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Crap On Me Once, Crap On Me Twice: How Pull-To-Publish Fan Fiction Hurts The Small Time Author


posted by Lucy V Morgan on , ,

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Say hello to Aidan, the dancer-slash-manwhore from my Whored novels. He's got a vested interest in fan fic, so I've asked him to interview me today about--

Aidan: I do not have a "vested interest." I am BITTER! I was totally left out in the Whored fanfic! Alternate universe, my ginger arse--

Lucy: I'm not sure that's relevant, Aidan.

Aidan: Er…no. Well. Shall I start?

Lucy: Please do.

Aidan: Start us off, then. What's this problem with P2P fanfic?

Lucy: Small Time Author, whether they're a mid-lister from a traditional publisher, with a small press or they're self-publishing, faces a minefield trying to get their work noticed. They often receive little promotion and have to do it all themselves.

When a Pull-To-Publish Fan Fiction work comes along, being sold on the same vendors and perhaps to the same audience, it's usually there because it has a ready-made fandom audience who are adept at creating a lot of hype. Readers take note. Reviewers want in on the hot topics. When Small Time Author enters the same market, they really can't hope to compete. It's quite possible that they're losing sales, review opportunities and blog promo space because rewritten fan fiction is becoming prominent in the market place.

Aidan: That blows goats.

Lucy: Blows for me and a lot of authors.

Aidan: Maybe the P2P books are just better than others, and that's why they get so much attention?

Lucy: "Better" is subjective. There's really no way to tell. But let me compare a P2P book launch to a Small Time Author launch, just so you can see how uneven the playing field is:

Small Time Author Launch

1) The only people who have previously read the work are a few friends/beta readers, your editor, and maybe your agent and publisher (if you have those). They're the only people who can start telling other people that it's awesome and "spreading the word."

2) If you're lucky, you'll get a few advance reviews. They probably won't all be on high traffic sites.

3) You might arrange a blog tour. Again, this probably won't be on particularly high traffic sites.

4) If you're very lucky, your publisher might advertise you on a website or print venue, or you might even stump up for this yourself. For the majority of small time authors, this doesn't happen.

5) You could do a lot of blogging and networking, but you're an unpublished author, and your main access is to writers, not readers.

Basically: you rely strongly on word of mouth, but like most debut authors, you're starting small.

P2P Author Launch

1) Your work has been on a high-traffic fan fiction site for a reasonable amount of time, where it has gained enough readers for you to think it worth pulling to publish. In some cases, the numbers can be in their mid thousands.

2) When you put your work on sale, a lot of these readers will rush off to buy it. They'll review it on the vendor and on GoodReads. And they'll tell all their friends that they must read this book. It's the promotional equivalent of a ten ton truck crashing into your living room: very hard to pass by.

3) P2P fanfic is a controversial subject, so people start talking about your book online. It all creates a buzz.

4) What with all these reviews, reviewers and book bloggers want in. They want to know what the fuss is about. Whether they say good or bad things, they're making the work more visible to the public…all of this is a heck of a lot more promotion and blog space than Small Time Author could hope to get.

Aidan: This is starting to sound a bit shady.

Lucy: There's a shadier bit.

Aidan: No shit?

Lucy: When a work is posted online as fanfic, it is under the assumption that it uses the characters and other elements from somebody else's work. A lot of people think that it's wrong to make money from a work which blatantly states--by nature of where it is posted--that it is derived from something else.

Aidan: How is it different to, like, Bridget Jones's Diary? Didn't that do the same thing with Pride and Prejudice?

Lucy: Some people say that everything is derivative, and to an extent, that's right--but only on a macro scale. Fanfic tends to stay loyal to its source material on a very micro scale, such as character mannerisms.

Yes, Bridget Jones's Diary derivative. But firstly, Pride and Prejudice is in the public domain, so it's deemed okay by law to use it. Secondly, Bridget Jones's Diary directly acknowledges its source material by calling one of the characters Mr. Darcy. It's not "pretending" to be anything else.

When these P2P fanfics hit the marketplace, they're edited to get rid of all the original work's character names, title mentions and other recognisable elements (in theory). They're dressed up as non-derivative works, basically.

Aidan: That actually does suck. Although some people say they can't tell that some of these P2Ps are fanfic.

Lucy: Some people say they can, others can't. But when it's originally posted as fan fiction and uses character names, even if they're written differently, it is very hard to see how they aren't related to the original subject matter in some form. Further more, these fics are posted on site areas specifically designated for fans of the original work. If they aren't "really" fan fics, why are they in that area, using the original work's elements and names? No matter how "alternate" the universe, there's no getting away from this point. If you want to say your work is not fan fiction, don't post it on a fan fiction site where you're invoking the assumption that you don't own any of the characters you use. Changing character and place names doesn't suddenly erase any derivative quality the work might have, even if it makes the work "unrecognisable" from its source material.

And if you're wondering how this is different from derivate works like Bridget Jones's Diary…see above.

Aidan: Huh. So you could say writers who P2P are kind of crapping all over people who've attempted to write and release original stuff, couldn't you? They're pretending to do the same thing when really, they've got a massive leg-up because they publicly used somebody else's characters and story elements to make their work more appealing.

Lucy: You could say that. Yeah.

Aidan:  Some of these guys are making a lot of money. I bet they crap solid gold. You could say that you're just a jealous harpy.

Lucy:  Am I envious of some of the sales figures and other opportunities some of these P2Ps are pulling in?   Yes. Am I jealous that they've done it in the way they have? No. (I get to stay in this place called the moral high ground. You're usually a lot poorer there, but at least you can also be satisfyingly sanctimonious. It's a small plus, but a plus).

 Also, if somebody craps solid gold on me, it hurts more than normal crap. Just saying.

Aidan: And what about people who say these P2P writers have earned their success?

Lucy: I say they've earned their success as fan fiction writers, and as much as I'm sure readers want to see their favourite works published and acknowledged, the writer waived the right to publish as original fiction when they posted the work as fan fiction. This doesn't make them a "lesser" writer, but it does create an ethical dilemma that is distasteful to a lot of people.

I think those who love the P2Ps often assume if the original author doesn't object, it's not hurting anyone--but it is. It's hurting authors of original fiction for all the reasons I've listed above.

I don't think for a minute that most of them write fan fic with the intention of becoming horrendously famous and "exploiting" their fandom market. But when they publish and charge for the work, then their intentions are questionable.

Why not just respect the original author, zip the work up as a PDF and distribute it for free? You can still read on e-readers, people can still tell their friends where to find it so they can read and enjoy it. Then write something new and fresh for your audience; earn your stripes.

When you put fan fiction on a vendor where it technically competes with the original work, there's an element of farce to the whole thing.

Aidan: Couldn't a small time author take a similar route, like, posting their original fic on a site where they can build up an audience before they publish?

Lucy: Yeah, they could. And they have. It's something I've done myself on original fiction sites, and I've written about someone else who's done it with success right here. But people who do this don't seem to attract the same level of fanaticism or excitement that P2Ps do.

I can think of one incidence when a YA author scored a big six deal for posting her novel online. We certainly didn't hear about her like we are for P2P stuff.

Aidan: Why do the debut P2Ps attract this attention that debut original authors can't seem to get most of the time? They can't all be infinitely better, even if some of them are shit-hot reads.

Lucy: Nope. But we can make an educated guess that some who are part of a fandom are likely to get more excited and supportive about their favourite stuff, and we can also speculate that fan fiction gets a larger audience to begin with because it's trading off the original source material.

However you look at this, it's not good for Small Time Author, whether the attention the P2Ps get is deserved or not. You can't even say that the P2Ps are boosting genre sales because I don't think we have the figures yet (or do we? Any authors noticed a significant sales rise?).

Aidan: There's [cough] another reason this debacle hurts original authors as well, isn't there? [/Cough]

Lucy: Yes, and it hurts Small Time Authors most of all. They don't have a big press to fight their corner, most of the time.

There are a lot of people who are cool with P2P fan fiction, but there are also lots of people who aren't. Since P2P exploded, some are actively looking for it in order to stamp it out. The problem with this is that sometimes, they decide something is rewritten fan fiction when it isn't. This is what happened to me recently.

Somebody labelled my novella, Beautiful Mess, as fanfic on GoodReads, on the basis of some erroneous "research." I laughed, at first. Then I saw I'd been shelved on a Pull To Publish group, which meant anybody who clicked on the book could see it had been publicly categorised as "Rewritten Fan Fiction."

Aidan: Huh? If the P2Ps are doing really well, surely that was a positive thing?!

Lucy: Funny thing about a "P2P" with no fandom to buy it and defend it is that it only attracts attention from people who don't like P2Ps :P

I thought the review would sink down, that the accusation would go away. But it didn't. People started labelling my book as "will never read/fanfic" and similar on GoodReads; I was evidently losing potential readers because of a false claim. My reputation as an author was evidently being affected in a negative way, too. I could have asked people who knew the truth to challenge the review and the shelving, but as an author, I have to be very careful about arranging stuff like that to happen. (My GoodReads reviews were not half as good as my Amazon reviews. I hadn't solicited any of the Amazon reviews so I saw them as fair comparison. I have to wonder exactly how much the P2P accusation on GR affected people's opinion of the book).

Then my work started being tagged as Rewritten Fanfiction on Amazon. Word was spreading. Small time authors like me rely on word of mouth to sell books, and every sale counts.

I tried to get Amazon to remove the tag, and GoodReads to remove my place on the public P2P shelf. They both refused. I tried politely messaging someone in the group on GoodReads to state my case. Didn't work.

I'd reached the point where I felt that the negative association was affecting my career, and I took legal advice. In the end, a message to a P2P group mod--something I'd been wary of doing for fear of an accusation of "bad author behaviour"--resulted in a polite apology, and my removal from the group. But sadly, for many people who might have picked up my books, they won't come back to the page to see the retraction, and the damage has been done.

Aidan: So you've actually been crapped on twice by P2P.

Lucy: Yup. And I'm probably not the only one. If the practise didn't exist, this wouldn't have happened.

Aidan: Well I s'pose there's not a fat lot you can do about it, is there? People are evidently allowed to publish this stuff, and authors aren't really meant to talk about it.

Lucy: Yeah--for whatever reason, they're allowed. And it's deemed ungraceful for authors to talk about other authors, a lot of the time.

The thing is, Small Time Author has to talk a lot when they promote. We're not allowed to keep quiet and be mysterious anymore. We have to get out there and let people know about our stuff. So I figure if this is a big issue for authors, we should talk about it. And here I am…talking.

Aidan: Can I go now? Because my leg's kind of dead.

Lucy: What, no more questions?

Aidan: These are your questions. Guys…I'm totally reading these off a sheet.

Lucy: You do actually want me to write your book, yes?

Aidan: Siiiiigh. Yes. Okay. What does all this mean for readers? I mean, they're important, right?

Lucy: Readers are the most important thing of all, but they might well end up with less choice in terms of reading material, and in the end, they could miss out on some cool original authors if it becomes harder for said authors to succeed.

Small Time Author already has to compete with Big Time Author. But hey…at least Big Time Author hasn't deceived anybody about the nature of their work (usually) and we're proud to sit next to them in the book store. In the words of Kevin the teenager: it's not fair.

Aidan: Well you know what, Lucy? Publishing isn't fair. Life isn't fair.

Lucy: That doesn't have to stop me complaining about it :P

Aidan: Surely this time would be better spent by writing my awesome book?

Lucy: I have a kick-ass idea for your book. But do you mind if I change your name to Spock? Or Edward? How about Katniss?

Aidan: Ho ho ho. Very funny. Now skedaddle already and write me into some filth.


This is a contentious subject. For this reason, I won't be answering comments personally below so I don't end up in a big debate (I think I've said all I can). Please feel free to leave your own opinions, though. Thanks for taking the time to read.

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