Fifty Shades of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

post by PhilGoetz · 2014-07-24T00:17:43.189Z · score: 18 (33 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 87 comments

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.

87 comments

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comment by gwern · 2014-07-24T18:45:21.338Z · score: 21 (23 votes) · LW · GW

She replied,

The "millions" numbers I had were not public; I had them from screenshots from various writers...Ff.net 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 FF.net official view statistics, if FF.net does not make the numbers public? Did James hand them out freely to 'various writers'?

Or, do you/her mean 'I have FF.net 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 FF.net 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 FF.net 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)?

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.

Interesting approach, but I think this is a severe underestimate because you don't take into account censoring, the two alternate sources of readers she had before she published the book, and inferring readership from reviews gives a radically different conclusion.

To quote from one of your links:

I have a copy of it ['Master of the Universe'], but the original has been removed--so it is hard to reconstruct how the community responded to the book. It was released serially, and I believe it had over 37K reviews when it was taken down for its ffnet terms of service violations (they don't allow explicit content, although this rule is widely violated and unenforced). It then moved on to the author's own website. But reviews represent only a fraction in readership--it varies, but maybe only 1 in 10 readers review--but that was spread out over 100 chapters, and people tend to review regularly. Authors themselves can see all these stats, but readers can't.

Master of the Universe also had a post on Twilighted, another big fanfiction site. This site is by application only, and it features lots of interaction with authors. So, the reality is, we'll likely never know for sure how many readers it had--but certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands. It was a huge story.

So there's some problems here: the FF.net data is severely censored by the takedown; the FF.net review data seems to be inconsistent with your estimated total readership (every single reader would have to leave 2 reviews to make 16k readers match 37k reviews!); and it was 1 of 3 sources of traffic.

Actually, the 37k review figure itself seems to be a severe underestimate; http://twilightcupcake.wordpress.com/2010/02/19/fanfic-friday-master-of-the-universe/ is a post from when 'Master of the Universe' was still available on FF.net, and the author comments:

This story has over 40,000 reviews!...Happy reading, it’s on chapter 70 and worth every minute of it.

So, if the story had >100 chapters and it had >40k reviews by chapter 70, then on chapter 100 its review count would look more like >57k than >37k. At 120 chapters, it'd be >69k. (EDIT: apparently it was actually 110 chapters? Close enough, I'm not going to revise all the numbers.)

(It's hard to be more precise as it seems all the relevant sites have been censored from the Internet Archive, and the people with copies apparently didn't bother to dump the raw FF.net pages such as all the reviews.)

How many readers does >69k reviews translate into?

Now, as it happens, I earlier did some FF.net review analysis for MoR; the median user who ever left a review on MoR did so only once (which is consistent with your estimated attrition of ~50% completers) and the mean of reviews per user is 2.7. So that lets me estimate how many reviewers there we, given the total # of reviews, which gives me an estimated number of reviewers being >25.3k (divide by 3).

The rule of thumb seems to be that <10% of readers will ever leave a review (you could probably get a better number with Fimfiction.net analytics but I don't know how well that would compare to Twilight fics on FF.net, especially if, as you say, the more awful the story the more people complete it), so to get total readers I multiply by 10 to get >253k.

Then for complete readers, following your estimated 50% attrition, that's >127k readers - on FF.net.

If the reads on her site and then 'Twilighted' were comparable (and remember, the FF.net figures are heavily right-censored due to the takedown, and it didn't have as much chance to benefit from developing buzz & word of mouth), then multiply by 3 to get >381k complete readers.

And >381k completers is very different from your estimated >4k; it does not tell the story you tell. Given all this, it seems like the title is unwarranted and this does not demonstrate the irrationality and randomness of media markets the same way as experiments like the 2006 study "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market" and Salganik & Watts 2009 do.

(A good try overall, but you probably should've read your sources more carefully and done a little more homework before trying to use it as a case study of such claims.)

EDIT: see also the comments by a Twilight fanficer excerpted in http://lesswrong.com/lw/kl3/fifty_shades_of_selffulfilling_prophecy/b61d ; particularly note the higher estimate of how many millions of page views top-tier Twilight fics got, the calculated marketing by the author and reuse of the original fans to boost the book, and what the auction revenues imply about number of fans.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-05T17:25:15.709Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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

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.

comment by gwern · 2014-08-05T18:17:51.032Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-11-04T06:17:16.714Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by gwern · 2015-11-04T19:34:29.639Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You can send her an email and ask her yourself.

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?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-05T17:38:31.039Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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 ff.net, but no more than that. And most readers, according to Jamison, read it on ff.net.

comment by gwern · 2014-08-05T18:17:52.301Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But all that is guess work...And most readers, according to Jamison, read it on ff.net.

And how would she know?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-11-04T06:18:28.999Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

She was there. She was an active member of the community when the story came out.

comment by gwern · 2015-11-04T19:33:43.438Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-12-01T15:32:29.120Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The number of reviews that you're trying to infer more readers from is also from FF.net. The 2 million hits are also from ff.net. 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 FF.net, and you're apparently still claiming there were 127k on ff.net. It's your analysis, not mine, that's been debunked here.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-05T15:56:41.560Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So there's some problems here: the FF.net data is severely censored by the takedown; the FF.net review data seems to be inconsistent with your estimated total readership (every single reader would have to leave 2 reviews to make 16k readers match 37k reviews!); and it was 1 of 3 sources of traffic.

A "review" on fanfiction.net 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 fanfiction.net 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*
comment by gwern · 2014-08-05T16:06:53.194Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A "review" on fanfiction.net 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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2014-07-24T16:44:51.492Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

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."

comment by Gavin · 2014-07-25T19:01:15.838Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by lmm · 2014-07-25T08:32:40.471Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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?

comment by Vulture · 2014-08-06T23:28:36.564Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-25T10:22:24.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

People could notice the pattern. "Oh, another novel by Random Script Publisher. No, thanks!"

You could keep changing the name of your company, though.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-24T19:32:40.930Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by shminux · 2014-07-23T20:43:55.987Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by gwern · 2014-07-29T17:31:18.872Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

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: http://www.reddit.com/r/TwoXChromosomes/comments/2byz2l/many_women_do_not_agree_with_me_on_this_subject/cjaqvmi

...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 reviews when it was pulled down for publishing.

Hence, FSOG went viral.

To put into perspective the social power of the Twilight fanfic community, consider this:

There was a fandom-run charity auction to benefit pediatric cancer research. These auctions, held annually, lasted 1 week. That's it. Just 7 days. Mostly authors would auction off stories. So if you donated in my name, I'd write you 10,000 words of porn in my Tattward universe, or something new, etc. That's how it worked.

  • The 2009 auction raised $80,000.
  • The 2010 auction raised $140,000.
  • The 2011 auction raised $20,00.

This charity has raised more than $230,000 in 3 weeks. http://www.alexslemonade.org/mypage/19842

Erika participated in the 2010 auction. A story from her fanfic (FSOG) raised $30,000 of that, all by itself. In some chats made public by another author (that's some quality drama: http://gentleblaze.livejournal.com/), Erika freely admits to not wanting to participate in the charity at all, but felt pressured to do so by her readers.

...(Edit: Another fun fact! Erika's going to publish that story she wrote for the charity auction, for profit.)

But now, with the ability to connect the social power of the community with a monetary sum of her story's worth, Erika shortly thereafter decided to publish.

She then leveraged the community's sense of nostalgia and loyalty, urging everyone to buy the book and give it good ratings, so as to see 'one of their own succeed in the publishing world'. There were multiple campaigns from her friends (tens of thousands of what she only saw herself as 'fans') to blast her Amazon page and send the book up the ranks. It of course worked.

Once a (genre fiction) book gets to #1 on Amazon's bestseller list, you're done. Mission accomplished. Book and movie deals to follow. Enjoy your money.

...There's also a great reason why the 2011 charity auction made so much less money. Because after everyone saw Erika publish FSOG and make bank, they all wanted to do the same. Not really many popular stories left to leverage social currency--it's all going into their pockets. Most of those really popular fics (including the two mentioned here [The Submissive and Clipped Wings]) have since been published and done quite well.

...Seriously, Twilight fandom got really crazy big for a few years there. It was not totally uncommon to get multi-million clicks on a semi-popular story. It's weird looking back on it and calling it "Twilight fandom" because it was really more like "Romance Novel fandom"

...Actually, the fandom's pretty much dead now compared to how it used to be. After FSOG's success and everyone started publishing their own fanfic, stories would only stay online for as long as it took the author to complete them, then they'd take them away (sometimes they'd even post half and ask people to buy the book to get the ending), so people were either wary of reading new stories, or just didn't have any old ones around to read. Then you also get authors who come to the fandom and post their original novels, with the names changed to Edward and Bella, get a bunch of reviews and recognition, then publish it for pay.

Also, Twilight fandom now has multiple micro-publishers. Basically sites that used to archive fanfic now also publish 'books'. What they do is keep an eye on what stories get popular on their archives, then go to the author and offer to publish it for them. They slap a shitty cover on it, do minimal editing (change the identifiable Twilight names) and then take a significant portion of the profits.

The whole community is one giant scam these days.

comment by ialdabaoth · 2014-07-23T21:01:34.998Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

50SoG was also written by someone IN the publishing business. So, once again, it's not what you know; it's who you know.

comment by shminux · 2014-07-23T21:10:53.028Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Probably, though I am not sure that "a former television executive" counts as being in the publishing business.

comment by ialdabaoth · 2014-07-23T21:35:31.553Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough, but I think for 'people with connections to get something pushed through', it still counts.

comment by gwern · 2014-07-24T19:50:38.843Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

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'.)

comment by Chef · 2014-07-23T23:59:46.122Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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).

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-23T16:35:38.584Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

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

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-07-23T16:45:16.314Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed. Done. Thanks!

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-07-24T07:20:29.840Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What does "s/as/of/" mean?

comment by tut · 2014-07-24T07:25:50.951Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Replace the word 'as' with the word 'of'.

comment by roystgnr · 2014-07-24T15:31:05.281Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by tut · 2014-07-24T15:52:51.691Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-07-26T05:51:32.974Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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".

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-24T17:17:03.036Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This isn't necessary in this particular situation, as the string "as" only occurs once in the former title. (I checked.)

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-24T16:46:18.082Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's more of a problem with s/foo/bar/g than s/foo/bar/

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-07-24T16:13:54.621Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks.

comment by pjeby · 2014-07-23T23:22:47.702Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-07-24T01:06:40.839Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Jurily · 2014-07-25T05:51:13.740Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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
comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-05T16:00:57.798Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

None of the above. See the title of the post.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-24T10:21:53.315Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Understanding why which memes spread in society is important for rationality.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-24T19:18:29.867Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-25T08:36:51.451Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

No in this case the publisher made a lot of money with the book.

I am not sure what exactly is the lesson here. This is one data point, but what is the proper generalization?

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."

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-24T00:04:07.842Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2014-07-24T00:18:32.882Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

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

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-24T00:51:22.401Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wish you the best, meyven.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-07-24T02:25:03.308Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

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.)

comment by gwern · 2014-07-24T18:52:23.640Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-07-24T23:56:33.809Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.)

comment by Prismattic · 2014-07-24T03:02:39.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

but it's no better than any of the other fantasy books out there.

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.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-07-24T04:28:57.736Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Incidentally, I once very much enjoyed a book written by a twelve-year-old.

comment by roystgnr · 2014-07-24T15:21:04.033Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-07-24T23:49:11.914Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Probably somewhere around 12 myself. Looking back at the series, the characters are indeed paper thin, but the jokes are still funny.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-24T16:48:00.333Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Axe Cop comes to mind, even though it was a partnership with one (very in the beginning, now noticeably less so) junior partner.

comment by Chef · 2014-07-23T23:54:50.228Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"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.

comment by Skeptityke · 2014-07-23T16:58:12.974Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This seems highly exploitable.

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

comment by ialdabaoth · 2014-07-23T20:49:50.496Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. What's the market for a Transformers / GI Joe / MASK / Robotech / G-Force / Star Blazers crossover?

comment by Algernoq · 2014-07-24T01:16:36.230Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm still waiting for the Gurren Lagaan / Warhammer 40k / HPMOR crossover

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-24T16:42:32.827Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I thought it was just Rationalist!Gurren Lagann/Warhammer 40k.

comment by Algernoq · 2014-07-25T01:35:47.621Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So it was.

I'd also like to see a Rationalist! Godel Escher Bach / Call of Cthulhu / Beatrix Potter slash crossover.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-25T14:43:51.397Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

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?

comment by Algernoq · 2014-07-26T03:50:41.803Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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...

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-26T20:50:46.898Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-07-23T19:27:08.878Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm interested, but who reads Captain Planet fanfiction these days?

comment by CAE_Jones · 2014-07-24T16:22:40.819Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2014-07-24T21:24:21.387Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by CAE_Jones · 2014-07-24T22:22:54.863Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.)

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-07-24T22:12:52.532Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What would you do about MAL, the very unfriendly AI?

comment by alexanderwales · 2014-07-28T14:57:26.429Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by arromdee · 2014-07-26T01:00:33.745Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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. http://www.rahul.net/arromdee/fanfic.html

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-24T10:24:48.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You could even tell the publisher how your fanfiction has as much readers as 50 Shades of Gray had before it was "found".

comment by wedrifid · 2014-07-24T23:04:38.955Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

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 time by picking a random manuscript and advertising heavily. It "Just" isn't possible to achieve such extreme results with 'almost any book'.

Moreover, the most important part of marketing is understanding what product the market will be easily persuaded that it wants. In this case they chose a story that takes a particular kind of wish fulfillment power fantasy had by a huge audience and expresses it in a pure and blatant form. This is not something that the publishers were not familiar with.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-07-25T05:38:38.537Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-07-25T14:38:15.191Z · score: 9 (8 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-07-26T06:04:01.949Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by "soft porn book"?

comment by Lumifer · 2014-07-28T15:46:45.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by "soft porn book"?

Um. Nothing special, just plain meaning of the words. What are you asking about?

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-07-29T02:16:50.210Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-07-29T09:12:07.570Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-08-04T08:34:10.704Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

Indeed they basically made up the term "Erotic Romance novel" to game this.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-07-29T04:02:01.255Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by AshwinV · 2014-09-27T13:13:48.136Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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?

comment by Axiom · 2014-07-27T11:15:39.582Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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 ultimately affected (some of which have never actually read the story, like myself). I live in Australia and from my perspective the book was never marketed as "read by millions online first as a fan fiction and now published as a big, rock-hard book".

It was the content of the story and how that resonated within society which ultimately lead to it being so huge. The X-Factor, you see it in all facets of the entertainment industry niches (I know I work in the industry). You may even find that if 50 shades of gray were released 10 years ago that it would never have gained such acclaim at all because we as a society may not have been so engaged with it's content.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-26T13:09:28.495Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by David_Gerard · 2014-07-24T09:47:19.332Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

+1 for excellence in interesting original research!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-14T05:55:10.653Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-07-26T06:00:30.018Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-07-26T13:13:26.719Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Whether or not someone enjoys a book and whether he finishes the book are two separate things.

comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-07-29T02:31:27.238Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.