Fifty Shades and Profiting Off Fanfic

The Associated Press had a story a few days ago about how Fifty Shades of Grey has its own fanfiction now, and it was a pretty interesting story. It brought to mind a rant on a fan fic rant community I saw recently where somebody was pointing out that a Twilight fic labeled as a Fifty Shades AU was pretty much like dividing by zero.

One of the points the AP story hit on was the issue some people have with the idea of “file off the serial numbers” fanfiction being published (and sold) as original fiction. Since I know some authors who have done this, I generally don’t express my opinion all that loudly, but if it’s a topic even AP is writing about…

I’ll be the first to admit when it comes to fanfiction I have lots of rules and lines that other people don’t. I don’t like original characters beyond the villains/incidentals/known family members category. I don’t like AUs. I don’t like traveling to oddball locations because the author knows them. (This does not mean in younger days I didn’t do any of those things, but I’d prefer to burn those stories now.) Both of those are because my take is “their sandbox, their rules.” If I want to play with original characters, well, that’s when I head to Exeter. Ellie actually started as an original character back when I was first writing Trixie Belden fanfic a million years ago. But basically, when I decide to write in a fandom, I make myself play by the rules in that universe. And the idea of publishing any of my fanfic as original fic horrifies me.

The idea that Fifty Shades was published (vs. posted as fanfic) bothers me on a fundamental level. But it also raises some interesting questions about where the line is between original work and derivative work. I’ve read some fanfic where I liked it, but the characters to me were more characters with the same names as the ones in the fandom than being the actual characters. That’s when I feel like telling the author to go write original work. At the other end of the spectrum, I read a Hawaii 5-0 AU the other day because I kept tripping over it in searches, and the characters were them, but the circumstances around most of the characters were so different that it made me wonder where those lines really are. That story? You could have done the “file the serial numbers” approach and it was different enough that most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it was originally Hawaii 5-0. It was very much a “what if” scenario. As writers, we do that all the time. Almost every story development process has a “what if” component in there. So where do you draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate?

A lot of times, it’s easier to puzzle over the motivations of fictional characters, regardless of medium. That leads to wondering about how things might change if circumstances change. A lot of fanfiction out there has those roots. And I know that stories I’ve written often are influenced by seeing fictional characters acting or reacting to things. For example, there’s an element in my novel that was inspired in part by a scene in an early Hawaii 5-0 episode. In that case, it was something that Danny does because he’s a cop that reminded me that the character who’s a cop in the novel would share that mindset. And that clicked with how the cop in question fits into the Exeter world to give me something I hadn’t quite been able to make work before.

That circles back to the original question: Where are the lines? I know one prominent author is on record as saying that instead of readers publishing fanfiction in her universe, she’d prefer they take the “file the serial numbers” approach, turn it into original fic and then try to put it out there. Some authors adamantly oppose fans writing fanfiction in their worlds. (I think if an author says that, fans have a duty to respect that and not write fanfic for that authors’ works.) Some believe it’s a sign of enthusiasm from fans and enthusiastically encourage it. And some ignore the world of fanfiction.

As an author, I stick myself in the “fine with me” camp. I wouldn’t ever read it, for a lot of reasons, but I’m not going to prevent people from writing it. But if somebody then turned it into original work and tried to sell it, I’d be pretty irked by that. That’s my line. You do it for fun, for yourself and for other fans? Great. Go for it. You decide to try and make money off of it? That’s when you need to hop into your own sandbox. And I think that’s consistent with my approach to writing fanfiction.

Do you write fanfic? Do you mind if somebody writes fanfic of your work? How do you feel about the “file the serial numbers off” approach? 

6 Comments on “Fifty Shades and Profiting Off Fanfic”

  1. This is a subject a lot of folks have discussed. One of the major romance novel websites even had a round table with fanfiction authors who write pro (

    I have friends who have filed the serial numbers off–sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it is something that always makes me a little…well, twitchy is the best word, I guess.

    I’ve written fanfic for many years, and I certainly don’t have any problem with fanfiction. The concept of someone wanting to write it about my work is beyond flattering.

    As for reading fanfic with the serial names filed off and made original, I’d much rather read a story that was inspired by the author’s fanfictional work. I’ve seen far too many stories where the hero was silver haired, drank coffee and was a woodworker, and the heroine was a science-geek with a lot of tattoos and ebony pigtails. If I can glance at a blurb and say “Oh, that is a former NCIS fanfic.” you’re doing it wrong!

    About a year ago, I stumbled across a fanfiction that *strongly* resembled a story I knew I’d read in the NCIS realm. You may have checked it out too. Two heroes wake up in bed together, having been intimate, and are blackmailed. The entire first chapter was word for word, with the character names changed. Only problem? The author of the fanfiction did not write the original.

    This same original fiction author took another story and changed the names. Literally, I was astounded. I did contact the publishers in both these cases.

    Anyway…that is kind of a tangent.

    One author I know of who has taken a fanfiction to original very well is Lyn Gala. Her Gathering Storm started as a NCIS fanfiction–mega AU, but as I read it, I kept thinking that these characters only had the same names as the ones we knew. She posted on her LJ that she felt the same way, pulled the story, reworked it, and released it through Dreamspinner Press, a company that I understand published a LOT of reworked fanfic, most notably stories that were formerly Lord of the Rings RPS (real person slash).

    I DO have 50 Shades…as an erotic romance author I feel I should read it, to make myself aware of what sells, but I don’t know that I’ll enjoy it, given what I know about the BDSM component. I also acquired a copy of the fanfiction version, and I want to compare them both, just for my own endless curiosity.

    I’m looking forward to the other replies here and how the discussion develops 🙂

    1. Twitchy is a good word. Like you, I have some friends who have done that and like you, it bothers me. (Side note: I got an email from that my first Breathe story had been taken down because of a complaint that it violated guidelines and my first thought was that somebody had posted it under their own name and reported mine as plagiarized. Turns out the email was sent in error.)

      I think the AUs where the characters relate the same way, but their backgrounds are different, are the ones that make me most question where the line between original and fanfic is, but I’m having trouble explaining why. 😛

  2. Nice article. I’m a huge Tiva/NCIS fan and spend a lot of time reading fanfic. I prefer stories that could be a part of the show, not fond of the AU stories but ocassionally read some (Ziva gets pregnant way too many times). I wrote a fanfic years ago for the long canceled show The Pretender. It was my obsessive show prior to NCIS and I had this strong urge to write the story. Haven’t felt that kind of urge since and know there’s no way I could ever do Tony and Ziva justice. I enjoy reading others’ work and there’s enough out there so I can find what types I enjoy best. I’m in awe of some of them. My humble opinion is that if you want to totally rework the characters to the point of losing who they are, then maybe just making up your own is the better choice. But I’m not a writer.

    I’m aware of the Fifty Shades of Grey history but hadn’t read any Twilight fanfic (read the books, not crazy about them). Enjoyed the three books for what they are and enjoy watching others reading them esp at work 🙂

    Originally wanted to reply to this to say I LOVE Trixie Belden, I grew up inhaling them and still have all my original books at the age of 48. It was always hard to be a part of that obsession when it was never really well known back then or now.


    1. Thanks, Karen. I agree on the reworking, but I know I’m also much more of a stickler for canon compliance than most who write fanfic. I’m starting to think that’s because I am a writer of original fic, but it could just be that I’m weird. 🙂

      And check out for a Trixie community – that’s where I met several fans who have since become RL friends (including my fabulous editor Kyrie!)

  3. The link opens up to Internet suggestions, no hint of a Trixie site. Is there a name I can google? I joined a Yahoo Trixie group years ago but there’s little to no activity.

  4. I think that derivative works such as fanfics or fanfics with the serial numbers filed off, has always been a common thing. I wonder if the biggest problem today is that we know it’s a fanfic. I mean, if you read Fifty Shades of Grey, other than the characters possibly acting similar to those in Twilight, the characters themselves are different, the scenario is different. If we didn’t know it was a fanfic first, would it still cause such a stir?

    As for me, I don’t have a problem with fanfic. I don’t even have a problem with derivative work. If I were to write and someone wrote a story using my character bases, that’s fine. But if they wanted to use my world and names, that would be different. It’s the difference between Cassandra Claire (plagiarizing other fics notwithstanding) who used the base of Draco Malfoy and the Harry Potter Lexicon who wanted to publish their stuff in canon. Or the person who wrote James Potter. To mooch off of someone else’s universe and try to force the change in canon is no good. Otherwise, why not?

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