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Success or a Sell Out? The Debate of Adopting Fanfiction for Publication

By Alice Fusai, Chloe Marshall, Frankie Harnett and Natalie Klinkenberg


Fanfiction, traditionally confined to online platforms and forums, has often found its way into mainstream publishing. This transition marks a significant shift in the way fan-driven narratives are perceived and consumed.


Fanfiction is a form of derivative work where fans of a particular book, movie, TV show, or other media create their own stories based on existing characters and settings. These narratives often explore ‘what if’ scenarios or delve into unexplored aspects of the source material. Fanfiction communities thrive on platforms like Archive of Our Own (AO3), FanFiction.Net, and Wattpad, where writers share their creations with fellow enthusiasts.


As fanfiction gained traction, some authors and publishers began to recognize its potential as a marketable commodity. One of the most prominent examples of fanfiction-turned-publishing sensation is E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Originally conceived as Twilight fanfiction, the story undertook significant transformation before being published as a standalone novel. Another one is Anna Todd's After series, initially serialised on Wattpad, which gained a massive following among fans of boy band One Direction.

 

The main differences between a text that has been published on a site such as Wattpad and one that is published through mainstream or independent publishing routes are the author’s freedom over content and deadlines, the lack of editorial processes, and the reader’s instant, free and unrestricted access to such content. The publication of fanfiction online is characteristically democratic, decentralised, and largely unpaid; it tends therefore to be unregulated and escapes adherence to copyright law which traditionally published works must follow. 


For a fanfiction author, establishing a fanbase involves targeting the existing fanbase of the work (text A) upon which the fanfiction (text B) is based. Therefore, when a fanfiction becomes popular enough to be considered for publication through mainstream channels, the readership is likely to consist mostly of the wider fanbase of the original work and is thus more obviously marketable to this particular audience (text A). This is a great opportunity for a fanfiction author to earn revenue from work which would otherwise go unpaid, by assuming the rights over their work. Further, it lends legitimacy to work which  due to its derivational and independent nature  is often disregarded as of lesser quality than traditionally published work. 


This misconception relies upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which literature is and has always been produced. No work is an original creation free from influence, nor does the evidence or admittance of an obvious influence mean that other works are ‘more’ original due to a dissimulation of their influence/s. Although the mainstream publication or adaptation of work published on fanfiction sites achieves a standardisation and monetisation of the product, this should rather expose a fluidity between fanfiction and traditionally published works, as well as a recognition, rather than a bestowal of legitimacy.


But while fans clamour excitedly awaiting the legitimate release of formerly stigmatised stories, there is a second front that fears the release of this fiction. For one, when these works are adopted by mainstream audiences, many fans fear the loss of some of the story's original elements to make it more palpable for a wider readership. In next year's highly anticipated Alchemised, die-hard fans fear the loss of some of the darker elements of the original Manacled that made the story as gripping and heart-wrenching as it is. Similarly, become attached to these stories in the first place as they take place in already familiar worlds. However, mainstream publication of this novel requires a complete separation from the original fandom. While a recent success, Thea Guanzon’s The Hurricane Wars has lost the Star Wars elements and the beloved ‘Reylo’ fandom that made it so popular in the first place.


Similarly, many fear the loss of the original works. While Anna Todd’s After is still available on Wattpad in its original form as a One Direction fanfiction, most are removed from sites after publication. Copyright concerns have always been present. However, the era of BookTok has accelerated this, promoting a growing trend of illegally binding and selling fanfiction for profit. As such, writers like SenLinYu, the author of Alchemised, describe the process of taking down her work as “[her] way of taking ownership back,” however, readers still mourn the loss of the story they grew so attached to.


It's without a doubt that fanfiction has always been an important aspect within the fandom space. From wanting to continue the storylines of their favourite characters to making a piece of media more inclusive, fanfiction helps bring fandoms together by creating a smaller community within itself of those who have read the stories. Adapting beloved fanfiction for mainstream publication allows the fandom to read an original work inspired by their favourite media, and the writer can reimagine and create a new story that belongs to themselves rather than an entire fandom. 


Of course, fanfiction has its stereotypes to fight against. From being labelled as lazy writing for being ‘unoriginal’ to promoting harmful tropes, these stereotypes can fuel the fire for those against publishing fanfiction traditionally. Nevertheless, there has already been success in the fanfiction to published book pipeline with books such as After and The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood. Publishing fanfiction gives publishers access to a ready-made market with a wide commercial appeal since there’s an audience that would buy the book regardless of whether they have read the fanfiction prior to its mainstream publication. By adapting and publishing fanfiction, the publishing industry is giving talented writers another chance at having their work read on a bigger scale and be loved by audiences outside the fandom.


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