Posted on August 8, 2009 by Monica Valentinelli
The words “fan fiction” mean different things to different people. To some, fan fiction is an enjoyable pastime, where people read and/or write for their favorite settings. To others, fan fiction fosters ideas about poor quality and a lack of professionalism. No matter what you personally think fan fiction is, however, the publishing industry has its own definition for fan fiction. This definition is not based on a judgment of quality, but rather – on business.
This past year I’ve been at several conventions, and I’ve interacted with many people who found out how much they love to write through fan fiction. Because these writers were not aware of the differences between fan fiction, shared world or media tie-in, I felt that they were treated a bit dismissively. In my opinion, most new authors really don’t know the first thing about the publishing industry, and I’d like to help clear up some of the confusion I’ve witnessed by sharing the definitions of fan, shared world and media tie-in fiction with some examples.
First, let’s look at the definition of fan fiction:
Fan fiction (alternately referred to as fanfiction, fanfic, FF, or fic) is a broadly-defined term used to describe stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work’s owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published. Fan fiction, therefore, is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe. Most fan fiction writers assume that their work is read primarily by other fans, and therefore tend to presume that their readers have knowledge of the canon universe (created by a professional writer) in which their works are based. — SOURCE: Wikipedia
Fan fiction is not professionally-written work but rather, stories that are written and published for “free” by fans based on someone else’s setting. Typically, fan fiction is published without permission from the author and, in many cases, fan fiction is not only considered a violation of copyright, it has been known to hinder a professional author’s ability to write in their own setting. WiseGeek also has a definition of fanfic which ends with a warning: Fanfiction of protected material is a legal violation of copyright. Fans that choose to write fanfiction do so at their own risk.
Even though there have been cases where popular fan fiction authors have been tapped for other professional projects, traditionally speaking that event is the exception rather than the rule. I would encourage aspiring writers to take the definition of fan fiction into consideration if you want to get published professionally. An example of fan fiction would be people who write stories for Harry Potter.
Shared world fiction is “a fictional universe in which multiple authors set their stories, especially one created for this purpose.” (From Answers.com.) An example of shared world fiction are the Forgotten Realms series. In shared world fiction, authors will typically sign a contract that indicates they are work-for-hire. This means that the author typically does not “own” the content they create, which may mean that the author will get paid more up front than they would if it was their original work, since they don’t retain copyright ownership. In a shared world setting, the authors and editors not only sign a contract and get paid for their efforts, but often collaborate on strict guidelines to retain the cohesiveness of the shared world setting, characters and plot.
The definition of media tie-in fiction follows a similar structure to a shared world setting. In media tie-in fiction, the story may be a “shared world” setting but it will be based on a movie, game or TV show. For example, the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer novels or Charmed novels are two good examples of media tie-in fiction. Movie novelizations are also included in this category.
The copyright holder for media tie-in, shared world, gaming or licensed fiction may belong to one person or several people that license the right to publish a book through a publisher. Usually, the publisher purchases the “right” to publish a book in that world, and then hires an author to write the story. I say usually, because the legalities of these types of stories are very complex and depend upon the contract. (Keep in mind that there are several authors, attorneys and publishers that know a lot more about the ins and outs of this sort of fiction than I do.) Each project is unique in the sense that some shared world projects are through “invite-only,” while others might have an open call.
So how do you write shared world or media tie-in fiction? Well, truth be told it can be very challenging. This article about writing media tie-in fiction from 2001 is still true today: “For the inexperienced and unpublished writer becoming a writer of media tie-in fiction is next to impossible.” In my experiences your chances of writing in a shared world setting might be better than writing for mainstream media, depending upon the situation. Remember, that when you write for any shared world or media tie-in, you’ll need to either know that setting or learn it very quickly to write in it. Writing for any established setting is a different experience than writing original fiction, both personally and professionally.
In no way, shape or form does the definitions of fan fiction, shared world or media tie-in fiction hinge on how “well” that story is written. Simply, fan fiction, shared world and media tie-in fiction are types of fiction. Two are recognized professionally within the publishing industry, and one is not.
Some people believe that shared world and media tie-in fiction are “fan fiction” because they believe their quality is poor. Identifying an entire body of work into one category or another based solely on a book’s “perceived” quality does a great disservice to the authors and editors who pour their heart and soul into places like the Forgotten Realms, the world of Wild Cards, Star Wars, Shadowrun, Battletech, etc. As someone who has written shared world fiction herself, I can tell you that it takes a great deal of time, energy and teamwork before those stories see the light of day.
The differences between fan fiction and licensed, shared world, and media tie-in fiction are primarily based on payment, contracts and copyright. If you’re interested in becoming a published author, whether you want to write shared world and media tie-in or not, I highly recommend you keep these definitions in mind as you figure out your goals.