The Mainstreaming of Fanfic?

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at fanfic writers who have made the leap to the mainstream.

Fan fiction, stories by amateur writers about characters from their
favorite books, movies and television shows, was once mainly a fringe
pursuit. Now, it’s changing the world of fiction, as Internet exposure
helps unknown authors find mainstream success. Some Web sites are
attracting unprecedented numbers of readers and, in some cases, leading
to book deals…

There’s a librarian in Rathdrum, Idaho, who spent 10 years posting her
writings about a character from Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice"
online; Simon & Schuster paid her a $150,000 advance to publish the
works as a three-novel trilogy. In Brooklyn, N.Y., a free-lance copy
editor has become one of the Web’s best-known "Lord of the Rings" and
"Harry Potter" fan-fiction writers, and has landed a three-book
publishing deal for a young-adult fantasy series.

Fanficcers are changing the world of fiction? This I had to read. Unfortunately, the reporter relies more on hyperbole than fact. To support his pronouncement, he chronicles two writers in specific, a Potter-ficcer who has sold a book to "Frank Fradella, an author running his own small independent
book-publishing company, New Babel Books" and a guy who landed a literary agent thanks to his submissions to an officially-sanction "L Word" fanfic contest. That’s, um, hardly rocking the foundations of publishing and broadcast media. (New Babel Books has published six books to date — four of them written by the publisher himself).

More interesting to me was the reporter’s discussion of FanLib, a company that’s trying to mainstream fanfic for promotional use. They are the one who staged THE L WORD competition and they have a new one coming with Harper Collins.

FanLib recently launched a romance-writing contest
with HarperCollins’s Avon imprint. "We’re looking for ways to reach the
real core readers," says Liate Stehlik, Avon’s senior vice president
and publisher. To avoid copyright problems, they had writers create
chapters of a novel from scratch, instead of basing them on one
particular book.

What I don’t get about this contest is that readers are being asked to write original work, not something based on someone else’s character. So what’s the fanfic connection? From what I can tell, there isn’t any. And in the L WORD contest, writers were given scenarios by a writer/producer on the show…and the winner would be writing with someone on the show… thus site-stepping the fanfic issue altogether. It seems to me that FanLib is only interested in  exploiting fanficcers  under the pretense of supporting fanfic…which, in fact, they aren’t actually doing at all.

Your thoughts?

(Thanks to Kete for the heads-up on the WSJ article!)

33 thoughts on “The Mainstreaming of Fanfic?”

  1. Sigh.
    Lee, as a former journalist, you DO understand that newspapers have a lot of space to fill, right? Even if it’s filled with, uh, hmmm, bullshit?
    What I do see–here and in entire areas of tech science writing that I’ve been doing–is a chipping away at copyright, trademark and intellectual property protection. Although the laws are more or less in place (don’t get me started on biotech patents), public opinion is either ignorant or apathetic about it. We can probably thank Napster et al, for that. And that’s worrisome. Very, very worrisome.
    Mark Terry

  2. You did notice Cassandra Claire, signed up by Simon and Schuster? I don’t rate her fan writing very highly, but there’s no arguing that she got a book deal out of it.

  3. Notice that a distinguished old-line publisher pays $150,000 for works based on a character who is in the public domain. The other deals rise from the desperado press, to coin a term for obscure publishers.
    I cannot fathom why alleged authors would want to borrow or steal characters in the first place. It’s like having the scarlet letter burned into their backs. Or maybe it’s the mark of Cain. It says to the world that they are incapable of developing their own characters, and are thus unfit to write.

  4. It seems to me that a lot of behavior that used to be considered marginal (at best) has been encouraged by the Internet. Finding out that their are other people who like the same things you do tends to validate it.

  5. “You did notice Cassandra Claire, signed up by Simon and Schuster?”
    You did notice that they **DIDN’T** sign Cassandra Claire to write fucking fanfic. That’s what you dudes are missing. These mainstream sales aren’t an endorsement of fanfic — which Lee accurately assails as literary theft — but of writing talent. To see any talent wasted on Harry Potter buttfucking fantasies is a sickening disgrace.

  6. Naomi Novik writes fanfiction and original fiction. She would have been a better example, what with all the news about Peter Jackson optioning her books.

  7. “You did notice that they **DIDN’T** sign Cassandra Claire to write fucking fanfic. That’s what you dudes are missing. These mainstream sales aren’t an endorsement of fanfic — which Lee accurately assails as literary theft — but of writing talent. To see any talent wasted on Harry Potter buttfucking fantasies is a sickening disgrace.”
    No one said they were signing CC up for fanfic, anonymouse. But the success of more and more fanwriters getting bookdeals shows that a) fanwriters aren’t all as talentless as Lee would like them to be and b) that fanfic can be a springboard for a writer’s career.

  8. David wrote: “It does seem like a bit of a stretch to proclaim a phenomenon based on the example of one person.”
    That’s the thing, David. It’s not one person any more. Examples:
    Naomi Novik
    Mel Keegan
    Cassandra Claire
    Jaqueline Lichtenberg
    All got book deals, yes, not to write fanfic, but because each of them wrote fanfic well enough that someone realised that here was someone who can write something that will sell.
    In one or two cases that they came with a built-in fanbase of people who’d probably buy their stuff didn’t do them any harm, either.

  9. When has Lee Goldberg ever said he wished that all fanfiction writers were talentless and would never enjoy success for their original work? Never. You’re ascribing to him words and motives that he hasn’t expressed or even implied.
    In fact, I don’t even recall Lee saying fanfiction writers are talentless, only that they are wasting their talent on it. There’s a big difference, Kete.
    Keep in mind, Naomi Novik’s success comes not from fanfiction, but from writing original work. Perhaps if she’d focused on original work earlier instead of blowing her time on MORK AND MINDY mpreg bestiality fic (or whatever fanfiction she was writing) she would have enjoyed success much earlier.
    If anything, she is proving Lee Goldberg’s point, not yours or Rommell’s.

  10. As you know, like you, I don’t think much of fan fiction or the nuttier fan ficcers. Some of them are really way out there in their justification defense of copyright violation and trademark infringement.
    However, sometimes I do find you a bit arrogant on other issues, such as small presses. Frankly, I think you didn’t need to be snide about New Babel Books. And no, I’m not associated with them in any way, shape or form.
    And I haven’t quite figured out yet if you’re anti-gay (which would be a bit weird considering your industry), or just against fan fiction with Harry Potter doing it with one of his also underage male school chums, or just offended by the idea of Starsky doing Hutch and vice-versa. Not everyone is full-on hetero, you know.
    Things are getting worse with certain segments of the obsessed fan ficcers. They can’t really publisher their stolen stuff, but they’ve found a way around it. Sort of. And it’s pretty nasty.
    There is this newish trend of so-called ‘uber fic’ which is fan fic taken one horrific step further: take Xena and Gabrielle from Xena Warrior Princess, change their names, professions and locales, but keep their physical looks and core personalities, throw in some angst and have them end up together.

  11. Tari, that brings up a question I’ve asked elsewhere. How much does a fanfic writer have to change the story to make it original? From what you’ve said the uber writers have changed enough for me for the story to be original. The core personalities, I don’t know, their names and professions have changed enough for me. The physical looks, give the story to a person who hasn’t seen “Xena” and they probably will picture a different person. As for angst and having them end up together, that’s part of a storyline that can make a good book. A lot of movies, TV shows and books use this.
    From what you described this ‘uber fic’ should probably be called original fiction.

  12. The only reason people seem to bring up arguments about “this professional writer also writes fanfic” is to show that not all fanfic writers are talentless hacks. If you accept that premise, then whether they got their professional contracts as a result of their fanfic, or despite it, is really irrelevant. I do think it’s relevant to bring up actual published “fanfic” when we talk about whether fanfic is inherently immoral or unethical, but that’s a different argument entirely.
    It’s pretty clear (to me at least) that the WSJ article was fairly typical of the articles that result when an outsider writes about an underground community without taking the time to really understand it. He (the author of the article) put fanfic in terms of its relevance to the market because that’s what he and his readership is interested in – not because it’s really of interest to fan authors. The rest of the article addresses the bare minimum of real issues with fanfic to cover his ass so he can’t be accused of encouraging copyright infringement. With the exception of the stuff about recent book deals and writing contests, there was nothing in that article that you couldn’t have gotten from Wikipedia.
    But the majority of fanfic writers couldn’t care less about the market. They know their fanfic is not marketable and they are ok with that. Only a small fraction are actually interested becoming professional writers, or making money from their writing. The majority are hobbyists. And hobbies always look weird to outsiders when they’re taken to an extreme.
    On a different note, to the anonymous poster above, it’s obvious from your comments that you’ve never read Ms. Novik’s fanfiction. Since you’ve seen fit to correct everyone else’s remarks about Mr. Goldberg’s motives, perhaps you could also refrain from talking about things you obviously know nothing about, especially if you’re going to be insulting.
    And Mr. Akpodiete, since the Xena scenario you describe actually happened in multiple episodes of the show in question, I don’t quite understand why you’re so horrified by it.

  13. I have nothing against small presses. I’ve been published by small presses (McFarland, Five Star, etc.) and so have my friends and members of my family.
    I do have a something against vanity presses that pretend to be something they aren’t to hoodwink aspiring writers out of their cash.
    I also am very leery of so-called “small presses” created by an author to publish his own work…at least until his work is far outnumbered on the company’s list by books written by other authors.
    Until then, it’s not a small press but a vanity operation…though not in the sense that they are charging other authors to get into print. It’s a vanity press in that it primarily exists to self-publish one author.
    For instance, Jim Michael Hansen self-publishes his LAWS mysteries under the moniker Dark Sky Publishing. If tomorrow he publishes a book by Jane Doe, I don’t think that makes Dark Sky a small press. In my mind, he becomes a small press when the business clearly shifts from being primarily geared towards selling his own work to selling the work of other writers (and paying them royalties).

  14. So 4 people make it a phenomenon?
    I still think it’s a non-story.
    And I don’t say this because it hasn’t anything to do with fanfic. If four bloggers got novel deals, is that suddenly a phenomenon worth an article in the Journal? (And yes, I saw that non-story written several times a couple years ago.) If four grocery clerks sell novels, is that a story?
    It seems like the fact that they write fanfic is irrelevant to whatever success in mainstream publishing they might enjoy.
    Now, if Random House signed up a fanficcer to write Harry Potter porn, gave them a six-figure advance, and announced they were going to defend their right to publish against Bloombsbury, THAT would be a story!

  15. Old news. “Fan writers” have been going pro for over a decade. Mercedes Lackey started as a “fan writer.” So did Melaine Rawn and Diane Carey. Susan Matthews and Karen Ripley were both fan writers first (and very good ones). Rosemary Edgehill was one.

  16. Although some fanfiction is decidedly pure personal-fantasy-fulfillment, those fics tend to be the ones that fanfiction hobbyists really dislike or even hate. Go to a fanfiction site and witness the wide-spread derision of “Mary-Sue” and horrendously erred characterization. I do not personally post fanfiction, but I do read it as a hobby, have friends that write and/or post it, and have dabbled in writing it occasionally. I feel confident in saying that few, if any fanfiction authors seek to make a profit from their stories, and on many sites a story without a disclaimer of some kind is rapidly removed. For most, it’s a way to have some fun and offer an homage of sorts to something they enjoy.
    One thing many of you are ignoring is that fanfiction offers amateur and aspiring writers a chance to experiment, improve, and develop many basic writing skills, especially on sites that allow for reader responses. Through fanfiction, a writer can hone their skills in grammar, informal language, and spelling, especially in cases where one is writing in a second language. Other skills, such as attention to detail, maintaining consistant characterization, pacing, and even creating original characters (as many fanfiction writers develop from Mary-Sues to more mature and “real” characters with inherent flaws) and intricate plotline development can be experimented with and developed in the same way. For some people, especially those just starting out, fanfiction is easier to write at first because there is already something to work with. Young writers need all the practice they can get, and fanfiction takes less time to develop. Plus, the author may not be as put-out or insulted when told their main character is too idealized and their plot makes no sense if they didn’t spend painstaking hours fabricating an entire world and other characters for that particular story, and be less likely to assume they have no talent and quit writing altogether or just stop showing their work to others.
    One final thing I would like to point out: There is such a thing as legal, PUBLISHED fanfiction. The vast majority, if not all, of the STAR WARS novels fall under this category. More than one of them resurrects a character who, in the movies, dies on-screen, largely because the author loves the character and thinks there’s more fun to be had with him. This is clearly non-canon, but no one makes a fuss because a)the books are PUBLISHED, and b) it’s more fun that way.

  17. Yrel wrote: “Plus, the author may not be as put-out or insulted when told their main character is too idealized and their plot makes no sense if they didn’t spend painstaking hours fabricating an entire world and other characters for that particular story, and be less likely to assume they have no talent and quit writing altogether or just stop showing their work to others.”
    Which is precisely why fan fiction is not suitable training to become a fiction writer. Look, people can write whatever the fuck they want to write as long as no children or pets are hurt in the process. But your declaration that the writers wouldn’t be too hurt if their work lacked quality because, well, you know, it’s not really theirs anyway, is completely counterproductive. The way writers often get better is by looking at the failings of their own work, where they’ve created the worlds, the characters, the motivations, the fucking consequences. If all of those are given to you, what do you learn? Oh, sure, you may learn how to make it look right on the page, but the real writing comes from the organic creation. You want to get better as a writer? Create your own work and stand or fall with it. If your characters have crap motivation, but you’re writing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic, perhaps the issue is that Zander was less fully realized in Joss Whedon’s mind, not yours. But if you’re writing your own work, the onus is on you to make it work. If you want to give up writing because someone says your story sucks, well, then give up. The world needs less crappy writers who can’t take criticism. But if your story sucks and you seek out way to improve it, well, great. The world needs more writers who want to improve. Or, as I said in Writer’s Digest a year or two ago:
    Being handed a character…isn’t equal to the organic process you must go through to create real, living characters. Writing fiction isn’t about getting a shorthand lesson in creativity via someone else’s established characters; rather, it’s the process of learning how to create vivid characters and story lines from your own minds. Writing fanfiction to learn how to write a novel is like filling in a crossword puzzle with the belief that someone will hand you a doctorate afterward.
    So go ahead and write it for fun or titillation or whatever, but I encourage you to try your hand at your own stories, your own worlds, and see how difficult writing really can be.

  18. I never claimed that fanfiction was a substitute for original work. Simply that it CAN be good practice-fodder, CAN help amateurs break into the medium of writing at all, and is a fun hobby for many writers and fans. Even if it’s not a method that works for you, it can help some people, and can act as a kind of warm-up to try out different techniques and see if it can pan out on paper at all.
    Also, I see no need for the word “fuck” here. If you want to give advice or constructive criticism, it tends to be more effective if you don’t give the impression that you think any other view than your own is downright vile and disgusting. I can appreciate your argument, but using insults or innappropriate language degrades both it and, quite frankly, you. Also, please do not assume that just because I occassionally dabble in fanfiction myself, that is ALL I write. I work hard on and take a lot of pride in my original works, so please do not degrade them when you don’t know anything about them.
    I would also like to know if I am the only person who recognizes the issue with legally published fanfiction.
    I thank you very much for your criticism and your opinion. I sincerely hope you have a pleasant day.

  19. First, Yrel, settle the fuck down. I mean, shit. Second, the “you” in my response was not about you, the anti-swearing officer of decency Yrel, but was a figurative you. So it’s not all about you, for fuck’s sake, Yrel. Think beyond the confines of yourself. Think about the kids!
    You are right about one thing: views other than my own ARE downright vile. That’s what makes me the self-involved bastardizer of the English language I’ve become.
    But, honestly, fuck, Yrel, don’t you see the fucking irony of what you said here: . “Simply that it CAN be good practice-fodder, CAN help amateurs break into the medium of writing at all, and is a fun hobby for many writers and fans. Even if it’s not a method that works for you, it can help some people, and can act as a kind of warm-up to try out different techniques and see if it can pan out on paper at all.”
    I’m not entirely certain how one breaks into the medium of writing, but I do know that all of those things you just brought up as plusses are the very things writers should be learning from their own work — look, if people (see, I didn’t use you this time — I’m fucking learning, here, Yrel, I’m learning) want to “break into writing” they should probably try doing it by using their own ideas. You want to try out different techniques (and here I mean you, Yrel), go and write in different techniques. You don’t need the pre-set world of Babylon 5 to do it (Not you, but, again the figurative you…we’ll call that you Steve if it’s helpful)all you need is the willingness to do it.
    As I’ve said before, I don’t give a fuck about fan fiction. Write it all you want. Write me a Greatest American Hero/Man From Atlantis slash. Whatever. But, and this holds true for my feelings on Nanowrimo, too, by teaching yourself through short cuts and bad writing, all you’re doing is preparing yourself to become a shitty writer.
    I’m sure your original works are excellent, Yrel, but if you think what I said is degrading, you’d be wise to find a thicker skin or find yourself happy writing ADAM-12 fan fiction for the rest of your life.

  20. I apologize if I sounded self-centered. I was drawing from my own personal experiences to represent my perception of the broader whole. So my use of “my” really should have been more like “our.” I guess we both have some pronoun issues to work out! ^.^
    And I apologize also if I sounded angry or offended before. I only intended to present an argument, but I guess I went overboard.
    Still, I don’t think that fanfiction is entirely useless to an aspiring writer, nor that writing fanfiction and improving through the feedback one receives regarding it sets one up to be a bad writer. Granted, a LOT of fanfiction is pure and unmitigated craptastical crap, but there are some gems to be found. These stories involve well-developed characters (including originals), detailed, interesting, and cohesive plotlines, good pacing, and a mastery (or near-mastery, if you prefer) of a number of basic writing mechanics. The really devoted writers pay close attention to details of the canon and research the backgrounds and inspiration behind the shows, movies, or books the fic is based on, which is practice for historical or contextual research in an original work, and many fanfiction writers I know show a clear improvement in their basic and higher-level writing skills in successive stories. Then, they take a long break from fanfiction to focus on one or two original works, using short, one-shot fanfiction only to relieve some stress or smash some of the Evil Known Only As Writer’s Block. In my experience, this progression works well, and the original works are all the better because the writer/author had the opportunity to fine-tune many (but certainly not all) basic writing skills before they started creating works from scratch.
    I doubt this applies to everyone. There is no doubt that some people simply do not improve as time goes on. (I have seen this as well. My eyes bled AND burned. If you’ve experienced this, you know what I’m talking about.) These tend to be the people that are either really amateur or use fanfiction almost exclusively to fantasize about themselves in this or that fandom or kissing Such-And-Such Really Attractive Character, or just The Two “Destined” Lovers (Destined only because the Writer Says So and in his/her story the Writer is God!) Who Never Get Together And/Or WOULD Never Get Together (breathe) Totally Getting Together (And Possibly/Most Likely Ignoring Many Laws of Physics/Anatomy/Logic/Anything Else). Most of the time, reading anything by these people is, quite literally, physically painful, almost to the point of being inhumane. Some of that stuff is downright twitch-inducing, and the stories by these writers may never get any better. If they’re ok with that, so am I, but some of them, including those for whom the language they’re writing in is a second language, constructive criticism of the fiction can offer an opportunity for them to gain a better grasp on how to write effectively in whatever language the story is written in. Again, I advocate fanfiction as one of many forms of practice-fodder, not as the be-all and end-all of writing improvement.
    Thank you for your time. I am now going to see just how many uses the word “fucktard” actually has. (Thank you morris. You are officially cool.)

  21. Breaking into writing by writing fanfic is like breaking into football by watching ESPN. Sure, it’s related, but it’s not very good practice.
    P.M.: “No, four people are an example.”
    Right, so not a phenomenon, not anything new. Just 4 people did something not particularly noteworthy. Hardly worth a story in the Journal, which was my original point.
    Rather than fill space with non-stories, I’d much rather see them give some actual, substantive book coverage or reviews.

  22. From what I’ve read about this discussion there appears to be two arguments between the two sides. One is legal, which I think both sides generally agree about. The second is much grayer. That is the intellectual aspect of fanfiction writing. Here is what I see:
    Side A: A fanfiction writer is a talent less hack who cannot come up with his own ideas and has to use an already created universe.
    Side B: I enjoy writing and it has helped me in writing my own original stories.
    If we take the published author view then I hate to say it but Mr. Lee Goldberg, according to this you have no talent for writing because you are using a preset universe and characters. You do write fanficiton with legal ability to get it published for money. In my mind that is the only thing separating you from a fanficiton writer. Has writing the ‘DM’ and ‘Monk’ novels helped you in writing your other novels? If yes then why can’t it help others? If no, then why do you write them?

  23. I’ve responded to this argument many, many times before. I should just have a boilerplate that I use.
    1) I would never consider writing a book about characters I didn’t create unless the creator/rights holder asked me to. Why? Because the characters aren’t mine.
    2) I was an executive producer and principal writer of the DIAGNOSIS MURDER TV series for many years and was approached by the studio and publisher to write the books. In many ways, I shaped, guided, and “controlled” the characters long before I started writing books about them.
    3) I was writing for the TV series MONK for several seasons when the creator/executive producer of the show approached me to write the books. I not only continue to write episodes of the show, but I write the books with the executive producer’s full consent and creative input.
    4) To date, I have only written tie-ins based on TV shows that I also wrote and/or produced.
    5) These are licensed tie-in novels, written under the contract with the rights holders, who have full control over how their characters and “worlds” are used.
    6) I wrote my own, published novels long before I was approached to write any tie-ins (in fact, they got me the tie-ins) and continue to do so. My recent book THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, which got a starred review from Kirkus and was favorably compared to Hammett and Chandler, is currently nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Novel.
    What I do isn’t comparable to fanfiction — which is using someone else’s work without their consent or involvement and distributing on the Internet. I don’t do it as my personal artistic expression — it’s a job, one that I do to the best of my ability. But, as I said before, I would never do it otherwise. Why? Because…and let me repeat this… the characters AREN’T MINE.
    Write all the fanfiction you want to for practice — just don’t post it on the Internet or publish it. Or if you do want to post it, ask the creator/right’s holder for permission to do so first. How hard is that?
    What I have yet to see any fanficcer explain to me yet is why they won’t ask the creator or rights holder for permission before posting and distributing their work. Or why fanficcers adamantly refuse to follow the expressed wishes of creator/rights holders (for example, Rowling has approved fanfiction based on Harry Potter as long as it’s be sexually explicit…but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from writing and posting Potter slash).
    I know the answer, of course. Fanficcers are terrified of being told NO…even it means sometimes that might actually be given permission.

  24. “I know the answer, of course. Fanficcers are terrified of being told NO…even it means sometimes that might actually be given permission.”
    Even more than that, Lee, I think that many (not all) fanfic writers are contemptuous of the authors whose ideas and characters they appropriate. Otherwise, why not obey the authors’ wishes?

  25. I’m always amazed when dissenting sides take the same view on something. Your thoughts on fanlib are just a variation on the same lines actual fanfiction writers are saying.
    I actually ran across your name reading the posts in regard to fanlib-authors and readers who normally can’t stand you were wondering if you’d heard of fanlib… and if you had, what you thought of it.

  26. It’s pretty clear from Lee’s original post that when he came across fanlib, the site had nothing much to do with fanfiction. Since then, things have moved on.
    Oh, boy, have they moved on.


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