Fanfiction and Fandoms: A Primer, A History

The Magicians Trilogy author Lev Grossman in his 2011 Time article summarized the mentality surrounding fanfiction in mainstream culture as “what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker.” Now don’t get Grossman wrong—he is pro-fanfiction, but he also acknowledges that to outsiders, it’s an odd world of what some might call extremists. Despite being considered a niche subculture, fanfiction has been steadily growing in popularity, particularly over the last three years.

Fanfiction is divided into “fandoms,” which are fan groups for movies, TV shows, comics, books, celebrities (called Real Person Fiction or RPF), cartoons, anime, manga, games, or plays. The posts can be long form fiction, short form, drabble (100ish words long) or a one-shot (a standalone chapter). When fans start a story, they can choose to put the characters in a completely different setting in what’s called an Alternate Universe (AU). They can re-characterize a literary figure completely, making them Out of Character (OOC) or introduce a new character of their own to a familiar fandom, known as Original Character (OC). They can choose to honor the fandom’s tradition couplings (Canon) or change it up with a non-canon same-sex couple (Slash). These are just to name a few fanfiction colloquialisms that writers use to describe their stories within the fan communities.

The limitless aspect of these fan rewrites draws in writers and readers. They take something the fandom loves and make it new over and over again. That’s a major part of the appeal of the fanfiction community: it’s driven by the fandom. The fans run the websites, they write the words, they edit the chapters, and they review the stories. Because it’s completely fan-sustained, the content is heavily influenced by what the users want to read or by what they sometimes wish the fandom’s creators had done originally.

Fans get to actively participate in the fanfiction world through comments and reviews. The communities are an exchange of ideas, often viewed by both budding and established authors alike as a viable and free forum for feedback on work or as a comfortable place to exercise their writing chops. Most fanfiction websites give readers the option of favoriting a chapter, story, or author. Aside from the occasional flame (a bad review), the community is largely helpful and encouraging. Reviewers can give guesses and hopes for the plot as the serialized chapters are posted, which might possibly help a writer tweak their timeline to better cater to the public’s interest.

One of the recent trends in fanfiction is fiction written by teens, stated Wattpad Head of Content Ashleigh Gardner. Peer-to-peer writing is different from traditionally published YA and New Adult content, because “when teens are writing for their peers, we see stories that are far more true to life, and often include themes important to the life of teens today, like the complications of social media and impact of technology on their lives.”

Adults might not easily grasp the popular mobile apps or memes that teens want to read about, because they aren’t part of that culture. For example, popular fandoms among teens right now range from Minecraft to the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game to the overnight teen sensation meme Alex From Target. “It’s amazing to see how quickly fans react to this, as we had 100s of stories about [Alex] hours after it started trending on Twitter,” Gardner said. This speed of turnaround would probably be impossible for an adult writing to a teen, because of the slower dissemination of news between generations.

Through fanfiction fun, the millennial generation has found a new way of learning. Studies have shown that Wattpad users learn through a connection of three spheres: academic, interests, and peer culture. The users draw on their shared interests to interact with their age peers while creating a product, like a longer form story, that appeals to a wide group and is open to discussion. It is a social as well as educational exercise. On the Wattpad application, readers can highlight a specific paragraph and link their comment to that section, for example.

Little wonder then, that according to a Publishers Weekly article, Wattpad had 18 million users in 2013, just seven years after it was founded. Those 18 million users were uploading and updating about 64,000 stories daily, or over 23 million fics a year. The Canadian company has 35 million users as of November 2014, 45% of which are 13-18 years old.

Fanfiction is starting to be fostered in classrooms because it encourages students to work on their creative writing instead of only focusing on academic writing. As Kimberly Karalius wrote on the educator-run blog Writing Commons, “Getting involved in fanfiction is a great way to start building your narrative muscles,” which will be a useful skill for students to develop in and out of the classroom.

Sometimes writing exercises evolve into books and, sometimes, into book deals. The Washington Post said of fanfiction’s popularization in publishing, “What used to be a disregarded copyright nightmare is a new, youth-friendly approach for publishers.”The most famous would be authors E.L. James and After author Anna Todd, who re-conceptualized their fics as original pieces for six figure deals on straight-to-paperback books. James’ Twilight series became three books and Todd’s One Direction RPF series will end up being four.

Another way for authors to get published without violating copyright is to use Kindle Worlds. This Amazon fanfiction website lets writers earn royalties for their stories by selling them as ebooks. So that writers could earn money for their fanfiction legally, Amazon licensed the popular Alloy Entertainment series Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries, all popular among young adults and adults alike among other “Worlds”.

Publishing fanfiction authors isn’t about re-conceptualizing popular fanfiction, but about finding new voices. The newer independent publisher Big Bang Press was founded on the premise of taking fanfic writers out of their native habitat, i.e. Archive of Our Own, to write completely original novels with no basis in existing fiction whatsoever. Their fanfiction communities supported the authors’ publications through a Kickstarter campaign.

The number of works posted on popular website Archive of Our Own (“AO3” to those in the know) doubled from 2011 to 2012, jumping from about 120,000 to about 240,000 posts per year. As of October 2014, AO3’s website, which has been around for six years, said it has 16,269 fandoms, 412,184 users, and 1,317,795 works. New users can only join through invitation. The waitlist for invitation is over 200 users long, but the line moves quickly and a user will usually receive their invitation to join within 24 hours.

Many authors continue to write fanfiction even after being published. Big Bang Press Editor-in Chief Morgan Davies attributes this to the fandom atmosphere. “Writing fanfiction is satisfying in a very different way, that isn’t about money but is, again, largely about the community. It is fun.”  Ultimately, it isn’t meant to be about getting a book deal. It’s about enjoying a hobby with peers while maybe learning to write better along the way.

For all of this and more, please attend The Rise of Fandom: Fanfiction and Engaging with Fan Communities panel at Launch Kids at DBW on January 13, 2015. Register here.