At the Daily Beast, Oliver Jones wrote a piece entitled “Why Fan Fiction is the Future of Publishing”. If I’m reading Jones correctly, he calls fan fiction the “savior of publishing” because it is “a way of marketing their books and building a following”. And, because of fan fiction, traditional publishing has been forced to play catch up when a niche genre (like erotic romance a la Fifty Shades of Grey) suddenly becomes mainstream. I suppose Jones is inferring that this is just the beginning of a trend of trad publishing playing catch up with what people with computers like to read.
I wouldn’t call fan fiction the future of publishing. I would call it publishing’s step sister who tags along and helps out on occasion when she isn’t getting in the way. Now, before writers of fan fiction get upset, let me explain.
I’ve written fan fiction. I’ve written stories about my favorite book series like Animorphs and (when I did love it) the Harry Dresden books. When I was a Supernatural geek, I wrote Supernatural fan fiction and, yes, I have written Loki fan fiction. So, it’s not like I’m looking in from the outside. Heck, I roleplay on tumblr on occasion and that’s not far from fan fiction. However, I think Oliver Jones is giving fan fiction a little more credit than it deserves.
You have to look at the motivation of fan fiction writers.
The writer behind E.L. James was most likely writing for pure enjoyment, like most writers of fan fiction. Fans can get so obsessed or so into a show or book that we can’t keep our wondering and imagination to ourselves, so it comes out in fan fiction and roleplay. But when people really started reading James’ stories and loving them, she realized she had something. So, she pulled it, changed the names, and published it. The books (which I would call the worst writing to ever hit shelves in the history of shelves) were an immediate hit (for reasons that baffle the mind) and traditional publishing had to play catch up.
The Fifty Shades Phenomenon is extremely rare in the fan fiction world.
Why? Because most writers of fan fiction write for pure enjoyment. They don’t write for any other reason than that. There are other extremely popular fan fiction stories out there that have stayed fan fiction. For example, there’s a slash Supernatural story (where Dean and Castiel get together) that is considered a must read for all Destiel fans. I’ve never read it, so I don’t know if it’s actually any good, but it hits all the right spots for Destiel fans. As far as I know, the writer behind that story is content to let it remain fan fiction and is happy to have something to share in the community. This is the attitude of most fan fiction writers.
As far as it being a way of marketing their books…I don’t know about that.
You see, when I would go onto fanfiction.net, I went straight to my chosen media of the day, be it Supernatural, Marvel, or Animorphs. I didn’t look anywhere else. Why would I? Furthermore, fan fiction is mostly people writing what they would like to see happen on the show. Some are fairly canon (that is, they stay close to the mythology of the story) or they are way out in left field.
Even if someone heard so much about a particular story from a fan base to which they don’t belong that they decide to read the story, that person is reading what the author hopes would happen in the canon of the story. Take Fifty Shades when it was still “Master of the Universe” for example. Let’s say someone had heard about Twilight but never read it. Their friend says, “Dude, you need to read this fan fiction.” After a lot of cajoling, they do. However, “Master of the Universe” is one of those out-in-left-field stories. Imagine that person’s disappointment when they realize the fan fiction they have come to love bears little resemblance to the actual Meyer novels.
I really don’t see how that’s good marketing.
Fan fiction is primarily for (wait for it) fans.
As I mentioned above, people tend to stick to what they know. It’s not often that people read the fiction of a different fanbase. A lot of times, to really enjoy a fan fiction story, you have to know the source material. For example, how can you enjoy Loki’s redemption that occurs in so many stories if you’ve never seen any of the Marvel movies and watched Loki’s character development? Furthermore, what would make a reader pick up a fan fiction story about a character they know nothing about?
I’m sure it happens but I don’t think it happens often enough to be called “marketing”.
Could the Fifty Shades Phenomenon be the beginning of traditional publishing paying attention to what’s happening in the digital world? Maybe. But that has more to do with the surprising success of that one novel series that had a beginning as fan fiction. As far as the publishing world is concerned. I don’t think fan fiction is ever going to be more than a muddled chaos of potential copyright infringement.
Now, what if I found that people were writing fan fiction about one of my novels? Well, I would be extremely flattered. I wouldn’t be like Anne Rice or George R.R. Martin. I would think it’s the best compliment my fans could give me.