After I signed up for NaNoWriMo, I ruminated over what kind of novel should I write. One option I considered was turning a fanfic into an original story. That got me thinking: what if I turned a fanfic to an original story and published it?
It’s been done before. Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the most well-known example. I know of two other fanfic writers who rewrote their fanfic and self-published them as original novels. They’re not as well known as the story I’ve mentioned, but both authors have solid reputations as good writers. I’ve purchased You Buy Bones, a Canon!Sherlock Holmes fanfic turned published book, because I loved the fanfic so much. A brief Internet search produced more examples:
- Anna Todd Earns Book and Movie Deals for One Direction Fanfiction
- A goodreads.com list of fanfiction turned books
Seeing as it’s been done before, I asked myself the question: What would the effort of turning a fanfiction to a book entail?
The Challenges of Turning a Fanfiction to a Book
As with any writing, one must think about the reader. Is your fanfic popular due to the story’s own merit? Or is it popular because it fulfilled a fanfic reader’s desire for more of the source material? The mindset of a fanfic reader is different from that of a book reader. As fanfic readers, we are primed to like fanfic. We already know the original story and characters, and we like them so much we’re salivating for more. Whereas books, it’s like going on a blind date. We look for reasons to reject, rather than accept. We examine the cover. We check the title. We read the blurbs on the back cover and flyleaf. We check the author. We seek reviews and recommendations if there are any. Then, if the time and cost are worth it, we read the book.
There’s also the issue of copyright. Copyright is a tricky thing, and fanfic falls into a gray area. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so you can borrow ideas and terms from existing books, as long as you’re not infringing on a trademark (…and trademark is another post altogether). By virtue of being the creator of the written material, you have copyright of the story. If the fanfic is a parody, it has additional legal protection. However, all fanfic is based on works that have existing copyright. Authors can initiate a notice and takedown process against fanfic writers and fansites that host derivative works such as fanfic. Even if you’re confident you can transform the story to the point hardly anyone can recognize its origin as fanfic, would the story retain its “shine” after transforming? But even if the fanfic turned book does retain its “shine”, the writer is not spared the rigors of publishing a book.
This brings me the biggest question: would the fanfiction turned book be any good?
That’s what it really comes down to, at least for me. Can I turn my fanfic into a story that will thrill someone? Will it light me up as I rewrite it? Will someone who has no background in the particular fandom understand the transformed story? Or would the inside jokes fly over their head? Worse, would the reader identify the story as a fanfic and feel betrayed? As a reader, I’m usually on the lookout for a good story that I haven’t read before. I can imagine myself feeling disappointed if I picked up a book, thinking it was a fresh adventure about a boy who got rescued by a genius detective, only to realize it was a fanfic I’ve already read. I might read the book to see how well the writer did the job, but I can imagine other readers getting angry.
You also have to think about why you are publishing in the first place. Just because I’m willing to read a book doesn’t mean I am willing to buy it. If you are primarily interested in gaining a wider audience, then this may not be an issue. (Public Libraries, for-the-win!) But if you have the desire to make money with your story, then this is definitely something to put under consideration. Speaking of reader approval, are you willing to face possible accusations of laziness because you didn’t write a story from scratch? I have no doubt a good transformation will take as much effort as writing a fresh story, but readers may not see it that way.
What To Think About Before Turning Your Fanfiction to a Book
The obstacles stated above shouldn’t detract one from trying. People have successfully turned their fanfiction to published books. Some argue if Shakespeare did it with Romeo and Juliet, then nothing stops a current day fanfic writer from trying. The fanfic’s feedback may indicate you have something good, and going through the steps of professional editing and publishing may well improve it to something better.
So what would it take to transform a fanfiction to a book? I can only speak as a writer who tried it as an experiment. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to interview some fanfic writers who’ve done it and ask them about their experience (it’s on my to-do list). I can say it is easier for AU stories, where the only point of convergence between the fanfic and the original is the characters. Every and all AU trope is available for the writer to use and put distance between the fanfic and the transformed book. The challenge is choosing the appropriate one.
Some genres will be easier to find readers than others. When I reviewed the goodreads.com list of fanfiction turned books, I noticed most, if not all, were romances. While I don’t read romance paperbacks, I know there’s a huge market for them. So if the fanfic you want to convert is a romance, then it probably has more leg up than, say, a humorous retelling of a young wizard’s coming-of-age story featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Some fandoms will be easier than others. Sherlock Holmes has a long tradition of pastiche, so Sherlock Holmes fanfic definitely has a favorable audience a writer can count on. On the same vein, copyright won’t be as big of an issue for fanfic based on stories that are public domain. I, personally, am interested in seeing how a writer can take a familiar story and put a clever twist to it (I count BBC Sherlock, Season One, as a fine example of Done Right). It’s a skill I definitely admire.
I think there is nothing wrong with turning fanfiction to a book, as long as you understand all the challenges that go with it. Doing it right will be just as difficult as writing a novel from scratch. And that’s not counting the effort, time and money you need to spend to get yourself published. Speaking of which…
If I were to turn A Study In Magic to an original work, I can’t do a direct transformation. It’s too meshed with the Harry Potter storyline as is. Sherlock and John wouldn’t pose much of a problem since Sherlock Holmes is public domain and ASIM!John is … you know. Harry would be trickier to handle (no lightning-bolt shaped scars and archenemies named Voldemort, for starts). Also, once I remove Magic and Harry’s Harry-ness, would there be a worthwhile story left for me to tell? Can I create a Magic World that will delight a reader as much as JK Rowling delighted Harry Potter fans with her wizarding world? Is Harry a sufficiently blank character that it wouldn’t matter too much?
(Incidentally, as an HP fan, I took offense at the assertion that Harry is a blank character. But then I thought about it; could he be? But I digress.)
I won’t be turning A Study In Magic to a book for this year’s NaNoWriMo, but I might try it later, just to see what I can come up with. There are definitely scenes and plots that I didn’t include in A Study In Magic because it didn’t mesh with the original Harry Potter storyline and/or the opportunity did not present itself (The Marriage Story, I’m looking at you). In the meantime, I’ll be shooting emails to fanfic writers who successfully transformed their works.
Do you know anyone who turned their fanfic to a book? Let me know!