Ever since E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012) shot to the top of the best-seller list, publishers have been struggling with the tantalizing prospect of bringing more fan fiction writers into the traditional publishing fold. Young authors popular in fan fiction circles are making newsworthy deals, as publishers start counting hits on writing sites like Wattpad and recruiting popular writers, like 25-year-old Anna Todd, who landed a six-figure deal with Simon and Schuster for her One Direction fan fiction epic.
Part of the difficulty comes from the persistence of negative stereotypes around fan works, which range vastly in terms of the quality of writing. Rather than hide their connection to fandom, the new independent publisher Big Bang Press is counting on the fan community for its talent and the buzz its wide audience can potentially create.
The women behind Big Bang, all connected to fandom in various ways, took a specific tack when entering the publishing fray. First, recruit the best writers from the world of fan fiction. Second, give those creators the support, through professional editing and marketing, to publish original work. Big Bang will publish paperback and ebooks for YA and adults.
The strategy is “not to find a piece of fan fiction that has been viewed five million times, but is perhaps not written so well, and just republish that,” says Big Bang editor-in-chief Morgan Leigh Davies, a writer and editor who started writing fan fiction at the age of 14. Instead, Big Bang will “find really talented people and encourage them to write what they want, which is exactly what we’ve done.” All the books will be illustrated by fan artists selected by the editors.
After the Big Bang team chose their first three authors and titles, they raised nearly $53,000 in Kickstarter startup funds to support everything from author advances to publishing costs. All Big Bang authors list their fandom pseudonyms alongside their book descriptions, complete with links for readers to follow.
A Hero at the End of the World
Big Bang’s debut novel, due out on November 11th, is Erin Claiborne’s YA fantasy satire A Hero at the End of the World, illustrated by Jade Liebes. The novel is aimed at fans of traditional heroic journeys who can get on board with mocking their favorite genre.
“I specifically thought of works such as ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Percy Jackson,’ Good Omens, and ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ where finding or becoming the chosen one plays a big role in the plot,” Claiborne says.
Inspired by authors including Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams, Claiborne has always loved the way satire can be used to critique. “I think self-referential meta comments and jokes are hilarious, and so I’ve incorporated them into my writing,” she says. “I tend to pay a lot of attention to tropes and clichés and the conversations around them.”
A Hero at the End of the World departs from traditional fantasy canon in that both lead characters, Ewan Mao and Oliver Abrams, are people of color, and one of the main romances is a gay one. Fan culture is often as an active critique of media, especially in terms of representation. Claiborne says that her participation in fan works added to her sense of those gaps. Her work, as a high school librarian in England, also influenced her choices as a writer. “The college I work at is mostly Muslim students of color—African, South Asian, Middle Eastern,” she says. “I still vividly remember that one day, around the start of the academic year, one of the boys in my book club said that the heroes in his YA fantasy books never looked like him. I decided that I wanted to write a book that my students could see themselves in.”
The Big Bang publishing process
Big Bang seeks writers based on the talent authors displayed, not the number of story hits. “They asked for synopses, cover letters, and 50 pages from 20 fan authors, and then three were chosen blindly based on their manuscripts,” according to Claiborne. “Their names were removed from the documents, and only one staff member knew who was who.”
The second and third novels from Big Bang, both aimed at adult readers, are Kady Morrison’s Juniper Lane, illustrated by Quaedam, about two young suburban women’s burgeoning relationship, and Natalie Wilkinson’s Savage Creatures, a fantasy noir thriller set in an alternate Europe illustrated by Anitta K. Smith.
Fan art draws inspiration from the same sources as fan fiction, though the final product is visual rather than textual. As with fan fiction, the artists within each fan discipline inspire and play off each other’s work. The Big Bang founders knew their novels could stand out if they included illustrations from fan artists that they believed suited each author’s work.
Entering the publishing world has been a positive experience for Liebes. “I hadn’t thought I’d made a blip on anyone’s radar or that I’d get any work besides fandom commissions (art commissioned by fan fiction writers), so it was definitely exciting,” she says.
Liebes adds that she enjoyed the challenge of illustrating someone else’s story. “With fan art…I use the characters and the canon as inspiration, but it’s otherwise completely my work,” she says. “Hero was easier since I had specific scenes I was aiming to capture. But it was also more difficult because I was also thinking of how to frame it—how do I make it into an illustration and not just a scene?”
Neither Davies nor Claiborne is concerned about potential backlash from their fan fiction connections. “I’m proud of my fan fic—well, most of it,” Claiborne says. “Fandom people are my people.” She notes that anti-fan fiction sentiment has waned in recent years. “We have authors like Rainbow Rowell writing fiction novels about teenage girls who write fan fic, and popular TV shows like Bob’s Burgers featuring main characters who openly write fic.”
The Big Bang Kickstarter campaign, which exceeded its $40,000 goal, revealed the scope of the nascent publisher’s potential audience and beyond, says Davies. “We did get a few very large donations from exceptionally generous backers, most of our backers were in much smaller denominations,” she notes. “We had over a thousand backers…and that was great, because it really said to us that there was interest in what we were doing across a broad range of people.”
Robin Brenner is teen tibrarian at the Brookline (MA) Public Library and has written for publications including SLJ, VOYA, The Horn Book, and Library Journal. An active YALSA member, she has served on committees including the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, and the 2015 Michael L. Printz Award Committee.