Fifty Shades of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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 fan­fic­tion.net which, for the Twilight fan­dom, re­mained the biggest hub—most if not all sto­ries that were also posted at Twilighted.net and TWCS were also posted on ff.net. Ff.net 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 fan­fic­tion.net 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. fan­fic­tion.net 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 fan­fic­tion.net, 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 fim­fic­tion.net, 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 fim­fic­tion.net. 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.