Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Curious Case of 50 Shades of Grey

Things are getting weird in publishing. With the printed page repeatedly being declared dead and e-books dominating the market in an unprecedented manner, publishers have had to work especially hard to stay alive, often harnessing the online market or crossing over with the self-publishing scene. The first sign of this major change came when Amanda Hocking, the first person to sell one million e-books, received a seven figure deal for one of her YA series, which immediately landed on the NYT best-seller list. Now, something even stranger has happened. All three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series written by E.L. James (real name, former TV producer Erika Leonard), are currently in the NYT best-seller list. The series, described rather ironically by the media as the kinky adult version of Twilight and reported to have sold over 250,000 copies, was quickly catapulted into mainstream culture after mentions on the Today Show as well as several major media publications. A few days ago it was announced that Vintage publishers had picked up the series for a seven figure deal. This caused some interesting reactions, especially amongst the online blogging community, where it is common knowledge that the books started out as a Twilight fan-fiction posted on, entitled Master of the Universe, before being pulled to publish by The Writer’s Coffee Shop publishing house, an indie publisher founded by Amanda Hayward. Throughout this media storm, it has been Hayward and not James taking care of the interviews and questions over the legality of the text. I questioned TWCS on twitter and received the following replies. I am not a copyright lawyer, and I suggest everyone check out Dear Author’s fantastic series of posts on fan-fiction in regards to this series, as well as the TurnItIn results revealing the series to have 89% of the content from the original fan-fiction. Vintage and TWCS maintain that what they have in their possession and will undoubtedly make a lot of money from is original, does not break any copyright laws and is not plagiarism, since James is the writer of both. As I said, I’m not a lawyer, but this does bring into question many issues that we seriously have to resolve.

I won’t bother too much with the content of the book (I'll cover this in my review when I get round to writing it) as many more qualified reviewers of romance and erotica have dissected the problematic misrepresentation of dominant-submissive relationships better than I could. Nor can I authoritatively tackle the legal issues surrounding this case. What I am is a fan, one who has participated in several various fandoms over the years. I strongly support the concept of fandom and all that it offers, having received so much from them in my lifetime, from passions to lifelong friends. Fandom tends to get a raw deal from the media, who are more likely to deliberately misrepresent, exaggerate or concentrate on the craziest element for a few cheap jokes rather than give it a full hearing. Granted, fandoms have their difficulties, but the very essence of what they are – a group of people sharing their passion and creativity through a number of varied means and discussions – forms the undeniable backbone of the entertainment industry. Fandoms are the key demographics, the profit margins publishers and studios are dying to get their hands on. During such times of economic uncertainty, you can’t really blame them for wanting to latch onto the fandom fever. Just check out the advertising for The Hunger Games movie to see what I mean. The industry will always try to cater to or exploit fandom, it’s what they do, and sometimes that can work out really well.

But my issue here is with fans exploiting fandom for personal gain. E.L. James exploited the Twilight fandom. She pretty much admits this.

Fan-fiction is one of the backbones of fandom. I am a huge supporter of fan-fiction, I’ve written it myself and I think it’s a great way for fans to share their love of characters and worlds while developing their own creative skills. Fan-fiction is for the fans, it’s there to be distributed and enjoyed freely, not for profit. However, for places like Omnific and The Writer’s Coffee Shop publishing house, fan-fiction is a business model. Here is a list of some of the many Twilight fan-fictions that have been published as original fiction. Some are self-published but a large portion of them were published through the aforementioned publishers, which sprung from the Twilight fandom. Many have argued that since these fan-fictions were so blatantly alternate universe set with very little in common with the original source material, they bypass copyright infringement and essentially existed as original works in the fandom, but that doesn’t change the fact that these authors began their work as fan-fiction, posted it as fan-fiction, received attention from it as fan-fiction and undoubtedly had it published based on its popularity as fan-fiction. I feel it is important to stress this because a remarkably large number of people seem to have no problem with this business model. I believe this has a lot to do with the mainstream media’s ignorance of fandom and its practices. Fan-fiction is not always warmly received by authors. Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist and Laurell K. Hamilton are several writers who hold explicitly anti-fan-fiction views, going so far as to blacklist their work from They hold onto their copyright fiercely, and after seeing what James is doing, I can’t blame them. Stephenie Meyer has said she supports fan-fiction, but what if she didn’t? What if she, her publishers or even Summit Entertainment pulled a lawsuit out for this? TWCS say they are covered by copyright law, having checked this with their lawyers, although I’d love to question these lawyers myself. They’ve skirted around the issue but it’s publicly known that these works started out as fan-fiction. One can read 50 Shades of Grey and easily compare the basic plot structure and characters to that of Twilight. The book went through practically no editing from fan-fiction to novel beyond name changing, so how original is it?

Think of the precedent this sets. If E.L. James and her publishers technically bypass copyright laws then would a fan-fiction of 50 Shades of Grey with the names changed pass the same test for publication? TWCS said it would stand up to the same copyright laws as 50 Shades, yet never replied to my query as to whether or not they’d consider publishing rejigged 50 Shades fan-fiction. Funny, yes? If one author is allowed to use characters from a copyrighted work, are others? Where does the line stop? The reason I am so annoyed at James and TWCS, not to forget Omnific, is because I believe this can only hurt fandom. 50 Shades is in the spotlight, it’s the biggest thing in publishing right now. If other authors catch wind of this, if they see work being published that originally started out as fan-fiction of their own work, the cease and desist letters will be sent out to fandoms, make no mistake about it. In the end, this is about money for these publishers as well as creative control. Authors don’t want to allow their content to be creatively diluted time and time again for someone else to profit from it. And fans don’t want to be exploited, like how James exploited the Twilight fandom. Say what you want about Twilight, and I have way too many times, but fans should have a place to come together and share their passion without worrying about being used as literary guinea pigs. James used fandom as a jumping point, she gathered a huge and extremely dedicated fan-base originating from Meyer’s creative output and used it for profit. Let’s not forget Amanda Hayward and TWCS’s role in all this. They knew exactly what they were doing, latching onto the fandom’s creative output to form the foundations of their own business. It may not technically be illegal but I still consider it ethically unsound.

The sad thing about this all is that James and Hayward won. They’re wealthy and well known from this, although James has been uncharacteristically shy since the Vintage deal announcement, and once again fandom is screwed over by the wider powers that be. James has a seven figure book deal and a possible movie in the works. I know many people don’t have an issue with what James has done but I can’t support these actions, not at the expense of fandom and the ability to freely creatively express one’s love for another’s work. Call it as original as you want but when it walks like fan-fiction and talks like fan-fiction under the banner of fan-fiction, you don’t get to call it an original work when the dollar signs start flashing in your eyes.

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