Seriously, 50 Shades is so big, it doesn’t need its own introduction - everyone and their grandma already know what this is about, and if they don’t, they probably wouldn’t care enough to look it up now. I can imagine sociologists looking back on this year, carefully deconstructing the economic, social and political environment to pinpoint why this happened, and coming up with the same conclusion we get when trying to analyze a culture different from out own: “Shit’s crazy.”
(Because why else would be whitewash and appropriate other cultures, if not because we’re absolutely sure of the superiority of our own Western model?)
It’s hard to evaluate the impact that E.L. James’ debut will have on pop culture, whether it will result in forever stigmatizing BDSM as the refuge for the broken, or bring about a boom of pull-to-publish fanfictions (the latter concern seems justified, after “Dante’s Inferno” was picked up for re-print by a major publisher). But I feel like we’re missing out on an important thing:
Marketing vehicles are nothing new.
Movie novelizations? Books based on games? Those have existed ever since people realized that an adventure doesn’t stop after the end credits, and marketing execs decided to capitalize on that. I mean, take the “V for Vendetta” book, which basically follows the plot of the movie. Why would it exist, especially when the movie itself was adapted by the graphic novel by Allan Moore?
Two words: Cash grab.
Granted, p-2-p fanfiction isn’t quite like the novelizations of “V for Vendetta” or “Resident Evil” as it’s an original adventure with already established characters. The authors change names and appearances to avoid copyright infringement charges, of course, but p-2-p fics and marketing vehicles all start from the same place - the fans, who wanted more than the original work had to offer.
Is a marketing vehicle bad? Naaaaaw. I mean, Robert Anthony Salvatore basically built his career on writing D&D fiction, and nobody seems to have a problem with it (well, except for the critics who have to read it for work, but hey, occupational hazards! We all have them.) More importantly, there are plenty of books out there that are really good. Here’s Ana Mardoll talking about movie novelizations, because she’s compulsively linkeable. And I happen to have read not one, not two, not three, but four Diablo books and I think they’re pretty ace (of course, I read them in tenth grade, so I might re-evaluate my opinion if I pick them up again).
And here’s an interesting thing: those Diablo books? They’re not exactly original, not when you get down to the nitty-gritty of plots and character archetypes. But they’re fun, and they’re nicely written, and, more importantly, you can enjoy them without having played the game. Hell, you may have never heard of the world of Diablo - it’s okay. You don’t have to have heard of it to know who the characters are or how the magic works - it’ll be explained to you.
This gives the books an extra edge when it comes to popular appeal. A marketing vehicle that relies on its source material for character motivation and world-building is barely more than a supplement to the actual movie or game (or comic, or novel). It only has appeal to existing fans, which goes against the idea of a marketing vehicle, which is to draw in people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the franchise.
Going back to p-2-p fanfics, you might notice that they don’t meet the main criteria for a marketing vehicle, which is being set in the world of the source material. In that aspect, p-2-p books are almost like the anti-marketing vehicle - born from the fandom and gaining success partially because of their association with a previously established popular series. This, of course, raises the question of fairness, as in - Is it fair for a de-facto marketing vehicle to turn the tables on its source material?
My response: go see R. A. Salvatore. The simple truth is that marketing vehicles have existed, and will continue to exist, and sometimes, they will even do better than their original franchise. Again, it’s an occupational hazard.
But Twilight never needed a marketing vehicle, you say? 50 Shades was published because E.L. James wanted to make money herself, you say?
You’d be absolutely right. But that doesn’t change where the book came from, and, even if James denounces the fandom, the fandom is partly the reason why 50 Shades sold so well it caught the eye of Random House.
What does it mean, for a book to be a marketing vehicle? Not much. It’s still a book like any other, but it’s tied to some degree with its source material. That means the author should share the glory with the original creators of the franchise, whether they like it or not. After all, if it wasn’t for that original movie or book or comic or video game, their work wouldn’t exist.
So, aspiring authors, ask yourselves what your goal is. If you want to write a marketing vehicle, then go polish your best self-insert fic, pitch it to the game/movie company, shake hands and pick up your check - you can pay the rent now.
If your goal is to write an original story and take full credit for it, then super. Just know that you won’t have an established fandom standing behind you to ensure your publishers break even.
You’ll notice that both ways have their good and bad sides. Occupational hazards, luvs, occupational hazards.
Note: Images courtesy of GR.