundary between soft and hard porn is an interesting question which probably does not have a single "correct" answer. I tend to think of hard porn as being interested exclusively in clinical detail and specific particulars while having little pretensions to being an art form. Soft porn is less single-minded and, um, less hard-edged. I don't think that "just naked" vs "having sex" is a deciding factor.

Very interesting. I'll think about writing fan-fiction and milking the dying cash cow that was traditional publishing but probably won't because my conscience holds me back from decieving them.

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What does it mean for people to be looking for bad stories? Isn't the most obvious metric for quality how much it satisfies people's desires? Does your metric depend on the author's state of mind (e.g. if people enjoy a book, but for reasons other than what the author intended, that makes it a "bad" book)? Are you appealing to some abstract Form of what literature Should Be?

Whether or not someone enjoys a book and whether he finishes the book are two separate things.
You are implying that PhilGoetz is saying that people seek out stories they won't enjoy. How does he know that? If people are seeking stories out, and finishing them, that doesn't definitely mean that they are enjoying it, but it certainly does strongly imply it.