on the commodification of fanworks

DISCLAIMER: I started writing this post eight months ago and have had it on the back burner since then. I’ve not been inclined to go back through except to finish off the ending just now, so please be advised that it might be disjointed or referencing events that happened…well…several months ago.


After all, it’s still relevant, particularly as it seems the ‘fanfic as practice’ and ‘fanfic as pretendy funtime’ meme has recently come up once more (see some good chat and fic recs here thanks to Gabby!).

I’ve been around media fandom now for almost fifteen years, comparatively not all that long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough to note that there are things that come and go in cycles ((Fleetwood Mac geeks: pretend I said that in a Lindsey Buckingham voice.)).

Every so often, and it’s becoming more and more frequent, and more and more mainstream…the media picks up that there’s this ~thing~, right, where people, adult people, get really into TV shows and movies and books and dress up like people from them and write little stories and tee hee erotic stuff and pretend things. It’s all a bit oddball and subculturey, but, in the words of a sage, ‘mostly harmless’; so there are a few cheap jokes and patronising comments, then everyone mostly forgets about it when the news cycle continues.

As an aside: Look, if you don’t understand, even academically, why someone would be interested in consuming or creating transformative works, you probably won’t be able to. It’s cool if you don’t; I don’t understand the appeal of, say, soccerfootball, and Your Interests Are Not My Interests, etc. But the staring is getting old, and the freak show type article in the media, is getting even older. Fanfic is becoming more mainstream, for reasons I could spend a whole post musing about, but even the most well-intentioned thinkpieces end up being the written equivalent of ‘oh, isn’t that sweet’ and pinched cheeks.

However, as a part of the media blitz, inevitably someone gets it into their head that they can make money on fandom. Not, mind, on producing canon or selling celebrity signatures or churning out nifty-but-ultimately-unnecessary licensed swag, things which are long proven capitalist ventures. They don’t even think about from scams that would make fandom_wank’s bread and butter. Nay, my friends, these benighted souls think they can profit from capitalizing on transformative works in some way. ((This brings to mind ‘a censustaker tried to quantify me once…’ for some reason. And I don’t even have a nice Chianti.))

Never mind that that’s been either a failure or a fairly mediocre venture each time it’s been tried. For more on this, see Fanlore on Fandom, Inc., FanLib, Kindle Worlds, and more that I can’t even remember enough about to look up. And these are just the obviously capitalistic attempts; there have been numerous attempts to use fandom for academic profit, for cultural collateral, and for legal cost (wondering how many billable hours went into C&D letters) among other kinds of exploitation.

This brings me (finally) to my actual point. With the Fifty Shades of Grey film ((I’m not going to start on FSoG and how it hurts my everything, as I will not be able to stop.)) coming out earlier this year, the public eye’s turned once again towards fanfiction. But because of how FSoG got published and just how damn popular it is, and how much bank EL James made off of it, even the media are chiming in on the notion of fanfic as mineable by industry–most notably, though not exclusively, this piece at the Daily Beast.

Lately, thinkpieces are quite keen to discuss how people have made money because of or as a result of fanfic. They tend to ignore that these are rare situations indeed–a blue moon, likely equivalent to the proportion of random people who make money off original work they’ve written, either self/small-press published or found in the slush. Another small chunk of people are previously authors of fic who now publish original fiction and are willing to admit to their ‘past lives’; fanfic is usually portrayed and stigmatised as training wheels, by the mainstream and within author communities. Even without authors admitting to continue to write fic (more than is evident), I’d suspect this is again, proportional to the amount of people who didn’t write fanfic before doing original work, or those who may have written fic but were not a part of organised fandom.

All of this is anecdote and hearsay, of course, because fandom is amazingly hard to quantify, but from an analytical perspective it adds up: sometimes people just get a goddamn zeitgeist, deserved or not.

Following on from that, if they spot one thing that causes a zeitgeist, media industries tend to grab up everything remotely similar. These things are often terrible, sometimes mildly profitable but not anything like the original, and then in ten years everyone looks back and says ‘wow, that was a load of shit’ and no one touches the zeitgeist topic for a couple decades because it’s been that overdone. Frankly, the world could do with a couple of decades without YA dystopias ((You know, I was looking for these when I was a teenager and was fifteen years too early, and I also read The Hunger Games before it was cool, for once in my life, so I’m willing to admit I’m a bit bitter.)), BDSM romances that throw Risk-Aware Consensual Kink out the window, and…yes, I’m going there…comic book film adaptations.

Because of this, I feel it’s ill-advised and incredibly narrow-sighted to say that fanfic will save publishing, or revitalise it, or whatever. There’s a long fannish tradition of doing what happened with FSoG, or in the vernacular, filing off the serial numbers. It’s become particularly common now in the age of accessible self-publishing, a rise in small and genre-based presses off the back of the legitimacy of digital publishing, and increased acceptance of LGBQ romance (and, uh, explicit erotica) as more mainstream genres, but it’s nothing remotely new. That Fanlore page dates it back over 25 years, but I would argue that it goes back further in terms of tweaking work into licensed tie-in fiction and general speculative fiction, if not necessarily into the romance genre.

Most people who do this don’t make huge profits off of their work, particularly in this day and age. A very very few do. We’re in an age where being a professional writer as one’s sole profession is a very difficult prospect.

But the biggest point of contention here is that generally, when it comes to transformative works, people aren’t in it for money. Most write because of emotional response to a canon–to add, to fix, to expand, to amend, to retell. People’s motivations to commit fic are varied, ranging from sex to politics to self-realization, but they do it because they feel something and want other people to feel something too, and yeah, for the props and the recognition too. But because not all of the idea is theirs but a shared one, they provide it free. The goal is not the cash but the feels.

Hence why linking fanfic to industry and monetary value causes so many to recoil.

The future of publishing as an industry is not in fanfiction, per se, but in diversifying its overall outlook: publishing more marginalised people who write, particularly people of colour; listening to the demands of all readers rather than a common denominator; accepting different and new platforms, styles, and narrative forms; and shifting the perception of genre fiction away from being simply for the escapist. That is, for a start.

Then again, most of the creative industries could learn these lessons too. I suspect we’ll all be beating our heads against this particular ceiling for a while until it caves in–but at the same time, I think I see a bit of a dent.

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