How Do You Made A Million Dollars Off Of FanFiction?

Start with $3 million.

But even that didn’t work for FanLib, one attempt to commercialize fanfiction in a litany that failed because they could not make enough money off of fans, and estranged those fans on whom they relied for their content. FanLib was the brain-child of some powerful folks* who did not appear to come from within the fan community, but wanted to profit from it. They failed to make money and managed to piss off the fen (plural of fans, apparently), and were flamed out of existence. There are some great histories of the conflict, but one central fan objection centered on the premise of this sentence:

“[…] by submitting the Submissions to FanLib, You hereby grant FanLib a non-exclusive, worldwide, and royalty-free license to use, reproduce, distribute, and display the Submissions in connection with the Website.”

FanFiction writers, that is, those engaged in the creation and distribution of works deriving from the works of others, found the idea of turning over their stories to a corporate entity offensive. I love this, because it speaks to the complexities of intellectual property. Fans create for love, for community, for lols, but rarely for profit. Simply, it seems ok to borrow but not to steal, and certainly not to ask others to work for free while you make a profit. To quote Entropy_House, FanLib was hoping to find the secret to:

“profiting off a long-standing non-profit communal activity whose most talented members are overwhelmingly motivated to avoid any hint of profit.”

And this irritated the fans who read the EULA. The conflict between the supportive face FanLib wished to present to fans, and the patronizing and exploitative face they saw it present to its funders makes for great wanking, but another conflict fascinates me.

FanLib’s lingual shift between how they talked about FanFic to their funders and to their users is a perfect representation of the two ways of understanding that medium. One is about content control and intellectual property hoarding, and the other about easy borrowing and communal creation. Though FanLib failed mightily as a business, the challenges they faced still continue to haunt those who create fanfiction for joy without profit.

Just because it is fun, below is one of FanLib’s egregious communications mistakes. During a particularly intense bout of drama, one of the founders of FanLib distributed this text widely across LiveJournal:

“hey everyone, I’m Chris one of the founders of FanLib> it’s really late and i have been working on the site all day. I’m exhausted but i just realized what was going on here and all of the commentsts are making me sick. we’re a small company with 10 emplyees who work 16 hours a day to try and make a great website. we’re real people! with feelings and everything! we have been working on this and dreaming about it for a long time and you are just here to shit on it without giving us a chance. i care deeply about what you think but this is crazy. we’re good people here and you make us sound like we’re an evil corporation or the govt. sending your kids to war or something. we really are all about celebrating fanfiction and fanfiction readers and writers. im sorry this is so short and please excuse the fact that i am cutting and pasting this across a bunch of ljs but i gotta get some sleep.” [all sic, in so many ways]

Though most start-ups fail, they can provide interesting case-studies in what not to do for all of us Communications Managers. And sometimes, when my money is not involved, failure is funny.

*Though most accounts of the conflict mention only the male founders, there were apparently several women on the staff. Given that an overwhelming majority of fanfiction writers are women writing non-profit, that the first attempt to commercialize their work was pitched by a group of Hollywood and Silicon Valley men was bad optics.

There have been several other attempts to commercialize fanfiction. Neal Stephenson is working on one right now. The seem to be more respectful of fans, less committed to commercialization without profit sharing, and less tone-deaf overall. But we’ll wait and see, remembering FanLib’s example.

PS: I know I was supposed to do 9 posts on the 17th, and I failed. I apologize–but I will get the remaining 3 up before I go to bed, so that’s almost as good. Sorry all!

Inspirational Quote:

“Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.”–Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo

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