Fifty Shades of WHAT? Bestselling ex-Twilight BDSM novel takes publishing world by storm

If you follow publishing news at all – or picked up last week’s Game of Thrones issue of Entertainment Weekly – you’ve probably heard about Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a vanity-published erotic novel that’s sold more than 250,000 copies,and got author E L James a seven-figure book deal with Vintage, a division of Random House. It just became a a New York Times bestseller. So, yes, it’s incredibly popular.

It also started life as a Twilight alternate universe fanfic, something even major media have been picking up on.

Taking a fanfic and reworking it as an original piece is nothing new – I’m fairly sure one of my favorite space opera sagas started out as a Star Wars story way back in the day, for instance. Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novak may be the best known these days, but they were far from the first to cross over and go pro. It happens, and it’s been happening for a long time.

But it can strike an uncomfortable chord, particularly in cases such as this. Not because of the porn, per say, but because it skirts violating the most sacred – perhaps only – rule of fan fiction: Thou shall not make money off it. (Remember Lori Jareo?) And to boot, the incredible yet completely unsurprising success (yes, ladies do sometimes like porn, deal with it) of this particular case is shining a big, mainstream light on fan fiction in general… One I’m not sure the community wants or needs.

Given the deeply AU nature of her original fanfic, I think it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing James in court. But if the attention continues to spread to fan fiction and the community, if this just is the beginning of a trend, who knows what else will come to light? But only time will tell.

18 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of WHAT? Bestselling ex-Twilight BDSM novel takes publishing world by storm

  1. Michael

    Eurgh. Just … eurgh. To both aspects. Okay, first: This is such a badly written piece of BDSM! Very untrue to reality, and very vanilla and tame.

    Second, and as you point out, it makes me very uncomfortable to see fanfic making money. I’m reminded by one tweet by an author, speaking of fanfic, who said if you give it [your work] away, then you mustn’t think much of your work. Very untrue, as I know of one or two fanfic writers (and just writers who post their work online for free, myself among them) who respect their work, and think highly of it. Indeed, there’s some great work online. Sorry, I’m digressing.

    Mind you, I wouldn’t mind seeing some authors getting mainstream attention. They would deserve to make money off of their (original fiction) products. But making money off fanfic? Makes me a tad uncomfortable, to say the least.

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  2. Kelly

    I don’t know that I’d necessarily classify it as fanfic making money, though. I mean, I say this without having read it — and given the fandom it comes from, I have no intention of reading it ever. But I think it’s absolutely possible to take a story that started life as a fanfic and rework it into something original. It all depends on how tied to the fandom it comes from it is, and how many changes are made.

    I mean, if a Star Wars story still has something exactly like the Force and exactly like lightsabers, then no. But Star Wars itself is based on a lot of tropes. So I think it would be possible to write a story that started out being about Luke and change it into something else and not be infringing on Lucas’s work at all. I’ve toyed with the idea myself (not a Star Wars fanfic). It would depend on if I had enough time and will to rework it into something that was divorced from the fandom universe it’s now set in.

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  3. Dunc Post author

    Because it’s so similar – check the Dear Author link. Cassandra Clare didn’t change the names on the Draco trilogy and turn that in to her publishers – she wrote a new (or mostly new, depending how you feel about her Buffy influences) story.

    Personal example: An author I loved in high school used her fanfic as a basis for one of her books. Completely different world, but same characters (well, mostly) and the same. exact. plot. I had read that fanfic, had been looking forward to the book, and I swear to you this is the one and only time in my life that I was absolutely livid over being spoiled. I mean, yes, it was different enough in the details not to be an exact port, but I still thought it was a cheap thing to do then, and it’s a cheap thing to now. (And no, I will NOT name names on this one.)

    It’s one thing to be influenced – you can certainly see that in, say, Naomi Novak’s Temeraire books, which I believe DID start out as an Aubrey-Maturin story. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t write 7 novels worth of Aubrey/Maturin fanfic before the change-and-replace.

    That said, I do think James kind of stumbled into it and got spectacularly lucky.

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  4. GeekGurlPhD

    I agree… fanfic writers should not make money from their fanfic as they are using the ideas of another person. By all means, use fanfic to brush up on skills for writing original fiction and sell that (I have several ‘fanfic’ friends who are doing just that – more power to them I say!).

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  5. Bryan Young

    So is it okay that Douglas Adams converted Dr. Who stories he wrote into one of the Hitchhiker’s books?

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  6. Dunc Post author

    Did he? Heh.

    I have no idea. I’m not saying it’s ALWAYS a bad thing, witness my desire to make you all read Mageworlds. (Though I never was as enthralled by the Hitchhiker series – or Doctor Who – as many seem to be.) I remember Kathy Tyers admitted her Firebird series started out as SW fanfic… Read those, and wasn’t at all pissed off by it.

    But then again, all of this stuff we’re addressing more or less dates from the pre-internet/word processing era – it’s pretty damn hard to do a straight find-and-replace on a typewriter.

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  7. ginchy

    Ugh, I’m still pissed I bought this. I didn’t know that it was fanfic at purchasing time. I was just interested in the promise of the sex (which turned out not to be so great). As I was reading I started thinking, man, the is reading like bad fic. And you know I have read (and written?) a lot of bad fic in my time. So I Google it and low and behold find out that I’ve purchased repackaged Twilight fanfic.

    Yep. Pissed!! I don’t think it’s right. I’ve read on other sites that all she did was basically copy and replace the names. I feel like that’s cheating. I think you can learn a lot from fanfic, but this makes me very uncomfortable.

    I can’t believe I spent $5.99 on something I probably could have found on the net for free (that is if I were to ever read Twilight fanfic. Having never read the novels or seen the movies… I wouldn’t).

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  8. Donsinluv

    To put this in perspective, I have a friend who attempted to read the novel in question. She gave up in the middle and warned me away, saying it was basically plotless trash. Lots of sex but no character development, plot, etc.

    The real, and very discouraging, story is that the publishers don’t give a flying hoot where the story came from, what it’s about, and if it’s a Twilight ripoff (which was really a Harlequin romance ripoff). All the publishers care about is selling books, and that’s what they’re doing, hand over fist.

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  9. Emily

    I remember Kathy Tyers admitting that at least the first Firebird book started off as a Star Wars fanfic. In my opinion, though, she took great care and effort to change the worlds into something her very own; while some of the theological stuff feels Star Wars-ish, the familiarity isn’t jarring at all.

    I haven’t read any of the other stuff mentioned in this article, but it sounds like these people just changed a few names/places/concepts and slapped an “original” label on it…and so did the publishers. I feel like that might say more about the state of publishing than anything else. Then again, much of entertainment out there these days – tv, film, musical theater, and now I guess novels – is derivative of something.

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  10. Arica

    I read the fanfic and considered it tripe. Incredibly popular though and I never really got why. The characters were so OOC, that it was prob very easy to rewrite it with OCs. I have no desire to skim it to see how the story changed.

    The author was popular though, so her inflated sales come from that, I believe. ‘Built in audience’ is the appeal to the publisher, I believe here. The news has, of course, swept through the fandom a few times now, but I feel all ‘blah’ about it really. It’s not as snerk-worthy without a catch phrase like “Harry Potter Plagiarist” attached to it.
    Arica

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  11. Carla Lute

    I feel like I need to pop up and say there is a difference between self-publishing and vanity press. Though honestly I don’t know which side of the line this falls on.

    Over all, I’m so exceedingly grateful for this article. I needed to do research on fans going pro and here it is. Thank you. Thank you.

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  12. Glenn

    I saw somewhere else questioning whether or not MOTU was truly fan fiction. My understanding was it’s connection to Twilight was just using the names “Bella Swan” and “Edward Cullen” as the names of the main characters. It’s set somewhere else and it’s not explicit that Edward (or I suppose Bella) is a vampire. (I haven’t read Twilight, but have seen the trailers.) The article called into question if the author was taking advantage of the Twilight audience to promote her work.

    You could write a story where the main characters are named “Harry Potter” and “Hermoine Granger” and set it in NYC and have them never use or mention magic. Is it fan fiction? It’s my understanding that Twilight is set in current times in the US, much like Harry Potter is set in England. So it’s relatively easy to write a story with limited connections.

    On the other hand, Star Wars and Hunger Games are set in very different societies, and it’s the societies more so than the characters that define those universes. Thus, fan fic would be difficult to write that didn’t mention hyperspace or blasters or Panem.

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