On a warm and strangely cloudless day this past summer, I emerged from the Underground at Earl’s Court, in West London, to a colourful queue that stretched out of sight. The crowd was waiting patiently for entry into London Film and Comic Con, which, over the course of the weekend, packed the convention centre with over 100,000 people. In the back, past rows of vendors and snaking autograph lines and some staggeringly good cosplay, I found a little corner of utopia: books everywhere, hanging from the walls and stacked up on tables and in the arms of young girls walking past. It was YALC: London’s first-ever Young Adult Literature Convention.
I’ve spent the past year observing the conversations between people who make books, and one thing has been abundantly clear: these days many publishers are aware that fans of their books are forming passionate communities, and even when they don’t quite get it, plenty are eager to learn. I can only imagine how it looks from the outside, to see a book propelled to the top of the bestseller list on the strength of thousands of enthusiastic reblogs rather than a big traditional marketing campaign; to see a book succeed because the author has created a space people want to keep living in, and invite their friends into. What makes some books magnets for an energetic and creative fan base, and others not?
In New York this past spring, I attended Book Expo America, the US’s largest publishing industry gathering, and I listened with frustration as publishers blindly speculated about how to build a fandom. One woman wanted to create hierarchies of fans, rewarding key “influencers” for pushing the product on their unsuspecting friends. (If you can’t easily see why this depresses me…I guess you’re not alone? She’s far from the only marketer interested in this model – and, for that matter, plenty of “influencers” seem to be, too.) But at the FutureBook conference in London a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see the entire room taking copious notes as a pair of incredibly smart women, Rachel Fershleiser and Rosianna Halse Rojas, gave primers on Tumblr and YouTube, respectively. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I’d bet that the word most frequently employed was “community”. The online book world is about gathering around a book, or a love of books generally. As I’ve argued here before, for millions of us, the solitary act of reading becomes incredibly social in the digital spaces where we spend our time. Those are the joys of, in Fershleiser’s words, “the Bookternet”.
But many in the young adult literature world have known for a while that fandom is something to be cultivated – and celebrated. YALC, curated by the UK’s awesomely fannish Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, was prime proof. In advance of the weekend, YA novelist and YALC panellist Anthony McGowan told the Telegraph: “Teenagers read with a burning intensity, and love (and hate) books more deeply than any other group. I’d give anything to be able to read again with the passion I did when I was 16.” A con is a space for a person who really loves a thing to get together with others who share that love, so the decision to put YA book devotees in the same room as comic, film, and television fans made perfect sense.
But after watching a few panels, it seemed pretty obvious that there were as many fans onstage as in the audience; this was even the theme of one, “Superfans Unite!”, in which Rainbow Rowell, Tim O’Rourke, and Lucy Saxon – a top-notch Captain America in platform boots – talked about the stuff they get obsessive about. Rowell, who is American and lives in Omaha, Nebraska, first rose to fame in the UK with her novel Eleanor & Park. But she’s also the author of Fangirl, about a teenage girl who writes Simon Snow fan fiction (“Gemma T Leslie’s” wizard series is a clear homage to Harry Potter). Anyone who’s encountered Rowell online, on Twitter or Tumblr or elsewhere, knows that she’s an unabashed fangirl herself: she’s as likely to reblog a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch – often tagged “Bentobox Lumberjack” – as she is to reblog fan art of her own characters. When you hear her talk about her fans, you think, she gets it.
I got in touch to talk to her about being a fan as well as an author, and yes, she really does get it:
I understand what it feels like to get really excited about fiction. And how it becomes personal to you. So I don’t feel different from the people who get really excited about my books. I’m delighted and surprised – like, it’s surreal that I’ve created characters who’ve transcended my own personal relationship with them, and become personal for other people. But I understand how that works. I like people who get excited about things. So it’s cool that my books have brought more of those people into my life.
Rowell’s obviously not the first author in history to get really excited about fiction – I imagine that most fiction writers out there would say the exact same thing. But I’d argue that she’s one of the most visible writers today getting excited in the way that fans get excited, or, at the very least, expressing it the same way, and that distinction feels like an important one. She lives in the same digital spaces as her readers – she talks and shares and loves in tandem with them.
Does being a part of a fandom – writing fan fiction or criticism, drawing fan art or reblogging a million gifsets, just generally getting super excited about a thing, and sharing that excitement with others – make an author more likely to inspire the same passion in her own readers? Film and television these days are packed with creators who make no compunctions about their fannish obsessions: Joss Whedon is one famous example, or Peter Jackson, or Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who writing team, who all identify as long-time fanboys (and, of course, the new Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, who speaks about achieving childhood fantasies with heart-melting earnestness). The fan who gets hired to make the thing he’s obsessed with has its own TV Trope: “the promoted fanboy”. Scores of (largely male) writers, from Junot Díaz to George R R Martin, grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games – and don’t hesitate to advertise the fact, or talk about how it influenced them as storytellers.
But that trend feels more absent in female fandom: it’s easier for me to find examples of women who’ve gently distanced themselves from their fan communities as they worked towards mainstream success – hardly unsurprising, given the publishing industry’s historical antipathy towards fan fiction, the largely female-dominated practice that lies at the heart of a lot of women’s fan experiences, combined with the media’s continued less-than-flattering portrayal of fangirls. I’ve even heard criticism from within fandom – over my many years reading fic, I’ve seen more than a few fellow fans suggest that there’s a line between fanfic writers and “real” ones that should not be crossed. Luckily, I think this is changing – at a pace I wouldn’t have dreamed possible five years ago. Rowell agrees that the climate is shifting: “I think publishing’s attitude toward fan fiction has changed,” she told me. “Part of it, I think, is that kids who grew up reading and writing fan fiction are grown up now – and writing and editing and marketing books. Also, there’s the sheer number of people of all ages who are into fic. It’s too popular to stay underground or secret. And the more people talk about it, the less transgressive it seems.”
Much of this has to be chalked up to the amount of exposure the web brings: people were writing and sharing fanfic offline for decades, but now everyone online can see the practice, and join in. “If I’d had access to the internet when I was a teenager, I definitely would have been posting fan fiction,” Rowell said. “Don’t you think it’s just what young writers do now? Especially young women? I firmly believe that tomorrow’s big authors are writing fan fiction right now.” (She was quick to add – and this is an important point – “not that writing fic is limited to young people or non-pros…”) She continued:
When you talk to professional authors and artists, it’s extremely common for them to have drawn or written about or fantasised about fictional characters when they were young people. Pros have always practiced with other people’s characters and worlds. The difference now is that so much of that fan work is public and shared. But people who share their fan work aren’t less capable or creative than those of us who kept it to ourselves or came of age pre-internet.
A few weeks after YALC, I was on a panel at Nine Worlds, a fantastic weekend-long convention that felt organic in the very best way. Our panel’s topic was monetising fan fiction – big business for publishers in a few select cases (50 Shades of Grey, or After), and a source of consternation amongst a lot of long-time fic writers and readers. My fellow panellists included two women, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw and Erin Claiborne, from the Big Bang Press (BBP), a new, Kickstarter-funded publisher that seeks out writers with established platforms and audiences in the fanfic world and publishes their original fiction. Baker-Whitelaw is the managing editor, and Claiborne is the BBP’s first published author. The full disclosure here is that I befriended them at the panel, though perhaps in the spirit of fullest disclosure, I’ve also shared a lot of exclamation marks over Benedict Cumberbatch with Rainbow Rowell on Twitter. Particularly when he wears those glasses.
Fan-run presses have sprung from various corners of fandom over the years – Twilight led to a vibrant proliferation of them, including Australia-based The Writers Coffee Shop, who originally published 50 Shades of Grey. These small presses were the products of varying community dynamics at varying moments, and were met with varying reception. It’s undeniable that fandom has been pushed, perhaps unwillingly, into the mainstream spotlight in the past few years. The Big Bang Press hopes to tap into this new dynamic, writing in their mission statement: “As the lines between fandom and mainstream pop-culture grow increasingly blurred, more and more fanfiction writers are becoming successfully published authors, but there are many equally talented writers who aren’t getting the attention they deserve.” The project was fully backed on Kickstarter last year, and three initial pitches were blindly selected from a pool of established fanfic authors.
The first title, Erin Claiborne’s A Hero at the End of the World, was published last month. It’s billed as a “YA fantasy satire”, about a “chosen one”-type figure who, in an act of cowardice, utterly fails to fulfil his destiny – and winds up failing out of school, working as a barista, and living with his parents, while his best friend gets the glory for swooping in and killing the bad guy. The book is a total delight – I genuinely wound up rationing my reading time to keep from finishing it too quickly – and a fantastic addition to what is hopefully a rapidly diversifying YA landscape: the two main characters are people of colour, and a queer romance lies a the heart of the story. Claiborne embraces, rather than distances herself from her investment in fandom. “I think it’s a feminist issue,” she told me. “I can’t help but think that a lot of women aren’t proud of being fanfic writers because we’re rarely encouraged to take pride in something seen as a woman’s hobby, or by something that encourages exploration of female sexuality in the way that fanfic does.” She credits the practice as crucial to her development as a writer: “I wouldn’t be able to write if I wasn’t in fandom; wanting to write fic was essentially what got me started writing, period.”
I spoke with three of the women who run the BBP: Baker-Whitelaw, Alexandra Edwards, and Morgan Leigh Davies. They live on both sides of the Atlantic and hold day jobs in journalism, teaching, and publishing, and they, like me, have essentially grown up in online fandom. I was curious if they think that a fannish background, for a publisher or a writer, was a big advantage. “I do think,” Davies said, “that having been in the trenches of fandom, so to speak, makes authors uniquely positioned to deal what being an author means in the current climate. I am used to engaging with people online in a fairly broad way, I am used to curating content, I am used to getting and deleting nasty messages. That may sound mercenary, but it’s necessary, and it isn’t unenjoyable – you just have to be intelligent and thoughtful about the way you are presenting yourself online.” Edwards, who won an Emmy for her work on the modern transmedia Pride and Prejudice adaptation “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries”, echoed the idea: that people who spend time in online communities are well-suited for the changing publishing landscape. “Can you be successful without being from fandom?” she said. “Sure. But do I wish more women who grew up in fandom were getting successful through those skills and that community? Absolutely.”
From my vantage point, the traditional publishing industry sees fans, and understands their power – whether it’s a billion hits on a blockbuster fanfic, or massive, snowballing book sales after a huge amount of online chatter – but doesn’t fully understand them. These women agree. “It boils down to a fear of the unknown – there just isn’t as much difference here as it seems to me that the publishing industry thinks there is,” Davies said. “If you don’t come from a fandom background, it could be difficult to work out how to translate this phenomenon into something more familiar,” said Baker-Whitelaw. “Like, people are writing entire books for free, on the internet, and they get millions of readers? How does that even work? What’s the point? And how can you tell which ones would actually sell to a wider audience? The reason why small publishers like Big Bang Press and the Twilight ebook presses are beginning to pop up is because we have a solid idea of what works and what doesn’t.”
And for all that the big publishers could learn from fan culture, more small, fan-run presses – and, ideally, an even bigger diversity of voices – would be an extremely welcome addition to the publishing world. “I think it’s crucial for women like us to prove that small fiction presses are viable,” Edwards said. “More than any criticism about our fandom and fan fiction ties, it’s been the criticism that accuses us of not being a ‘real’ press that fires me up and makes me work harder than ever. Publishing is so stagnant right now, so consolidated – I think we need smaller venues and unexpected voices like a blood transfusion. and that’s an attitude, a mission I guess, that comes out of my entire lifetime spent needing fandom to give me stories that the mainstream couldn’t or wouldn’t.”
The minor meltdown in the British publishing world this past week – Zoella – has added a weird lens to view this topic. At FutureBook, Zoella, the YouTube name of vlogging superstar Zoe Sugg, was offered up more than a few times, perhaps most often by her publisher, as the vision of publishing’s future. Her whirlwind six-figure two-book deal signed at the end of the summer made headlines, as did her record-breaking debut, when her YA novel Girl Online sold more copies in the first week than any other book in British history. But over the weekend, after the Sunday Times suggested that the book was ghost-written, a spokesperson for Penguin confirmed, with really vague throw-under-the-bus language, that, “To be factually accurate you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” (In the intervening days, after whole a lot of vilification – frustratingly much of it age and/or gender-based – false suggestions that Sugg and her boyfriend were “quitting the internet,” and a few rousing defenses that I really enjoyed, the alleged ghostwriter, Siobhan Curham, while not disclosing the full extent of her involvement for legal reasons, spoke up in a blog post.)
The relationship between this whole debacle and fan culture feels like an obvious one. Zoella has nearly seven million subscribers on YouTube: a massive fan base devoted to her videos and persona (the more cynical among us might say “brand”). And some of the backlash I’ve seen in the past week lines up neatly with some of the anxiety I see from publishers about fandom: how do you get these huge numbers of devotees, and how do you tap into them, and is this what’s really needed to sell a book in the future? How does an unknown author get started, with a dozen Twitter followers or one crappy YouTube video or, perhaps most importantly, a lack of real comfort online – no matter your age, digital life doesn’t come naturally to huge swaths of people. It can feel like joining a massive conversation already in progress – after all, in essence, that’s what it is. It can be so hard to know when – or how – to start speaking up.
I think part of the problem is the mainstream often only notices fans when they hit extremes – either the super weird, or the super loud (see portrayals of screaming and weeping fangirls since time immemorial), or, for our purposes, the super numerous. If you’re not in fandom, you don’t see the seeds planted, or the movement growing, the fanfic with a few hundred hits: you see the critical mass because it’s so easy to see, and bank on breadth of interest, rather than depth. Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully aware of the (often dire) financial realities of book publishing, and I don’t mean to be glib. But fandom can teach us better lessons than this. The critical mass is built mostly on passion – on love, of a thing, or maybe, just of the community devoted to that thing. I sincerely hope that the future of publishing isn’t doling out book contracts to everyone with a million followers. We need authors who get excited about the first follower – the one who loves the author’s work so much that she tells a second, and a third, and starts a Tumblr, and…
As I was wrapping up this story, Rainbow Rowell took to Twitter to drop a bombshell for her fans: her next book will be Carry On, the Simon Snow fanfic novel that’s woven throughout Fangirl. If you haven’t read Fangirl – and particularly if you’re new to the idea of fanfic – that sentence may not make instant sense. But if you have, and if you celebrate Fangirl because it celebrates fan fiction and fangirls the world over, then this might feel like the ultimate victory. (Also if you ship Simon/Baz, like any right-thinking person would, it’s a double victory.) If there’s any sure sign that publishing’s relation to fandom has changed drastically in the past few years, it’s surely that a fanfic novel about a novel about fanfic will be a bestseller this time next year – and that Rowell will be ready and waiting on Tumblr to reblog all the Simon/Baz fan art.