Beyond Fandoms: The Digital Ecology behind Fanfiction and why Libraries Need to Pay Attention

The year I turned 50, I discovered reading fanfiction (fanfic). It all started after I watched The Last Jedi. I jokingly called it my mid-life crisis, my obsession with Star Wars’ characters Kylo Ren and Rey of Jakku. I learned what “shipping” (a desire for fictional couple to be romantically involved) and “OTP” (one true pair) meant. As I laughingly indulged my new found hobbies with fan groups on Facebook, Twitter and, then Tumblr, I was in short order introduced to the wonder that is the Archive of our Own.

Archive of our Own (AO3) is a nonprofit open source repository for fanfiction and other fanworks contributed by its users. It is a huge database of fiction works, created and sponsored by writers and readers invested in various fandoms. The database is searchable by creator, subject and fandoms. Its users are 1.6 million and counting. In AO3, readers can also create bookmarks, comment on works, curate their own collections and keep track of works that they would like to read later. I soon started to read romance works involving my OTP Rey and Kylo.

I’ve always been a huge reader, particularly of the romance genre. I devoured everything– category, paranormals, historicals, romantic suspense–and when I’m not borrowing from my library, I was spending my hard-earned money on romance books in print and electronic. About four months into my fanfic addiction, it hit me that something had fundamentally changed – I stopped buying romance books. Worse yet, I had stopped borrowing them from my local library. I had all the reading I needed on my phone and seemingly, it’s enough to keep me happy and entertained. [1]

Having worked in libraries for over 25 years, this change in my habits certainly gave me pause. The idea that unedited, unpublished books written by ordinary, non-“author” folk from all walks of life can engage and enthrall me in the same way that big New York Times bestsellers have done is just mind-boggling. Beyond all of the talk of fandom, as a consumer of books and a fiction lover, I was struck by the differences between the ecology of the traditional book production and the world of fanfiction.

In Archive of our Own:

1) Anyone with access to technology (such as a laptop, tablet, or for some of the most patient writers, a smartphone) can be a content creator. Some people use beta readers or proofreaders instead of a professional editor–these folks are typically fanfic writers themselves.

2) Content creators are able to do what they like. Writers can write multiple versions of an ending, or can direct a scene as prompted by one of their readers. Whole plots of works can be crowdsourced. Indeed, AO3 has a policy of “maximum inclusiveness”, and hosts controversial works depicting taboo subjects such as incest and sexual violence. Writers can publish anything from a 75-chapter saga, or a 200-word “drabble”, without restrictions on length, formula or content.

3) The content is FREE. Authors cannot charge for their works, but they can link to their other social media sites like Tumblr, where they can promote things like their ko-fi account (a donation site where people can buy creators a “coffee” for $3.00 USD).

4) Feedback is immediate. Like all humans, writers are motivated by praise and feedback and love – and are vocal about it. The immediacy of likes, reblogs/retweets and comments on social media fuel the creative process and builds relationships (and eventually, a writer’s brand-name recognition) between readers and writers. This is not to say that this doesn’t exist for authors of traditional print, it’s just a lot faster and a lot quicker.

5) Anyone can be a marketer or promoter of their, or someone else’s, work.  There are myriad digital ways for writers and readers to connect – Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, and Discord. Some fans create digital content to highlight a fanfiction work. These tributes can take shape in the form of an aesthetic or a mood board (akin to a Pinterest image board depicting elements of the story and its characters), original videos, memes, or original artwork. Some readers have whole blogs curating fanfiction information by essentially cataloguing, categorizing and reviewing fanfiction works.

6) The medium is multimodal and experimental. A writer sometimes posts links to what the characters are eating, wearing, or where the story is taking place. Some writers also create musical playlists to accompany their works. There is something incredibly immersive and intimate about the experience of reading a story while listening to the music that inspired and fuelled the writer’s imagination and creativity.

Writers also experiment with how the story is presented. I’ve read stories where the text conversations are actual phone screenshots, wherein the reader can infer so much about the characters’ insights by how one of them has chosen to save the other’s nicknames on their phones. In another story I’ve read, the conversation back and forth between two characters are told in emojis, gifs, youtube clips and memes. In this realm, the source materials writers can draw on to enrich their stories are constantly growing, changing, and topical.

Takeaways for Libraries

The world of reading and imagination has always been and will always be an integral part of the fabric of libraries. In my opinion, libraries need to be an active participant in the rich digital ecology of fanfiction, and it is up to us to find the opportunities to reimagine our programs, services and collections to do so. The answer of course, is via outreach and connecting with our users and patrons. We can start by asking them a question as simple as “What are you working on?” and see where that leads us. Here are some things for libraries to think about:

Placemaking and Programming – Reimagine and rebrand our study spaces as writing and creation spaces. Why does our silent space always have to be a “Quiet Study Room”? Can’t they simply be “Quiet Space”? Libraries have always supported writers and literacy – libraries do this a lot right now, by playing an active role in writer’s festivals and hosting NaNoWriMo events, but writing programs are always held in conjunction with working editors and writers, or people who are already in the field in some manner. How do we connect with people who are writing at home, on their own? We have an opportunity to target fanfiction or newbie writers. We can hold writing sprint events (where writers are challenged to write within a certain time limit and clock their final word counts in the end), create Open Houses or networking opportunities for writers to connect with each other and other people, or to make it fun, tie it in with a fandom-based program not just targeted for children and teens.

Connecting with Digital Publishers and Platform Providers – Earlier this year, AO3 hosted a giant fundraising drive for $250,000 for server improvements, which they raised in a manner of days. The archive is essentially a global digital free library for fiction works. Despite the digital divide, over a million users worldwide are consuming works published here, all for free. Our library consortia can start with a conversation and look at how we can work with digital publishers and platform providers to create library or city-branded collections of geographically-local works.

One thing libraries cannot do is offer printing for fanfiction works. The legal ramifications of printing fanfiction is messy, and from my brief investigation of this issue, fanfiction writers cannot claim any ownership of the stories, names, and characters from the various fandoms they write in. To print a copy of their fanfic works is a violation of that, and the only way around this is to print the work with all the names of the characters completely swapped out. Thus, Edward Cullen became “Christian Grey” and Bella Swann “Anastasia Steele”, in the case of fanfiction legend “50 Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, which arose from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels.

Children’s Services – This year, my child’s grade 4 class started using Google Classroom, Raz-Kids and ClassDojo, all of which are classroom applications that allow teacher, students and parents to interact online like our family has never experienced before. Children can create their stories, take a picture of something in their environment to go with their story and upload the work to submit it to their teacher. Once published, parents and other students can view, comment and interact with the content produced. All of this work is essentially creating a generation of native digital content creators. Can libraries find a way to support this learning?

[1] The October 29, 2018 issue of Publisher’s Weekly talked about a 16% drop of adult fiction sales from 2013 to 2017. Interestingly, there was no mention of fanfiction (nor books on Instagram nor BookTube, but that’s another editorial altogether).

Desiree Baron is a Branch Head at the Vancouver Public Library. As a hobby, she makes mood boards for unsuspecting fanfic writers. Hit her up on twitter @desiree_baron.