Twilight fanfic, pulling to publish, and the fandom gift economy
June 19, 2012 | 10:29 pm
Doctor Science, the blogger who wrote a couple of installments on the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon last month that I blogged about at the time, actually wrote a third piece, which I only just noticed when I went back to check references for the fanfic article I posted earlier.
The first two parts talked about “the decline of the publishing industry,” indicating that (at least in some cases) fans were providing a lot better value when it came to editing fanfics than publishers were to editing submitted manuscripts. (Not surprising, in light of a study showing that people actually worked harder on some tasks when they weren’t getting paid at all than if they were.)
The third installment looks at how much of Fifty Shades actually was changed, and what kind of editing it received. Even though Dear Author found that the text of the fanfic version and Fifty Shades was “89% identical” according to plagiarism detector TurnItIn, Science argues that the effective difference is nonetheless substantial given the amount of editing that 11% change represents—in this case from its publisher, rather than the fans.
But fans do a lot of editing, too—and writers in some fandoms even have “Ameripickers” or “Britpickers” who specialize in removing Americanisms from works by American authors of Harry Potter fanfics, or Britishisms from works by British authors of Twilight fanfics.
Then Science gets into some really interesting things about the Twilight fanfic fandom that differentiate it from other fanfic fandoms. I had assumed based on everything I’d read and everything I knew about other fanfic that the pro-publishing of fanfic as Fifty Shades was something completely unusual, a first-of-its-kind, one-of-a-kind happening. But Doctor Science writes that, thanks to a couple of small press e-publishers that arose out of the Twilight fandom, stories being “pulled to publish” (or “P2P”) with serial numbers filed off in that way is actually pretty common—and pretty aggravating to the fans. The only thing unusual about Fifty Shades is the size of the publisher and publishing deal.
Fans get aggravated over stories being pulled to publish—taken down from the fanfic sites where they once were hosted—in part because many of the stories that are pulled never actually get published—they’re just gone (save from the archives people make from the copies they snag off of Internet caches). But a large part of it, Doctor Science explains, has to do with the fact that fanfic runs on a gift economy.
The way it works in fandom is that the writer makes a gift of her story to whoever reads it — but the fannish community also makes gifts to her: beta readers, generalized cheering, feedback and comments, recommendations, art based on the story, invitations to speak at cons, and the real but difficult-to-measure quality known as "prestige" or "being a BNF".
In a Gift Economy, the *thing* — in this case, the story — isn’t just valuable for itself alone, but is significant as part of a *relationship*, embedded in a network of relationships. To take the thing out of the gift economy and move it into the money economy can tear the relationships of which the thing was a part — and *that*’s why a lot of Twifans are angry about P2P.
This leads to a lot of loud public complaint—or, as fans call it, “wank”.
One reason Twilight may be so different from other fandoms in this respect is that many Twifans have never been a part of the fandoms for other media properties, which have tended to share a lot of common memes due to the average fan’s habit of belonging to several such fandoms and carrying practices from one over to others. Twilight fandom, as a “feral” fandom, largely invented its own practices from scratch.
All in all, this is a very interesting practice. You always hear about fanfic serving as “training wheels” for learning to write for “real” publication, and people talk about filing the serial numbers off of things you like and writing stories based on those, but you don’t expect to see it taken so literally. Has there ever been any other fanfic community where yanking stories for professional publication is so common that it’s actually a source of strife in the fandom?