EletiofeLots of People Make Money on Fanfic. Just Not...

Lots of People Make Money on Fanfic. Just Not the Authors

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Of the 12.5 million works currently hosted on the fan fiction hub Archive of Our Own, SenLinYu’s Manacled ranks as the second-most-read on the entire site—but you won’t be able to read it there for much longer.

A dark romance between Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy set in a Handmaid’s Tale-esque world, the more than 350,000-word story has garnered millions of hits since it was first published in 2018. A fair portion of these readers have come from outside fan fiction communities; as it’s cycled through corners of BookTok and BookTube and been chosen for romance book clubs, many cited it as their introduction to fanfic.

Like many popular fan fiction stories, Manacled has spawned a fandom of its own. Other fans have translated it into two dozen languages, written remixes, drawn fan art, and more. But it has also spawned a commercial fandom: On sites like Etsy and Mercari, you can find Manacled merch like sweatshirts and jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, you can buy bound copies of the story itself, some of which can go for hundreds of dollars. Seemingly anyone can make money off this viral hit—except its author.

Earlier this month, SenLinYu announced they’d signed a deal with Del Rey, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for a novel called Alchemised. “It will grapple with themes of trauma and survival, legacy, and the way that love can drive one to extreme darkness,” they wrote. “And it is, as you may be able to tell, a reimagined version of Manacled.” Explaining the broad changes between old and new versions—namely, swapping Harry Potter’s magical world for an original one—SenLinYu said Manacled itself will stay up through the end of the year, “at which point it will, if you’ll pardon the pun, alchemise for 2025 and be removed from AO3.” (The author did not reply to requests for comment on this story.)

The practice of “pulling to publish” has been a part of the fan fiction world for a long time, but prior to the past decade, it largely existed in the shadows. The publishing industry had long been ambivalent about fic (legal questions aside, many of its loudest critics over the years have been famous professional authors), which usually prompted agents and editors to mask any connection a work had to fandom. But pulling to publish—removing one’s story from a site like AO3 to sell it traditionally—has historically been equally disdained by fandom itself, unhappy to see community norms violated and fellow fans profiting off the overwhelmingly nonmonetized practice of writing and sharing fic in the gift economy.

The most famous pull-to-publish fic remains Snowqueens Icedragon’s “Master of the Universe,” aka the TwilightAll Human AU” that became E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Massive commercial success aside, Fifty Shades was notable because James didn’t hide the trilogy’s origins, thrusting fic into the mainstream in the process. More than a decade later—and amidst a spate of successful pull-to-publish romance novels coming out of the Reylo (Star Wars’ Kylo Ren/Rey) fandom in particular—an old-school fic person might be struck by the straightforwardness of SenLinYu’s post, the idea that a work’s origins as a popular fic might be a selling point, not something to hide.

But the Manacled situation is far thornier—and it illustrates one of the stranger results of the mainstreaming of fan fiction. Because even though SenLinYu had the opportunity to make money off it with a traditional book deal, they write that they didn’t actually want to take Manacled down:

As most of you know, I have been a reader in fandom long before I ever began to write. Fanfiction is incredibly special to me, and I have tried to do my best not to undermine its legal protection or allow my works to do so either. During the last several years, there has been a growing issue with illegal sales of Manacled, putting both me and the incredible community that shares fanfiction freely in legal jeopardy.

After consulting with the OTW [Organization for Transformative Works] as well as other lawyers, it has grown clear that as a transformative writer I have limited options in protecting my stories from this kind of exploitation, but I wasn’t sure what to do; I didn’t want to just take the story down, in part because I worried that might only exacerbate the issue, but I didn’t know what other options I had.

In the weeks following, a spate of other Dramione (the portmanteau for Draco/Hermione) writers announced they were taking their works down for similar reasons. The Dramione subreddit has temporarily banned all talk of fanbinding, as its known—the act of printing out fan fiction to create a traditional, physical book. Popular writer Onyx_and_Elm said they were deleting their works because of “the seemingly unstoppable monetization of fandom and the sheer volume of illegal fan bindings being sold.” Gillianeliza wrote on Instagram, “The issue here isn’t just those who are putting mine and my fellow authors [sic] stories up on these storefronts. The issue also lies with the people who are actively purchasing these books—putting hundreds of dollars into the hands of someone who is not only doing something illegal, but also going against the wishes of each and every fanfic author. We do this for free—this is a gift economy and fan fiction should be treated as just that: a gift.”

Fanbinding has exploded in popularity in the past few years. Many fanbinders do adhere to a strict gift-economy stance in line with the writers whose work they’re binding, often limiting the money they collect, if any, to covering material costs. But the people selling bound versions of popular fics for profit are cut from a different (book) cloth. As they make money off works the authors themselves cannot sell, they’re putting those authors—and, arguably, fan fiction itself—in an untenable position.

“Technically speaking, the reproduction right belongs to the author of the fic, because that’s the ‘copy right’: They are the only person with the right to make copies of the fic,” says Stacey Lantagne, a copyright lawyer who specializes in fan fiction and teaches at Western New England University School of Law. Even though she notes it “might be considered an unsettled question of law officially,” fic authors do hold the copyright to the original parts of their stories, though of course not the underlying source material.

Is it legal to bind someone else’s fic? “Here is a typical lawyer answer: It depends,” Lantagne jokes. She says “it is likely legal to print someone else’s fanfic for your own personal, noncommercial use,” adding that could likely extend to paying material costs for someone else to bind it, too. “Noncommercial” here is key. Like the legal status of fan fiction itself, the legality of fanbinding rests on fair use, the exception under US copyright law determined by factors like how transformative a work is, or if someone is profiting off it—and taking money away from the rights holder in the process.

Fan fiction communities have historically relied on good-faith communication when it comes to doing something else with someone’s fic. Nothing’s stopping you from translating, remixing, or creating an audio version (known as podficcing)—or, yes, printing and binding a version, but it’s nice if you ask first. Some writers post blanket permissions allowing any noncommercial engagement with their works, and some, especially in these hyper-popular corners of fandom, have specific guidance about fanbinding. Last year, a charity auction that garnered huge sums of money to bind others’ work led some writers—SenLinYu included—to modify their policies to allow personal, noncommercial fanbinding only.

While plenty of fans have respected their wishes, there is clearly demand for these books—and thus, continued supply. Lantagne says that since litigation is extremely expensive, the only recourse a fan fiction writer likely has in this situation is to file DMCA takedown notices, a very tedious process when there are multiple sellers on multiple sites. “This is what copyright holders have been complaining about ever since the DMCA was passed in the late 1990s—it’s a pain to have to file a DMCA notice everywhere copyright infringement crops up,” she says. “However, the alternative is something like YouTube’s Content ID being used to automatically block uploads, which we know is notoriously bad at accounting for fair use.”

Although illegal sellers obviously deserve a good portion of blame, that continued demand—regardless of fic authors’ wishes—speaks to the way both scale and money has been altering the fan fiction world in recent years. To be clear, there was never one singular “fan fiction community” or universal set of norms, but the widely accepted gift-economy framing has always been undergirded by the fact that many fan fiction readers are also writers, and stories are shared within fandoms, with all the structural ties they bring. Pulling-to-publish was often framed as a betrayal—we were all in this nonmonetized boat together, and now you’ve jumped ship and cashed in.

The last big pull-to-publish wave was in fact the one that brought us Fifty Shades. James’ work was one of many popular Twilight stories that got scrubbed and repackaged for sale. Like a few other Twilight novels, Fifty Shades was eventually traditionally published, but these works were initially sold by presses run by Twilight fans themselves—a trend that was heavily criticized by other fans at the time.

There are obvious parallels with today’s money-and-fan-fiction landscape, but the differences are striking. In the early 2010s, fans were directly monetizing their own work, while today, the power—and the money—rests in the hands of traditional publishers scouring AO3 for hits, and with the illegal binders, selling others’ works for their own profit. The latter presents a strange sort of workaround to the classic “You can’t make money off your fic”—even as money changes hands, the fic author still doesn’t see any of it.

The ever-increasing reach of fan fiction has inched the practice away from text-written-in-community to a more traditional author-reader relationship—and the context collapse that’s come with viral works being treated like any other romance novel has spurred clashes between different types of readers with different sets of expectations.

In the past few years, fic authors across all corners of fandom have increasingly complained about shifting attitudes from readers who treat them like any other content creator, demanding the next chapter as you might demand your favorite influencer’s next video. But unlike on creative platforms like TikTok and YouTube, the fic writer doesn’t get revenue from their new installment.

Lantagne sees this context collapse as a key factor in the illegal fanbinding situation. “I think that big-name authors might be out of luck when their fan fiction ceases to be fan fiction,” she says. Like a photograph that ends up in a popular meme, it might be protected by copyright, but there’s little that the original photographer can do to remove every infringing use. “Once your fic is no longer on AO3 and is instead being sold on Etsy, you’re outside of community norms now. There is very little way to fully protect anything that’s on the internet. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

The vast majority of fic will likely never be monetizable, at least not at scale. Its huge range of niche interests and unusual story structures would likely make most work unpalatable to the people trying to make money off fic, whether they’re selling it directly or changing details to remove any connection to the existing canon (known as “filing off the serial numbers”) to publish traditionally. (There’s plenty to say about the sorts of stories the publishing industry is pulling—like Twilight before it, it’s notable that the biggest ships in the pull-to-publish pipeline are heterosexual romances, but that’s a whole other article.)

But the money flowing through the space does affect the entire fic world, even indirectly; just as the mainstream spotlight of Fifty Shades fundamentally altered fandom, these trends are fundamentally altering it again—and as writers are forced to delete their own works to keep pirates from profiting off them, arguably not for the better. Exactly how fan fiction’s next decade will shake out, though? That’s a subject for your future fic.

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