From The Kernel:
Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the biggest book phenomena in history. Before it became the fastest-selling book of all time, if you’d tried to market a work of incredibly explicit BDSM erotica that started out as a form of vampire-less Twilight fanfiction, you’d’ve been laughed out of publishing.
Instead, Fifty Shades became headline news around the world, outsold Harry Potter in its home country, and ushered a year-long conversation about “mommy porn” into our lives, whether we wanted it or not.
For fandom, which was suddenly and irreversibly dragged into the limelight thanks to Fifty Shades’ fanfiction origins, the cultural shift has been even more significant. The publishing industry is now learning how to contend with fanfiction, while fans are learning how to contend with the attention of the outside world. But what has largely gotten lost in all of this hubbub—in the endless think pieces about women’s fiction and erotica and endless debates about whether it’s ethical to take a work of fanfiction and adapt it into original fiction—is that Fifty Shades wasn’t alone.
In fact, Fifty Shades author E.L. James was actually only one ofhundreds of fanfiction writers and supporters within Twilightfandom who created this new erotic publishing phenomenon all by themselves.
These fans, most of them women, began by claiming ownership of their fanworks to an unprecedented degree. Then they spent the waning years of Twilight fandom forming small publishing presses and setting up shop as editors, designers, marketers, and writers to publish and sell the works of fanfiction they loved.
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The Twilight fandom publishing houses were born in controversy, and they have been mired in it ever since.
For decades, fanfiction was everyone’s dirty little secret. Fans often lived in fear of the discovery of their hobby and frequently saw their work pulled or deleted off the Internet at the request of the original copyright holder. Out of this culture of shame and secrecy arose fandom’s most binding ethical code: As long as fanfiction, or fic for short, remains strictly not for profit, it can reasonably be deemed fair use under the protection of current U.S. copyright law. Fanfiction’s free, just-for-fun status is its biggest protection against claims of copyright infringement, and it also helps create a unique and thriving gift-based fandom economy. Anything that breaks that code is met with scathing criticism from both fans and professionals, as was the case whenFifty Shades’ fanfiction roots were made widely known.
But “fanfic can only exist if it’s free” is a murky rule to abide by, particularly given numerous questions about what actually constitutes “profiting” and what constitutes “fanfic.” And most importantly, the idea that for-profit fanfic is illegal isn’t actually true. Under current U.S. copyright law, if the argument can successfully be made that a work of fanfiction “transforms” the original work, then it’s perfectly legal to sell it and profit from it.
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At San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, an audience member attending a panel on Twilight fanfiction asked the panelists if they’d tried to be published outside of writing fanfic. One of the panelists was Elizabeth Andrews, better known in Twilightfandom as psymom, owner of the then-major fandom hub Twilighted.net.
Andrews answered with an explanation of the ease with which you could take a Twilight All Human fic and turn it into an original fic. The idea is that all it takes is a find-and-replace on names and places in fanfiction to magically change them to original characters and settings. The practice Harper described has long been known to fandom. Older fandoms refer to it as “filing off the serial numbers,” implying that the only thing about the story that’s really changed is its alleged point of origin.
Traditionally, filing off the serial numbers on fanfiction was done in secrecy and solitude. Authors often acted with the illicit partnership of agents and editors who would quietly seek out fandom authors whose writing they admired to ask them to submit works that could be easily adapted to an original setting. This practice went on for decades, entirely under the radar. At the 2010 gathering of Book Blogger Con, which brought together book fans, publicists, and editors from around the publishing industry, keynote speaker Maureen Johnson polled a room of about 500 people to ask how many had heard of fanfiction. Less than half raised their hands.
Fanfiction was at the publishing industry’s back door, and few people knew it except the fans.
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On Jan. 1, 2010, Andrews dropped a bombshell on Twilighted.net: She and a group of other well-known Twilightfanfic writers had gotten together to form a new publishing company, Omnific Publishing, made with the express purpose of publishing “authors with a proven track record of online success in transformative works”—that is, fanfic.
Omnific’s proposed publishing model seemed to essentially cut out the role agents traditionally play in the industry, instead going directly to the authors of popular fanfics in the Twilightfandom and providing publishing services to convert those fics into original novels. The same day a discussion about the announcement on Journalfen provoked censure and ridicule.
“What could possibly go wrong?” snarked one commenter. Early on, there was speculation on publishing watch forum Absolute Write that Omnific was “an author collective.” Baffled users tried to figure out whether it was a legitimate publisher or not. But with a staff of editors, designers, marketers, and more, Omnific was legit, and over the coming months it followed up the announcement with the acquisition of new titles and the release of new anthologies. It pounded the pavement at romance conventions, fandom conventions, and publishing conventions. People took notice.
Link to the rest at The Kernel and thanks to Anne for the tip.