The Market of Published Fanfiction

Even the title I just wrote gives me the willies a little bit. It suggests ‘the act of making money from fanfiction.’ What is fanfiction? Well, according to Dictionary.com it’s:

Fanfic definition

The key part there is “using existing characters and situations to develop new plots.” Now let’s get down to that little disclaimer some of you would recognize at the beginnings of so many online fics. It’s the “cover your ass” disclaimer. And an example of one would be “I don’t own _____. _____ is the property of _____, and are not my intellectual property. There is no financial gain made from this nor will any be sought. This is for entertainment purposes only.” Not all fanfic writers add that disclaimer, and it’s not *really* required, but it is something that has always been assumed in the online fiction world that you don’t make any money off the characters you’re writing about, because the characters belong to someone else.

Ok what about uber aka AU (alternate universe) fiction? According to Wikipedia, it is “the occurrence of canonical facts about the setting or characterization of a particular fictional universe being explored in a non-canonical way.” So basically, you are taking these characters and putting them into a new world that the writer created, with new circumstances and settings. Now this is where it gets tricky. How alternate can a universe be before you can justify making money from these fanfictions? The delineation of that line appears to be shifting after the publication of Fifty Shades of Gray. Now, I never read the Twilight books, but it is widely known that Fifty Shades started as an AU fanfic of Edward and Bella. Are the characters different enough from the original narrative to keep E.L. James from getting sued? Apparently, as I don’t recall her being sued.

In the world of lesbian fiction, fanfiction is rampant. This stems from the fact that LGBT people have been woefully under-represented in TV and film, so had to create their own world themselves. This is completely fine and understandable. It’s also how a lot of lesbian fiction writers got their start, practicing and honing their craft online before attempting to put their efforts into the world for a hopeful eventual profit. As expected, many lesfic publishing houses drew from their uber roots, which explains the vast number of tall, dark-haired brooding dames and their short blonde girlfriends in so many lesbian romances. Welcome to lesfic, Xena!

I honestly don’t have a problem paying for a book where I can not see the characters or settings from the TV show in the story. I imagine it as it’s presented to me, adding things in my own mind. For these types of stories, when someone tells me “you know, that started as fanfic,” I think “huh, well that’s not how I picture them, I never would have known if you hadn’t told me!” That is the sign of a book that has successfully separated itself from the show or characters they do not own.

So then where do we draw the line when publishing existing fanfiction as original works? Looking at today’s market, I’d say that line has virtually disappeared. I have read at least 5 books in the past year that were thinly veiled AU works of existing TV characters. One I read last year didn’t even bother changing the character’s name. Same mannerisms, same secondary characters, same personalities. They added new things for these people to experience, but it doesn’t change the fact that the author is making money from characters they did not create. That is legitimately illegal. And if the show creators felt like prosecuting authors, there are plenty of books out there right now that are so blatantly based off their shows it wouldn’t even be a question. They would win.

This is a problem. I don’t know if I’m getting more sensitive to it, or if there really are so many more instances of this happening in the last few years, but it upsets me. It’s not simply the act of charging people for something you offered them for free a few months ago; people can spend their money however they see fit. But it’s the blatant disregard of the disclaimer I have such a difficult time with. It’s using a character’s attributes and personalities that YOU did not create. That is plagiarism. Want the exact definition?

an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author

Read that very carefully. If you have published a novel, made money from that novel, using characters that are blatant representations of those from a TV show that you do not own, without permission or crediting the original script author/show creator, you are plagiarizing. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides enough is enough and sues you, and they are well within their rights for doing so. Publishers? Please stop actively allowing this to happen. If a writer shows promise, encourage them to create original work. Use their fanfiction as a portfolio instead of a quick easy way to make a buck from someone with an established online fanbase. It’s the right thing to do.

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The Market of Published Fanfiction

8 thoughts on “The Market of Published Fanfiction

  1. Lucy Smith says:

    I agree with every word you say. I think completely AU scenarios are just fine but some fanfic conversions are blatant rip-offs. And it’s not just self-published writers who do this, supposed professional lesfic publishers do it too. Ylva Publishing released The Return by Ana Matics and when I read that, poorly written and edited, book I was stunned that it was so like the storyline of Once Upon A Time. Even more stunned to discover that Ana Matics is actually Ellen Simpson, who is a writer for the series Carmilla. I can’t imagine that Ellen Simpson would look too kindly on any authors who profiteered from using the Carmilla characters in their own books. If anyone at ABC took a glance at The Return I think Ylva Publishing would find it hard to fight the inevitable lawsuit. It’s a shame that some people are plagiarizing like this because it will only end up hurting all of us who enjoy reading fan fiction. Because when those lawsuits come, and they will, it will destroy a lot of fan communities.

    1. I think it’s a problem with several publishing houses, but I agree iwth your points. I also share your worry about what could happen with the fan communities if this all eventually backlashed. These are all ‘small potatoes’ in the scheme of things, but if anything got big enough for them to take note it could be a difficult situation for all.

  2. I promise if I had known that Xena fanfiction existed, I would definitely not have made the main character in my thriller series tall and dark with a shorter blonde wife. I cringe every time someone says I write “uber” anything. I can’t be writing Xena fanfic, because I’m not a fan, have never seen an episode, and think my character deserves a better actress. (Before the Xenites attack me, let me say I respect their loyalty to Lucy, but when I picture Rainey Bell, she’s more a mix of Angelina Jolie and Mariska Hargitay. As dramatic actresses go, I think my pair has a bit more chops.) I find it offensive that people think for one minute I would claim to have created characters based on someone else’s ideas. I’ve never understood how people continue to sell books that proclaim on the cover that the material has roots in someone else’s imagination.
    I believe fan fiction to be a great writing tool. I believe creating one’s own characters to be much more rewarding. I believe that selling someone else’s ideas is wrong on so many levels. Thank you for your post.

  3. The dark/blonde pairing has been around for much longer than Xena. What’s really being discussed is the blatant co-opting of characters from television shows/books. If something is only a basic physical similarity, it’s not really what this post is about. Characters who may only vaguely resemble characters depicted in other media aren’t really the problem as described in the post.

  4. I love fanfic. I’m a reader, writer, and supporter of it. With so many shows queer baiting, but never actually following through on a lesbian or gay storyline it’s wonderful to come across stories written by the fans where dreams do come true. 🙂 It’s an homage. Not a rip-off. Now, as you say in the article, if someone knowingly writes and publishes fanfic as a novel or novella for profit that is wrong. But as R.E Bradshaw (BTW I love the Rainey series) stated above, some people are claiming everything is based on fanfic just because the leads are described a certain way. There are lots of relationships in the world featuring brunettes and blondes. Seriously, there aren’t that many colors to choose from. Even if a novel isn’t based on a TV show or movie I confess that as I read them I find myself wondering which actor or actress would portray them in a movie. I’m building my own fanfic world in my head. Is that a crime? If I have a certain character or characters in my mind as I write does that make me guilty of plagiarism? I don’t allow my characters to be carbon copies of the characters on TV or in movies. I draw from my own experiences and create what I hope are new and interesting players when I write for anthologies and also the novel I’m working on. Where is the line drawn?

    1. It’s certainly not a crime to write and create fanfic at all. It’s the profiting on characters you don’t create without taking away the characteristics someone else created that’s a crime

  5. Interesting topic. I have come to realize that I missed the boat as an author by not starting in fan fiction. I tried some but the copyright infringement made me uncomfortable, so it remains on my hard drive. But there is a fine line for publishers to tread. Who wouldn’t want a built-in audience (aka brand) for a writer. Publishers are in it to make money, and if someone like EL James comes with millions of readers, no matter how crappy her writing, then they’ll go for it.

    But to make no pretense of changing the details and coming up with something original, if “inspired” by something that exists, is a line I’m not willing to cross as a reader or writer. As a writer, I consciously shy away from having a character be tall and dark with a shorter, blonde counterpart. That’s annoying to be restricted. I feel for RE Bradshaw. Making money off someone else’s work is wrong. JK Rowling is famously in favor of fan fiction for her characters, but draws the line at making money off it.

    As I understand it, the resurgence of lesbian fiction since 2000 is largely due to Xena fan fiction (I’ve been shocked to hear young lesbians say lesbian fiction began with Xena!). Radclyffe being a prime example. It might also be why lesbian fiction languishes. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day?

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