Authors who gained fame in non-traditional ways
Everyone’s path to publication follows a different route, but some people’s stories about how they got there are more divergent than others. For every author who gains fame through traditional publishing, there are more who find it themselves. These authors might have started as fan fiction writers, self-published storytellers, or even found fame through TikTok or other media platforms. The bottom line is: don’t despair! There are millions of readers looking for their next favorite book, and they don’t have to find it on a bookstore’s shelves. Here are inspirational stories of writers who went viral. The next one could be you.
E.L. James, the writer of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, found penultimate success as an indie writer. Her name is practically synonymous with erotica, improved sex lives among middle aged women, and bringing bondage to the mainstream. Oh, and money. Lots of money. She sold 125 MILLION copies of her books worldwide. She is the fastest paperback seller…ever. In 2013, she earned over $50 million dollars on books and the movie right to her stories. And she kept raking it in on royalties after that. By any—by all—measures, she is a massive success.
So, how’d she do it? By being one of the writers who went viral, of course. Her brain child started as Twilight fan fiction called Master of the Universe, which she posted both to fan fic websites and her own. Eventually she scrubbed it of all reference to Twilight and spun it into a three-book series. She published it herself through a small platform in Australia, but it spread by word of mouth and eventually she was offered a traditional deal from Vintage Books.
James captured the zeitgeist by offering something women wanted more than any of the Big Five realized. They wanted relatable erotica. By enabling her readers to read on their own personal devices by selling her books largely as e-books (this wasn’t so common prior to 2012), women could indulge without having to admit what they were reading. No book jacket, remember? She also made the rounds on book blogs and posted often to her Facebook page. Now days promotion on social media or selling electronic copies of books is table stakes. But for E.L. James? It was a combination of the right story at the right time in the right format.
Galatea’s own Sapir Englard has a pretty inspiring story of viral success too. While serving in the military in her native Israel, a bored 19-year-old Sapir whiled away the hours by working on a story that kept nagging at her. It was about another 19-year-old named Sienna who vows to maintain her virginity despite being a teenaged werewolf during her “Haze,” which is when werewolves are at their horniest. To make her promise to herself even harder to maintain, the sexy alpha of their pack, Aiden, has marked her as his own. Will Sienna’s mind or body win out? Does Aiden just want a partner for a season or is looking to mate for life? Sienna doesn’t want to compromise for anyone, unless he’s worth it.
The Millennium Werewolves books were hot sellers on Inkitt where a proprietary algorithm identifies what readers like best. Now, with over 125 million downloads, The Millennium Wolves, has made a lot of money and produces tens of thousands of fans. From there, Sapir has written even more books about these beloved characters. And hey—the algorithm doesn’t lie. Inkitt and Galtea are a newer way to publish—serialized, by the chapter—and offer readers stories that are obviously beloved. These newer types of publishing sites are producing writers who went viral.
Former law school student and advocate in a public defender’s office Olivie Blake felt emotionally drained from her work. Like many twenty-somethings, she was going through a quarter life crisis. Recently coping with other mental health issues (which she freely discusses to raise awareness), she found herself unable to sleep in the middle of the night. To cope, she started writing. Like other authors we’ve discussed today, she turned first to fan fiction. She wrote there because she at least knew there was an audience. After that, she self-published a novel about another woman in her twenties with burn out. These were her initial forays into publishing, and they generated only moderate success.
However, things changed when she put out The Atlas Six in January of 2020. It’s about six magician academics vying for position in a magical society. You know what happens next: two months later the world shut down due to Covid-19, and arguably the golden era of TikTok began. Before she knew it, Blake was becoming a bestseller. At first she had no idea that she’d become popular on #booktok because she wasn’t on the social media app herself. Soon she found out that she had fans—big fans! They were creating content that she wouldn’t have dreamed of because they loved her work.
Olivie Blake isn’t the only author who’s been found or rediscovered thanks to the addictive social media platform, TikTok. Thanks to #booktok, or the readers’ corner of the site, many books have been made popular years after their initial print run. One, a murder mystery, printed in 1934 (!) stands out as one of the oldest to hit social media infamy. It’s called Cain’s Jawbone, and it was intentionally printed with the page numbers in the wrong order. If you can figure out how they go, you solve the riddle. Pretty cool. Even cooler that it went viral ninety years later.
The truth is, there is no alchemy that will guarantee a bestseller. If there were, every seven-figure advance would earn out, and they don’t always. Heck, even J.K. Rowling had a hard time selling Harry Pottery, and we know how that turned out. There is a lot more democracy in publishing these days, whether you go indie, choose an upstart publisher like Galatea, or hook hearts on fan fiction websites. Readers love to indulge their pastime, so if you have a book to share, there are almost certainly fans in the waiting!