How a Stellar Combination Impacted Publishing
By: Kalynna Davies
July 5th, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
In fan spaces (fandoms), “fanfiction” has become a staple of fan-based production for many popular pieces of media, like books, television shows or movies. This kind of literature has been around for much longer than most modern fans are familiar with, and has a wide-spanning history and set of influences that are heavily felt by pop culture and the publication industry.
On the opposite side of media consumers, there are those who do not participate in fandom, do not even know what fanfiction is. Fanfictions, as defined by Merriam-Webster, are “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet.”
The dictionary claims that the very first use of the word is from the year 1939, but all the examples are modern, from 2022. After a bit of digging, Jeff Prucher gives an example from the 1930s in his book “Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction” reading ““B. Tucker” “Le Zombie” (Aug. 19) 2: And Milt is to be congratulated on the story … it is definitely pro and not fan fiction.”
This example describes a work of amateur fiction versus pro-fiction, and while it is technically correct, it barely scratches the surface of what fanfiction is to the modern reader.
Fanfiction has not been limited to just the sphere of the fictional — it has extended into fictions about celebrities and religious figures. While this specific term was not applied to works like Dante’s Inferno (1472) by Dante Alhigieri or Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton, both could be interpreted as fanfiction of the Bible. They also both predate the first known use of the word by hundreds of years.
More academic members of the literary community would prefer to label these works as pastchies, which are defined as “literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work[s] that imitate the style of previous work.” There’s no reason that fanfiction shouldn’t be housed under this term, but many people find the word pastchies much more professional to use.
The distinction is only important to those who have more classical ideas about literature, and insist on using arbitrary lines to separate “classics” from “fanfiction.”
Fanfiction as we know it, composed of niche groups with individual writers, really began taking off in the 1960s, with the rise of media like ‘Star Trek.’ Fans began reimagining the source material for themselves, creating and publishing it at home and passing it around to their friends. One product of this was an uptick in ‘fanzines,’ unofficial publications made by fans of a particular cultural moment.
Although fanzines were first introduced by the science fiction community in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1940 that the word was coined by Russ Chauvenet in his sci-fi publication titled Detours. This development touches self-publication to this day in the form of Zines. According to the ‘Zine Basics’ written by Barnard College, “A zine, short for fanzine or magazine, is a DIY* subculture self-publication, usually made on paper and reproduced with a photocopier or printer.” This is just one example of how science fiction communities pioneered modern fandom spaces — they’re even attributed with creating the word “fandom.”
One member of this community is Lily Richardson*, a 64-year-old woman who was an avid Star Trek fan during her teen years. Although Richardson is very hesitant to describe her experience due to the stigma she received during her time in the fan space, she gave very valuable insight into the nature of fandom in the 1960s. “Being involved in fandom, fanzines, and fanfiction, and a woman on top of all of that, was considered really quite odd,” she said. “A lot of us only shared it amongst friend groups, all kinds of little drawings, and fiction and poetry — long before the internet was a popular thing.”
Even without official publication on their sides, fans carved out a space for their own creations to thrive — mostly among those with shared interests. Zines, used to develop a culture of unofficial publications, changed the way that fans could interact with the characters. They didn’t have to buy official merchandise or wait every week for these pieces of media — instead, they made them.
Something that shifted the nature of this production was the development of public access to the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Richardson recalled that “there were definitely some early fanfic pages for popular media. Star Trek, X-Files — there weren’t any huge databases with fanfiction from every kind of show, or movie, or musicians. I think the internet really changed the landscape of fanfiction because, now, you can go on a fanfiction website and see a little something from everybody, from all corners of the world.
Since then, the internet realm of fanfiction has only become more prominent, with early collectors of fanfiction being websites like Quotev, LiveJournal, Tumblr, and Fanfiction.net, which were only recently surpassed in use by websites such as Wattpad or Archive of our Own (AO3).
While the creators of AO3 — a nonprofit organization called The Organization for Transformative Works — stated they were “established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms.” On AO3, there are over 53,650 fandoms, 5,152,000 users, and 10,160,000 works. Fanfiction.net boasts an impressive number as well, with 2,570 fandoms and 1,649,532 works in the ‘Book’ section alone. It’s clear to see that both sites, no matter how old, host an array of writers, media, and diversity amongst fan spaces.
While many have opinions that fanfiction isn’t “real” literature or is only for amateurs, many mainstream readers, along with the publishing industry, have begun to realize that is not entirely true. The popularization of this activity has allowed for fan communities to flourish, and allows writers to be seen as authors, hobbyists, and even artists instead of weirdos.
However, widening up the space has also allowed for it to take on a business element. Scouts have taken to scouring the internet for talent, looking for stories that can be converted to the page. A prominent example would be the well-known book Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James — or, as known on fanfiction.net, Master of the Universe, by Snowqueens Icedragon.
The original tale was a fanfiction novel between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan from the Twilight Series — but after garnering so much attention online, the book was able to go in for publication after a few slight tweaks on the names and locations of the fictional characters. Edward Cullen became Christian Grey, Bella Swan became Anastasisa Steele — and E.L James became rich. After this very successful model, other fanfiction writers began doing the same thing — modifying or taking down their old works from websites in order to put them on shelves instead.
Wattpad has become particularly adept at this, the proof being Anna Todd’s series
After, which was originally published in 2013 under the pen name imaginator1D and was recently adapted to film in 2019.
The story told a sordid affair between characters Tessa and Harry Styles, whose name was later changed to Hardin in order to avoid a lawsuit prior to undergoing production. It has over 20 million readers and a fair amount of watchers — enough that the franchise has four movies already, the most recent being After Ever Happy, released by Voltage Pictures in September of 2022.
In both instances, the fiction was created by taking real people or characters and reimagining their lives — and since they have found such mainstream success, there are bound to be more examples cropping up in the years to come.
Blueburns_01, a reader on Wattpad since 2013, stated, “It’s normal to see works being taken down or changed because they’re going to become books instead. It’s really great to see all of these authors being appreciated for their work, but it also kind of takes away from the fandom space created on these websites.”
It has become common practice to have entire novel-length fanfictions downloaded on one’s computer, just in case the author decides to go forward and publish. Since copyright is a serious issue everytime one of these fanfictions go to print, they often end up changing the spirit of the story, to appeal more to the masses instead of a niche group of people.
The publishing industry learning that these kinds of stories sell is what leads them to move forward with making them into books, and eventually movies. But it does infringe on fandom space, where people usually put massive efforts into art, literature and costumes just for the enjoyment of it.
Publishing fanfiction is not particularly a bad thing — in fact, it provides more of a double-edged sword than anything else. On one hand, people are starting to get recognized, and their work is being accepted in literary communities, which is traditionally a very serious and stern field regarding what literature is and is not.
On the other hand, introducing capital to these spaces has done its fair share of damage, as authors are not interested in keeping their original fanfiction up if it can be changed and modified for mass and public consumption.
Blueburns said, “Sometimes I can kind of tell when a book used to be fanfiction. If they describe the main couple’s eyes as really, really green and really, really blue, then that’s Supernatural’s Dean Winchester and Castiel. If the main couple are a know-it-all with bushy hair and a snob with a sleek, blonde look, that’s Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy.”
These are the kinds of details that go unnoticed by regular consumers, but those who participate in fandom spaces, or, more specifically, the reading and writing of fanfiction, can point out these kinds of connections, as they are heavily reminiscent of specific tropes used in specific fandoms.
This transition shouldn’t be seen as an entirely bad thing, though. Some authors never disclose the history of their fanfiction-based novels because they don’t want their professional career to have those listed as examples. This is a perfectly rational move for budding authors, and, ultimately, is good for them. Whether the work is taken down or modified, most readers empathize with their choice, and wish them the best.
Some authors, such as Ali Hazelwood, find their roots worth sharing, and use that appeal in order to garner a certain kind of crowd or fanbase. Her novel, titled The Love Hypothesis, took inspiration from Star Wars. The original form of the novel was titled “Head Over Feet” in 2018, and is no longer available on any of these fanfiction platforms but can be found circulating Reddit in PDF form.
However, Hazelwood hints at its past with a rather obvious summary, reading “As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships — but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof.”
With the character Olive Smith based on Rey, and her love interest Adam Carlsen based on Kylo Ren, this seems like a very pointed nugget for those who may have come across the fanfiction before it was repurposed to become suitable for shelves.
Through the journey of fanfiction — old or new, unofficial or self-proclaimed — it’s clear to see that fanfiction has made a change in publication. In earlier years, this influence was largely unseen or scorned by mass media, but, in more recent years is seen as a genuine foray into the writing world, a hobby and, for some, a viable career.
With fanfiction becoming less stigmatized in the publishing industry, it is expected there will be similar instances in years to come. That is not to say that all of them will be good — after all, there are a lot of works that heavily rely on the idea of tropes. However, there is also a budding group of writers who are developing their craft by re-imagining characters they love, and developing community with like-minded people.
This, in the very least, could be seen as a good exercise for authors to practice character interactions, world building and even dealing with less-than-ideal readers. Over the years, many authors have left fanfiction to create worlds and characters of their own — and whether they take the characters along with them or leave them behind on websites like AO3, their creations have changed the face of publishing in some way or form.
With fandom and fanfiction growing to encompass anime, bands and politicians, along with movies, shows, TV and genres from horror to comedy, the collective efforts of fanfiction writers from the past and present have given future writers a chance to evolve their work into printed publications. Even if the introduction of business to fandom space could encourage more trope-littered stories in hopes of garnering public attention, there are an equal number of writers dedicated to their craft, their fandoms, and telling good, complex stories.
And who knows? Maybe ten years down the line, there will be new fanfiction for those stories, too.
*This is a pseudonym.
Kalynna Davies is an English major in her senior year. She has a concentration in creative writing and a minor in film – these are both activities she enjoys outside of the classroom, as well. In the future, she intends to use these skills to cultivate counterstories in an array of media – from novel to film.