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Why Fan Fiction Is The Future of Publishing

10 February 2015

From The Daily Beast:

Not long ago, fan fiction was considered by the publishing world as little more than the literary equivalent of an annoying copycat little brother. But what was once viewed as either uncreative, a legal morass of copyright issues, or both, is now seen as a potential savior for a publishing industry still finding its moorings in the age of digital media.

This sea change can be attributed almost entirely to Fifty Shades of Grey, the E.L. James erotic romance that began life as Master of the Universe, a serialized riff on Edward and Bella from Twilight, first published on fanfiction.net. As it gained popularity, James took it off the board, changed the names of her characters, and sold it as an ebook from a small Australian publishing company. Eventually Vintage Books, a subdivision of Random House, picked it up and Fifty Shades of Grey would end up spending over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, with the trilogy selling north of 100 million copies, and a blockbuster film adaptation on the horizon.

Traditional publishing houses have been forced to catch up to a suddenly mainstream genre once considered purely niche. “Fan fiction has absolutely become part of the fiber of what we publish,” Gallery Books publisher Jennifer Bergstrom told The Washington Post in October. “This is changing at a time when traditional publishing needs it most.”

. . . .

Other popular sub genres of fan fiction include “real person fiction,” which star thinly disguised actual people—the lads from One Direction are particularly popular here—as is “slashfic,” a genre that focuses on characters having homosexual relationships, and has its roots in fans reimagining the Kirk/Spock dynamic from Star Trek. Others imagine “alternate universes” or AUs, often where supernatural or magical characters are forced to live the mundane lives of everyday people. The gang from the Harry Potter appears regularly in all of the above.

It makes sense that J.K. Rowling and Twilight-creator Stephenie Meyer are among the most permissive authors when it comes to allowing other writers to borrow their characters. Others, like Anne Rice and George R. R. Martin, abhor the concept. As the A Song of Ice and Fire author put it, “It’s a lazy way to go when you’re just taking my characters.”

It can also be a confusing pond for publishers to wade into. One person’s Death Comes to Pemberley—a bestseller in which crime writer P.D. James imagines a mystery set in the world of Pride & Prejudice—is another person’s copyright infringement. “The line is not clear between inspiration and fan fiction,” saidAshleigh Gardner, content head of Wattpad, one of the more popular online forums for fan fiction along with fanfiction.net, and archiveofourown.org. “It’s very much about how the author self-identifies their work.”

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast and thanks to Meryl for the tip.


56 Comments to “Why Fan Fiction Is The Future of Publishing”

  1. I would be quite disturbed if someone took my characters and did bizarre things with them. It would ruin my “franchise” and I would quit writing that series.

    • But would you be as upset if they wrote about the couple across the street that would have fit right into your story if your characters had noticed them? That to me is the best of the fan-fic, it adds to but in no way breaks from the original ‘story’. (I’ve actually seen a couple cases of the fan-fic getting readers into the stories that they sprang from.)

      • Yes, Allen, that would upset me if my characters appeared in someone else’s work without my approval as to content/tone/morality/ethics. Yes.

        I’ve done the heavy lifting creating this world.
        Thank you for loving mine so much but go create your own world and your own characters.

        • Oh, I don’t know your world well enough to want to play in it. (I didn’t mean to imply I was planning on stealing from you.)

          The universe I do dabble in I do with the original author’s permission, and he does have the right to point out when/if I’m stepping over that canon line. (As his own stories are also ongoing, it’s been interesting watching a few of my ideas make it into his stories as well …)


          For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.

          Art is either plagiarism or revolution. — Paul Gauguin

          The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. — Albert Einstein

        • I’ve done the heavy lifting creating this world.

          You should consider lighter pens.


          Further on Allen’s quotes above:

          “Immature artists borrow. Mature artists steal.” -Trilling, as later stolen by Eliot. Or vice versa! Who knows?

          • Heh, I had that one in my list too, but figured I’d get banned if I started giving you guys walls of bad quotes! 😉

        • While I appreciate an author’s decision and fanworks policy and always respect an author’s fanworks policy, that response misses the entire point of fanfic.

          Fanfic is a response to something I read. Just as most people rewriting fairy tales do so because they have something to say about that fairy tale. I cannot create my own fiction to talk about yours without it falling under the umbrella of fanfic. The only way I could do that would be if your work were public domain, and then it would still be fanfic, just probably not labeled as such.

          I wouldn’t fanfic your work because you don’t want it done, but I create my own worlds all the time and still want to respond to the stuff I love in fic. I’m hardly the only one. There a ton of PRO authors who do the same.

          • Just curious Liana… when people say they are authors on TMV, I usually go to Amazon to look at their work and often buy. re amazon to look at your work, there are 8 items and most seem 28 pages long, with one 66 pages? Is that the length you usually write to, or are all the items up on amazon short stories? Just getting to know you better. Thanks.

          • I haven’t finished a work over 22K that I’d put out there. Most of my work is under another pen name (not sharing), but yes, most of my work is short. Dowse and Bleed at 10K is closer to where I’m aiming my new stuff, but after writing poetry and flash fic only for three years, I’ve been very slowly relearning how to write at length.

          • Thank you Liana, I understand better now!.Good luck to you!

    • Personally, I live for the day I find fanfic of my work. To stir someone so much they feel they need to respond that way… what a reward!

      • Yes! I really do live for it.

      • Devin,

        Ya know, that’s a really sweet thought.

        You brightened my day.

        Very kewl.


      • Trust me, it’s a strange feeling the first time you have someone ask if they can reference your character/setting in their story (even more so if the sample they sent looks like something you might have written had you been thinking along those lines! 😉 )

        I’ve had a couple people ask and do it well, but I’ve also had the ones that Barbara has every right to fear, the ones that will gleefully twist the character(s) into something you no longer recognize (like the alternate universe star trek Kirk …)


        If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. — Albert Einstein

  2. P.G.

    I know it’s free and all that, but my tripe still gets 1000+ readers per month on FFN.

    With some embarrassment, I note that the PWP filth I wrote in response to a challenge from other FFN writers gets 60% of the above total.

    I guess we all like muck:)

    Archiveofourown.org has some really, really strange stuff. It is an excellent platform-I’m just a little concerned about the very odd stuff it has up there.


    • AO3 has more variety overall because it’s easier to upload fic for tiny or nonexistent fandoms and to run challenges on, and challenges prompt more rare and/or outlying fandoms.

      • I found that one because I thought of a very obscure type of fan fiction that had popped into my mind. Sure enough, it was already there.

        And yes, I will spare you from telling you the idea because it will scar your brain.

      • Also, AO3 has the some of the best “discoverability” on the internet. Half the time I end up there because I can actually find something good to read easily.

        • Amen and Amen. Their tagging system is fabulous, and the whole site is very clearly designed by people who also use it on a regular basis. Plus the calibre of writers who post stuff there is phenomenal.

          • Yes, to tagging but also Kudos, Bookmarks, “sort by” options, Pseuds, Series, download options, Subscribe (By Story, Author or Pseud),public hits, etc. If only Amazon would just implement half of the AO3 feature set!

            Honestly, when it’s time to read something I’ll enjoy, rather than reading something for “work” (keeping up on what’s new in a particular genre or reading a “great writer”), I only end up on Amazon when I don’t find something new on AO3.

            I do also think that Fanfic writers do get to cheat. The reader already knows the basics (Character, setting, general setup). They can jump right into an interesting take on characters you already like.

          • Yes exactly, to all of that. The only thing they don’t have that I wish they would include is exclusionary criteria, so I can eliminate options I’m not interested in. Other than that I’m a huge fan of the site.

  3. I think translating fanfiction into a profit for publishing houses is not “just add water.”

    Strikes me as a culture that is primarily focused on free content.

    • You might be surprised. Fans are willing to spend a lot of money on what they love and are just as often academics, scholars, and more. The difference is they are willing to own up to the fact that they borrow and homage and interrogate other fiction and sources in their own. Most writers do, but few dare call it fanfic.

      • I’m curious how publishers could leverage that. Take Konrath. I know he opened up his books to co-writers, based on his approval with an agreed-upon profit share.

        So, if a publisher has the rights to your books, can they then allow fanfiction to be published and cut you out of the deal?

        Or the question of the books written about real people – such as the one coming out about the One Direction guy with the name changed. Does he have any recourse if it’s commonly known that the character is a stand in for him?

  4. What they’re thinking is that if they find a nugget like 50-shades in that vein face, there very likely are more. It might have been crap (imo, ymmv) but money talks.

  5. This is an interesting topic, as many well-established franchises have been kept afloat by what really ought to be considered fan fiction. Look at the Star Wars extended universe and the Ultimate Marvel comic book line–both of which are basically in-house fan fiction.

    While I think it’s a bit overblown to call fan fiction “the future of publishing,” I think it will be a much more recognized presence in for-profit storytelling in the future.

  6. Honestly, some of the best stories I have ever read are fanfiction. Yeah, some of it is strange but I really wish people would stop fixating on that, just like they fixate on the strange fanart, and neglect the fantastic creative work that also exists. Retelling and reimagining existing stories has been going on for as long as humanity has existed, it’s part of the creative process.

    If you’re looking for how creators and fan communities can work together to further creativity on both sides, look at the show Supernatural. There’s a vibrant fan fiction and fanart community surrounding the show, and the actors and writers have drawn ideas from that community within the canon. It’s a symbiotic relationship and I can’t see anything “lazy” about it.

  7. The Archive of Our Own was developed after yet another “strike-through” at Live Journal, where people’s sites, and all of their entries and comments, were deleted without notice. Fans decided they needed a place where that wouldn’t happen, so they developed Archive of Our Own, which is a fan fiction archive, as well as the blogging platform DreamWidth. Both are run by fans for fans.

    If The Powers That Be think that the Archive and other repositories of fan fiction are somehow a well for them to dip into for profit, I think that they completely misunderstand the nature and purpose of fandom. As Chris A. points out, fandom is primarily focused on free content, and the idea of giving away fan-created works for free is the structure and backbone of the community.

    That’s not to say that fans don’t file off the serial numbers and re-purpose the work for sale in the “pro” world, because they do. But the secret is, they’ve been doing it for years and years, with the idea that it’s better to keep private the fandom from which the work originally came.

    That Fifty Shades can be directly traced to specific characters seems rather iffy to me. What if the writer of Twilight determined to sue? Or is the idea that it’s best not to sue your fans the high road being taken?

    You know, the world keeps turning, and I sometimes fail to run as fast as needed to keep up, but I take umbrage at the idea that fan fiction is seen as the ” potential savior for a publishing industry.” As if some publisher can reach in and raise up a fan fiction author and say, “YOU! You I will make famous!”

    Don’t they get it? Fan fiction is subversive! Folks who write fan fiction are taking the banal offerings of commercial entertainment and reworking it to their own needs and desires, and having the best time giving it away for free! That’s what’s making the industry crazy, it’s free! It’s all free! And if a fan fiction author wants to go pro, because they’re already subversive and independent, they’re more than likely to publish it themselves. So good luck, trad pub, going after that. Fandom already knows the heady feeling of determining their own path, and if some folks think the results are out of control? It’s too late. The whole thing has been out of control since the early 70’s.

    • Chris, you write: ‘That’s not to say that fans don’t file off the serial numbers and re-purpose the work for sale in the “pro” world, because they do.’

      Yes. I’ve done it with a three-book (or more? who knows?) contemporary romance series.

      • Thank you, Deb, for the support.

        I think as a writer it’d be hard not to borrow from here, and take a little from there. When you read, you absorb the story, the characters, the words – and when you write, you have different filters in place, and what you’ve absorbed appears on the page, in some form or other.

    • I agree with you, Christina.

      I’ve written my share of fan fiction, many years ago (Star Trek TOS), and used to read stuff at fanfiction.net. Some very good stuff, some truly horrendous stuff, but done for the love of the characters and the world they live in. Not for money.

      50 Shades should have never been published, in my opinion. But, Stephanie Meyer seems to be okay with it, so not my concern.

  8. I hope those thinking of Kindle Worlds don’t take this article to heart.

  9. It can also be a confusing pond for publishers to wade into. One person’s Death Comes to Pemberley—a bestseller in which crime writer P.D. James imagines a mystery set in the world of Pride & Prejudice—is another person’s copyright infringement.

    I think this also highlights how well — and in some cases, poorly — the internet and copyright play together.

    Like Reinhardt alludes to above, a lot of franchises are akin to “fan fiction.” Sherlock Holmes just passed over into public domain, as a character. One could argue that Holmes as not written by Conan Doyle is fan fiction — which would mean all current incarnations of the character are.

    I often had a similar reaction to so-called “fan-fiction” as Barbara above. But lately I wonder how much it’s a misnomer. I mean, I guess Superman comics aren’t fan fiction because they’re officially sanctioned/owned by DC (kind of unfortunate), but surely all the comics writers who write Superman stories are fans of the character. Heck, I always figured I’d avoid fan fic because I have characters of my own, but then the first story I wrote in grad school featured C. Auguste Dupin investigating the death of Edgar Allan Poe. Later I had an idea for a screenplay I couldn’t write because it sort of would have featured characters from a play.

    I’d love to write a novel or two set in Jay Gatsby’s universe. I’d love to rewrite the endings to both Supernatural and The Dark Tower. I’d love to contribute more to literature — which is really more akin to a conversation than a monologue, anyway, and is arguably better for that.

    In fact, one of the biggest qualms I have about corporations is their owning the rights to artists’ work. Who lost more to illegal downloads — Metallica or their label? When Neil Gaiman wanted to quote a Blur song for American Gods, their label wanted the equivalent of $100 per word for the use. And whenever I see authors use quotes from either other books or songs in their novels, I always see stuff like “reprinted with permission from PRH” or something — never “reprinted with the author’s permission.”


    • I honestly can’t see a difference between Shakespeare using characters from mythology in his plays and modern fanfiction writers, other than the relative chronological proximity between the original story and the new one. (Also I hope no one goes with the “quality of the writing” dodge because that’s manifestly untrue if you’ve spent any time looking for good fanfiction. I found a story where the fanfic author’s version of Marvel’s Loki was both more compelling and made much better sense of his actions in the movies than the official version, just to name one example.)

      • Fair point. Really it’s likely mostly a question of copyright as well as the chronological proximity you mention. Heck, speaking of the Bard, my favorite movie is Shakespeare in Love, which one could probably argue for as an example of fan fiction.

        • I agree the copyright issue is sticky, and I should probably have stated that in my head that was part of the chronological proximity I was thinking about.

          Interestingly, I think Shakespeare in Love qualifies as Real Person Fiction (depending, of course, on if you think Shakespeare was real, but I’m not getting into that), which is one of the categories that a lot of people are especially wary about.

  10. I started out in high school writing fanfiction to things that I had to wait for – mainly Harry Potter (began writing fic for that in the three year gap between GoF and OotP) and also Smallville, in between seasons. I learned a lot about pacing, structure, and conflict by posting these stories. Most of them got added to the site a chapter at a time, and a few of them are unfinished because I moved on from the stories by working on my own originals, or I just couldn’t find an ending to a few of them. If anyone’s looking for some angsty Harry Potter or a Smallville crossover, check out a few of mine here: https://www.fanfiction.net/~superguy.

    I don’t really see many downsides to letting fans write fanfiction. In most cases, it’s harmless practice and flattering. Where it becomes a problem is when a fanfiction becomes published by the author and the plot is so derivative that it is essentially a carbon copy of an existing franchise with new names. I saw this with The Mortal Instruments, though the series sorted itself out in future books. Most times fanfiction is just for pleasure, and I’ve been entertained by a lot of the stories I’ve come across.

    However, from the author’s perspective, it is smart to ignore the fanfiction and not get sucked in by other people’s ideas. GRRM is right to not allow fanfiction of his work because he is a pantser, and it would be horrible to read a fanfiction and then see in future books that he basically was influenced by someone else’s imagining of his own story.

    • a Smallville crossover

      This is a really interesting point, too. Technically, Smallville is just official DC fan-fiction, no? Because it seems like copyright is the only thing that makes it okay for only writers hired by DC to write Superman.

      I mean, provided, copyright is a pretty big thing.

      But it’s also arguably in a lot of ways a pretty flawed thing. I mean, it’s really kind of sad that Simon & Schuster has copyright over The Great Gatsby.

      • True enough, Will. Smallville could be “official” fanfiction, for sure. Essentially the writing team was able to pick and choose parts of the original Superman mythology and build up their show. They did a lot of twisting, for instance making Clark and Lex into friends so that they could later have them turn into enemies. I really, really enjoyed the show. However, they did not have complete access to everything owned by DC. At one point, they were denied the ability to use Lois Lane in any capacity. Thankfully that got sorted out in later seasons. So, there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes to keep that show running with new content. There was also a scuffle with the descendents of the original Superman creators, claiming that the show infringed copyright for portraying “Superboy” which was not licensed for television. The WB had to prove that their portrayal of Clark as a kid was not borrowing from the “Superboy” comic series.

        Lots of technicalities involved in even “official” fanfiction.

  11. Fan Fiction Is The Future of Publishing?

    Now that’s a scarey thought!

  12. Honestly, some of the best writing I’ve ever read has been Mass Effect, Harry Potter, and Halo fanfiction on ff.net. Are these works canon? Absolutely not, as the authors remind their readers nearly every chapter. That doesn’t make any of their work any less brilliant, and of those that have gone on to publish original works I’m happy to say their original works are just as good as the stuff they started out with.

    It’s no surprise that all three fanfiction communities for the franchises I read have been embraced by their IP creators. The activity of creative fanfiction publishing and sharing not only gives fans a creative outlet, it keeps franchise enthusiasm alive.

  13. I’ve written “fanfic” for profit in and out of Kindle Worlds. To me, it’s quite a bit harder than writing wholly original material. When I do it, I attempt to expand the author’s world–often by developing the story arc of a minor character–and always by being completely true to the rules of the universe.

    I’m in the middle of writing a time travel novella commissioned by Kindle Worlds. Believe me, I would find it much simpler to start from scratch and set up my own parameters, but that’s not an option. It’s like an intricate puzzle… creating a fully fleshed-out story that fits into a predefined space. Fun, but complicated!

    • I appreciate this comment, because even though I’m not a writer, of original or fanfiction, I have always gotten the impression that writing someone else’s characters would be difficult. Especially in active fandoms, readers are very aware of when the character’s voice isn’t quite right, so it would seem to be quite the challenge to nail it. I’ve read some AUs that place modern characters in historical contexts, and vice versa, and I imagine the challenge of blending character voice and period dialog makes it even harder.

      • Amen! I don’t even touch AUs until I have better than a handle on canon-compliant fic. As for reading them, it’s very easy for characters to go OOC (out of character) in a total AU and I backbutton very hard on that.

      • I was incredibly fortunate to begin writing fanfic in a very supportive fandom. I not only developed my skills, I got the opportunity to be professionally published in that same fandom. Beth is completely right, getting the characters’ voices true is the hardest thing, and you know your audience will pick up the tiniest divergence. Writing original fiction is much easier in that regard.

        As for AUs, I’ve seen some fantastically imaginative works created, some that even excelled the original creation. In the Magnificent Seven fandom (tv, not movie) one author wrote a small piece with the seven characters as ATF agents in a contemporary setting. That writer declared her creation an ‘open universe’ which has spawned an enormous number of stories, easily rivalling the old west genre. All these stories are written because the authors love the original source, and for many, they put a huge effort into their writing. My all time favourite fanfic is a Mag7 story, so thoroughly researched and beautifully written it shines above many trad-pubbed books I’ve read.

        Re. AO3, It was created in response to a corporatised attempt to take fanfics and publish them – to the sole profit of that company, not the authors and not the original creators. It’s run by some very, very savvy people – publishers beware!

      • It can be quite hard to write someone else’s character — and get it right! What is much easier is to read what the writer has already given you for that universe/worldview and write in a couple (or more) characters that also live there. That’s how I got started, creating the warm bodies/ships/location in that universe, but not doing more than faint references to the main characters from the original story. I also wrote it in such a way that I didn’t break/counter anything already done/said so the main story didn’t have to acknowledge anything that happen in my story. (That is, until something my character did that turned out to be useful for the main story’s plot! Since then the two stories have ‘bumped’ into each other a couple times, but you could still skip mine and not lose anything of the main tale.)

        The challenge comes in deciding I’d like to see if I can self-pub my silly story. The biggest problem is the main tale isn’t that widely known, so I need to add enough ‘info’ of the universe for the reader to understand it (before you might have found me while looking for other stories set in that universe — so you already had a frame of reference to work with.)

  14. I am really looking forward to the day fans start writing their own fictions about my sublime detectives. Some of the stories might turn my stomach if I read them and some might make me say, “oh, that would never happen” but I would get a real kick out of the fact they liked the world enough to swim around in that alternate reality for a while.

    When it comes to making money off of their stories based on my characters, that’s another thing. Something like Kindle worlds would be a good way to ensure there was a proper economic balance. As well, if, let’s say, someone from Netflix or Hulu or Amazon wanted to make a series out of the series (dream big), that would be a wonderful sort of properly compensated fan fiction. I hope they cast Richard with an actor as hot as I imagine him to be.

    As for FSoG starting off as fan fiction, I might have enjoyed the series if Grey had been kept as a vampire. I can forgive fictional romantic sociopathy in vampires, not people.

  15. I probably never will, but I still want to write “Viola in Love” in which she returns, badly scarred and emotionally battered, from the colonies to London and searches out her (now widowed) Will.

    Of course, his wife Anne outlived him, but since this is a complete cobbledegook of a story, I think I’ll bump her off much earlier…

    I can taste how it might go. Alas, the Tudor centuries are not where my studies have taken me, and I’d probably have to research the period and all until I’m dead.

  16. One successful example of ‘fanfic turned professional’ is the 1632 universe by Eric Flint. The Grantvill Gazzette is a bi-montly electronic magazine that now is paying professional rates for stories and there is an annual hardcover (which is ‘best of’ plus a couple stories now) A number of authors who started in the GG have now published full novels in the universe.

  17. I wonder if parodies and erotica about the Hobbit as akin to furry mascot fetish, are fanfic. After all, Micky Mouse did x rated whatever. Would that be considered fanfic today? Or is fanfic supposed to be serious/mannered? Sorry dont know enough about it. Although Brahms based his Rhapsodies on folk music of the people, is that fanMusic?

  18. I think fan fiction means you’ve created characters people can’t stop thinking about. That’s when I start writing, when I can’t stop thinking about about a character in a situation. Mostly my own creations, but occasionally other’s characters. Some fan fiction is written so AU that if the names were changed you’d never know it was fan fic. Creativity should be praised no matter what form it takes, IMO.

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