50 Days of 50 Shades

There's a grey tie on the cover of 50 Shades of Grey.

The 50 Shades of Grey media blitz continues! From The Today Show to the AP to HuffPo and now Good Morning America.  I did an interview for GMA that will air this morning. The segment focuses on how word of mouth and reader recommendation – as well as digital availability, I should think – made 50 Shades a bestseller, without any advertising and promotion from the publisher. Word of mouth was everything, online and off.

I am still baffled as to why more media reports aren't mentioning the fanfic origins, and why the publisher and the author aren't more open to acknowledging the foundation that 50 Shades is based on. As Robin from Dear Author said to me, without Twilight, this book wouldn't exist.

Some authors that I've talked to are very upset about the origins of 50 Shades, and are alarmed and outraged that a book based on the character work and development of Stephenie Meyer is achieving so much attention and profit. It raises the question of who, exactly, the characters belong to, especially when recasting them in alternate universes, stepping outside the “canon” of the original. If a publisher is willing to pay 7 figures for a book that began as Bella and Edward in a new location and universe, with the names changed and some additional ending material added, does that open the door for more beloved characters to reappear under new names?

Other readers who have corresponded with me, particularly those who are avid fanfic readers, don't see the conflict and the outrage, since 50 Shades is, to them, so very different from the original.

The entire phenomenon makes me question where the “ok, then” line is, and what this means for publishing in the future. It's ok to do homages. It's ok to rewrite Beauty and the Beast fairy tales sixty different ways (and I will so totally buy them all). It's ok to write parody and satire, and nod to obvious influences and include winking jokes and references to older source material that fans will totally catch. That's all good – and I've enjoyed some of it. 

But the debate continues as to whether a book that began as fanfic ever diverged from the original enough to qualify as original work. DearAuthor is running a comparison of both Master of the Universe and 50 Shades of Grey to test Vintage's assertion that 50 Shades is an original work after Vintage “defended '50 Shades' as an original creation with a passionate following:”

“It is widely known that E.L James began to capture a following as a writer shortly after she posted her second fan fiction story,” Vintage said in a statement. “She subsequently took that story and re-wrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy. The great majority of readers, including fan fiction aficionados, have found ‘Fifty Shades’ deeply immersive and incredibly satisfying.”

It seems to me, as the coverage increases and readers talk to me via social media or via email, that many people who are discovering and loving this book don't really care about the origins, or even the real identity of the author, though it's been revealed by some UK newspapers. Readers who love this book love the story, love the experience of it, and the thrill of experiencing what everyone it seems is talking about. It remains increasingly popular. Even my mother in law has heard of this book – as well as my six year old.

The week before last, I was talking to my older son, known hereabouts as Freebird, about my job, and mentioned that I was writing about a book that I didn't like but that many people did. He said I should write about why people like it, and that it's ok if some people don't.

So when I told him yesterday that I might be on Good Morning America talking about a book, he said, “Mom, is this that book that you didn't like but lots of people did?”

Me: “Yup.”

Freebird: “You're STILL talking about that book? That was last week!”

Heh.

So now that my six year old and my mother in law are both aware of 50 Shades of Grey without having read it, I think we might have reached some sort of maximum saturation point.

This book really has achieved astonishing public consciousness. What do you think of all the coverage and discussion? Does it bother you that 50 Shades began as Twilight fanfic? Is it the book you're reading now? What do you think?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Tina Chaney says:

    I haven’t read the book(s) and probably never will.  However, considering the upteen million versions of Austin’s and Bronte’s works, which actually use the same characters (up to and including have the same or very similiar names), it’s hard to get worked up over something that started as fanfiction, as long as it significantly diverges from the original.  If the characters’ names have changed and they are in a different universe with a different plot, it seems a little strange to say that it’s somehow still Meyer’s property.  I mean, we might know this story’s origin/inspiration, but who’s to say that there aren’t a lot of books out there that had a beginning in something else that the author read and loved? 

  2. 2
    Anony Miss says:

    I read the first free chapter of 50 Shades on my Kindle, and it didn’t make me want to slay the heroine as fast as the first free chapter of Twilight. So that definitely means something.

    … dunno what.

  3. 3
    Sarah W says:

    I finally received a patron request to buy this book.  So far, we’re the first library in a twenty-member consortium to do so and I only bought it because someone asked.

    My reluctance to buy this book for our collections wasn’t because it was originally fanfiction—I like the stuff, myself—but because the reviews weren’t great. 

    Personally, I probably won’t read it, because I’m not fond of the source material and the things that irritated the reviewers irritate me, too.  But if it was originally BBC Sherlock fanfic (that managed to survive any and all litigation), then I’d probably be first in line.

  4. 4
    LG says:

    “Other readers who have corresponded with me, particularly those who are avid fanfic readers, don’t see the conflict and the outrage, since 50 Shades is, to them, so very different from the original.”

    I’m a fanfic reader and I definitely DO understand the conflict and outrage. Maybe it makes a difference that I used to write both original fic and fanfic?

    I never wrote AU fanfic, and I don’t tend to read AU fanfic either, because my reasons for reading fanfic stem from a wish to see the characters and world live on – it’s just not enough for me to read about people with the same names and personalities if everything else is vastly different. However, having written fanfic, I do understand how even having another author’s characters’ personalities to build something from can make the writing go a little easier. It’s one less thing you don’t have to invent on your own.

    I haven’t read 50 Shades and don’t plan to, because I refuse to knowingly buy repurposed fanfic. From what I’ve read, though, 50 Shades of Grey does sound a lot different from Twilight, maybe borrowing only the character personalities and some of the relationship dynamics. Even so, those aspects gave James something she didn’t have to create herself. I’d be a whole lot less uncomfortable with this whole situation if James had published a work that had never been posted as fanfic. Heck, she could have even splashed big “I published something, if you like Master of the Universe, go buy the book I just published!” notices at the top of her fanfic. Publishing Master of the Universe as original fic just seems so…lazy. And kind of sleazy.

  5. 5
    Sarah Wynde says:

    Full disclosure first: I wrote about a quarter million words of fanfic for the television show Eureka. That’s about four novels worth of stories. Then I wrote an original novel and self-published it. IMO, my original story is quite original. I don’t want to sound like I’m selling it, because that’s not my intention, but I’ve had reviews on Amazon that say it’s unique, different, a fresh take, etc. (And no, my mom didn’t write my reviews!) That said, the book is set in a small town (as is Eureka) with a cafe and a top-secret research facility (as has Eureka) and the town has secrets (as does Eureka). I dedicated it to the cast, creators and crew of Eureka for first inspiring me and then annoying me into originality. Many of my first readers and reviewers were from the Eureka fanfic community and there are lots of hidden allusions that only Eureka fans will get.

    I tell you all this just so my biases are really clear, because I find the furor over Fifty Shades’ fanfic roots ridiculous. Bella and Edward are traditional Harlequin romance characters! The powerful male, dangerous and yet protective, and the innocent heroine, unaware of her own sexual powers—I was reading those characters when I will eleven years old, which was a long, long time ago. Charlotte Lamb wrote 100 books with those two as the hero and heroine probably before Stephanie Meyers got out of grade school!! Even if Fifty Shades is word-for-word Master of the Universe with the exception of name changes, it’s an alternate universe fanfic, which means a different setting, different plot, different events entirely. It’s original work that uses two trope characters. Trope characters that Meyers did not invent! She invented sparkly vampires and there are none of those in Fifty Shades.

    And the idea that without Twilight the book wouldn’t exist just seems ridiculous: or rather, couldn’t you say the same about a solid 50% of the YA books published in the last five years? The success of Twilight opened the doors for a flood of supernatural YA with vampires and werewolves—all of those books, even the ones that are good in their own right, largely exist because of Twilight. The difference with Fifty Shades is what, exactly? That EL James posted to a fan-fiction community first? Why in the world is that anything other than smart marketing? A community of people existed who might like her work and she showed it to them. If I could find the community that likes heroes who play video games and foosball and heroines who talk about sonoluminescence and quantum vacuum radiation, I’d definitely want to see if they liked my book.

    If Stephanie Meyer’s publishers thought that the similarities between Twilight and Fifty Shades were anywhere close to a copyright violation, they’d be suing faster than you could read this lengthy post that I’m writing. (I spent ten years as an acquisition editor for a non-fiction division of Pearson so even though I’m guessing, it’s guessing with a lot of experience to back it up). They’re not, so it’s not, so James has done nothing categorically different than any other author who uses something invented by an author who has come before. Which means all of us. The idea that every published book is completely original is…well, completely ridiculous.

  6. 6
    LG says:

    What you mention, all the different books that have been published that could basically be considered Austin and Bronte fanfic, is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for instance, and Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, and I didn’t feel nearly as upset about those as I do about the publication of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve been trying to sort out the reasons why this is, and I think it comes down to 1) those works are honest about what they are (no name replacements, for instance) and 2) the author of the original work is long dead. There may be other things factoring into my discomfort, but that’s all I’ve been able to settle on so far.

    #1 is particularly big for me as a reader. I like to know what I’m dealing with when I read something. 50 Shades of Grey is strange in that so many people know it started off as fanfic, and yet there seems to be so much avoidance in officially recognizing this. Why did James replace all the names? Why is Vintage calling it an original creation? Either it’s original fic, and should have been posted or published as such from the start, or it’s fanfic. It can’t be both. If there weren’t anything wrong with publishing Twilight fanfic, the same way other authors have published Austin fanfic, why isn’t there more openness about the book’s fanfic origins?

  7. 7
    Wifeshee says:

    Just saw your interview on GMA, so of course I had to buy book 1, will let you know what I think.

  8. 8
    Joanne says:

    Freebird is my hero.

     

  9. 9
    SB Sarah says:

    I would really like to hear your opinion! I think the promise of a revitalized sex life, as so many readers have said when interviewed, is part of what’s driving sales. Sadly, it made me feel somewhat sad and bleak, and not at all the reaction that others had!

  10. 10

    This isn’t the first AU fanfiction I’ve seen turned into a published novel. I don’t know, since an AU is a completely separate world and premise, I don’t have a problem changing character names and adding material to make it different. The characters used from whatever source material shift are not the characters the source created – they’re the way the fic writer sees them. Tweaking them to make them wholly their own doesn’t seem like a HUGE DEAL, mostly because they’ve already made them their own in a different context.

  11. 11
    Pgagnon1951 says:

    You know, the early 21st century may well be known as the age of the reboot.  So much erstwhile creative work is derivative and proud of it.  Nor are the originals uniformly artistic.  Take Pride and Prejudice and Zombies & co.  The Austen piece: classic.  The zombies: not so much.  Of course, most of Shakespeare’s work is taken from earlier sources as well, and many of those sources were quite familiar to his audience.  Also how many writing careers are initially inspired by the writer’s admiration for some particular author or style of writing?  How many romance writers were devoted readers first? It seems to me that the major difference when it comes to fanfic is that the aspiring writers develop publicly and make their mistakes (sometimes fatally) in public as well.  How many people spun sequels to their favorite books inside their own heads or, in my daughter’s case, collaboratively and hilariously with her high school band buddies.

    It seems to me that if 50 Shades is read and loved by readers who are not part of Twilight Nation, then James has gone beyond the merely derivative.  I have not and probably will not read 50 Shades, but I can’t see that where she started is more important than where she ended up.  I think the fact that we can see the underpinnings is more unsettling than the fact that the petticoats were borrowed from Meyers.

  12. 12
    Jeannie S. says:

    Isn’t that how author’s get their idea? Something they see or hear (or read) makes them say “what if this happened?” I haven’t read the book (I probably will succumb at some point and see what everyone is talking about), but it seems that the relationship between Bella and Edward (I have read the Twilight series and liked it well enough then) sparked an idea and the author used her own imagination and writing skills.

    I think it’s great that Twilight inspired so many books – I think she gave other author’s confidence to go out and try their own writing skills.

  13. 13
    Lynne Connolly says:

    I just think it’s wonderful that such a fuss is being made about a book! In the week after the release of a new idevice, a book is taking all the headlines.
    It’s a wonderfully resilient thing, the story. People will read what they want to read, and scoff when they’re told the book is dead.

  14. 14

    Whoa! Sorry just catching up on this story – had no idea the book was based on a story originally done as a fanfic. But seriously, there are other books out there I just know it that have their origins in fanfic, just like there are a number of authors and aspiring authors (moi) who have a lengthy background in fanfiction (Buffy/Spike 4-ever)…now I’m compelled to read it:)…

  15. 15
    Katherinelynn_04 says:

    Many authors are inspired by the works of others. It’s something to be expected. Though I have never read 50 Shades, it sounds so much different from Twilight as to be it’s own book, without all of the shenanigans surrounding it. It may have first been posted as fanfic, but it certainly became something different. Having a base for characters is just the beginning of a story, the author must come up with the emotion and the conflict, which so obviously exists in this book if it evicts such strong reactions from readers. So Meyer may have inspired 50, but she certainly didn’t write it.

  16. 16

    The reason the mainstream press isn’t mentioning the fanfic roots is because I’m fairly certain the mainstream press doesn’t know or understand the murky copywrite world that fanfic exists in nor what fanfic is in the first place.The mainstream seems more concerned with the crazy notion that we ladyfolk- even the happily married motherly kind- enjoying reading about the sexiness. Shock. Horror.

    I remember when all fanfic was your attempt at writing a stand alone X-Files episode, fixing it so Buffy and Angel totally never broke up, or making Spock and Kirk “do it”. I used to love fanfiction when was a teen and in college b/c it was a fun way to play in all the fandoms I was in. I read a lot of it and wrote a bit of it too. I stopped when I started taking my writing career seriously and simply just lost interest in fan written matierial

    I have to say this. When did fanfic writers start taking themselves so seriously? I think this is my main problem. If you want to write an AU fic that diverges so far from the fandom you’re in why bother making it a fanfic in the first place? It seems to me you do this when you want the comfort and security that the fanfic world provides. It’s a world where people are more forgiving of plot and structure flaws and blown away when the typos and basic grammar structure are well done. It’s not the big scary world of publishing where you’re held to much higher standards and even if the book is great and well written can still get turned down for any various crazy reasons.

    I’m not comfortable with the idea of a book that was once a fanfic of a non-public domain book (published fanfic of public domain work annoys me to the extreme but not on an ethical level since, again, the source material is in the public domain) is now repackaged as an original book because to me it is a flood gate being opened a crack and if this is okay than what else is “okay”?

  17. 17
    Laurel says:

    Everything is derivative, basically. Twilight was clearly inspired by the characters of Pride and Prejudice (along with a zillion other novels and movies). The Byronic hero is one of our most cherished archetypes. After finally breaking down and reading Fifty, I’d say the only similarity between them is the character dynamic and the over-the-top, soap opera style storytelling. And the fact that it is set in the Pacific Northwest when the writer is obviously British.

    (Britishisms crop up everywhere. People wear “smart” clothes and “collect” each other instead of pick someone up. With the hero’s active sex life and dislike of condoms, I kept hoping for a “bangers and rash” joke.)

    I agree with the premise that Fifty would not have been successful without the Twilight springboard, but more because of the unlikelihood that it would have been published traditionally. The large online following is what made Fifty appealing to a publishing house to start with. It came with a built-in customer base, also known as a platform.

    The writer had fun. No one is pretending it’s literary fiction. Apparently, a lot of people are enjoying the read. It seems that what has everyone so frustrated is that the writer managed to make a lot of money when she didn’t start off with an original idea, especially when there are better written works struggling to get published. But really, nobody has started off with an original idea since Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein.

     

  18. 18
    Sarah Wynde says:

    Writers having fun? Writers being playful? Writers not taking themselves or the big scary world of publishing seriously? Writers writing for the joy of it, then sharing their work because they think other people might have fun reading it? All those things are probably okay in the world where an original story can be first posted as a fanfic and then be published and become a NY Times bestseller.

  19. 19
    Bnbsrose says:

    Be afraid be very afraid. The local (WGN Chicago) news station is going to broadcast an “expose” on the women’s erotica “phenomenon”. Apparently it’s an “underground” movement. And the book they’re reading? Oh, yes,
    “50 Shades of Grey”. Grab your bibles and your torches people! It looks another round of women like reading about sex and it’s ruining the moral fiber of this country witch hunt. I generally like the reporter, so maybe I’m wrong… maybe….

    As to why the new media isn’t jumping on the fanfic angle? If Ms. Meyers isn’t publicly railing about it, there’s no story for them. And let’s face it. Talking about women liking erotica is more likely to generate viewers for media outlets that prefer to play to the lowest common denominator.

  20. 20
    Jenny Lyn says:

    I’m on the fence about the whole fan fic issue because I tend to want to agree that James changed enough of the details to make it “different” from Twilight. With all the kerfuffle over Fifty, I think that if there were grounds for any type of lawsuit by Ms. Meyers it would’ve been filed by now. But then again, those things take time so who knows? It might still be on its way.

    I have not read the book nor do I have plans to. I didn’t like Twilight, which I DID manage to slog through, and the prices are ridiculously high, given that this is self-pubbed, unedited, and a new author.

    Here’s the things that bother me about the book getting so much publicity:

    For one, it’s poorly written and unedited. Just bad, bad, bad. Some of the sampled dialogue and sex scenes I’ve seen on websites, including DA and SBTB, make me cringe.

    Secondly, it paints BDSM as something not normal, that needs to be cured, that’s caused from some type of past trauma, and that’s just wrong. That this is some folks introduction to BDSM makes me want to cry at that injustice. There’s so much better work out there to choose from. DA did a great post with recommendations.

    My hope is that at the very least this will open the door for the people discovering erotic romance, and its many genres, to explore what else there is to offer. Please, please, people, I beg you to explore!

    As far as Fifty goes, I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah…I’ve reached my maximum saturation point.

  21. 21
    Teri Anne Stanley says:

    Interesting…I bought this without having heard any of the brouhaha about it.  I’ve read about 1/4 of it, and it’s kind of fallen a little lower on the “being read” list as I pick up a few other things that interest me more.  It didn’t strike me as something I’d read before at the time—although, of course, now that I think about it, yeah, I get the Twilight simliarities.
    *Sigh*
    Now that I know there is CONTROVERSY, I guess I’ll have to go back and finish it.  Though I struggled through the Bella and Edward saga, too, so maybe I can just skip it. 

  22. 22
    CK says:

    “It seems to me you do this when you want the comfort and security that the fanfic world provides.”

    That and the instant gratification of writing a popular pairing of a hot fandom. “OMFG! This is sooo hawt! Rite mor! Sequel! You’re awesome! Love it!”

    That’s when fanfic authors started taking themselves so seriously. When they have legions of ‘fans’ themselves and buy into their own hype. Would James have such a following in fandom if she had picked a less popular pairing? Say Bella/Victoria (just throwing it out there cuz of rule 34). Or if she wrote it in the ‘real’ Masters of the Universe fandom and it had been He-Man/She-ra. (James couldn’t even come up with her own title, the possibly only worse title would have been My Immortal but that’s a different can of worms.)

  23. 23
    JoAnn says:

    Thanks for the laugh!! God forbid women want to read about sex.  No wonder the romance genre gets such a bad rap.

  24. 24
    Maggie says:

    It does not disturb me in the least that this book began as fan fic of Twilight.  It does, however, disturb me that from all intelligent sounding reviews, this book appears to be total crap.

    But then again, I sat through a book club meeting once where the virtues of “Eat, Pray, Love” were extolled ad nauseum.  I remember sitting around a living room with my dearest, dearest friends and thinking “Who ARE you people for liking this crap?”

    Ah well.

    Hey, that book was popular among the Upper West Side mommies, too! 

    Lordy….

  25. 25
    Lisa A says:

    I’ve been searching the GMA site for a clip of your interview but haven’t found anything.  Sarah, would you let us know if the interview becomes available online? 

  26. 26
    Jen says:

    The way I see it.  She wrote words.  Her own words.  People liked them.  What more is there to say?  I don’t get it.  She posted a fanfic; people raved.  Someone suggested that if she changed a few things it could sell in the marketplace.  She decided to be brave and try it.  I’m guessing she was just as surprised by its success as we are.

    I hated Twilight and this story doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest so I won’t buy it just to find out what the hype is about.

    Someone suggested these are stock characters and by the sound of it, I would have to agree—could be straight out of the first romance novel I read at the tender age of 11 by Kathleen Woodiwiss. 

     

  27. 27
    Jenny Lyn says:

    My head just exploded.

  28. 28
    ksattler says:

    I doubt that I will read it.  I have avoided reading Twilight and subsequent books.  What I’ve heard of 50 Shades doesn’t inspire me or make me think I’d enjoy it.

    As for what you’ve described as 50 Shades being fanfic set in an alternate universe based loosely on characters written by someone else, well, yay.  I mean copyright in the U.S.A. is out of control and was meant to be in place for only a short time (7 years originally) so that the initial creator could obtain some profit for their work and then it was open to the public to inspire new work, build upon the old to obtain something new and possibly (or not) better. 

  29. 29
    Sugarless says:

    You know, I’m on board with its fanfic origins. I haven’t read the book, and if it’s as poorly written as some of the comments seem to indicate, than I won’t be likely to; there are so many other BDSM books I could look into and get a better storyline, better characters, and a more interesting exploration of that little bit of kink. But with regards to its fanfic origins… I’m not concerned. Actually, I think it’s kind of cool.

    Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer thanked the creators of Buffy in the acknowledgements page of Wild Ride. Whether or not you enjoyed the book, the point still stands that, while it was clearly not a derivative work, it was clearly inspired by the Buffy story. I’ve read AU fanfics, and I can honestly say that many of them have so little to do with the actual story, characters, or universe, I’ve finished them and gone “Why on earth was this listed under this fandom?” In these cases, it’s obvious that they needed a bit of a starting point until their characters took on lives of their own.

    I’m willing to bet that every author in here has started working on a story with a base that was inspired by something else. I see nothing wrong with having a staring point like that as long as the story and characters take on lives of their own. And why on earth would it be a problem to start your writing in an encouraging and forgiving community? I’m not sure how that’s a bad thing.

    Now I’m not sure how similar this book is to Twilight, and my support hinges entirely on the notion that it is its own story with its own characters, and that it would not be recognizable as a Twilight fanfic. I’m not going to find out for myself because that would require reading this book, which I’m not sure I’m going to do, and Twilight straight through, which I’m definitely not going to do. But I say, if it’s clearly her own story, more power to her for getting it published.

    (Oh! Wanted to make another point – to those saying that their problem is that it’s not specifically marketed as a derivative work. There are two perfectly sensible, not at all dishonest reasons why they would not want to do that. 1) If they openly marketed it as a derivative work from Meyers, it would open them up to all kinds of legal kickback about attaching Meyers’s name to a story not her own and attaching her work to something that clearly takes on a different tone entirely. THAT’S where the litigation would come in. 2) Fanfic is a scary place sometimes. Even more so to people who are not into fanfic. It has negative connotations of crazed fans. (which, you know, fair enough sometimes) From a marketing standpoint, why would you label it as such? It would completely limit your audience.)

  30. 30
    Michelle says:

    I found and read the 50 Shades series based on a Kindle recommendation list, without hearing anything about it—I know, what rock was I living under?! And I have also read the Twilight series. At no point while I read 50 Shades did it ever dawn on me that it was derivative of those works of fiction. Maybe I am a complete moron (and members of my family and friend base may confirm that), but I just didn’t see it. I still don’t, but I haven’t read thefanfic either.

    I don’t think they were the best books I have ever read. Though, I don’t think the editing was terrible (particularly in light of some of the ebooks that I have read). I do think the author is British and didn’t bother to use American English phrases consistently throughout the books. I don’t think it demonized BDSM, but addressed the behavior of an individual and someone who did indeed treat him badly.

    And I really believe that if you are going to comment specifically on the quality of writing, editing or content of a book (or series of books), that you should probably read them.

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