Thursday, July 23, 2009

Harry Potter meets Star Trek, or The Fanfic Of Doom

The comments on Harry Potter as steampunk and a trawl through the crosslinks off Draco in Leather Pants got me to thinking about the fanfiction phenomenon. If you go looking, there's fanfic about just about everything, and it usually invokes Rule 34 somewhere. If you take a trawl through any fanfiction archive, you'll quickly discover there's a huge range of the stuff, ranging from the utterly abysmal right through to brilliant - and they're pre-sorted for you.

Some sites have ratings systems, including tags to indicate what the story is about (do not ever open anything tagged with 'slash', 'NSFW', or 'shipper' unless you're certain no-one is going to look over your shoulder and embarrass the heck out of you), a movie-like G/PG/M/R ranking, and sometimes some version of the 0 through 5 star system as well. What happens then is that the stories live or die on their ratings, rankings, and the number of comments they get. Stories with a lot of comments tend to get more interest over a longer period of time but will quickly "bubble up" to the top of any listing simply because in the fanfiction sites based on forum software, the default is to display by most recent comment. Crosslinkage helps too - comments telling readers "if you liked this, you'll love X" complete with a helpful link to that story.

Oddly, the most commented stories are either the best or the worst - the mediocre offerings are lost in the noise. The worst are often hilariously bad rather than merely dismal, testament perhaps to humanity's love of a disaster happening to someone else. Equally entertaining, the best pieces are often better than the originals, not least because one thing many fanficcers do is try to clean up or work around the continuity issues of the original. It's positively amazing that people have managed to produce coherent, sensible reasons for much of Star Trek's (all of them) characterization, plots, gimmicks, and other oddities.

Some of my favorites include the Naked Quidditch Match (which, despite the title, is actually safe for work unless there's a problem with laughing yourself sick at work), the Sith Academy series which pits Darth Maul against the horrors of everyday bureaucracy and the insufferably perky Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of course Cassie Claire's classic Lord of the Rings Secret Diaries. I also cherish a not-so-secret fondness for Austen fanfic (the respectable fanfic...)

Why mention fanfic at all?

First, it's an example of a self-sorting open market - every story competes on its merits or lack thereof. The readers are the ones who decide which stories rise to prominence and which fall. Oh, and there's a niche for everything you could possibly imagine and rather a lot of things you'd prefer not to.

Second, fanfiction is an ancient art form that's largely ignored and condemned today because of insane copyright rules. Quick questions - how many retellings of Cinderella are there? How many Star Trek novelizations? Dr Who novelizations? Yep, fanfic. Paid fanfic in this case.

Third, fanfiction is a valuable sandbox for budding, blooming, and even overblown writers to hone their craft toolbox. It's an area where you can experiment with new techniques and have their effectiveness judged by the most impartial audience - people who want to read about characters and worlds they love. They don't care who you are or how many books you've written or how many copies you've sold. They care that you write stories they like.

Fourth, it keeps you as an author in contact with your readers. Real contact, because they're on those boards demanding more if you start a story and fail to finish it, getting irritated if you do something they don't think is right for that character, and generally being people. There aren't many places in the publishing industry that do that - if you go wrong, you'll know.

There are fanfiction sites that take subscriptions, others that are funded by donations, and still others by advertising, as well as the ones that run on someone's love and devotion. All of them have something to offer writers and readers.

So what can the publishing industry learn from fanfiction?

22 comments:

C Kelsey said...

Well, then there's the really interesting fanfic stories. Like the Bar's urban legend-ish "Honor Bound". LOL

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It can learn that:

Readable will be found.

Giving away your work can be a business model depending on how much you want to make. (Austen.com supports itself very handilly.)

There is a great hunger for FUN reading out there and for certain things the "establishment" has decided are "verboten" -- like in Austen.com's case, Regencies. You'll have a hard time finding anyone to publish regencies. Like Cozy mysteries, space opera and other sub-genres they're considered "low brow" and also "Unrealistic" (I'd like to know who died and made these people king and also WHY they think we want "realistic" in our fiction.) They're quietly marginalized by publishers who right now -- for various reasons having to do with how the retail market has evolved -- have an iron grip on how books get marketed/put on shelves/etc. Or rather, they're one of the points at which a subgenre can be quietly "killed" even if published. (I don't need to be told distribution and retail is the other part of that equation nor of the treatment Baen gets for not marching lockstep.) So their prophecy gets confirmed and we hear "cozies don't sell" -- except that people "run away" to craft mysteries which then outsell all others; "Space opera doesn't sell" except that people then read/write star trek/star wars fanfic on line; and "regency doesn't sell" but the austen.com site has a massive number of followers and is mostly regency.

What we can learn is that the markets will find a way. It's futile to "educate public taste." All you do is scare away your customer base.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good point Sarah,

The other thing we can learn is that it takes a dedicated team of readers who LOVE the genre to pick through and find the best, not someone paid to do it, who doesn't really love or understand the genre.

It is scary how little people in publishing know about Spec Fic.

Kate said...

Chris,

First - see Rule 34. Remember, "NO exceptions".

Second, I could tell you about "Honor Bound" but then I'd have to kill you.

Kate said...

Sarah,

All good points. From what I've seen, public taste changes slowly, and not because some cultural guru said something was "enlightened" or "appropriate".

I'd add that we can learn that there is actually hope for books in some form and for reading - because all these people are reading. They're just not paying for what the industry is (mostly) selling.

It's a classic example of what happens whenever competition in a market becomes mostly an illusion, right down to the absurdity of certain industry people (who shall not be named mostly because I no longer remember who they are or which panel they were on when this nonsense was raised) who when a significant number (as in, about half the audience) wanted to know why they weren't publishing a particular type of book, actually said "There's no demand for that."

Kate said...

Rowena,

Absolutely. I've seen some of what happens when Big Name Author from outside the genre dabbles a bit - they reinvent the wheel, and what's worse, their wheel often has five sides each a different length.

People who don't love books and reading should not be deciding what people who do love books and reading can buy. Especially in the genre ghettos. (And yes, they are ghettos. Mostly Balkanized ghettos, too, but that's another post for another time.)

C Kelsey said...

Kate,
LOL. I think I'll decline the offer. I like my head where it is. :D

KylieQ said...

What can the publishing industry learn from fanfic? Pay them nothing and they'll still write anyway.
:)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kyllie!

D*mn it, woman, that's what you NEVER tell them. Don't make us send the "enforcers" over!

Sarah

KylieQ said...

Oops, did I say that out loud??

Mike said...

Good points, good points. Maybe toss in something about the collaboration, the excitement of dreaming together? I mean, part of what seems to happen in the fanfic circles (and havens of evil such as Sarah's Diner) is the mutual inspiration and brainstorming that drives outbursts of creativity. Sorry, but the solitary artist locked up in their garret doesn't seem to me like the most productive approach -- a group of friends madly provoking each other into yet more extravagant attempts, on the other hand...

WangZheng259 said...

Hey all,
Sorry for disappearing, real life ate my brain. (I cannot promise that it is very functional.)

KylieQ,
Speaking as a fanfic reader, while writers may write for 'free', ones doing so are not quite as timely and reliable as those who can be held to a schedule. With paid writers, there is a decreased risk of a popular story dying in mid action, leaving its fan with bad withdrawal. Furthermore, there are intangibles involved like reviews, commentary and criticism (C&Cs), and plain old noises of appreciation. Furthermore, there are a good number of them who do it because they can develop skill, share with an audiance, and not risk the publication of their original fiction by exposing it too widely. If publishers stopped paying at all, there might be some effect on fanfic by that mechanism.

Mike,
I think you are correct about the collaboration issue. Especially going off of certain of such threads which I have read and followed along with mentally. (One of the current stories I am trying to work out is a solution to a set of problems/requests of that nature.)

In general,
Two or three additional points: Various types of fanfic can provide stock vocabulary and characters. This allows for story concepts that maybe aren't serious enough to be worth developing a unique setting and cast, but would still otherwise be worth reading and writing. Or look at what Twain did with Merlin, Arthur and Thomas Alva.
Reconciling different settings and storylines can be a very interesting mental exercise. This can be useful for figuring out how to understand the 'calculus of variations' for settings, or whatever the best way of putting it is.
Personally, I have improved my capacity for critical reading by assisting fanfic authors.
I shall break my pattern of mention Tom Kratman as an example, by instead mentioning Ryk Spoor. (Tom does seem to have had some entertaining interactions with certain fanfic related commmunities, however.) Ryk Spoor, a.k.a. Seawasp, has long been involved in fanfic and has also published original fiction. He seems an excellent example of whatever positive effects occur.

C Kelsey said...

I just now clicked the link to Rule 34. Umm... Okay that one is true to. I had initially thought you were talking about Schlock Mercenary Rule 34: "If you're leaving scorch marks, you need a bigger gun." Now, considering some fanfic... that might be just as applicable. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Golden Gun, Chris, Golden gun.

(runs.)

Sarah

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mike,

This is why one of my most productive and happiest writing time ever was when we had a writers group that met every week face to face. Just being able to share the pain or the ideas over popcorn and soda seemed to spark creativity.

matapam said...

What publishers can learn? That they can be replaced. That distributors and book stores are not necessary.

Nice, yes. Useful, mostly.

But they need to adapt to the changing situation, not raise the walls and try to ignore the new world.

Sarah, on-line egging on of writer can be amazingly productive. Mind you I haven't _sold_ the book written in about six weeks worth of massive encouragement and wacked out ideas, but I think that has more to do with the Lawyers being Martian Lizards than the writing process.

C Kelsey said...

Oh, so were back to not-so-subtle innuendo Sarah?

As a reader, I'm not so certain the publisher really can be done without. They do a lot of the advertising and placement for many, many authors. That's something that is hard for an individual to do. It also makes it easier for booksellers to deal with one point of contact for multiple books, rather than being swamped by individual writers.

That being said, if a publisher messes up they can hurt a whole lot more than one author. There are publishers out there that I will stear away from. There's even one very big publisher that mixes so many bad books in with the good that I hesitate every time I see their logo on a cover.

C Kelsey said...

*Sigh... That was supposed to read "Oh, so WE'RE back to..." But, that's why you're all the pros and I bang on the computer like a monke-- nevermind.

From my perspective, there are three different types of writers. The pros (that's y'all if you didn't know), the really bad folks who insist they're really good (can't think of an example). And then there's the folks like me who every now and again turn a nice phrase but then hide it in mounds of torturous, randomly stringed together words.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris -- so the folks who, once they learn better editting will be pros?

Do you really think we don't pour out masses of bad prose? yeah, we do. And then we roll up our sleeves and fix it.

"First you have to be willing to kill your darlings."

C Kelsey said...

Sarah,
I don't think editting and the quality of prose are really the same thing. I would say that quality of prose really means the ability to convey a concept/setting/message/diologue in a "well turned" (whatever that may be) manner. Editting ties the original prose into a pretty(er) basket.

That of course is me talking about something I know nothing about. I have totally erased some of my poorly (read hideous) prose and attempted to write it better. Nine times out of ten I forget what I was supposed to be writing better and end up writing something worse. But that's just how I keep myself entertained. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Editting is HARD. And I just went over one of Robert's stories where he did that!

C Kelsey said...

I trust you were at least entertained. If not, Robert's doing it wrong... Which is theoretically impossible given his initials. :D