A few weeks ago we talked about how the bestselling romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey had a lot of far reaching influence through the publishing world, Hollywood, and even among self-published romance authors. But E.L. James' series is also notable for its origin as fanfiction—meaning that it was originally inspired by an already-existing work, specifically Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.
People who criticize fanfiction for being derivative often forget our culture's long history with borrowing themes and even characters from other works. William Shakespeare often cribbed the plots of his most celebrated plays from folk tales, and people love writing new material from stories that are now in the public domain—Sherlock Holmes, for example, or the post-apocalyptic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies., pictured above. Even Wicked, the widely popular Gregory Maguire book that inspired an award-winning Broadway musical, could technically be considered fanfiction—after all, Maguire didn't invent Oz or the Wicked Witch of the West, instead reinterpreting their story through a more mature lens for a different kind of reader.
So what makes the average fanfic you might find online different than these? Mostly that the publishing industry refused to take these kind of works seriously—until now, of course.
“Fanfiction has absolutely become part of the fiber of what we publish,” Jennifer Bergstrom, vice president and publisher of Gallery Books, told the Washington Post last fall. “This is changing at a time when traditional publishing needs it most.” This was just after Simon and Schuster, which owns Gallery Books, picked up a "real person fiction"—in other words, a fictional story about living people who really exist—about the members of the boy band One Direction, which was first published on Wattpad. The writer, 25-year old Anna Todd, got a six figure deal for that book!
But what many people forget is that like self-published authors, fanfiction writers are already starting to develop their own networks for publishing away from the bigger parts of the industry. E.L. James, for example, only chose to publish Fifty Shades of Grey after her Twilight fanfiction had achieved massive success as a free work online, and even then, she wasn't immediately approached by a large publishing house.
“While many people cite Fifty Shades as a huge breakthrough, what isn't discussed is that its initial publisher, The Writer's Coffee Shop, was an entity created from within fandom to commercially publish work of its own authors,” Claudia Rebaza from the Organization for Transformative Works told The National. “It was only after the book had already been a publishing success that Random House chose to pick it up.”
In other words, popular books that were originally conceived of as fanfiction are achieving the same kind of trajectory that other self-published content has—meaning that if you have the tools to create, publish, and market your own work and it becomes widely successful, big publishing houses might come knocking on your door looking to capitalize on your newfound fame.
Of course, as we all know, now that the market is becoming more saturated with self-published works, it's less likely that you'll become a breakout star like James did. But if fanfiction, which is most popular among younger Internet-savvy women, surpasses its current status as a hobby and becomes a marketable skill, that might spell good things for the writing community at large. After all, even if you can't commercially publish your own fanfic because of copyright concerns, it's still a great way to sharpen your writing skills for your next big project!
What do you think? Have you ever written fanfiction? (I have!) Let us know in the comments!