There’s a new get-rich-quick scheme at play, and it’s called pulled to publish fanfiction. Writing fanfiction used to be scoffed at, but with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which was conceived as Twilight fanfiction, it’s become the next trend in publishing.
No one can deny how successful Fifty Shades has become. It’s become a part of the normal lexicon, and is raking in cash from a ludicrous amount of merchandising deals. Then there’s the fact that there are countless spin offs and parodies, with familiar-looking covers and plays off “fifty shades” of (insert noun here).
Full disclosure: I tried reading Fifty Shades, but couldn’t get past page seventeen. I was able to push myself through Hush, Hush, Crescendo, Fallen, and City of Bones, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading Fifty Shades. It wasn’t just the terrible writing, though. It was the fact that the book throws us into a setting that is barely explained, and with characters that are hardly developed. It felt like I walked into a movie that started an hour before I arrived.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in fanfiction, which is, by definition, the use of established characters and settings for purposes of a (somewhat) original story. Recently, however, people have been profiting off their fanfiction, and this has led to a strange new trend in publishing.
Much has been said about publishing fanfiction as original work, but there are people who don’t see a problem with it. If you change the names of the characters and some of the plot points, what’s the harm?
Plenty, actually. Here’s a breakdown.
1.) The hard work is already done for you. Fanfiction is working with characters that have an established background and setting. We know what they look like, what they sound like, and what they want in life. We know their strengths and weaknesses. In fanfiction, you are taking what’s done and introducing them in new situations, or describing a scene that took place off-camera. You don’t need to worry about introducing the main characters in a fandom that already knows them inside and out.
This is true even for stories that are AU (alternate universe), in which the characters are only recognizable by physical description. In those cases, the reader is still familiar with the person being described. Being able to picture a character is essential, as it allows the reader to connect to the story. In fanfiction, it can be a used to influence the reader to root for or against a character. In original fiction, it can be a subtle but powerful tool for the same purpose.
The same can be said for romantic stories, or "shipper fiction". It's playing to an audience that is already a fan of the couple. If you love the idea of Bella being with Edward, it doesn't take a strong leap of imagination to assume that you would enjoy the pairing regardless of setting.
2.) The characters are recognizable. In the essay “Why I Was Bachman”, Stephen King explains his use of a pseudonym and mentions how Paul McCartney used to fantasize about The Beatles playing small clubs as an unknown band, but was stunned when he realized that the audience would recognize their voices and their overall musical sound.
The same goes for fiction; if I wrote a story that involved two brothers that hunted ghosts and monsters, you’d think of Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural. Even if I took them out of that show’s setting, you would still be able to recognize their descriptions and their voices. Even those who aren’t well-versed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer will think of her if you portray a slayer who likes puns and has a soft spot for sexy monsters.
If they are not recognizable, that means that the fanfiction hasn’t bothered to establish any sort of personality for the characters. This is passable in fanfiction, but not in an original story. I’ve read “The Office”, the fanfiction that will be published under the name “Beautiful Bastard”. It dives into a sex scene in the first few pages with little set up. It’s quite possible that the finished work will have more of a set up before delving straight into sex, but that certainly wasn’t the case with Wallbanger, another P2P fanfiction. You could certainly argue that erotica doesn’t necessarily need a well-crafted plot in order to be effective, but I disagree. It’s far more impactful for a reader to understand WHY there’s such a magnetic pull between two characters, whether it’s sexual or platonic. There shouldn’t be excuses for shortcuts and general laziness in characterization.
3.) You’ve already got an audience. It wasn’t long ago that Fifty Shades was downplayed as fanfiction, but after it leaked out on the internet, publishers took note. Fifty Shades has made a lot of people a lot of money, and not surprisingly, this led to publishers looking to find the next E.L. James. The latest P2P work is "Beautiful Bastard", which originated as Twilight fanfiction. This time around, the fact that the story started as fanfiction isn’t being hidden. In fact, it’s celebrated.
Fanfiction can create its own fandom. There are plenty of fanfiction stories out there that are well-regarded in their respective fandoms. We’re told how popular the fanfiction was before it was taken down. That is, before it was taken down so that if you wanted to read it, you had to pay for it. Cassandra Clare may have taken down her fanfiction before she was published, but she chose a pen name that was quite similar to the pen name she used to write her wildly popular fanfiction. Her name was already recognizable, and she obviously decided to capitalize on it.
4.) These characters don’t belong to you. This should be obvious, but it bears repeating.In short, fanfiction is basically borrowing someone else’s creation. Stephenie Meyer lamented fanfiction authors not being able to use their fiction as the stories they crafted were not truly theirs, which would lead to one assuming that she’d be displeased with E.L. James profiting so much from Twilight fanfiction, but apparently she's okay with it.
Meyer’s blasé attitude aside, there are a tremendous amount of legal issues with fanfiction . It used to be that fanfiction could be read for free online, but now it seems apparent that if a publisher things s/he can make money of the fanfiction, it will be pulled offline, given adjustments, and sold.
To be blunt, I wouldn't be surprised if the people behind Beautiful Bastard were knowingly highlighting the fact that the story originated as fanfiction so that they can blatantly exploit fans of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. I personally think of profiting from fanfiction as theft, as do many others, but it seems the line of morality is blurred when enough money can be made.
So let’s say you have a great fanfiction story, one that’s well-regarded in the fandom. You’d love to publish it, maybe get some money from it, so you change it so that it’s virtually unrecognizable as fanfiction. Guess what? It still won’t work.
The truth is, the internet never forgets. Someone is going to remember your fanfiction. If you merely search and replace character names and do some plot tweaking, it’s still that fanfiction. Plus now you’ll need to firmly establish your characters and their backgrounds.
I actually think it might be possible to take a fanfiction and successfully turn it into an original piece. The trick is that once you take away all aspects that make it a fanfiction, your own story needs to shine through, with well-crafted characters and a solid setting. If you don’t have that, the story isn’t yours, and it needs to stay within the fandom as fanfiction.