Dear Publishing Houses,
Okay, look, I’m probably not the first one to have this talk with you – I know eleventy thousand or so people probably mentioned it when 50 Shades of Gray picked up a contract – but on the heels of this shenanigans, maybe it bears repeating.
It does not reflect well on you when you pay out the ass for published fanfiction.
It’s entirely likely that you’re not even really listening at this point because you have those giant cartoon dollar signs in your eyeballs going “CA-CHING! CA-CHING! CA-CHING!” God knows it’s hard to hear above that kind of racket. Still, I’m going to push forward and hope that this message gets through.
Look, people have been saying some bad shit about you. That you screw over authors these days. That you don’t care about good stories anymore. That you’re only interested in republishing the same formula ad naseum despite your claims that you want “new, fresh voices.” Hey, don’t scowl at me – I didn’t say it. I just heard about it. My point is that stories like this aren’t really helping your case here.
The truth is, a good chunk of the aspiring authors out there probably have a fanfic they could edit – and by “edit,” I do mean “run find/replace on character names” – and publish. Remember when I considered it last month for half a minute? And I sat down and opened it up on ye olde word processor and went, “What is that icky feeling that’s crawling all over my skin?”
That was a little bit of my integrity dying. And when I recognized that, I promptly put it away.
Because here’s the thing1: If you write a fanfic, even if you’re writing an AU, you’re not starting from a blank creative slate. You’re taking a network of characters and ideas from an existing universe and playing around in it as you choose. You may bend it a LOT; you may choose unusual romantic pairings2 or put them in – oh, say – a university setting instead of small town Washington. But none of it is really yours. That’s why fanfic writers put that disclaimer at the beginning or end of all of their stories that says, “Dear God, don’t sue me! I’m just messing around for funsies!” Because no matter how crazily you position the action figures you borrowed or how long you play with them, they are not your toys.
With me so far? Are we all in agreement? Excellent.
Now, let’s say a writer is so happy with the Lego castle she built for those action figures that she thinks, “I don’t want to give these toys back … They’re kind of mine now anyway. The owner never built them a castle just like this or played with them in the same way I did. If I just call them Captain America and Black Widow instead of Superman and Catwoman, they’re totally different, and then they’re mine!“
So here you are, publishing houses, buying up another book starring a pale, brunette, naive, pretty-but-doesn’t-think-so, literature-loving, strategically-clumsy heroine. And whatever name you slap on her, the truth is she is Bella Swan. And your gorgeous, older, rich, protective, self-loathing hero is Edward Cullen. Don’t kid yourselves. Don’t try to pretend that these books are anything other than stolen toys in a new Lego castle. It doesn’t matter how many names you change in that fanfic, the ghosts of the original work remain. The ties between the characters (e.g., 50 Shades has a blatant Charlie and Rene), the key personality traits (oh, your tortured hero also plays the piano? That’s strange!) … little things like that always show through, always exist as reminders that the writer took action figures that didn’t belong to her and simply appropriated them instead of building her own.
The only way to erase those ghosts completely is to erase the fanfic completely and start at square one. But it doesn’t seem like anyone is willing to do that.
Is it plagiarism? Not enough to sue you for, so pat yourself on the back for eeking by on a technicality. Is it still kind of squicky? Yeah. Does it make everyone who’s trying to do things the right way feel like shit? Yeah.
I get it. Ya’ll are businesses, and bottom lines are to businesses what black holes are to space, so you go looking for sure things to keep you out of the red. Still, as a friend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t step up and say something. If I didn’t mention that this makes you look cheap(er) and stupid(er)3. If I didn’t mutter that this sets a bad example and sigh at the huge wave of fanfic writers who are now going to pull their stuff and try to profit from it. If I didn’t add one last casual aside about the very real possibility that the blurred line this shit is creating could ruin fanfiction for everyone if authors get fed up and start taking an Anne-Rice type of approach to things.
I’m writing to you in good faith here. Just think it over. And tell your mom and dad I said hi.
All the best,
1.) For anyone who’s wondering, “here’s the thing” is one of The Man’s favorite phrases and always precedes opinionated declarations regarding the workings of the world and/or how to fix them. It’s so prevalent that I have absorbed the saying into my own vocabulary, and it seemed only right to use it as a tag for my most opinionated posts.
2.) Who else recalls the Golden Days of Harry Potter fandom when there was even a good ship for characters being paired with the squid? Seriously! The freaking squid! Oh, Potter fandom. Such an epic heyday.
3.) The modifiers have been parenthetically added for those who wish to take it a step further.