Evan Gregory’s post about the future of publishing made me think — about fan fiction.
Suppose I wake up one morning thinking I’d really like to read a story. I want this story to have talking animals in it, and no sex scenes. I want it to have a lyrical view of the countryside, happy endings, not much violence and a generally cheerful mood.
Well, you might say, read The Wind in the Willows. Nope; I’ve read that, and all the knock-offs. I’ve read Redwall. Where will I look for the next best thing?
Up until the Harry Potter books turned me on to fan fiction based on books, I would have gone to the library and browsed at random. But now I know that I can go straight to fanfiction.net, and there I will find millions of free stories, unvetted by publishers or agents. There appear to be no constraints on quality or content — in short, this is the unruly wild west of self-publishing, from which publishers and slushpile readers are supposed to be protecting us by serving as gatekeepers and guarantors of at least a minimum level of coherence and decency. Am I not plunging myself into a morass of the 90% that is crap? Will I not spend hours reading through dreck in order to find one story I like?
Well — not so much. Because fanfiction.net is ORGANIZED. It has replaced quality constraints with categorization constraints. Sure, there are 1,735 Redwall fanfics on the site, and I’m sure a lot of them are rubbish, by my standards. But completed, K-T rated, friendship-focused Redwall fics? There are twelve.
It took me less than a minute, in other words, to find twelve stories that meet at least three of my criteria. How long would it have taken me, if I went through a library? A bookstore? A publisher’s website? Just for fun, I tried my criteria as a tagmash on LibraryThing. I got over 1500 matches for fiction and talking animals, which was a little overwhelming, but still better than what I would have found at my local Barnes and Noble. And how else would I have heard about Island of the Sequined Love Nun?
For my money, the new gatekeepers of the fiction universe are the indexing and recommendation sites. When they’re well put together, they give readers information that is a lot more important to them than the fact that an editor at a publishing house thought a book was good enough to see print. At LibraryThing, I could find out about book content. But fanfiction.net has been at this a long time, and for my money they know more about what readers want to find — is it angsty or humorous? Which characters are featured? Will it bring a blush of shame to the cheek of modesty? With a sufficiently well-designed search engine, I no longer need a publishing establishment to protect me from an avalanche of bad books, any more than I need a gatekeeper to protect me from bad websites.
The book publishing world could do a lot worse than look seriously at what fan fictioneers have built for themselves, because it may be the future of publishing — and a lot of people who make their livings from the current model may be squeezed out, unless they do some hard thinking about how they fit into the new model.