At least 50 Shades richer: How EL James made £20million in 18 months

Eighteen months ago no one had heard of Londoner Erika Leonard – or EL James to use her pseudonym – but the woman who invented “mummy porn” is now raking in almost £1million a week. Yes, that’s £1million a week. So, how did she do it?

Last month ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ became the best-selling book in Britain of all time. More astonishing is that it began as a “self-published” book, a route to market traditionally taken by less-talented authors who failed to secure a publishing deal.

James’ story goes to show that the enhanced royalty rates offered by self-publishing can mean successful writers can end up very rich very quickly.

James, a TV executive and married mother-of-two, began writing erotic stories in 2009 when she posted ‘Twilight’ fan fiction online.

Originally titled “Master of the Universe” under the pen name Snowqueen’s Icedragon, the stories featured Twilight characters Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. As the stories became more erotic James removed the work from fan fiction sites and published them on her own website.

These stories became ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and sequels ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ and ‘Fifty Shades Freed’, an erotic trilogy about a female college graduate and a billionaire businessman featuring bondage, dominance and a spot of sadism/masochism.


‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was first released as an e-book and print-on-demand paperback in May 2011 by The Writers' Coffee Shop, an Australian virtual publisher.

James went on to self-publish the book on Kindle Direct Publishing, a self-publishing business run by Amazon with e-books being sold for reading on Kindles. It was a strategy that worked – readers that might have been embarrassed to be seen with a ‘racy’ novel, bought it online and read it electronically.

Paperback versions of the book only hit the shelves in April after the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy was the subject of a bidding war and James signed a seven-figure deal with Vintage books, part of Random House.

The novel remains more popular as e-book than a hard copy; the Kindle edition of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is currently outselling the print book at a rate of more than two to one.

Website Celebrity Net Worth (CNW) has reported that James is now earning £850,000 a week in royalties with combined total worldwide sales of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy now around the £20million mark.

James has also been paid $5million (£3.2million) from Universal/Focus Features for the film rights to the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy.


Not the only success

Another well-known self-publisher is Amanda Hocking - who wrote 17 paranormal novels, including ‘My Blood Approves’ and ‘Hollowland’, that were all rejected by publishers. So, in spring 2010 she began to self-publish them as e-books. Less than a year later she’d sold well over a million copies and earned around $2million (£1.3million).

So, if making millions from self-publishing is so easy why don’t we all do it? Well, for starters you have to write a book. Secondly, it has to be at least quite good. And thirdly, without the marketing department of a publishing house behind you, you’ll need to promote and advertise the book yourself.

Writing is a labour of love and takes discipline and devotion and although some authors have sat down and written a complete novel in a month, it generally takes a lot longer than that.

Publishing it yourself

Assuming you can pen a decent story, self-publishing can be seen as an attractive option as getting published the old-fashioned way is so hard.  Publishing houses receive thousands of manuscripts a day and reject most of them. And even if your novel is accepted it can take a long time to make it into print with various rounds of editing and adjustments.

In the past self-publishing meant the author paid for the printing of their books then hoped they sold. Print-on-demand meant a copy of the book was only printed after a copy had been ordered.

The development of Kindles and other e-readers mean a book doesn’t have to be printed at all to be “published”; it can simply be downloaded online.

Kindle Direct Publishing is one of the most popular options for authors self-publishing online. Others include Lulu.com, CreateSpace and Blurb.com.

Kindle Direct Publishing offers two levels of royalty: 35% and 70%. The different options have different rules. For the 35% option the minimum list price is 75p. If your book is between 3 and 10 Megabytes the lowest price you can sell it for is £1.25 and more than 10 Megabytes £1.49.

The 70% option has a minimum price of £1.49 and maximum £7.81. It also has more strings attached concerning list pricing and the actual sales price.

To match sale prices at other online stores, Amazon often sells books at a lower price than the list price. So if you set your book at £5.99 and Amazon adjusts the price to £2.99 to match a price on a rival website, the author will only get 70% of £2.99 when a copy is sold.

The 35% royalty option doesn’t operate this way. The publisher always gets 35% of the list price.

Amazon also deducts a fee for delivery on the 70% option with a price of $0.15 for every megabyte it delivers. Because delivery charges don’t apply on the 35% option it might be better to select the 35% option if you have a large book.

What most authors make

But before you spend the next two months holed up in your house writing a novel, bear in mind the odds are against you making millions this way.

Writers’ website Taleist.com recently released a report into the self-publishing phenomenon, tellingly titled ‘Not A Gold Rush’.

It surveyed more than 1,000 self-publishing authors and found that the average earnings are around $10,000 (about £6,370) a year. But that figure is heavily skewed by the top earners; the top 10% of writers are earning around three-quarters of the total revenue, while 50% earn less than $500 (£320).