should fanfiction get published as original work

Should FanFiction Get Published as Original Work?

Whether you wanted to or not, at some point in your life you’ve either read fanfic, written it, or laughed about some of the more ridiculous examples (like My Immortal, the infamous Harry Potter fic; if you haven’t, here’s the link, thank me later). And if you think you haven’t, you’re likely wrong; just wait. 

Quick Recap of My Fanfic Journey

My own journey with fanfic has started far later than it normally does for people. I was never a big enough fan of any piece of media to create fan stories or seek them out, so it was only a few years ago that I stumbled into it, completely by chance. I was looking for romance fantasy recommendations on Reddit, and one poster left a link to Draco Malfoy and the Mortifying Ordeal of Being in Love

I was bored and entirely out of stuff to read, the fic was free so I downloaded it that very afternoon. And from the very first few sentences, I was captivated. The story was funny, well-written, and had familiar characters wearing slightly different personalities. 

That’s all it took for me to go on a summer-long binge of everything Dramione (a pairing between Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger, for the uninitiated). And though I’m not as obsessed with it now as I was then, fanfic is still something I love to read when I need a pick-me-up. 

Obviously, there’s some very badly written fanfic (e.g. My Immortal), but you’d be surprised at the quality of writing, plot and character development in most of these stories. People put their hearts and souls into this; they write for the pure joy of it, no alternative motives, and you can feel it when you read. 

However, this recent trend of presenting well-loved fics as original works has me worried. It’s not that I don’t believe fanfic can be published as an original (because it obviously can). But I’m questioning whether it should (and under which conditions). 

A Brief History of FanFiction

If you didn’t believe me when I told you that you’ve definitely consumed fan fiction in some way, then this one’s for you. 

Before copyright existed, it wasn’t unusual for writers to copy characters or storylines from other writers. So, for instance, Shakespeare borrowed most of his characters from other fiction writers of the time.

In the 19th century, some of the most popular authors to copy from were Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle. You’ve probably read a retelling of Pride and Prejudice or two without really thinking of it as fanfic, when in reality, that’s what it was. As an aside, even the currently popular fairy tale retellings can be seen as fanfic.

The term fan fiction itself first appeared in print in 1939 and was used as a derogatory term for bad science fiction (shocking, I know). In 1944, it appeared in Fancyclopedia, defined as stories about fans and occasionally characters from fanfiction stories. 

Fanfiction expansion

However, fan fiction as we know it today started sometime in the 1960’s with Star Trek fanzines. Captain Kirk and Spock had such great chemistry on screen that it inspired countless fan-produced zines, one of the first being Spockenalia. These were either sold at conventions or through mail for only enough money to cover the costs of printing. 

And then came the World Wide Web. With it, countless fan fiction websites were created, where people could write and post their own stories for others to read. One of the oldest is and it’s still active today. 

Currently, some of the most popular fan fiction platforms are the aforementioned, Archive of Our Own, and Wattpad. There are countless fandoms, pairings, and stories online, free to read. 

Why Reading (and Writing) FanFic is Great

So, this entire article is not to say that people shouldn’t read or write fanfic. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m a big fan, and if fan fiction ceased to exist today, I would probably be lost for a good while. 

Writing stories with someone else’s characters and worlds is a great way to study the craft, to practice. On the other end of it, people get to continue enjoying the stories they loved. 

Some of your favorite authors write fan fiction as well (even of their own work, yes) as a way to let off steam and break through writer’s blocks. Naomi Novik (known for Uprooted, Deadly Education, and Spinning Silver) was one of the people who founded Archive of Our Own. Neil Gaiman famously writes fanfic, and so do Meg Cabot, Lev Grossman, Andy Weir, John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, and many more. 

Not only that, but many famous authors came from fanfic. It allows aspiring writers to gain a huge audience and tons of experience to show when they want their original works published. For instance, Olivie Blake (author of Atlas Six, One for My Enemy, Masters of Death, and more) was originally a fanfic writer (Divination for Skeptics, How to Win Friends and Influence People). Julie Soto, the author of Forget Me Not (my review here), was a Dramione author (The Rights and Wrongs Series). 

It’s a great hobby to have either way, and it makes people happy all over the world. And it’s truly great — that is, as long as it’s not monetized. 

The Ethics of Monetizing FanFic

Recently, there have been a lot of cases of people trying to monetize fanfic. And usually, it’s not the authors themselves doing it — it’s the fans. 

For example, the Dramione fandom got really into binding their favorite fics. Which is not a problem in and of itself. It’s perfectly fine to print out and bind a story if you have the skills for it. The problem appeared when some people decided to bind fanfic for profit. And there are numerous binders either on Instagram or Etsy doing it. If you’re interested in the whole drama, here’s a great Reddit post to start with. 

Most fanfic authors prefer to keep their stories in fandom spaces only. They even expressly forbid anyone from monetizing their fic in any way, such as through binds, merchandise (like pins, shirts, etc.), or selling fan art of their fic. If the owner of the copyright (the author, in this case, J. K. Rowling) knew this, they could legally sue or ask for their work to be removed. And no one wants that. 

Even the majority of fans are completely against this, even though they’d probably be the best target audience for these (very illegal) online stores. And yet it keeps happening. 

Now, I’m not saying that publishing fanfiction as original work is unethical in the same way — but it’s questionable at the very least. 

Why Publishers Want to Publish FanFiction

The reason for this is fairly obvious: profits. Fanfic comes with a huge built-in audience, an audience that would pay to have their favorite fanfic on their shelf (as evident by everything above). And not only that but selling fanfics as original works have been successful before. 

Profits (duh)

One of the most popular examples is Fifty Shades of Gray by E. L. James which has sold millions of copies and is based on Twilight. Then there’s perhaps a lesser-known (for being a fanfic originally) Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. Oh, yes — Jace is really Draco Malfoy, and Clary is really Ginny Weasly. 

There’s also the After series by Anna Todd, and that one has the murkiest morals of all because it was based on One Direction (yes, the band; yes, real-life people). Especially because it made Harry Styles (who the main character is based on) very uncomfortable. To paint a picture, if you haven’t read it: Harry Styles in this fic is extremely abusive and violent, sexually abuses and blackmails women, and more. You can see how you’d like to remove yourself from something like this. 

And all of these books sold millions of copies, got movie deals and made so much money for the publishers that it’s very easy to see why they’d want more. 

Fast timeline

Publishing fanfiction is also very easy and has a quick timeline; the work is already done, and the story written. Control + F, slap different names on existing characters and you’ve got yourself a very easy winner (by the way, I read After, and this is exactly what happened). 

There’s also a (slightly) deeper reason: the publishing industry needs books like these. These fanfics turned originals finance every great Booker-prize potential debut with their millions of sold copies. Along with celebrity memoirs and similar (if you want more info on that, there’s a great video by Jack in the Books that can tell you all about it). These types of books keep the industry afloat, whether we like it or not; that influx of money is needed so that the publishing houses can take more chances with other types of books. 

Why FanFiction Doesn’t Translate to Original Fiction

All of this said I’m not against publishing fanfics as actual novels. However, what I am against is doing it the way the publishing houses have been doing it so far. 

You see, fanfiction and original fiction are two entirely different beasts. 

The logic of reading (and writing) fanfic

When someone writes fanfic, they come at the story with the characters and (most likely) the world already pre-built for them. Their readers come to the story already knowing the characters and the world. All of the players are emotionally invested even before the story starts, so the author doesn’t have to work very hard on characterization, the world, or making readers care about the characters. And the readers are more than willing to just fill in the gaps and follow their favorite characters along. 

Fanfics, at least a majority of them, also have this episodic quality to them. Chapters tend to end on cliffhangers to keep the readers coming, they are very slice-of-life and don’t conform to the standard narrative structure. One chapter will be an important plot point. The next five will be fluff. And on and on it goes for upwards of 150 000 words. 

Filing off the serial numbers

All of this doesn’t translate well into original fiction. The logistics of changing names and inventing a new, but similar world are simple enough when you put your mind to it. Everything else, not quite. 

Take the characters, for example. The author of (and the team behind) this Franken-novel will usually still rely on the fill-the-gap logic, so in the majority of cases, the characters will remain as they are. Which is not a problem when you’re marketing the book to an existing audience that does the same. The problem happens when a new reader, someone unaware of the fandom connection starts reading the book. What they’ll get is empty shells instead of fleshed out characters and a world that feels more like window dressing. 

Most fanfic pairings (and stories) are based on tons of history, dynamics, and motivations that, without the context of fandom, make no sense to an outsider. So the question here is: can the story be marketed as original (or even defined as such) if it cannot fully stand on its own? 

A lot of these novels can’t. At least not to a degree that an actual original novel would. 

Not to mention the stuff that often goes unedited, such as the meandering narrative, plots that go nowhere, episodic or slice-of-life chapters, and more. 

Real-world example

To explain it in a real-life example, let’s take a look at Ali Hazelwood’s Love Hypothesis (I’d argue all of her work is fanfic for Reylo, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on this one). I was so excited about this book that I read it the same day it was published, all in one sitting. Only to be sorely disappointed. 

And yes, I knew it was Reylo, but I didn’t think that would be such a big deal (I’m not a fan). You might say that there are no issues (at least none I mentioned above) but I’d argue there are. Mainly with the romance (mind you, in a romance novel).

Sure, the characters have some personality and generally fleshed-out backstories, friends, and goals. All of that was somewhat well done. However, the dynamic between Olive and Adam (the main characters), is just blank. I know we are meant to ship them, we are meant to root for them. However, the author gives us no reason to, no relationship development because of the fill-the-gap logic. 

Are we meant to squee and kick our legs because they had a few awkward coffee dates, one extremely awkward lap-sitting situation, and one cringe sunscreen-rubbing event? Well yes, of course we are because we’re meant to look at them through the Reylo filter. 

Reylo (a pairing between Kylo Ren and Rey from Star Wars) has very few interactions that could be deemed romantic in the original movies, so of course seeing them on coffee dates works for people who are in the fandom. But for someone who doesn’t have that emotional investment, their interactions are bland at best.

Obviously, this book is very popular — most of these are, you’ll note — but it’s the quality that’s a problem. 

What We Can Do Better

I say we, but I really mean the publishing industry. So, while I understand the urge to publish faster — the story is already written and popular as it is, the whole process is cheaper, the audience impatient — I believe that all of this can be done better. 

Yes, fanfics deserve a space on the bookstore shelves. They are popular for a reason and this trend is not going anywhere. 

But, as I said, it can and should be done better. 

Editing, beta-reading and more

These books are written with love and care, so they should be edited with the same level of effort. In every fanfic, there’s a solid original story but it takes hard work to dig it out. So, instead of just slapping a wig on a pig and calling it a lady, how about actually working on the story. 

And again, I do realize this is easier to say than do. I still believe that it’s possible. These publishing houses hire thousands of talented people, surely one of them could come up with something. 

A process should also be set up, so nothing slips through the cracks. So, once the story is done and all the serial numbers have been filed off, I’d say it would be a good idea to run this story by a group of alpha/beta readers with no previous knowledge or context of fanfic and then hear what they have to say. I’m not sure if this is currently done, and if yes, it needs to be done better. 

Original works by fanfic authors

Alternatively, you could get a fanfic author to write an original — the audience will still follow, and the story will likely have some elements of fanfic, but it will definitely have more merit than a poorly edited fanfic. 

And here’s a great example: Olivie Blake. I’m not a huge fan, personally, at least of her original work (see here), but she is immensely popular. Not just with the fandom anymore, but those were very likely her first and most devoted readers. 

And there are other options too — there are ideas that start as fanfics but turn into great original works. Outlander started as a Doctor Who fanfic and aside from the time-traveling aspect, you wouldn’t be able to tell. You could also publish fanfics that were originally written as AUs (alternate universes), so most of the story is original (including motivations and dynamics). 

Final Thoughts

This article was somewhat inspired by the onslaught of Reylo fanfic turned original works that I’ve encountered recently. Books like You Again, The Hurricane Wars, For Love and Bylines, and many more have left me feeling disappointed and questioning this trend. 

And I do realize that it’s not any one person’s fault. The book world is turning into fast fashion, with very short deadlines and even less patience on the readers’ end. Obviously, when nothing else can, the quality will suffer. TikTok can turn any book into an instant success, and with the built-in audience that comes with fanfic, that’s pretty much guaranteed. 

I have nothing against authors, or their works, and especially not the readers that love it. I’m a fanfic reader who would love to see one of her favorite fics published. I just wish it could be done better. 

This is not the beginning of this trend nor the end of it. I also believe it will only grow. This is why it’s so important to be aware of what we consume, to hold publishers accountable and ask for better. If the readers are going to spend thousands of dollars on these novels, don’t they deserve to get something that’s actually better than what was available for free up until a few months ago? 

The question of copyright is only a minor one in this discussion, because at least due diligence is done there (both by the author and the publisher). It’s more a question of quality, and whether something can be called an original if very little work has been put into making it so. 

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  1. We have very similar fanfic experiences, LOL! I was never much of a fangirl either, but I read Manacled this summer and was immediately obsessed. I agree with everything in this article, especially about the lack of work put into the worldbuilding/characterization/plot setup. I tried to read the Hurricane Wars (Reylo fanfic originally) and the pacing was just all over the place.

    1. Good to know I’m not alone 🙂 I had a similar experience with the Hurricane Wars, it’s partly what inspired this article — at the beginning, the book is a bit info dumpy but is fine, and then the whole plot just becomes getting the two main characters to spend time together and it becomes almost a rom com, despite the world being so dark and all the war stuff happening.

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