OTW Guest Post: Cecilia Tan

Graphic by caitie of an OTW-themed guest access lanyard

From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.

Today’s post is by Cecilia Tan, award-winning author of over a dozen novels including The Tower and the Tears (Magic University Book Two) which releases today in a new edition in ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Her novel Slow Surrender won the RT Reviewers Choice Award and the Maggie Award for Excellence from the Georgia Romance Writers chapter of the Romance Writers of America. She’ll be celebrating International Fanworks Day by taking part in an OTW online chat with other authors on February 8.

Why Fanfic and Fan Rights Should Matter to Pros

After decades in the closet, all of a sudden fanfic is the hot buzzword in the media world. I suppose that’s what happens when a phenomenon like “50 Shades of Grey” happens. 50 Shades isn’t even the only hot property with fanfic roots. Recently Anna Todd’s “After,” a Harry Styles RPF from serial fiction site Wattpad, landed a six-figure book deal at Simon & Shuster. I am certain more blockbuster deals are yet to come.

These deals have a legitimizing effect, at least in the eyes of the American public, which is one huge reason why the tone of the conversation about fanfic, copyright, and author’s right has shifted so drastically in the past few years. Corporations that might have once viewed fanworks as akin to piracy and trademark violations (remember when Paramount used regularly to threaten to sue fan websites and blogs that celebrated Star Trek?) are wising up. The OTW is one important reason why, but others have covered that topic in the past. I’m here to write about this sea change from a professional author’s perspective.

We pro writers can be a very insecure lot, and with good reason: our world is uncertain, and our lives and livelihoods often depend on the whims of both large corporations and the faceless masses. Just because the corporations are cozying up to fans now (and looking to utilize and even monetize fan culture) doesn’t mean that the landscape got any smoother or more reassuring for us. For some, I’m sure the spectre of fan fiction is even more ghoulish than it was before. For those who were convinced fanfic was a form of theft, the money being earned by EL James and Anna Todd must seem like proof!

All I can say is thank goodness for the level-headed advocacy of the OTW, whose efforts to educate corporations to the rights of fans also have the effect of educating authors and creators. A few short years ago various brouhahas erupted when a number of high profile writers blogged passionately against fan fiction, using extremely erroneous ideas. Among the claims I saw made repeatedly by such high profile authors as Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin (to name only two of the many): fanfiction is illegal (it’s not), writers will lose their copyrights if they don’t actively defend them (not true, that’s trademark they’re thinking of), writers must never read fanfiction because then fans could sue them (a fan did once threaten to sue Marion Zimmer Bradley over her ideas being used in a forthcoming MZB novel, but if you’re avoid fan ideas to protect against frivolous lawsuits you had better also avoid reading not just fanfic but ALL fan mail, blog comments, reviews, etc.), and fanfiction hurts writers because it takes away attention from the writer’s original work and gives it to fan writers instead.

The Pro Writer Experience

This last point is truly an emotional one, but if looked at with rational eyes is revealed to be patently backwards. There is no more loving and in-depth attention given to a writer’s work than that paid by fanfic writers and readers. With every fic someone writes, they dig deeply into the text, they analyze character motivation, they struggle with the meanings buried between the lines. Doesn’t every writer crave such careful attention? And then every reader re-examines the text with every new fanfic they read!

Pro writers: this isn’t a zero sum game. Every minute a reader’s eyeballs are on fanfic does not mean a minute is subtracted from the attention the original work receives. We don’t get paid per eyeball or per minute anyway: there is no Nielsen rating for books. If anything we get “paid” these days for the size of our audience (author “platform”) and the passion of reader engagement, both of which are GROWN via the vehicle of fanfic. Fans are good for a career. Fans are good for a writer to have. Fans are not merely a passive sea of consumers: fans are evangelists, recruiters, and cheerleaders. Given that, why wouldn’t a professional writer want to do everything possible to support fans and fandom?

The OTW supports fandom and encourages fan activities in a number of ways. For me the most important one is by being that voice of reason, an authoritative voice that fights the myths and demystifies the issues. That means helping fans feel secure that what they are doing is neither morally wrong nor likely to get them sued. That means reminding corporations (and lawmakers) when necessary that fanfiction is legal and why fair use and fanworks are beneficial to the ecosystem of ideas. And that means educating authors, too, about why life is better when you accept fanfic is okay rather than railing against it.

Professional authors are part of the ecosystem of ideas. No writer creates in a complete vacuum. One of the pieces of advice constantly given to writers is “read, read, read.” Many writing classes and MFA programs include reading as well as writing. If writers were truly expected to cook up their ideas without reaction to or reference to previous works, then the entire field of literary criticism and analysis would not exist! How many hours did I spend at university analyzing the influence of Faulkner on Hemingway and Hemingway on Coover? Faulkner and Joyce on Vonnegut? Shakespeare and Byron references in Joyce? Hundreds. Something isn’t considered fine literature unless it is packed with references and allusions to the literary canon that preceded it. Writers, if you aren’t expecting other writers–whether they are fans or other pros–to be weaving with the threads you spun, I will guess that you’ve got unrealistic expectations about your own “originality,” too.

Siren and the Sword Book Cover

Why the OTW Matters

To fully explain how the OTW helps the ecosystem of ideas to thrive, I have to tell a story from my own career. I thank the OTW for freeing me from the fears about fanfic I held as a professional writer. I believed the old wives’ tale that professional authors shouldn’t read their fanfic and also that if they wrote any, they should keep that secret, too. When I joined the OTW the first time it was under a pseudonym, a fan name I had adopted so that I could write Harry Potter fanfic. I had been writing professionally for years, but Rowling’s imaginary world sparked many debates in me that I wrestled with through fanfic: did wands work like guns, directional and potentially accidental? what did Harry actually think of Draco crying in the bathroom?

Some questions were answered within the Potter books. Others were left untouched or unexplored in Rowling’s books, like, what would magical higher education be like? And what would happen when you mix magic and sex? Those were the questions that led directly to me writing the Magic University series. Ultimately I disagreed with both Rowling’s conception of wand as gun and the wizarding world’s conception of good versus evil. The only way to answer the questions in my mind for myself was to write something new. I could have tried to stay within Rowling’s universe and written it as fanfic. Instead, I needed to invent a new magical system from scratch and I needed my own characters. So, original fiction it was. At the time when I was first writing the books (2008), there was no 50 Shades, no Kindle Worlds Shared Universes, and as I said before there was a whole lot of author-hate for fanfic out there. I knew Rowling had said supportive things about fanfic in general but I had to wonder if her publishers might decide my original work was infringing.

The existence of the OTW helped me to navigate those seas of worry and to feel safe in the brave new world. For one thing, I quit keeping my fanfic writing a secret. For another, I gained confidence that my work was much farther removed from the original than a “transformative work” and wouldn’t be attacked. And when fans began writing their own Magic University fanfic? Everything came full circle. I wasn’t afraid to read what they wrote, and that ultimately led to me convincing my publisher to publish an anthology of Magic University short stories written by fans. One of the fic writers who was included in that anthology, D.E. Atwood, recently won several Rainbow Awards for her debut novel and I feel like I was part of the ecosystem chain that allowed her to flower and thrive, too.

And the OTW’s work is far from done. As time goes on, corporations are not actually getting smarter. They will keep following the money and they will do so at the expense of the writer any time they can. Independent organizations like the OTW will be crucial as corporations push for copyright reforms that will benefit corporate earnings, not necessarily the reforms that are best for writers or for the thriving of ideas. Ultimately, what is good for fans is good for writers, and the OTW is therefore good for both.

9 thoughts on “OTW Guest Post: Cecilia Tan

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. I really like the idea of the ecosystem of ideas, and your thoughts on where fanfic fits into that ecosystem.

  2. I find it interesting that an organisation so supportive of copyright issues has facilities for sharing this artical that I can see on my mobile on the Internet. Seem kind of hypocritical for an organisation like the otw to promote sharing other’s ideas and content but not it’s own.

  3. Sorry that was meant to be NO sharing options I can see on my mobile.

    1. Hi Annie,

      Share buttons on transformativeworks.org are something we have discussed and may implement in the future. In the mean time, we encourage our readers to share our content either directly from this site by copying the URL, or by sharing our Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, LiveJournal, or DreamWidth posts about this piece. The official OTW social media accounts are listed on the Where to Find Us page.

      I hope I haven’t misunderstood your concern, and please let me know if you have additional questions.



  4. Come now, no mention of the MZB thing is complete without explaining that it all went down when MZB contacted a fan with an offer to pay her in exchange for using her work in an upcoming novel. Exactly how and why negotiations went south isn’t clear, but the problem wasn’t that MZB had read fanfic and a fan showed up to sue her on that basis.

    The fan in question seems to have thought MZB wanted to use her novel wholesale while underpaying her for ghostwriting; she claims MZB’s side lawyered up first. Given what else was going on in MZB’s career at that time, and given my extremely low view of MZB as a person, I’ve always taken the fan’s account at face value. But even the most pro-MZB accounts agree that the real situation wasn’t much like the urban legend that has grown up about a litigation-happy fan.

    1. Quite true, thanks for bringing that up. The whole MZB thing is very well detailed in Fanlore and Fandom Wank and I wasn’t about to rehash it — the point is all the authors who have been fearing that a threatened lawsuit from a fan could scuttle their professional contracts AND PINNING THAT FEAR ON FANFIC are misplacing their concern in a rather reactionary way.

  5. Ms Tan, you are just the freaking COOLEST. As an aspiring writer with a couple of “secret identity” fan accounts (here and on Tumblr), I was delighted to read your own history with AO3. I am repeatedly inspired by your forward-thinking views (e.g. the idea of fostering discoverability in “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy”). Thank you for everything you do!

  6. The two big ones here are “fanfiction is illegal (it’s not)” and the frivolous lawsuit thing, both of which are, well, wrong. Or, more accurately, not always true.

    Some fanfiction is legal. Some of it is clearly illegal. A lot of it occupies a legal gray area. Saying that fanfiction, in general, is not illegal is a very questionable statement. Fanfiction may not inherently be illegal, but a great deal of fanfiction which is produced is, in fact, illegal.

    Copyright protects folks’ rights to produce spin-offs, side stories, sequels, prequels, remakes, and similar things. Fair use protects the public’s right to produce parody, satire, and commentary on original works.

    Some fanfiction clearly qualifies as parody, satire, and/or commentary. However, some fanfiction is also pretty blatantly just writing unauthorized sequels, prequels, remakes, side stories, and other material which clearly falls under copyright protection. Writing an 8th Harry Potter book is going to get you sued, and you will lose – people who have produced unauthorized sequels have lost lawsuits in the past.

    Frivolous lawsuits are rather different. I wouldn’t say that the real issue is frivolous lawsuits; I’d say the real issue is source amnesia. If you read something, then subconsciously rip it off later on, you can potentially get yourself in trouble. Most of the time, this is going to be restricted to something small, like a joke or something, but if you included a fan’s original character in your sequel work, or you ended up writing a story strikingly similar to a fanfic you read, you could potentially get yourself into a -real- lawsuit.

    That being said, this sort of thing is always potentially an issue – you might subconsciously rip someone else’s professional work off instead, which isn’t really any better and is actually a heck of a lot worse, so maybe taking special care with fanfiction is pointless. Still, the idea of avoiding fanfiction is not -inherently- silly.

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