Fanfiction as literature: Publishing derivative work
I’ll make this brief: I love fanfiction. I do. I’ve even written more than my fair share of it. As a tool for young or struggling writers, I think its value can’t be emphasized enough. It can give you the flight-time you need to sort out your own ideas before you tackle original work, while giving you an opportunity to get your stories into the hands of strangers all over the internet for feedback. Writing fanfiction is how I taught myself to write, just me and a word processor, struggling to balance authentic characterization and tone with my own interpretation of the source material. In fact, I’ve recently spoken to Colette Bennett of CNN.com’s GeekOut about the importance of fanfiction in my own writing experience. So, while George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice can come fight me on this any day, I’m all about fanfiction.
Because — and here’s the catch — it’s fun, not-for-profit, and nobody gets hurt. Right? Right. I’m not going to make money on my 20,000 word magnum opus on that cult TV show you’ve never heard of, or that 15K Avengers fanfic about Captain America’s torrid affair with Iron Man, or that novel-length Star Trek story about Captain Christopher Pike’s adventures in ending Orion slavery. (I haven’t actually written these things, but, you know, I could have.) My writing it will not impact the livelihoods of the copyright holders in any way, shape or form, because nobody’s going to forsake the source material for my rinky-dink, free-to-read derivative story. That’s how fanfiction has slipped under the radar of the legal system, and out from the crosshairs of very angry authors over the years.
Now? Well, now I’m not so sure.
Author Sylvain Reynard has recently signed a seven-figure deal with Penguin Group’s Berkley imprint, for two new books, Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture. That sounds cool, right? Good for him, getting out of the trenches to make a living on his writing. That’s what we all want for ourselves, and we shouldn’t crap another author for his successes. Except this book series started off as Twilight fanfiction. Just as with 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, publishers are now knowingly paying a lot of money for derivative works based on well-established properties. Working on the (apparently correct) assumption that fans of Twilight will drop money on any book that looks like their beloved series, publishing houses are now lapping up anything that will offer the same success, even fanfiction. Maybe it’s not exactly stealing money out of Stephanie Meyers’ mouth, since she’s already cashed her hefty royalty checks, but it still smells wrong.
Why? Because this completely dilutes the pool for everybody else out there. This tells hopeful authors that:
A) If you want to make a million dollars, write a fanfic based on a popular story, change the names to protect the innocent, and send it to the nearest publisher.
B) Publishers don’t care about original, engaging work. They just want more of the same.
Neither are entirely true, but these assumptions aren’t exactly baseless, either. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of trying to do anything for yourself? What’s the point of trying to publish anything at all, if all that gets rewarded is The Same Old Thing? I’m not even going to debate whether these books are any good, or the fuzzy gray area of “artistic borrowing,” or why mainstream publishing sucks, or how Jorge Luis Borges spent years writing sequels and fanfiction about Don Quixote and why it was cool when he did it, because that’s not the point. What I’m bothered by is the standard it sets up for everybody else.
If the publishing industry is so hell-bent on making money on the latest trend, there’s no room for growth or change within the market. Maybe it was a tiny stab of petulant jealousy, but I was seriously depressed when I heard about 50 Shades of Grey, and even more so after Gabriel’s Inferno. Hey, I would like a million dollars. Everybody wants to get paid for their work, and if the only thing that people are getting paid for is derivative fanfiction porn, why not get on the boat? I even thought about dusting off that 15k Avengers fic (that I totally didn’t write, cough cough) and giving it a once-over because, hey, Avengers are in right now, right? Who wouldn’t want to read about the Harlequin romance of Roger Stephens by a brilliant playboy philanthropist? I’d down for that.
Okay, so. Maybe not.
I just want to see how far down the rabbit hole the publishing industry is willing to go with this. In five- or ten-years’ time, will we all just be reading reworked fanfiction? Is that the only thing that’s going to be picked up anymore? Are the rest of us relegated to the outskirts of independent publishing, hoping for a few pennies to rub together while the E.L. Jameses and Sylvain Reynards make the big bucks? We’ll just have to wait and see.