Fifty Shades of Grey certainly seems to be taking the publishing world by storm, catching imagination not so much for the content but for what it represents. On the Bookseller’s FutureBook blog, Agent Orange turns up his (or her?) nose at the reading public’s taste (or lack thereof) in making such a work popular, but adds:

What is far more worrying for the business is how completely the Fifty Shades story encapsulates the perilous position the traditional elements of the business are in. This is a book that no agent would have thought to represent had it arrived in the post as an unsolicited manuscript – at least not in its current state. And even if there had been an agent to send it out, no publisher would have commissioned it. If any book could be designed to make publishers and agents feel insecure and irrelevant this would be it. They must be laughing in Seattle.

The Fad of Fanfic

Unsurprisingly, given the fad-driven nature of publishing (and, indeed, major media in general), this has resulted in a good deal of interest in fan fiction. Perhaps as one result, not one but two major articles on the medium came out today—one in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. The Journal gives an overview of fan fiction in general, looking at published authors who started out writing fanfic, some of the major genres, the question of legality, and authors’ reactions to fanfics based on their works. (Galleycat collects an index of relevant links to things discussed in the article, making up for the WSJ’s habit of not linking.)

Of particular note in the Journal article is the reaction of Orson Scott Card to fanfic, who has altered his mindset 180 degrees on fanfic relating to his own works, going from hating it to loving it. (A writer for Card’s magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, interviewed me for an article on fanfic (Part One, Part Two) in 2006.) Card plans to host an Ender’s Game fanfic contest with the winners collected into an anthology that will be an official part of the Ender’s Game universe canon.

"Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book," Mr. Card says. "What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?"

The other is a guest piece on Publishing Perspectives by Say Books publisher Anna von Veh, who discusses her own discovery of fanfic, followed by the discovery of a publishable writer within the fanfic-writing community for the TV show Castle. For the publication of the writer’s original story, Say Books undertook a fanfic-like model in which the story was posted serially in return for donations, with people who donated $5 or more getting a copy of the e-book at the end.

von Veh writes:

In publishing today, we can no longer rely on selling individual products that may or may not succeed. Fanfiction suggests another way: a model based on the web, based on the ideals/ideas of community, which encourages readers to interact with authors, editors, designers, perhaps where they can contribute photographs and advertise wares (if related to the story), etc. The online presence also means that publishers have tools such as Google Analytics available, providing real-time statistics of engagement and traffic. A subscription model allows publishers to get early revenue for the author (and themselves) and early marketing too. Tweeting each day about the latest chapter is also a way of marketing the book beyond the subscribers themselves.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in both articles about what drives people to write fanfic, and whether it’s legal fair use (the WSJ article claims that “Most experts agree that fan fiction qualifies as fair use under copyright law, provided that it differs substantially from the original and its creators don’t attempt to profit from it.” I wonder what experts they talked to?), and whether owners of fanficked franchises should “sue their customers.” (See also this TeleRead post about a possible idea for “making fanfic legal”.)

Is Fanfic “Legitimate”?

Elsewhere on Publishing Perspectives, editor Edward Nawotka poses the question of fanfic’s “legitimacy” as a genre. (He’s actually using the wrong term here, just as people were back in the ‘90s when they called anime a “genre”. Like anime, or like any pro- or self-published fiction for that matter, fanfic is a medium, which spans a broad number of genres.) I think that casting it in terms of legitimacy or illegitimacy to some extent misses the point. Fanfic writers don’t really care whether they’re “legitimate” or not. They’re not writing for “legitimacy”; they’re writing for other fans.

And as for the copyright violation issue, most fanfic writers don’t really care about that either, Oh, I don’t mean they don’t care in the same sense pirates do, in that they don’t care if the creators make money. Indeed, many fanfics start with disclaimers stating that they don’t seek to challenge the copyright or trademark ownership of the material they’re using, and even specifically asking people to go buy the original source material because I love it enough to write this fanfic.

But in fans’ eyes, they’re not really a threat to their object of adulation. They’re not trying to make money from it (except in certain edge cases involving morons), and they doubt that anyone would really care enough to sue them anyway. And they’re moved more by the impulse to write what they love than by the legalities. (I think that any published author, even those who hate fanfic, must surely recognize the strength of that creative impulse. If they didn’t have it themselves, they wouldn’t be published authors!)

For myself, I think that the desire to write fanfic springs in some part from the same desire for subcreation that leads writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien to create entire worlds of their own to play in. The appeal of a well-created world to read about can be just as beguiling to write about and to add your own twist. And sometimes the characters you read about or watch can take up residence in your own head, and you can see them doing other things that the original authors never intended, and you just want to let them out.

I was involved in on-line fanfic when it was just a few stories posted to e-mail and Usenet, and I’m as surprised as anyone at the way it has mushroomed into the global web-spanning phenomenon that it has. It’s a testament to the web’s pow

er to link solitary people from all over the world into single globe-spanning virtual communities united by a common interest: even if there’s only one person who cares about writing fanfic of Perfect Strangers in your entire city, and that person is you, you can still meet, hang out, hold regular discussions with, and share fanfic with any Larry and Balki fan on the Internet.

In the end, billions of words have been written in thousands of fandoms, most of them plastered all across the web for anyone to read for free (but any individual bit of it terribly hard to find unless you search specifically for it—the same problem as self-published books, in fact!). It’s not surprising that publishers might want to mine it for new publishable treasures.

In Fanfic’s Shadow: Original Internet Fiction

But that said, I think that the faddish focus on “fan fiction” misses half the story, because ever since the Internet has been a thing there has been original fiction on it published as well: shared worlds that writers create by or between themselves, and others come to love enough that they want to write in as well. (It’s very much the fanfic impulse, just that in this case your “fanfic” can easily become part of the actual canon of the thing you’re fannish about, rather than lurking on the fringes.)

I participated in a number of such writing circles myself back in the mid ’90s—,, Undocumented Features, Robotech: The Misfold (which I also organized and edited, but alas never finished), and Superguy Listserv. They were a great way to meet and collaborate with other cool people, critique each other’s writing, and interact in a way that was more free-form than writing by oneself but more structured than role-play. (See the rest of my “Paleo E-books” series for more detail.)

The development of the web, wikis, and collaborative text editing apps has made this sort of thing even easier, and there are still plenty of such circles around (for example “Paradise” or “Chakona Space”). It amused me to find professional writers such as Elizabeth Bear rediscovering this format with her (and her friends’) “Shadow Unit”, or Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear (no relation to Elizabeth) with “Mongoliad” and thinking they’d come up with something new.

Unlike fanfic, many of these universes are completely original, and there’s nothing preventing their print publication save that the authors just couldn’t be bothered until now. (Some of the authors have self-published; search on Amazon for “Chakat” sometime and see what you get.) I think that these are the sort of places publishers ought to be looking for their next Fifty Shades.


  1. What! People writing on the Internet and no mention of ‘National Novel Writing Month’ ? Where every November tens of thousands of people on the Internet attempt to write something, hopefully coherent (Sturgeon’s Law applying in spades), 50K words or longer?

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail