It all feels a little familiar: a work of fan fiction with a massive online following; a six-figure book deal; a slew of media coverage riddled with misconceptions about the nature of fanworks. “If you’ve ever wondered why anyone would spend their spare time writing fan fiction, you better think again,” one outlet writes. A similar message, albeit more of a gentle joke: “Apparently, it really pays to spend your free time writing about your favorite teen stars. Take that, parents everywhere!” But some got straight to the point. One article that begins: “Gone are the days when fan fiction was the best kept secret on the internet” continues: “SIX. FIGURES. Christ we need to pack in this jounalism [sic] malarky [sic] and start writing fan fic, pronto.”
And then yesterday, a Guardian piece surely intended as pure snark that managed to hit the same old nerves. “Fan fiction is big business”, the mock-Q&A asserts. “So this is how you get rich? Write in a stream of consciousness style about celebrities having sex with an impressionable young woman and wait for the money to roll in?” All of this is, of course, about one particular work of fan fiction. The celebrities in question are the members of One Direction, especially Harry Styles; the “impressionable young woman” is Tessa, a stand-in (in fandom, what’s known as a Mary Sue, or the more euphemistic “self-insert”) for the author, 25-year-old Texan Anna Todd; the money rolling in is six figures for her trilogy After, which she’s been publishing on the story-sharing site Wattpad. With nearly 300 chapters between the three installments, After has been viewed more than 800 million times. Todd signed a deal with Simon and Schuster, with whom she’ll work to, as the cliché goes, “file off the serial numbers”: the proper names will have to be changed (and all those chapters will be whittled down to three regular-sized novels, too).
Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t the last Twilight fanfic to lead to a major book deal, and After isn’t the first 1D work to lead to one, either. But these are the two series in this realm that have received the most press in the past few years. They share some elements – say, their eroticism, or their female protagonists, or source material that’s equal parts ridiculed and beloved by the general public. (A quick pause here to say that After is RPF, real person fic, a practice that often sits on its own, sometimes even ostracised or misunderstood, in the broader fan fiction universe. Bandfic is a perennial winner in the RPF world, and right now, perhaps unsurprisingly, One Direction is king.) But both Fifty Shades and After prompt questions, within fan communities and without, about what it means to write fan fiction now that the practice has been thrust into the public eye, and now that a select few are raking in enormous profits from the practice.
What is the purpose of fan fiction? There is no single correct answer. It can be a way to critically engage with the source material – a rewriting of a plotline, a reexamination of a scene from another angle, a what-if twist that alters the entire thing. It can be a way of fulfilling a fantasy – say, when you write that your favorite singer has fallen in love with an ordinary girl. It can be pure, sugar-spun fun; it can be more challenging, emotionally or intellectually, than the works that inspired it. It can be an enormous dialogue, inter-fandom and intra-fandom, sharing tropes and themes and methods of experimentation. It can be a way to just spend more time, in whatever way you prefer, with characters or a world that you find compelling. It can be a space that exists wholly outside the pressures of commercial writing – a story can have a million followers, or just one, and it doesn’t make a difference. But then, if a story has a million followers, is it hitting that commercially-publishable note – and can you fault the publishers, or the writers, from cashing in?
Maybe that question is changing – it even feels as if it’s changed since the last round of press for Fifty Shades of Grey. It might be easy to forget that a little more than a decade ago, Warner Brothers was yanking down Harry Potter fan sites without warning, particularly those that “sent the wrong message”, like speculating that a character could be gay. Now media corporations are actively trying to create the kind of spaces for fan engagement that mimic the volume and enthusiasm of what’s historically been built from the bottom-up – organic celebrations of (and critical space to examine) a book or movie or television show or band. Now we’ve got “official fan fiction partners” of a book or a movie, and even corporate-sponsored incentive – rewards, like access to special content, that sort of thing – to create more content in their spaces. We’ve got Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s officially-sanctioned fan fiction venture, in which the writer gets the royalties from the book and the official-sanctioner gets the rights to all the new ideas she created.
Enter Wattpad, the site that hosts After, and a confusing space for someone like me, growing up thinking of fan fiction as something wholly separate from original fiction – at least where you go to read it, anyway. It’s described as “the YouTube for books”; like YouTube, it’s enormous (40 million stories and at least 25 million users) and messy (I mean, just try to find your way around on the first go) and for a few that can break through the noise, profitable. There’s a lot to slog through, but there are certainly great writers on the site. (For all the commenters in all the After articles moaning about the “death of literature”, and I saw a lot of you out there, please keep in mind that a wildly popular book does much more good for more writers – essentially puts more cash in the hands of the publishers – than not.) The most fascinating Wattpad stat, for me, is that 85 per cent of views are from mobile devices; by a similar token, After’s “warning” includes a note from Todd: “I also wrote a lot of the story from my phone so you will find typos and other errors-please excuse them.”
Fan fiction is published side-by-side with original fiction, and this is where I see things, particularly for younger fans, getting increasingly murky – the phrase “content creators”, and all of its implications, springs to mind. Who owns what, and who will own what in the future? I got in touch with Anne Jamison, whose marvelous Fic:Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World spends most of its time in the pre-Wattpad era. In recent months, her publisher has excerpted the book on the site; Jamison herself is serialising a novel there, partly as a way to research the dynamics of the platform. She said via email: “In addition to hosting and ultimately profiting from fan fiction content like After, Wattpad has clearly scrutinised fan fiction practices and is looking to monetise these as well, as with their new program to charge for ‘bonus’ chapters (the outtakes and alternative points of view long featured by fan writers). The question I would have is what Wattpad’s profit-sharing agreements on these deals are. I hope the site’s young and newly-successful writers read all the fine print.”
The question of monetisation of fan fiction is clearly shifting: Fifty Shades of Grey was noticed by the big guys because it was published by a small press first – one that emerged from fandom, in fact, and was quite controversial upon its founding. But with more and more platforms like Wattpad, the rules are changing. I celebrate fan fiction as a (relatively) egalitarian space, and as a powerful tool against the dominant narratives in our popular culture. But those stories, the weird, challenging ones, the queer rewritings, the unconventional kinks, all the jokes you might make about fan fiction never having read a word of it, all of that feels absent in the fanfic-to-traditional publishing game. I don’t feel that potential in the new platforms that are emerging, under the watchful eye of publishers and movie studios and the editorial discretion, in some cases, of the platform itself. And it’s fine – a different ethos, a different set of incentives, but it’s fine. But I’ve loved fan fiction for a long time, and none of these new developments make me want to pack in this journalism malarkey and start writing fanfic pronto.