The first rule of fanfiction is to not publish it.
Let me start by saying that I love fanfiction. I’ve been reading it since way back in the days of listservs when I was in my first online fandom, Homicide: Life on the Street. I’ve also written fanfic over the years in various fandoms from Queer as Folk to Veronica Mars to As the World Turns. Writing fanfic for me is akin to picking up a guitar and noodling around with a popular song. It’s fun to have a Beatles jam session around the campfire while making s’mores. It’s relaxing, not for profit, and all in the spirit of deep love for the source material. No harm, no foul. (Did I mention it’s not for profit?)
So I was rather taken aback recently to read about the stunning popularity of the book 50 Shades of Grey since this book and its sequels were originally published online as Edward/Bella Twilight fanfic. The author then scraped off the serial numbers by changing the names and a few identifiying details, and had it published by a vanity press.
And now it’s been picked up by Random House for seven figures.
Yep. Seven figures for Twilight fanfic.
What shocks me the most is the lack of outcry over this, which I think stems from the fact that most people in the general public have no idea what fanfic is. Two of the books have made the New York Times bestseller list, which is garnering the author lots of mainstream media attention. The media call it a grown-up Twilight and sometimes mention that the author honed her skill writing Twi fanfic — but usually don’t acknowledge that 50 Shades of Grey itself was fanfic. (Also, E.L. James isn’t the only one who’s done a find and replace on names and published her fanfic. She’s just the most successful at it so far.)
I read one and a half books in the Twilight series before giving up. I know they are beloved by millions, but they were not my cup of tea, to say the least. (The popularity of that series just baffles me, frankly, but that’s a subject for another day.) Judging by excerpts, I don’t think 50 Shades of Grey is my cuppa either, which would make sense since it’s AU Edward/Bella fic with a find and replace on the names and different physical descriptions of the characters.
Stephenie Meyer’s books are her property and not in the public domain. No one should be writing about her characters and making a profit from it. Sure, every really popular book, movie or TV show will spawn knock-offs and use common tropes, but it’s not the same as publishing fanfic with the names changed. It’s not.
I would never say that fanfic writers aren’t real writers. They are, and some of them are damn good. But to take a piece of fanfic and then publish it for profit with different names and minor details is just wrong. I can’t imagine taking any of the fanfic I’ve written over the years and publishing it as original fiction. I find it unethical and, well, tacky. Fanfic has its place — and it’s not on the NYT bestseller list with different character names.
What about you? I’d really love to know people’s opinions on this. These books are clearly striking a chord in many readers. Why are they so popular? Does the fact that they were originally published as fanfiction matter?