In the days since posting the Missing Demographic blog, and while working on the next Fangirl Speaks Up topic, I’ve realized there were a few additional thoughts I wanted to share on the topic of the fanfiction community and the consequence of Del Rey and Lucas Books having completely ignored it when they were deciding what kinds of Star Wars Expanded Universe books to sell. Here goes:
Given how much I emphasized the perspective of the fanfiction community, I thought it made sense to share my thoughts with the TFN Fanfic Resource forum and see what people there had to say. To that end, I opened a thread to discuss the themes of the Missing Demographic blog post, and after only a few days there are already some very interesting ideas and perspectives being shared. I hope more fanfic writers and readers will join in – but it’s also worth emphasizing again that, as I said in my blog, the participation level at TFN today is just a shadow of its former activity. If we’d had this same discussion five or six years ago, there’d be a lot more responses in the thread. And that, I believe, is the real shame: that Star Wars books have failed to hold onto so many of those female readers who used to be enthusiastic.
I also wanted to add a thought about fanfiction.net, the other main internet site to find Star Wars stories. Unlike TFN, which has the Resource forum and formats fanfiction stories in the form of message board threads with direct discussion among authors and readers in between story posts, at FFN stories are posted in freestanding segments and feedback is given on a separate page, neither of which lends itself well to conversation or discussion. For that reason, although FFN has a lot of stories, it has never really fostered a community of Star Wars fanficcers the way TFN did. Nevertheless, FFN can still play a role as a barometer of what excites the minds and muses of fanfiction writers and readers. In particular, it’s interesting to note that there are a lot of stories featuring Ahsoka at FFN, but not very many of those at TFN. This suggests that at least to some extent, FFN reveals a slightly different slice of the fandom than TFN does – perhaps because many of the writers at FFN first got their start writing fanfiction about other fandoms before transitioning into writing Star Wars. Whatever the reasons, though, the large number of Ahsoka stories at FFN is further proof that George Lucas was right to use her character as a way to capture the imaginations of female fans.
Over on Twitter, Dunc from ClubJade pointed me to an interesting short LiveJournal post by well-known tie-in novel writer Keith R.A. DeCandido. It’s worth a read for anyone interested in a proficcer’s perspective on fanfiction, but I think Mr. DeCandido is actually pretty far off base in some of his points, especially when thinking in terms of today’s marketplace. Briefly, here are my reactions:
- Mr. DeCandido’s post is nearly four years old now, and a lot of things have shifted in the marketplace in that time. For example, romance and paranormal romance have gained quite a bit of market share since then. Likewise, the rise of Kindle and Nook has totally changed the way women and men buy stories and how much they buy; instead of buying one $27 hardcover, a person can buy six or eight or even twelve novels of equal length on Kindle. This means that entirely accurate statements about how the market for publication of licensed fiction used to work are increasing irrelevant to where the money is going to be in the future.
- Obviously Mr. DeCandido is correct about an intellectual property owner’s right to silence fanfiction, but as I noted in the blog, Lucasfilm has long implicitly (if not expressly) supported all kinds of fan activity that it technically had the right to stop. For example, when Lucasfilm invites the fan costumers from the 501st Legion to appear at officially sponsored Lucasfilm events, that sends a pretty strong signal about their perspective. And if Lucasfilm goes out of its way to encourage fan costuming and fan films, it’s pretty ludicrous for Lucas Books and Del Rey to turn a complete blind eye to fanfiction, which is the area of the fandom most directly relevant to their book sales. I’d also like to point out that Mr. DeCandido writes primarily for Star Trek, a franchise that for many years maintained an adversarial relationship with fan creativity, including fanfiction. Many believe it was Paramount’s inability to embrace fan enthusiasm that in part contributed to the diminishing movie returns and book sales that at one point threatened to fold that entire franchise.
- Mr. DeCandido may be right that five or ten years ago, one of the things that distinguished profic from fanfic was the role of professional editing in shaping and improving the product. In today’s market, that’s increasingly no longer true. For one, “professional” publishers don’t seem to be doing very much editing anymore. In just the last year, Star Wars released Fate of the Jedi: Allies, which included several hundred basic typos and several hundred more basic editing errors, and the Knight Errant novel, which contained numerous amateur-prose-writer mistakes that a meaningful editor would have insisted be smoothed out of the manuscript before publication. Nor are sales dependent on high quality writing and editing, as books like Twilight show; similarly, self-published phenom Amanda Hocking has openly admitted to not using an editor at all, and it’s a safe bet that she pretty dramatically outsold Mr. DeCandido last year. So if the goal is making money, rather than in quality literature for its own sake, then this supposed difference between profic and fanfic is increasingly moot.
- In terms of his discussion of target audience, Mr. DeCandido says that the target sales level for a tie-in book is at least 20,000 copies. This shows that his perspective is not particular useful for Star Wars books for at least two reasons. One, Star Wars books often have sold in the hundreds of thousands or more, so the comparison to other tie-in markets really isn’t very meaningful. Two, and equally important, the scope of the Star Wars fanfiction community is much bigger than most other fandoms. As I mentioned in my post, some fanfiction sites allow authors to track how many readers they have, including unique IP address visits and not just page views. Considering fanfics are usually written and posted on the fly, aren’t professionally edited, and are restricted by forum rules from most forms of self-promotion, it’s quite significant that fans are seeking out these stories with numbers on an order of magnitude closer to that magical 20,000 number for a professionally published franchise book than to the dozens of people Mr. DeCandido believes read any one fanfiction.
- Along similar lines, he may be partly correct in that the target audience of any particular individual fanfiction story often will be a good bit smaller than the ideal target audience of a published novel. But that dynamic is irrelevant to the point I was making in my blog, which is that the Star Wars fanfiction community as a whole is a fairly good barometer of the kinds of stories that a big segment of the novel-buying fanbase wants to read. When women predominate in fanfiction and women predominate among novel purchasers, it’s not the least bit coincidental that the decline in Star Wars books sales has mirrored the declining enthusiasm among the fanfiction community for the stories being told in the books.
Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.