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What Can Trade Publishers Learn from Fanfiction?

Fanfiction offers an alternative publishing model for community engagement, online interaction and the book business.

By Anna von Veh, co-founder, Say Books

Fanfiction has current notoriety in the publishing world because of the almost outrageous success of the Fifty Shades series. The first book was allegedly based largely on erotic Twilight fanfiction that the author had written. I’m not going to discuss the merits or otherwise of the book itself, but it raises the point (so to speak) of issues that are becoming ever more pertinent in the digital world, and boundaries that once seemed clearly defined are becoming increasingly blurred.

Nathan Fillion poses as fiction writer Rick Castle

I am a fan of ABC’s TV show Castle and tweet about the show using a ‘Castley’ pseudonym. I ‘fangirl’ with the best of them (English majors, doctors, teachers, film/media people, teenagers, and of course, Fireflyfans). What has become increasingly interesting to me as I’ve watched the show and followed fans on Twitter over the past year or two is the way the show crosses the usual boundaries of fandoms, age groups, media types and genres, with reading being central to it all.

...and, since it's TV, he has the hottest fans.

Much has been written about the dearth and death of reading, and I became fascinated with how a show about a crime writer and his muse seemed to be encouraging the show’s fans, and many younger fans, to read long-form narrative, a form some might not have read otherwise, if they read books at all.

It is all very meta. On the one hand, there are the very successful, high profile, official tie-in ‘Nikki Heat’ novels by ‘Richard Castle’ complete with a cover photo of Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, published by Hyperion. On the other hand, there is ‘fanfic’, fan-written fiction that flies under the radar and lives on the web. As I became engrossed in the show last year, I kept seeing references to ‘fanfic’ on my Castle Twitter timeline and decided to take a look. Expecting the worst (and believe me, the worst is there too), I was delighted to find not only ‘OK’ writers, but truly excellent writers, such as the fabulous ‘chezchuckles’ (it took me a while to get the Edith Wharton reference).

Publisher Anna von Veh found an aspiring author via fanfiction

Fanfiction sits at the margins of mainstream creative endeavour, and interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, ‘ownership;’ and traditional boundaries surrounding these concepts, as well as the whole vexed issue of international rights. As a publishing person and daughter of an artist, I have an uneasy relationship with how fanfiction steps on these well-established fences, particularly with regards to the fanfiction based on novels, rather than TV or films. (The latter seems more ‘legitimate,’ but that might just be justification for my own interest.)

In many ways, fanfiction is, and has been for many years, ahead of its time in terms of its embrace of the possibilities and potential of digital technology, of community and niche interests, its very questioning of established domains of knowledge and ‘right/s,’ and its acknowledgement of the role reading plays in writing. As Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” The leaching of boundaries described above is exemplified by the infinite trail of hyperlinks on the web (Derrida anyone?). It is therefore apt that fanfiction should exist online, and make use of the technology that allows deferment of meaning and certainty; a metaphorical and literal leaking of content from the container (c.f. Brian O’Leary’s ‘Context First, Revisited’).

Fanfiction as an alternate publishing model

Fanfiction as digital Text also embodies a paradox: it harks back to the days of Dickens in the way it is written and ‘published,’ and it shows a potential path for mainstream trade digital publishing.

The longer fanfics are serialised, with the popular ones being updated every day or so. Many chapters end on true cliff-hangers; and readers are included in the writing process. Writers include disclaimers about copyright ownership and many write author notes at the beginning and end of each chapter (many of which are very entertaining in themselves). The writers invite their readers to review each chapter and sometimes even to suggest pointers for the narrative arc. ‘Beta’ readers, who qualify for the role by being experienced fanfiction writers themselves, edit the chapters before they are posted. An incredible community is built around the stories, and Tumblr and Twitter are alive with cross blogging, reviews, and accolades for favourite writers. The popularity of individual stories or writers largely depends on discovery provided by the web through reader recommendations, both on the fanfiction sites and on social media. Once a year or so, readers vote on the best fanfiction in a number of categories, and there are curated lists of recommendations too. And disclaimers are included at the beginning of each chapter, with many being very entertaining.

And the fans read and read.

Fanfiction shows that the web need not be just a technology for making or distributing books (e-books and print), or for social marketing, but a home, distribution and communication technology for long-form narrative content itself. Fanfiction and its fans take the web seriously; it is the default mode, not an afterthought. The online platform means that readers can be based anywhere in the world and are defined by their interest in the particular fandom and genre, rather than by their own geographical or political location. Might is not right in this environment. The idea that someone might limit the right to read a fanfiction to a particular region or country would be regarded as ludicrous and tantamount to abusive behaviour towards readers. There is a lesson here too for publishers.

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.

So as well as being a serious fan of Castle and its fanfiction, the ‘mechanics’ of fanfiction interests me as it meshes with my interest in web technology and digital publishing. And of course, I love good writing. After having read a few stories by ‘chezchuckles’ last year, I wrote to her to ask if she had written any of her own material, and it turns out that Laura Bontrager, an unassuming school library assistant (I just knew she had read widely) from Memphis, Tennessee, had indeed written an original, unpublished romance. Laura was willing to improvise with us (Say Books) in an online ‘fanfiction model’ for her novel and we were delighted.

The Say Books ‘fanfiction’ model

We decided to make the first chapter of Fences publicly available on the web (fences1saybooks.pressbooks.com) with subscription instructions at the end of it. We let subscribers decide how much they wanted to pay upfront for online access to the rest of the chapters which were uploaded daily, with readers who paid more than $5 getting the ebook at the end. Over 80% of our subscribers paid at least $5. We used Pressbooks™, started by Hugh McGuire, because it is a simple, web-based book production platform with some of the features I was looking for (including a commenting system, the ability to create a working e-commerce model, and the production of valid EPUBS).

The other advantage of the fanfiction web-based publishing model is that one can look outwards to the world and not be limited by location. We are a publisher from New Zealand; use technology from Canada; have an author in Tennessee, USA, (and soon others from elsewhere); and have subscribers from all around the world, including Mexico, the Ukraine, France, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA. It is a wonderful thing to be part of.

And returning to fanfiction itself, it can be seen as free marketing for the original content; for instance it has been acknowledged by the writers and cast of Castle that fan power, particularly on Twitter, played a huge role in getting ABC to retain the series after its modest first season (a fifth season has recently been confirmed). So perhaps we should be more accepting of fanfiction and its authors who are often brilliant, witty, intelligent, and very literate, and who in the Castle fanfiction world at least, write with admiration for and acknowledgement of the ‘original’ creators.

Yes, much of fanfiction revolves around romance and ‘M-rated’ stories (and there’s a whole book to be written about that). However, focusing only on the subject matter and traditional boundary issues obscures what fanfiction has to offer us as publishers: a model for community engagement, online interaction between readers, writers and publishers, and a new way of thinking about and doing business.

Anna von Veh is the co-founder of the digital publishing services consultancy and publisher Say Books. She lives in New Zealand and Tweets @saybooks.

DISCUSS: Is Fanfiction a “Legitimate” Genre?

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  1. Posted June 19, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Anna ~ I believe most indie authors are hungry to connect with fans! With all of the extras and feedback on each chapter, the fanfic concept provides quite a learning experience for everyone, especially new authors like Laura Bontrager. What an interesting model – it seems a win/win/win for everyone – writers/readers/publishers.

    All the best,
    Lauren Clark
    Author of ‘Dancing Naked in Dixie’ and ‘Stay Tuned’

  2. fellow Castle fan!
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Great article, and fanfiction has many merits, but I wish people would stop saying that publishers limit territories. The writer (and agent) sell rights to the UK / US / whatever they want to sell, publishers can only buy what they are offered and what they can afford!

    “The idea that someone might limit the right to read a fanfiction to a particular region or country would be regarded as ludicrous and tantamount to abusive behaviour towards readers. There is a lesson here too for publishers.”

  3. Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a great article, one that explains fanfic (I never quite got it before). Whatever the merits or lack thereof in terms of creating unique books, I think it’s fantastic that people are reading more than ever and communicating with each other, expressing their own creativity.

  4. Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I think fan fiction is fine; in fact, that’s how I started writing. But when fan fiction ventures into for-profit for the writer, you’re stepping on the toes of those who created the storylines and characters first. It’s stealing. I don ‘t know any other way to see it. EL James may have started out writing fan fiction before 50 Shades, but the reality of it is, the 50 Shades characters are not vampires, nor are their names Edward and Bella. She’s in no danger here of taking away something from someone else. I think fan fiction writers need to be careful, and understand that the characters do not belong to them, and to use them in a story for profit outside of a fan fiction web site is asking for trouble.

  5. Anna von Veh
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate them.

    Lauren, yes, the opportunity for immediate connection and feedback in the fanfic model is really great.

    Fellow Castle Fan (hello!), yes, I take your point. Perhaps a better way to put it would have been that this is an issue that is going to become increasingly relevant to readers and therefore publishers, and so something we have to think about as an industry.

    Fiona, thanks. And yes, I agree wholeheartedly re encouraging reading and communicating.

    Julie D, yes, the lines are tricky. The fanfic writers I read are very careful to add disclaimers to their fanfic stories (they can be so entertaining!) and write for love only.

  6. Francis Hamit
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Fanfic is usually free and may or may not be well-executed, but is , by its very nature, not original. The desire of fans to play in someone else’s yard is understandable and even desirable because it increases sales and/or viewers for the original core product or presentation. It may provide training wheels for aspiring writers much like the copying of Old Master works does for aspiring painters.

    But, if you are serious about being a professional writer you need to devise your own, ORIGINAL characters and story lines. You need to push your own work out there. You need to take the huge risk of writing something that may not meet with the approval of friends and family.

    This is creative writing. Anything less is typing.

  7. Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    By the way, another lengthy article about fanfic came out today—in of all places, the Wall Street Journal.

  8. Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    This is a great article, and I’m blogging it along with the WSJ one right now, but one thing I wanted to say here before I complete and post that is that I think that the scrutiny 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—alt.pub.dragons-inn, alt.pub.havens-rest, Undocumented Features, Robotech: The Misfold (which I also organized, 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. (I wrote a series of columns about some of these “Paleo E-books” for TeleRead in which I go into 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.

  9. Anna von Veh
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Francis, thanks for your comment. Yours is a view which I’m sure is shared by many people. I really like the questions that fanfic raises about these issues. These ‘boundary crossings’ appeal to my academic side, and practically, I am also really interested in what we can learn from fanfics’ community-based digital model.

    Thanks for the link Chris.

  10. Catherine Russell
    Posted June 29, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    A fascinating and balanced article, thank you.

    One thing that astonishes me is the number of people (like Francis Hamit above) who seem to think fanfiction is new or non-literary. It is not. Famous fanfiction authors include Aeschylus (whose non-extant play Myrmidons was a ‘missing scene’ from the Iliad), Virgil (‘What happened after the Trojan War?’), Ovid (retelling myths), every other classical poet, Dante, Milton, Margaret Atwood…

    Modern copyright of modern sources is a very different thing to the complete lack of copyright of, say, Homer (which would have expired by now even if it had existed at the time). But the underlying process by which people take a story which inspires them and add to it, change it and play with it has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

    Can you, or should you, sell it? No. The law is very clear on this. But really, there is nothing to be uncomfortable about as long as it’s being done for free. It’s nothing but humans doing what we do best.

  11. Anna von Veh
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Chris for your additional comment, which I’ve only just seen. Thanks very much for sharing your knowledge of other online literary worlds which may be unknown to people in publishing. As for the authors you mention, it is often the case that things that are obvious or known to one group are not clear to others. So my position is that I support anyone who is trying things that are new to them in publishing whether it has existed or is known in another area or not. As long as we are prepared to learn from others who have different knowledge and skills, and are prepared to experiment, we are hopefully moving forward one way or another even if there are missteps along the way.

    Thanks Catherine, and for adding additional context to the discussion. Fanfiction can indeed be literary, and there are whole books still to be written about its value to culture and its contribution to writing and reading. However, it is indeed a controversial subject, so while my own view is closer to yours, I appreciate that many people share Francis’s view.

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