How 50 Shades of Grey is changing the face of fanfiction

After years of thriving as a niche and often secret hobby of dedicated creative fans on the internet, fanfiction is no longer hiding in the shadows. More and more, fic is making its way into the light of mainstream pop culture. Fanfic authors write for sheer love of the characters and story, but it’s becoming more common for some writers to make serious cash for their work.


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E.L. James may be the most notorious example of this trend, as she turned her Twilight fanfic into the uber popular 50 Shades of Grey series, but James is far from the only author hopping on the trend. Anna Todd’s novel After, based on One Direction self-insert fanfic, scored a six-figure deal from Paramount last year. This news caught the attention of mainstream mega news outlets as they struggled to get up to speed on what fanfiction is, how it works, and why it might be profitable. Fanfiction now also recognized by literary and popular outlets, like Sugarscape, who introduced a fanfiction category into the Wicked Young Writers Award this year.

But is it ethical? Fanfiction is often thought of as a gift economy, wherein creators and consumers do not exchange money for the service of writing or reading fanfiction. Instead, the intricate system is supported by kudos, comments, subscribers, and recommendations. For many, E.L. James’ choice to step outside that economy and sell her fanfiction for profit betrayed the culture of fanfiction and was an insulting slap in the face to the community that once supported her.

On the other side, many fans believe it's wrong to profit off of fanfiction, no matter how much it’s been reworked. So what do the authors think? Of 50 Shades of Grey, Stephenie Meyer congratulated E.L. James on her success. And J.K. Rowling famously approved fanfiction when her literary agent was contacted in regards to the hugely popular “James Potter” series.


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The James Potter series, by G. Norman Lipper, has garnered its own fandom with over a million readers, and the newest installment coming this month, although Lipper actually isn’t making a profit off of the James Potter series. Rowling has said that said that she encourages fanfiction, so long as it’s not pornographic, which takes quite a bit of fic off the table. Her approval only extends so far. Not that that stops fic writers.


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It’s important to remember that Rowling’s approval aside, fanfiction is legal under fair use copyright protection, so no one can tell fanfiction authors what they can or cannot write, not even the creator of one of the most popular book series of all time.