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From Fanfiction to Paperback: The Change for Better or Worse

The traditional publishing world has a strange relationship with fanfiction. Now, more than ever, that relationship seems to be shifting.

fanfiction.net screenshot
Credit: Shutterstock/Sharaf Maksumov

In the early 2000s, popular author Anne Rice came out and made a statement regarding fan works surrounding her popular series, The Vampire Chronicles. She spoke of her characters in a protective manner and dispelled all fans from trying to write fanfiction about them. She sent cease and desist letters to many writers, and while this ended quickly, her stance on fanfiction stood until her passing.

Fanfiction, by nature, is not supposed to be profitable; it is a way to enjoy your favorite characters once you have enjoyed their original works. Often, fanfiction stays where it began, within its fandom, enjoyed by its fans. What happens once it starts to find its way into the original creator’s world? Or when it becomes its original world itself?

Fanfiction - The Vampire Chronicles
Credit: Amazon

Harry Potter fanfiction sensation Manacled was put up in 2019 on fanfiction website “archiveofourown.org” and quickly took Harry Potter fans by storm.

Even people outside of the fandom found themselves being recommended Manacled for a good enemies-to-lovers story. Recently, Manacled got picked up by publishing house Penguin Random House to follow a traditional publishing route. 

Author SenLinYu plans on taking Manacled and reimagining the obvious Harry Potter aspects before it was published into her first novel, Alchemised. While avid Manacled fans are excited for this new version of their favorite story, it is not that simple.

A Light History of Fanfiction

Fanfiction has been part of the literary world for as long as stories have been told. Even Dante’s Inferno, is a self-insert of Dante hanging out with his favorite writers! 

Still, the idea that fanfiction can be published traditionally is a new and inviting idea. Despite many readers enjoying both fanfiction and traditionally published works, the author of these pieces have not always been on the same page. That being said, the gap between fanfic writers and traditional authors is shrinking more and more. 

Back in 2013, Cassandra Clare released the first of her Shadowhunter universe, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The rumors claiming the series started as Harry Potter fanfiction traveled quickly. Cassandra Clare was quick to claim that nothing of the sorts was true. Even the sensation 50 Shades of Grey started with rumors of it being Twilight fanfic. Before it was 50 Shades of Grey, it was Master of the Universe under E.L James’ pen name Snowqueen Icedragon.

The Start of Widely Known Issues.

Cassandra Clare and E.L James’ more subtle nature pertaining the fanfiction world led to more rumors. While Cassandra Clare admitted to writing fanfiction, the nature of this fanfiction was up for debate. Often, it was rumored that she wrote incest fanfiction between Ron and Ginny within the Harry Potter world.

While this is taboo, it can be common within fanfiction. Traditional readers took it upon themselves to ask intrusive questions towards Cassandra Clare and her love of the taboo. E.L James’ character dynamics were also questioned.

Fanfiction characterization is often quite different from traditionally published works. Since fanfiction deals with characters that readers are already familiar with, fanfiction writers don’t spend as much time establishing these characters. Instead, they are characters that are known and loved within new scenarios. This means once 50 Shades of Grey was turned into its own work, the characters within it should have stood on their own. Readers saw a toxic and abusive dynamic once the characters were separated from Twilight.

While these dynamics most likely exist in the fanfiction version, in that stage, there was no money, no promotion behind it, and it stayed within a certain circle of Twilight fanfiction readers. The act of the fanfiction getting published exposed it to a larger audience unaware of fanfiction’s taboo nature.

Once traditionally published, authors did not often speak of their fanfiction days. Cassandra Clare would admit to writing Harry Potter fanfiction but is always quick to deny that it got traditionally published. Instead, she made sure people knew that The Mortal Instruments was her own creation completely.

Moving towards change

If E.L. James and Cassandra Clare started forming fan-created work in traditional publishing spaces, Anna Todd was the first official queen of published fanfiction. When One Direction Infection was taking over the world, Anna Todd started to write a Harry Styles fanfiction on Wattpad called After. (Personally, I was more of a Damaged fan when it came to Harry Styles fanfic.) Still, the After hype was real in the fandom.

After became a quick must-read in the One Direction fandom. The stigma surrounding fan driven work was still fairly strong, so After did not first see popularity outside of its fandom for a while. Still, in 2014, Simon & Schuster’s imprint Gallery Books, caught wind of After’s popularity and picked up publishing it traditionally.

Anna was happy to spread the word of her upcoming publication. Never once did she try to hide any connection to it being a Harry Styles fanfiction. Even the main love interest’s name went from “Harry Styles” to “Hardin Scott.” After was not only well received in its fandom but also in traditionally published work, quickly turning into a four-book series with a two-book series spin-off. It was even turned into a film series on Netflix.  

Issues with the Fanfiction After

Despite its popularity, After caused a stir once it was published traditionally. Since the nature of the original works was not hidden, the public turned to the inspiration of the fanfiction, Harry Styles. This caused issues within not only the fanfiction fans but the Harry Styles fans as well. Since After was so connected to Harry Styles it felt impossible to separate the two at first.

People wanted to know how Harry Styles himself felt about this being turned into something for profit, if he had read the original work if he had spoken about it at some point, and if he had gotten a restraining order against Anna Todd.

"After' Fanfic series by Anna Todd title.
Credit: Simon & Schuster

Wattpad itself, the website Anna first put After up on, has evolved quickly over the years. It went from a place of pure fanfiction to somewhat of its own publishing house; it is more common to see a “Seen on Wattpad” sticker on a book than ever. 

Current Fanfiction in our World

As are most things in our current world, TikTok has impacted the books that are becoming popular, and it is no different in the fanfiction world. Before Manacled, Olivie Blake and Ali Hazelwood took over BookTok. Both Hazelwood and Blake follow in Anna Todd’s footsteps.

Olivie Blake is a pen name for writer Alexene Farol Fallmuth. This is a pen name she has been using since her fanfiction days. She wears the badge of a fanfiction writer loud and proud. Olivie Blake’s works are still up on archiveofourown under the same pen name. She often speaks of her time as a fanfiction writer and how it inspired her published works. Even in her FAQ she claims she is not done with fanfiction. 

Ali Hazelwood comes from the current most popular fanfiction ship in published books, ReyloReylo, The Star Wars ship of Kylo Ren and Rey Skywalker, is taking over the published book world in a way we have not seen. While Harry Potter could have rivaled this, the stigma around fanfics being published was too taboo for authors when Harry Potter fanfiction was the biggest thing. 

Now, with the stigma faded, books like The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, You Again by Kate Goldbeck and Knives, Seasoning, & A Dash of Love by Katrina Kwan can be sold as “Reylo” fanfic. Certain readers are jumping to buy the book.

What does it all mean?

Reading traditionally published work versus fanfiction will always feel different to readers. Oftentimes, fanfiction does not spend the time to establish any characters, expecting the readers to know what characters they are reading for. The world building is not always fanfictions strongest suit since, most often, the world is already built for readers. This is not something that makes fanfiction bad, instead, it is a place for readers to be able to enjoy free works about their favorite universes and characters. 

Even when fanfiction gets picked up and traditionally published, it will be different from its original source for obvious reasons. Fanfiction has its own sets of rules. Legality plays a role in fanfiction, and many fandom spaces have their own rules that readers should be aware of. 

Legality issues

This line between fanfiction and traditionally published books can teeter on legality. People have started wanting their favorite fanfic in a physical form. There is nothing wrong with taking your favorite stories and bounding them yourselves. This means the market for fanfiction binding is growing.

Binding books for yourself, with author permission, is a popular hobby amongst avid fanfic readers. The problem comes in selling bound fanfiction, or any fanfic, is not legal or moral. Fanfic writers make no money; it is a service of pure joy and should, ideally, stay that way.

Beyond that, the legality behind taking another author’s work and writing fanfiction just for it to be published is still up in the air. What is the difference between being inspired and plagiarism? Who decides these lines?

All fanfiction will not turn into a published book, and all of them should not be read as something to be turned into a published book. There is nothing wrong with fanfiction being a work of fandom and staying simply that. Fanfiction helps bring together readers and writers. Often, fanfic writers are also avid readers.

While some readers might look down on the fanfiction-to-traditionally published book pipeline, it is important to remember its value. It is a way to get new authors into the publishing world and open up the world to new readers. The act of fanfiction within a traditionally published world is ever-changing and growing.

A huge thank you to Darian Paige on TikTok for answering my questions!

Written By

24 year old writer. Denver based but always found with my nose in a book.

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