Fifty Shades of Grey and the decline of the publishing industry
April 22, 2012 | 11:49 pm
Related to the Kristine Kathryn Rusch post of earlier today comes an interesting series of posts on the blog Obsidian Wings about the Twilight-fanfic-turned-pro novel Fifty Shades of Grey.
In the first part, blogger “Doctor Science” summarizes a long post and follow-up elsewhere by Tom Simon on the overall decline of the publishing industry. The overall point is that publishers (though I suspect he’s talking mainly about the Big Six publishers here, not smaller or independent publishers) are providing a whole lot less value than they used to in return for what they take. But Science also links to that “publishing is a button” post by Clay Shirky I covered the other day (Rusch also mentioned it in a part of her post I didn’t blog), and adds:
Shirky says this in an interview about “social reading” that doesn’t mention fandom. But E.L. James shows that he should: 50 Shades came from fandom, and it’s the perfect storm of fannish “innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text”: beating publishers not at their own game, but at the game they didn’t realize they were playing.
The second part basically lines up exactly with what Rusch said earlier. Fifty Shades was created as a fanfic, for which fans provided, noncommercially, many of the same editing-type services that was traditionally the reason authors sent manuscripts in to a publisher. What was left to be done for the book after that (apart from searching and replacing all the character names to file the serial numbers off for publication)?
Yes, E.L. James now has an agent, a Big Six publishing contract, and all the trimmings. But she didn’t need them to become a bona fide best seller, they were only necessary for specialized tasks: large-scale hard copy production, world-wide distribution, bookings on radio & TV shows, negotiating with Hollywood, and money in advance. Most novelists will never need these services; how much do they really need the publishing companies?
Then Science discusses how fanfiction.net works: Fifty Shades was posted under the name “Master of the Universe” as a chapter-at-a-time “work in progress” story, accreting 30,000 comments and tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of readers over time as each new chapter caused more people to notice it, until it was kicked off of fanfiction.net for violating the “no erotica” policy, and moved over to another fansite instead. The other Twilight fansite to which it moved was curated, with entrance requirements. “In other words,” Science writes, “unlike publishers, fandom reads the slush pile.”
Just how popular was Master/Fifty Shades? A charity auction for E.L. James to write a “missing sex scene” raised $28,000 from 700 readers.
There will be a third part (at least) to the series but it hasn’t been posted yet. However, an offshoot post responds to some earlier criticism of Science’s comments about editors by bringing up the typographical and other problems with Kindle books as an example of publishers’ lapsed professional standards. He seems to think that the problem is publishers not caring enough to correct the poor quality control at Amazon, being unaware that the bookstores are prohibited by their contracts with publishers from making any changes at all to the texts, even to fix typos. (Which really strengthens his case when you think about it—the publishers are providing the faulty texts in the first place and then not bothering to correct them except in a few exceptional cases.)
As for the main posts: it’s funny—I’ve been active in fanfic and Internet original shared universe writing circles for some time (and wrote a series of posts looking back at some of them) but I hadn’t really thought about the conventions and practices of Internet writing circles in light of Fifty Shades making the jump to pro publication. Perhaps I should have. Because Internet writers and readers are a dedicated bunch, providing services for love of fandom that publishers’ employees provide for money. If one of my “beta readers” I let see the draft of my latest story points out that I’ve forgotten something I mentioned just a few chapters ago, how is that any different from an editor at the publisher doing the same except that they didn’t charge me for it?
Really, all that you need to “edit” Internet fiction, be it fanfic or original, is a love of the setting. (And if you’re talking about editing for typos, being able to spell and punctuate properly and having a good grasp of grammar is also essential—but a lot of the people who care enough to write and read fanfic will have those anyway.) As Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed out in one of her previous columns that I covered, a lot of people who became “editors” at the big publishing houses didn’t have any special training in it to begin with; they were just people who liked to read and worked their way up.
(And sometimes fans can do a better job than editors of allegedly “professional” fiction. Fans put together a 13-page list of things that editors should have caught in the latest Mass Effect tie-in novel, after all.)
So, yes: there is a lot of on-line fiction that’s just as good as stuff you might pay money for. And while we’ve heard about a number of writers (such as John Scalzi) posting their own original stories to the net for free and then getting them picked up by publishers, this is the first case we’ve heard of a fanfic getting picked up by publishers. But if publishers are paying attention, it probably won’t be the last.
But on the other hand, this also goes back to what Rusch was saying about publishers mishandling contracted works by indie writers—paying huge advances but not doing much to help the books, and then being disappointed when the books don’t earn out. Fifty Shades, of course, has pretty much caught fire on Amazon, and been a darling of the blogs due to its unlikely origin. So perhaps it will be one of the exceptions. Still, given the fannish way in which it was written, I wonder whether E.L. James will have a future in traditional publishing after her trilogy is out?