The amateurs rewriting Hollywood’s script – and turning ‘fanfiction’ into gold

Big business: popular online fanfiction can breed book sales and Hollywood deals
Big business: popular online fanfiction can breed book sales and Hollywood deals

It isn’t unusual for children to write stories featuring their favourite fictional characters – I myself penned several Biggles sequels in my youth – or their favourite celebrities. But these days, if you keep at it into adulthood, and you publish them online, you may end up with phenomenal book sales and even a Hollywood deal.

Fanfiction, as it’s known, can be big business. Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel The Idea of You – which is about a 40-year-old woman embarking on a romance with the 20-year-old frontman of a British boy band, possessed of a face so beautiful that it’s insured by Lloyd’s of London – began life as a piece of “fanfic” about One Direction singer Harry Styles. Although Lee gave the character a different name in the finished book, and was coy about the Styles connection – “Inspired is a strong word,” was her non-disavowal to Vogue in 2020 – it created enough buzz among 1D’s legions of fans to make it a bestseller. The novel is now being shot with Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine.

Nor is Lee the first author to turn idle fantasies about snogging Styles into big bucks. Anna Todd’s novel After, published by Simon & Schuster in 2014, originated in the stories about One Direction that she published on the social storytelling platform Wattpad. There is now a series of After films, which have earned more than £126 million worldwide. If the 1D boys aren’t overjoyed by being written into other people’s fantasies – “It’s weird, all that s---… I’d rather they didn’t,” Louis Tomlinson told The Telegraph recently – this literary equivalent of chucking knickers on to the stage clearly strikes a chord with thousands.

At the same time, many readers have lapped up fanfiction that repurposes fictional characters created by other authors, usually aimed at young adult audiences and frequently featuring detailed reveries about the characters’ sex lives. Cassandra Clare’s wildly popular Mortal Instruments novels started off as stories about Harry Potter’s arch enemy Draco Malfoy, which she posted on the fledgling site fanfiction.net more than 20 years ago. And E L James’s world-conquering Fifty Shades of Grey, the films of which have now made more than £1 billion, began life on that same site as a riff on the imagined erotic lives of the chaste characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.

Fanfiction has been around for decades. In the 1970s, there was a vogue for homemade Star Trek “fanzines”, many of which focused on the romance between Kirk and Spock. But in recent years, fanfiction authors have tended to post their offerings on one of three hosting platforms: Archive of Our Own (known to users as AO3), fanfiction.net (FFN), or Wattpad.

AO3 boasts more than five million users, and hosts work in more than 50,000 “fandoms”, ranging from Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes to what it designates “real person fiction” (the likes of Styles and Timothée Chalamet feature regularly). It is a measure of the site’s standing that in 2019 it received a special Hugo Award, the sci-fi equivalent of an Oscar.

Francesca Coppa, professor of English and film studies at Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, co-founded AO3 in 2008. I ask her what was the appeal of writing these stories. “Creating my own versions of characters and stories that I love is fun. Even better is doing it in a community where almost everyone is both an artist and part of the audience.

“For me,” she adds, “it’s a lot like punk rock. The audience at a punk rock concert is often made up of people who also have their own bands. Today I’ll read your story – tomorrow, you’ll read mine. It’s both a creative and a social activity.”

So how does one go about making money from writing fanfiction? If you post on Wattpad (one of the most popular sites, though it hosts other types of fiction too) and your work attracts a sufficiently large number of readers, you may be offered a stipend of up to £20,000. Moreover, Wattpad boasts of its partnerships with leading publishers (Macmillan, Penguin Random House) and film/TV companies (Sony, Hulu), and its record of connecting “untapped, unsigned and talented writers” with them.

Despite the increasing involvement of Hollywood, however, AO3 wants to project a rather different ethos. “I am very against the monetising of fan works precisely because they are created by, for, and within a community,” says Coppa. “Collaborative fun is one thing. Not paying someone for their ideas or editorial skills when you’re making money is something else.”

New genre: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey which was inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels
New genre: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey which was inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels

Of course, if you do try to monetise your fanfiction, you may find yourself in a similar position to the team behind the stage show The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, who recently faced legal action from Netflix. This may explain why one of the most popular works on AO3, the website’s first to reach two million reader “hits”, has not been snapped up by a publisher: a 557,000-word Harry Potter prequel called All the Young Dudes, written by one MsKingBean89 (who has been “identified” as Taylor Swift, without apparent foundation, by some excitable fans), which features many of J K Rowling’s characters.

You’re not likely to be sued, however, if you simply post your fanfiction to a not-for-profit host site. “Many famous authors are aware that fanfiction increases the popularity and publicity of their works,” says intellectual property expert Uma Suthersanen.

She also notes that even if such authors do object, the law may not help them. “Copyright law – especially in the EU and US – allows fair usage of protected works for the purposes of creating derivative works, or parody, or education. Taking [fanfiction authors] to court may prove futile. The law in Anglo-American courts may well find that such takings are allowed.” Yet it might be a different matter if a fanfiction author tried to profit from their work. “When commercialisation comes in, the law’s benign acceptance of reuse/recreate may take a turn.”

Still, with all those barriers surmounted, fanfiction may lead to a successful writing career, as it did for E L James. With her popularity established online, James found herself courted by publishers, despite her work displaying little in the way of conventional literary merit. “Say what you want about her writing – it really engaged with a lot of readers, through its simplicity of style,” says Philippa Donovan, who works as a literary scout for film and television companies.

“It wasn’t what publishers might have been looking for, but it really resonated… And it spawned an entire genre of erotic fiction – something mainstream publishers hadn’t really touched before.”

Donovan makes it her business to keep an eye on the likes of Wattpad and AO3. “I’m watching to see if anything emerges from there into the larger consciousness. Every now and again, I will send an email through to them asking if there is anything that’s particularly catching fire. A publisher won’t necessarily be interested in publishing that piece of fan fiction, but they might be interested in doing something else with that author. Anything that has that many eyeballs is something that we have to engage with.”