Here’s the Thing: The Trouble with Published Fanfiction – An Open Letter to the Publishing Industry

Dear Publishing Houses,

Okay, look, I’m probably not the first one to have this talk with you – I know eleventy thousand or so people probably mentioned it when 50 Shades of Gray picked up a contract – but on the heels of this shenanigans, maybe it bears repeating.

It does not reflect well on you when you pay out the ass for published fanfiction.

It’s entirely likely that you’re not even really listening at this point because you have those giant cartoon dollar signs in your eyeballs going “CA-CHING! CA-CHING! CA-CHING!” God knows it’s hard to hear above that kind of racket. Still, I’m going to push forward and hope that this message gets through.

Look, people have been saying some bad shit about you. That you screw over authors these days. That you don’t care about good stories anymore. That you’re only interested in republishing the same formula ad naseum despite your claims that you want “new, fresh voices.” Hey, don’t scowl at me – I didn’t say it. I just heard about it. My point is that stories like this aren’t really helping your case here.

The truth is, a good chunk of the aspiring authors out there probably have a fanfic they could edit – and by “edit,” I do mean “run find/replace on character names” – and publish. Remember when I considered it last month for half a minute? And I sat down and opened it up on ye olde word processor and went, “What is that icky feeling that’s crawling all over my skin?”

That was a little bit of my integrity dying. And when I recognized that, I promptly put it away.

Because here’s the thing1: If you write a fanfic, even if you’re writing an AU, you’re not starting from a blank creative slate. You’re taking a network of characters and ideas from an existing universe and playing around in it as you choose. You may bend it a LOT; you may choose unusual romantic pairings2 or put them in – oh, say – a university setting instead of small town Washington. But none of it is really yours. That’s why fanfic writers put that disclaimer at the beginning or end of all of their stories that says, “Dear God, don’t sue me! I’m just messing around for funsies!” Because no matter how crazily you position the action figures you borrowed or how long you play with them, they are not your toys.

With me so far? Are we all in agreement? Excellent.

Now, let’s say a writer is so happy with the Lego castle she built for those action figures that she thinks, “I don’t want to give these toys back … They’re kind of mine now anyway. The owner never built them a castle just like this or played with them in the same way I did. If I just call them Captain America and Black Widow instead of Superman and Catwoman, they’re totally different, and then they’re mine!

Jubal asks a very important question. (via

So here you are, publishing houses, buying up another book starring a pale, brunette, naive, pretty-but-doesn’t-think-so, literature-loving, strategically-clumsy heroine. And whatever name you slap on her, the truth is she is Bella Swan. And your gorgeous, older, rich, protective, self-loathing hero is Edward Cullen. Don’t kid yourselves. Don’t try to pretend that these books are anything other than stolen toys in a new Lego castle. It doesn’t matter how many names you change in that fanfic, the ghosts of the original work remain. The ties between the characters (e.g., 50 Shades has a blatant Charlie and Rene), the key personality traits (oh, your tortured hero also plays the piano? That’s strange!) … little things like that always show through, always exist as reminders that the writer took action figures that didn’t belong to her and simply appropriated them instead of building her own.

The only way to erase those ghosts completely is to erase the fanfic completely and start at square one. But it doesn’t seem like anyone is willing to do that.

Is it plagiarism? Not enough to sue you for, so pat yourself on the back for eeking by on a technicality. Is it still kind of squicky? Yeah. Does it make everyone who’s trying to do things the right way feel like shit? Yeah.

I get it. Ya’ll are businesses, and bottom lines are to businesses what black holes are to space, so you go looking for sure things to keep you out of the red. Still, as a friend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t step up and say something. If I didn’t mention that this makes you look cheap(er) and stupid(er)3. If I didn’t mutter that this sets a bad example and sigh at the huge wave of fanfic writers who are now going to pull their stuff and try to profit from it. If I didn’t add one last casual aside about the very real possibility that the blurred line this shit is creating could ruin fanfiction for everyone if authors get fed up and start taking an Anne-Rice type of approach to things.

I’m writing to you in good faith here. Just think it over. And tell your mom and dad I said hi.

All the best,

1.) For anyone who’s wondering, “here’s the thing” is one of The Man’s favorite phrases and always precedes opinionated declarations regarding the workings of the world and/or how to fix them. It’s so prevalent that I have absorbed the saying into my own vocabulary, and it seemed only right to use it as a tag for my most opinionated posts. ๐Ÿ™‚
2.) Who else recalls the Golden Days of Harry Potter fandom when there was even a good ship for characters being paired with the squid? Seriously! The freaking squid! Oh, Potter fandom. Such an epic heyday.
3.) The modifiers have been parenthetically added for those who wish to take it a step further.

34 thoughts on “Here’s the Thing: The Trouble with Published Fanfiction – An Open Letter to the Publishing Industry

  1. Exactly. Just… yes – all that. And you said it above but it so damn frustrating trying to create your own thing and continually be told no, then the fanfic, written equally as shitty as the original work it copies gets a new yacht and a lunch date with movie stars to play the leads. Gah! I’m fired up. Thanks so posting. i think I’ll do one so I can get rich enough to not work and work on my real writing… or not. -_-

    1. Yeah, it’s really tough. What’s good isn’t always what sells. Taking the high road sometimes doesn’t pay off as well as taking the quick-and-easy route. It’s very frustrating.

  2. God, I love you for this post.

    Here’s the thing: I used to write fanfic. Twilight fanfic, at that. (Cue Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”) Would I ever try to make a dime off of it? No. Because it’s WRONG. And these publishing houses that are trying to exploit published fanfic for all its worth are only promoting bad author behavior. I know it’s business. That doesn’t make it okay.

    1. Oh, I totally used to write fanfic, too. Newsies, Buffy, Angel, Harry Potter. I could probably dust one of them off, but it just doesn’t feel right.

  3. *slow clap* Everything you said.

    It may be legal, but it’s iffy and doesn’t set a good example. The entire basis for fanfiction is that people do it out of love for the characters/world/storyline, not for profit. But this whole debacle has turned that on it’s head, tainting the credibility of both the publishing industry and the fanfiction community, or at least some of the biggest names in it. It’s just sad that this is even an issue.

    1. See, I think eventually authors are going to get fed up and they’ll stop letting people write fanfic. I mean, at least stop people from posting it on the big websites anyway…

  4. You don’t know how many times I’ve read an amazing, original fan fiction and wanted to take the writer and bash them over the head with some common sense going “WHY ARE YOU WRITING FAN FICTION? Why aren’t you writing your own stuff?”

    There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by something, but turn it into your own original idea, instead of writing it as fan-fiction, tweaking it just enough, and then calling it your own.

    I love fan-fiction – if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have discovered that I love writing so much. The first 50,000 words I wrote were Lord of the Rings fan-fiction. But that’s what it’s going to stay (and never see the light of day again except in that one obscure forum – that’s been archived multiple times – where I originally posted it).

    Someday, if anyone ever writes fan-fiction for my stories, I will be so extremely flattered (and probably horrified at times), but it would also be a slap in the face for someone to try and publish it.

    Also why I will make an effort to NOT buy re-published fan-fiction. I read both “50 Shades of Grey” and “The University of Edward Masen” in their fan-fiction forms as they were being written. But I refuse to buy the books. It’s just not right. It also feels like being manipulated – let me read the story for free, based on my love of a fandom, and then pull and tell me that I have to pay if I ever want to read it again.

    No thanks.

    1. Yeah, plenty dodgy to make people pay after they read it for free on so many fandom websites. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think fanfiction is awesome for getting your feet wet, for playing around, for helping find your voice and experiment, sometimes for getting yoru groove back after you’ve fallen away. But publishing it…that’s just not quite right.

  5. Just more proof that there IS a market for my revised Star Wars/Fifty Shades/Twilight mashup fanfic, now with space vampires, erotic sexy-times, insane amounts of angst, forbidden Jawa/Wookiee/Ewok love triangles, and 101 things you can do with a blaster. Oh, and a playroom in the Millennium Falcon. (Thanks for that one, Becks!)

    In all seriousness, hearing about this makes me sad and kind of frustrated for precisely the reasons you name. Come on, people. SOMEBODY has to build the sandbox.

    (And…the squid? Seriously? o.O)

    1. Oh, yeah. Seriously. The totally zany ships in HP’s golden days – I can’t even. *pets crazy fandom from a safe distance*

      I think this mashup has legs. I volunteer as a beta reader – I can’t wait to read it. ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. I’m a librarian, and have been SO disappointed at the amount of people swept up in the 50 shades series. One of the other librarians said, ‘It’s not for us to decide what they read.’ And I disagree. We don’t have to discourage them, but we CAN recommend better alternatives! The publishing companies could do the same by putting money behind *better* books on the same subjects. Because they are out there. If it’s about money, they should be able to see that original books are still able to grip readers. Before 50 shades, everyone and their neighbour were coming in to get the Hunger Games Trilogy. But a lot of fanfic is so poorly written, and riddled with bullshit, that it’s a slap in the face to us writers who are told we need to be fresh, and polished or we won’t make it. It’s like wearing a new, fancy dress, and the bouncer telling you you’re not good enough to get in the club… and then he raises the velvet rope for the stinky homeless guy who has soiled himself on the street.

    1. OMG. THIS is why I love my critique partner. Only Feaky Snucker would compare fan fiction to a homeless guy soiling his pants getting into the hot new club before the rest of us. (And by us, I mean all the pretty girls in the pretty dresses.)

      And Becks, this post is so freaking awesome. You worded everything PERFECTLY.

      1. Thanks, ladies!

        Publishing is just so focused right now on only backing the surefire hits that a) come from big name authors; or b) already have a fanbase. My hope, however, is that if this is true, they will look more at, say, FictionPress ala Throne of Glass than At least FP stories are original (allegedly – who really knows these days?).

  7. You know where I stand on this, and you’ve echoed my sentiments perfectly. Thank you.

    I only wish people weren’t lining up in droves to buy what is essentially still 90% the same as the fanfiction was. Then maybe it’d hit home – but it seems far too few people have scruples… *sighs*

    I could go on – but suffice it to say. I agree with you 150%.

    1. Yeah, I can only blame the publishing industry so far. I mean – they want to make money, and the public is handing them money for stuff like this.

  8. In and of itself, I have no problem with fanfic; I’d be a hypocrite if I did. I had a two year drought with writing, but then fanfic got me back on my feet, if you will. I still dabble in it from time to time, but I’m into my brand new characters these days. But I owe it to fanfic for helping end the drought.

    Now, there’s some good fanfic and there’s some terrible fanfic; I like to think mine was fanfic only because of the characters. And, those helped spur me onto my original stuff I’ve got now. The fanfic I used to write helped me get inspired for what my new characters do, how they do it, everything. Sometimes, I can pound an idea out more easily as a fanfic, just to see if it works. If it does, I start over with the original characters.

    Should one try to publish fanfic? Probably not. I’ve not read 50 Shades (not into erotica), but a person should always have an original plot and their own characters. One thing I worry about during revisions is that my characters are based on folks in real life; these folks inspired these characters. I have to make sure I don’t have attributes that are the same as those they are inspired by. So, I always make sure I’m diligent in character bios and things to keep them separate.

    But good blog post about it (that’s my long way of saying that, lol) and I do agree =) to a point.

    1. See, the words I saw up there that stood out to me? You start over. Which is not what is happening in these cases. Maybe I’d be more open to these books if they weren’t 90% the same as how they existed as fanfic. Pretty much zero rewriting involved.

  9. *riotous applause*

    It’s incidents like these that make me understand why certain authors don’t allow people to write fanfiction of any sort. For whatever reason, the Bella/Edward formula is a tried and true formula – and it’s squicky when other people profit off of it. Make your own damn formula!

    1. Yeah, everyone thought Anne Rice was a bitch when she laid down the law years ago. Maybe some other authors will start following her lead, though.

  10. Let me ask you this.

    If you’re so against a novel who at one point only based character names on another, what do you say to those who take the plot line of a novel and just ‘modernize’ it by putting Jane Austen’s characters into high school? Or Shakespeare’s into Chicago?

    That to me seems like more of a grey area than this.

    Plus, let not fail to mention that people are reading. Actual books. Not ebooks. This is a huge print run that will affect a bookstore, the publisher, etc.

    1. You ask a good question re: fanfic vs. redux and it sparked some lively discussion amongst my writer friends. I stand by my opinion that reduxes of classic literature are much less murkier than 50 Shades and the like for one simple fact: public domain. Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc. are old stories and have had such a long, literary life that they have passed beyond the realms of legal copyright. They got time to breathe, to not be infringed upon, and with that advanced age comes a need to revamp what has become a classic tale, to shed a different angle of light on it by readdressing its themes. Publishing a fanfic of a work that’s been out for 5 or 10 years? Legally iffy and a little ethically gross.

      I refer you to Cait Peterson, who tackles the subject in a bit more detail. A well-done redux takes quite a bit of work, moreso than I think you’re giving them credit for.

      As for your last argument – that people are reading and therefore I should wave pompoms for the practice of publishing fanfiction – sorry, that one doesn’t really fly for me. People can read whatever they want, but it doesn’t mean I should be okay with this trend.

    2. Side note: Most of these former fanfics base more than just character names on the original work. Many of them also borrow basic plot structure, character relationships, causation, etc., that you can see showing through. Like I said, it’s can be quite impossible to eliminate these things without scrapping and starting over.

  11. Holly makes a good point. A couple of years ago it seems all I heard about was having a High Concept story, now that seems to be a risk the big 6 don’t want to take. I didn’t even know 50 Shades was fan fic until I picked it up at my mom’s house and read the first 10 pgs and gawked. I noticed she copied Meyer’s lack of writing skills, too. I didn’t have a problem with the actual storyline of Twilight until book 4, but it was painfully obvious Meyer was a new writer. I thought it comical that the 50 Shades author threw a bunch of fancy words in there . . . it still sounded like a 16-yr-old girl speaking. I couldn’t finish it. I guess it’s a catch-22. I’m happy people are reading (everyone at the salon the other day had a copy, along with a dictionary to look up words, lol), but I think ALL of us, not just Feaky Snucker, should be steering the people we know in better directions where reading is concerned.
    Great article:-)

    1. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚ And yeah, the best thing we can do is encourage others to expand their reading to better-written books. This is such a word-of-mouth business.

    1. Thank YOU for writing such a good post to refer to. It was a pretty lively Twitter discussion, and I’m glad someone wrote a post to swoop in and wrap it up.

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