not again

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s now almost a year since Dear Author posted a comparison of Master of the Universe and 50 Shades of Grey. I worked hard on that analysis, as did a number of other people, and we used a variety of methods to demonstrate the overwhelming similarities between the two. I contributed to this project because I thought it was important to show that Vintage, the respected press that acquired 50, was being dishonest when it claimed that MOTU had been substantially edited and revised for publication. The number everyone remembers is the 89% similarity rating that the Turnitin analysis yielded. But every other method of comparison did the same thing. Fifty is P2P fanfic.

Since then, a slew of books have been picked up by once-reputable publishers. Gabriel’s Inferno and its sequels have been picked up and published by Penguin Berkeley. Simon & Schuster is publishing a “reworked” fanfiction as Beautiful Bastard (note: Turnitin is a tool, not a final judgment, so the argument that it’s only 20 percent the same isn’t compelling to me without seeing the raw data).

I’ve spent years believing and arguing that there are distinctions to be made between the books published by major presses and self-published work. I didn’t think that New York publishers were always driven by lofty goals and integrity, but I thought that their good moves outnumbered their bad moves.

Then today I heard that P2P fanfic by a writer with the improbable nom de plume of Tara Sue Me has been acquired by NAL, which was established as a respectable publisher of literary and genre fiction. They have published authors ranging from James Joyce to Jim Thompson. And now they are publishing Tara Sue Me. Yes, they are keeping her fanfic author name, presumably to enhance the brand value.

I avoid P2P. I avoid published fanfic. I have a variety of reasons, which I don’t expect other people to agree with or follow, but they’re mine and I’m sticking to them. This post and the subsequent comment thread encapsulate much of what I think is problematic about the fanfic-to-publication trend:

Whatever one’s feeling or opinions may be on p2p, no one can deny it’s changed the fandom for the worse. It’s all the cons, none of the pros. It’s put a clear dividing line between author and reader. No one trusts anyone. Everything seems suspect. Every move in fanfic is observed as being a possible marketing strategy.

What was once a fun and creative atmosphere of peer interaction has turned into something profitably strategic.

I think this latest acquisition may signal the nadir in the fanfic-to-respectably-published-book juggernaut, but I’m afraid to say so out loud. There is always lower to go. And so I can only repeat the safe word from Ms. Me’s trilogy:


Unfortunately, no contracts were signed beforehand, so I don’t think the author, the publisher, and the P2P industry more generally are likely to stop.

10 thoughts on “Turpentine!

  1. There’s something about this business that I don’t understand. I did look up P2P and now know what that is. But isn’t “fan fiction” by definition taking the characters from some other work and putting them into new situations, times, etc? If so, then what is the source material for 50 Shades of Grey and these other P2P works? I thought I read that Twilight was the source– but I read the first of those books and don’t remember any billionaires in it.

    • Oh, sorry about that! I forget to explain my acronyms a bit too often. ;)

      All these are from the Twilight fandom. You are correct, in my estimation, that it would be difficult to get a legal ruling of infringement because most of these books are Alternate Universe (AU). There are no vampires, they’re not in high school, etc. etc. But there is debate about the ethics and the level of originality because the characters embody many of the character traits of the originals, and the nature of the relationships are similar. There are personality quirks that derive from Meyer’s Bella (or Kristen Stewart’s portrayal, which is a whole different issue).

      Basically, when readers within the fandom read these fics, they recognize their origins and relate to the characters because they are derivative. But there is a lot of original stuff in the stories as well.

  2. I don’t have a firm opinion on P2P because I don’t know enough about fandom and because norms in some fandoms seem to be changing so fast (although I understand the qualms you and others express). But this quote from NAL’s press release struck me:

    “Tara Sue Me writes the kind of erotic romance people want today, and she does it better than most anyone else we’ve seen. She’s been a sensation online for years, and it’s time for the mainstream audience to discover and enjoy her works,” Zion said.

    (it’s in the Deadline story: http://www.deadline.com/2013/02/nal-hopes-for-fifty-shades-audience-acquires-steamy-fan-fiction-trilogy-the-submissive/ )

    So basically, the “mainstream audience” is paying because they can’t be bothered to find a fanfic site and read the kind of thing they like for free (I guess this is the vestigial remains of publishing’s gatekeeping function? They find the popular fanfics and package them for us?). After all the ink spilled on E.L. James, you’d have to be living under a rock with no access to news media or Google to be unable to find Twific if you wanted to. Are there that many clueless readers out there? Maybe we get the publishers we deserve, I don’t know.

    At least they aren’t even pretending anymore?

    • Given how many readers won’t buy if the ebook isn’t one-click, I have reluctantly decided that I cannot underestimate the technology savvy and interest of readers. That said, if you really want to read fanfic, it’s pretty damn easy to find. Even the stuff that’s been pulled is not that hard to locate (even without joining fandoms).

      The two things that have startled me about this latest acquisition are: (1) NAL’s blatant appeal to the fandom community that has already read it. We all know that fandom members seed the publicity machine, but it’s never been quite this obviously recognized before. (2) The fact that they’re basically not pretending that it’s any different (aside from the serial number scrubbing). They absolutely are trading on the fanfic roots and see that as a bonus, not something to be hidden. That is new and depressing.

      So yes, they aren’t pretending. I think we’re about to learn that pretending had some advantages, however hypocritical it was.

  3. I don’t really follow any of the fandom/fanfic sites. What is the reaction of the fanfic writers and readers who frequent them? My understanding is that there is quite a bit of feedback given to the fanfic writers in their various communities. Is there any anger or resentment over the P2P authors essentially getting free “editing” from their fanfic community?

    i suspect that the only thing that will stop this P2P phenomenon among publishers is for the sales of these stories to tank badly. I don’t hold out much hope though – publishers are still buying “memoirs” from third-rate celebrities.

    Are they still paying ridiculously large advances to these P2P authors?

    • It varies across the different fandoms, but there are definitely fandoms in which pulling to publish is seen as problematic. I’ve seen people talk about the Twific fandom as if it’s the only one in which P2P is an issue, but that’s definitely not the case.

      It’s partly the fact that people are getting free editing and feedback and then turning around and trying to profit from it, but there is also a sense of breaking the compact within the community.

      I’ve written bits and pieces of this and I’ve been meaning to write it up. I’ll put something together soon.

    • Oops, forgot to add that yes, I believe they are still paying those ridiculous advances. But they’re making them back in some cases, unfortunately. The only way this is going to end, or at least decrease substantially, is if they stop selling. And I guess they’re still sufficiently novel that the end is not near. Ugh.

      • Deep sigh. Thank goodness my TBR has enough in it to read for the next couple of years and some of my favourite authors are either still getting contracts or are deciding to self-publish their original works. Hopefully the pendulum turns sooner than we think.

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