How fangirls changed the future of publishing

By Aja Romano

Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the biggest book phenomena in history. Before it became the fastest-selling book of all time, if you’d tried to market a work of incredibly explicit BDSM erotica that started out as a form of vampire-less Twilight fanfiction, you’d’ve been laughed out of publishing.

Instead, Fifty Shades became headline news around the world, outsold Harry Potter in its home country, and ushered a year-long conversation about “mommy porn” into our lives, whether we wanted it or not.

For fandom, which was suddenly and irreversibly dragged into the limelight thanks to Fifty Shades’ fanfiction origins, the cultural shift has been even more significant. The publishing industry is now learning how to contend with fanfiction, while fans are learning how to contend with the attention of the outside world. But what has largely gotten lost in all of this hubbub—in the endless think pieces about women’s fiction and erotica and endless debates about whether it’s ethical to take a work of fanfiction and adapt it into original fiction—is that Fifty Shades wasn’t alone.

In fact, Fifty Shades author E.L. James was actually only one of hundreds of fanfiction writers and supporters within Twilight fandom who created this new erotic publishing phenomenon all by themselves.

These fans, most of them women, began by claiming ownership of their fanworks to an unprecedented degree. Then they spent the waning years of Twilight fandom forming small publishing presses and setting up shop as editors, designers, marketers, and writers to publish and sell the works of fanfiction they loved.

Between 2009 and 2012, these fans created a small cadre of what were essentially in-house publishers for the Twilight fandom. They recruited from among their favorite fanfiction writers, networked with their fanfiction community, and cultivated a new boom in fanfiction writers hoping to become published authors. And they did it all amid a tremendous amount of negative pushback from all sides—most of all from members of their own community.

Evolving ideas about fanfiction for profit

The Twilight fandom publishing houses were born in controversy, and they have been mired in it ever since.

For decades, fanfiction was everyone’s dirty little secret. Fans often lived in fear of the discovery of their hobby and frequently saw their work pulled or deleted off the Internet at the request of the original copyright holder. Out of this culture of shame and secrecy arose fandom’s most binding ethical code: As long as fanfiction, or fic for short, remains strictly not for profit, it can reasonably be deemed fair use under the protection of current U.S. copyright law. Fanfiction’s free, just-for-fun status is its biggest protection against claims of copyright infringement, and it also helps create a unique and thriving gift-based fandom economy. Anything that breaks that code is met with scathing criticism from both fans and professionals, as was the case when Fifty Shades’ fanfiction roots were made widely known.

But “fanfic can only exist if it’s free” is a murky rule to abide by, particularly given numerous questions about what actually constitutes “profiting” and what constitutes “fanfic.” And most importantly, the idea that for-profit fanfic is illegal isn’t actually true. Under current U.S. copyright law, if the argument can successfully be made that a work of fanfiction “transforms” the original work, then it’s perfectly legal to sell it and profit from it.

In fandom, the most obvious example of a transformative work is Alternate Universe fanfic, in which characters or settings are totally or partially removed from their original contexts. In the Twilight fandom, a popular subgenre, the “All Human” AU, turned Edward and Bella into non-supernatural humans living in a modern world. Effectively, All Human fic turned the duo into an open template for any romance trope a writer wanted to tell.

The Twilight fandom publishing houses were born in controversy, and they have been mired in it ever since.

At San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, an audience member attending a panel on Twilight fanfiction asked the panelists if they’d tried to be published outside of writing fanfic. One of the panelists was Elizabeth Andrews, better known in Twilight fandom as psymom, owner of the then-major fandom hub

Andrews answered with an explanation of the ease with which you could take a Twilight All Human fic and turn it into an original fic. The idea is that all it takes is a find-and-replace on names and places in fanfiction to magically change them to original characters and settings. The practice Harper described has long been known to fandom. Older fandoms refer to it as “filing off the serial numbers,” implying that the only thing about the story that’s really changed is its alleged point of origin.

Traditionally, filing off the serial numbers on fanfiction was done in secrecy and solitude. Authors often acted with the illicit partnership of agents and editors who would quietly seek out fandom authors whose writing they admired to ask them to submit works that could be easily adapted to an original setting. This practice went on for decades, entirely under the radar. At the 2010 gathering of Book Blogger Con, which brought together book fans, publicists, and editors from around the publishing industry, keynote speaker Maureen Johnson polled a room of about 500 people to ask how many had heard of fanfiction. Less than half raised their hands.

Fanfiction was at the publishing industry’s back door, and few people knew it except the fans.

Success from controversy

With so many authors in Twilight fandom writing All Human fics that had little if anything to do with the source material, it was inevitable that the winds in Twilight fandom would change.

Around the time Elizabeth Andrews was speculating about how easy it would be to take Twilight fanfics and rework them into original fics, numerous Twilight fans began to register their characters and fanfic titles with the U.S. copyright office. It’s a move that is perfectly legal if you own the copyright to your own work, but it enraged fans who felt it violated the ethical code of fandom—and more specifically the terms of service of In November 2009, three authors of some of the most popular Twilight fics on pulled their in-progress stories from the site before the stories were completed. Among these were the authors of The Office, which would later be revised and published as the instant bestseller Beautiful Bastards. Each of the authors noted that they had been reported to as violating its terms of service because they had registered their characters and stories with the copyright office. This could happen to other authors who’d done likewise, they warned.

On Jan. 1, 2010, Andrews dropped a bombshell on She and a group of other well-known Twilight fanfic writers had gotten together to form a new publishing company, Omnific Publishing, made with the express purpose of publishing “authors with a proven track record of online success in transformative works”—that is, fanfic.

The success of the Twilight publishing houses is a milestone example of women in fandom carving out a niche for themselves.

Omnific’s proposed publishing model seemed to essentially cut out the role agents traditionally play in the industry, instead going directly to the authors of popular fanfics in the Twilight fandom and providing publishing services to convert those fics into original novels. The same day a discussion about the announcement on Journalfen provoked censure and ridicule.

“What could possibly go wrong?” snarked one commenter. Early on, there was speculation on publishing watch forum Absolute Write that Omnific was “an author collective.” Baffled users tried to figure out whether it was a legitimate publisher or not. But with a staff of editors, designers, marketers, and more, Omnific was legit, and over the coming months it followed up the announcement with the acquisition of new titles and the release of new anthologies. It pounded the pavement at romance conventions, fandom conventions, and publishing conventions. People took notice.


Photo via Omnific/Blogspot

Hot on the heels of the Omnific announcement, a private Twilight fandom community known as the Writers Coffeeshop (TWCS), which had begun a few months earlier as a watering hole for members of the fandom, launched an archive for fanfiction and original work. But in addition to hosting fiction, TWCS also hosted fiction contests for the many Twilight fans who frequented it—and in October 2010, the website became the second Twilight fandom-based publishing house, again skipping the middleman and recruiting authors directly from fandom.

Twilight fandom was huge, and the biggest fics in the fandom rivaled that of national best sellers. Popular fics like The Office reportedly had tens of thousands of readers, and very probably more. Perhaps the most popular fic of all was Master of the Universe (MOTU) by a fan known as Snowqueens IceDragon, or Icy for short.

Icy was a true fandom celebrity. She had her own fandom websites, including one that referred to her version of Edward Cullen as “Fifty”—short for “fifty shades of hot.” She appeared on Comic-Con panels, and she had her own subfandom. A group of her fans were even rumored to have paid for her plane ticket from England to visit them in the U.S. When her fic got booted off in 2009 for violating its mature content policy, she simply hosted it on a new website, the now-offline, and her fans flocked there instead.

The implications of all this weren’t clear until a fandom charity auction took place in July 2010. During the auction (although she would later admit she felt pressured into participating), Icy offered to write an outtake of a chapter from MOTU for the highest bidder. Her fans, clamoring for more of the fic and eager to support their favorite fanfic authors, formed teams who would combine their total donation amount to win the bid for Icy’s fanfiction. Ultimately over 1,200 fans joined in to win and share the outtake among themselves.

The final total of the auction bids for Icy’s MOTU outtake came to $28,391.70.

The astronomical amount that fans were willing to offer for a single extraneous chapter of a fanfic pulled the cork off the phenomenon of Twilight fanfic authors going pro. “Filing off the serial numbers” began to be referred to within the Twilight fandom as “pull to publish,” shorthanded as P2P, because of the sheer number of fanfic authors who began yanking their works offline in the hope of turning their fandom popularity into publishing deals. And plenty of them did. Numerous Twilight fandom watch lists sprang up to keep track of (and in some cases continue to distribute) the fanfics that had been pulled from the Internet and converted into original fiction. The most comprehensive lists, which are probably incomplete, still number in the hundreds.

Fanfiction was at the publishing industry’s back door, and few people knew it except the fans.

As the P2P phenomenon took off, so did the controversy. But plenty of fans found the environment exciting and welcomed the opportunity to advance their careers. Speaking to The Kernel by email, author Debra Anastasia described the experience of writing Twilight fic as “almost a team sport.”

“For every chapter I released,” she said, “I would get the honor of sifting through hundreds, sometimes thousands of reviews from readers.”

Anastasia found the new culture of Twilight fandom publishing to be an inspiring one. She viewed Omnific’s founders as taking “a brave step into the world of publishing.” Her own Twilight fanfic, Poughkeepsie, was published by Omnific in November 2011 under the same title.

“My readers wanted a book to hold,” Anastasia said. “They’d shown me that they were the most daredevil of readers—wickedly smart, funny, and intelligent—so listening to them was common sense.”

And she wasn’t alone. In March 2011, Icy announced that the Writers Coffeeshop had given her “the opportunity to publish this beast.” She would eventually take the pen name E.L. James and rename Master of the Universe to Fifty Shades of Grey. When it was published just two months later as the first in a trilogy, it became a runaway best seller. A year later, Random House imprint Vintage acquired all three books for a seven-figure publishing deal, and Fifty Shades became the fastest-selling paperback in history.


Photo via Book Junkie, used with permission

The publishers

Not all of the publishing houses that grew out of the Twilight fandom movement were open about their fandom ties. The following small presses were all created after 2009 and all boast ties to the fandom, along with P2P’d fanfiction:

  • Malfunction Erotica: Its founder, Erica M. Reyes, credits fanfiction on her Goodreads profile with igniting her passion for writing and editing. Among the Twilight fics Malfunction has published is A Debt Repaid by N. Isabelle Blanco, originally published as fanfiction under the same name and a different author pseudonym.
  • Mayhem Publishing: Mayhem’s Executive Director L.J. Anderson proudly links her professional name to her Twilight fan handle, Soapy Mayhem. Among the Twilight fics Mayhem has published is Slick as Ides by Chanse Lowell, originally published as fanfiction under the same title and author handle.
  • Omnific Publishing: Founded in 2009 by a group of Twilight fanfic writers, Omnific is the oldest of the Twilight fandom publishing houses. Among the Twilight fics Omnific has published is Gabriel’s Inferno by the pseudonymous Sylvain Renard, originally published as fanfiction under the name The University of Edward Masen by Sebastien Robichaud. Berkley, an imprint of Penguin, acquired publishing rights for Gabriel’s Inferno and its follow-ups in 2012, in a seven-figure deal. In July of this year, Omnific formed a distribution partnership with Simon & Schuster.
  • The Writers Coffeeshop: Founded in 2010 out of a community forum of Twilight fans and writers, TWCS is an Australian-based small press most famous for publishing the original edition of Fifty Shades of Grey, acquired by Vintage in 2012 for seven figures.

In addition to the publishing houses that emerged from within the Twilight fandom specifically, there are multiple other small publishers that have direct ties to fandom, either through the editorial staff or their tendency to publish modified versions of works that began as fanfiction.

Most of the non-Twilight fandom presses cater to the slash side of the fandom—fanfiction that pairs same-sex partners—and the booming demand for original gay erotica, particularly of the male/male variety. These include Dreamspinner Press (founded in 2007), Less Than Three (founded in 2009), and Big Bang Press (founded in 2013). (Disclosure: The author of this article was the submissions editor for the latter, and Daily Dot contributor Gavia Baker-Whitelaw currently serves as managing editor.)

Though each of these presses is allied with fandom and with fanfiction to some degree, they each have different approaches to the subject of publishing fanfic. In 2012, Dreamspinner came under fire from publishing industry blog Dear Author, a site well-known for its stance that publishing fanfiction is unethical, after one of its submissions editors wrote a blog post advising fans to file off the serial numbers on their own fanfiction. An editor from Less Than Three visited WinCon later that same year as part of a panel advising slash fans on what publishing houses were looking for in male/male erotica. And while Big Bang Press explicitly seeks to avoid filing off serial numbers by encouraging fans to submit original fiction, it follows the Omnific model of both recruiting directly from fandom writers and openly proclaiming and celebrating its fandom roots. It is not a coincidence that this open embrace of fanfiction occurred after the publication of Fifty Shades.

Not all of the publishing houses that grew out of the Twilight fandom movement were open about their fandom ties.

Even more fascinating from the standpoint of reflecting the publishing industry’s shift in attitude toward fanfiction is the recent spate of One Direction fanfics that have gotten prominent publishing deals. The most recent of these, After by Anna Todd, has been dubbed “the vanilla version” of Fifty Shades. Meanwhile, Kindle Worlds is blatantly courting fans who want to profit from fic by essentially using them as work for hire. The post-Fifty Shades world looks very, very different for a fanfiction writer.

There is still firm resistance from outliers in the publishing industry regarding the ethics of publishing fanfiction. At this year’s Dragon Con, I attended a panel on Fifty Shades and the future of publishing. When I suggested that the boom in publishing heteronormative fic might inevitably lead to a boom for published slash fic as well, one panelist vehemently responded that publishing fanfiction was unethical under any circumstances. One LGBTQ publisher, Torquere Press, explicitly states on its website that it will not publish converted fanfiction because of copyright infringement. But the fandom disapproval is even stronger. On Goodreads, one closed community has spent two years tracking which newly published works originated as fanfiction, mainly to serve as warnings for people who want to avoid those kinds of stories. Other fans make their disapproval public in the form of bookshelves and negative reviews of such books.

Photo via Goodreads

Ironically, E.L. James herself is ambivalent on the position her fic had within fandom. Shortly after the announced publication of Fifty Shades, she wrote on her website: “I have never liked the term ‘Fandom’. ‘Fandom’ has scared me in the past because I have had such hate from complete strangers who don’t know me, merely because I have written a popular story. I have always thought of the peeps who read MOTU as ‘Readers’, and that’s it.”

But whether James or her book’s detractors approve of fandom or not, it seems clear that the success of the Twilight publishing houses is a milestone example of women in fandom carving out a niche for themselves in an industry that had traditionally marginalized both romance and fanfiction. The massive Twilight fandom is rarely given a thought when it comes to discussions of geek culture, particularly women in geek culture. Yet these women utilized all the resources at their disposal, from Web design to online networking, to turn a fringe subculture of fanfiction into a true mainstream cultural phenomenon. It’s hard to think of a more revolutionary act. Or a geekier one.

“[I] totally do see the impact fanfic has had on the publishing world,” Anastasia added in her email. “The pace of writing, the interaction with the readers and the expectation that every single chapter has to be on point has elevated the reading experience.”

Whether you agree that the publishing industry has been elevated by the advent of Fifty Shades and its sisters in the erotica genre, it has undeniably been changed. And at the heart of that change is a cultural shift in fandom, as fans grow more and more unashamed of their body of work and less willing to conduct it in secrecy. If erotica gained new legitimacy from Fifty Shades being prominently displayed in Barnes & Nobles across the world, then it’s arguable that fanfiction has likewise gained legitimacy, if only in the eyes of mainstream publishers who now know what Wattpad is.

Ultimately, Twilight made it just that much easier for fanfiction writers to own their fanwork and be taken seriously—and even, perhaps, to make a living writing the stories they love most.

Photos via Wikimedia, XOXO After Dark, Bared to You, Murphy’s Library, Talking Book Worm, Forbes, and Amazon | Remix by Max Fleishman