/ Beyond the Text: Writing Undercover on the Web

This is an article length version of the author’s BiB IV presentation which is also available as slides (PPTX).


One of the distinguishing features of contemporary fanfiction is that it begins and exists online. While the source stories come from many media, including TV shows, films, and books, the fan writing, reading, and interaction happen primarily on the Internet.

The online environment arguably provides greater opportunities for a broader range of storytelling and engagement with media and culture, and immediate conversations with readers, than is generally possible in a traditional book. Where the book format (print or ebook) imposes physical boundaries upon the content, and asserts authorial and publishing control over text, the medium of the Internet removes the “physical” boundaries and also allows for the textual “instability” that underpins fanfiction. In an increasingly online world, we may need to let go of traditional publishing boundaries of ownership, control, and format to fully realize the potential of the text.

A View Across the Hauraki Gulf to Rangitoto Island: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sids1/1395366679/ (cc) Sids1
A View Across the Hauraki Gulf to Rangitoto Island
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sids1/1395366679/ (cc) Sids1

I live on the East Coast of the North Shore of Auckland, New Zealand. We look out over the Hauraki Gulf to the volcanic cone of Rangitoto Island, the Coromandel Peninsula beyond, and a glimpse of the Pacific, stretching out seemingly forever, beyond that. When one lives on the perceived edge of the world, one feels keenly the challenges posed by time and space.

Yet, readers and audiences everywhere experience similar challenges with regards to time and space: the time between novels in a series, access to content, the distance they feel between themselves and authors and publishers. Dedicated readers are most affected by the limits of traditional publishing and distribution of content, and conventions. They want access, they want content, and many want it now. And “uberfans” want even more: they want to contribute to the story, practice their art in the fandom universe, and collaborate with and meet other readers. One of the ways they do this is by writing and reading fanfiction about books, TV shows, films and, increasingly with a younger demographic, about real people.

Fanfiction is a very prolific and potentially rich field for publishers to engage with. Yet, the central tenet underpinning fanfiction and the one publishers and authors find particularly challenging is the notion of the “extensibility” of the text. Fanfiction appears to step on what is considered the almost sacred ground of creative output and culture: ownership of and rights to one's story.

At the Books in Browsers conference in 2010, Brian O’Leary delivered his presentation “Context First” (O’Leary 2011), which later evolved into “Context not Container” (McGuire and O’Leary 2012). The importance of this work for publishing cannot be overstated; O’Leary argued that the “container” model of the book excludes context (footnotes, bibliographic data, and general metadata), which in a networked, digital world is not only desirable but the lifeblood of discoverability and access, and in the digital world, it is discoverability that creates the publisher’s competitive advantage.

Building upon O’Leary’s idea, I argue that the physical form of the book as a container of content has also become synonymous in most people’s minds with the limits of the story or narrative itself. The book is crystallized as a unit fixed in time and is a signifier of ownership and control of the content. However, this has not always been the case, and what appears to be self-evident is a convention that was the result of an historical moment.

In many oral storytelling traditions, the story or text is a much more fluid dynamic than it is in cultures of print narrative. The story is created partly in the performative moment between the storyteller and the audience. The power of the story resides in the power and expertise of the storyteller and in the wider tradition and culture it represents. The essence of the story remains, but the context of its telling defines the meaning of the story and its borders.

The technology of the printing press demanded a different approach, and ensured that the story was not only captured on the page (as it already had been in handwritten documents) but was able to be duplicated. So storytelling became an economic activity defined by ownership of the story and distribution of copies. It was thus an economic imperative to conceive of the story as something both contained within the borders of the format itself, and owned by the author. This situation continued for so long that it has become simply accepted that the book IS the story, IS the author’s and publisher’s, IS a unit to be bought and sold.

With the advent of the Internet, though, what is self-evident is called into question. The medium of the Internet is not rigid; or, rather paradoxically, it is precisely because it is structured using binary code that the network is so fluid. It can flourish unbound, with endless hyperlinks forever extending the ending of the “known.” Capturing moments is the best one can do (and thus the work of the Internet Archive is so important because it captures that which is always able, and “wanting,” to escape).

The technology of the Internet is perfectly in tune with Jacques Derrida’s notion of “difference” (Derrida 1997; Gaston and Maclachlan 2011) where meaning is always deferred; and where, in a postcolonial understanding (Spivak 1988; Bhabha 1994), meaning and agency are to be found in the gaps between locations of power and certainty. The Internet allows a metaphorical and literal leaking of content from the container and from those who “own” it. So just as the conventional two-dimensional format of the book (or I believe its digital facsimile, the ebook) is no longer the appropriate technology for content in a networked world, the understanding of the ‘contained’, owned, settled story is no longer the appropriate concept of text in such a world.

In fact, the technology of the Internet reflects the philosophical underpinnings of fanfiction, which assumes that the text/story is uncontained, that it cannot and should not be contained, and that it continues to exist and evolve in the gaps, spaces, edges, margins, and leading of the text. Fanfiction interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, and “ownership”; and traditional boundaries surrounding these concepts; fanfaction also puts pressure on the older business model.

While fanfiction predated the Internet, the Internet arguably set it free. Fanfiction on the Internet may be regarded as a hybrid of both oral and written storytelling traditions. It starts with context, is deeply collaborative and social, and is philosophically and technically suited to the technology. Fanfiction is distinguishable from digital games or multimedia in that it retains a focus on the written word. It is performance art in written form. And as such it has much to teach publishing in the networked world. It speaks to another form of storytelling but acknowledges the cultural richness of the written word. The lines between text and other media will certainly become blurred as tools become more ubiquitous and easier to use, but there is something about the written and spoken word that appeals to the imagination and allows us all to be film directors.

Fanfiction was, for many years, ahead of its time in terms of its embrace of the possibilities and potential of digital technology, of community and niche interests, and of serial fiction. Initially fanfiction on the Internet belonged in the Internet relay chat rooms of computer programmers; Xing Li, a lone programmer in California, started Fanfic.net, the most well-known of the fanfiction sites. One can tell from the interface that it was designed by a programmer rather than a UX designer, but it fulfils the basic needs of fanfiction writers and readers.

Longer fanfics are serialized, with many chapters ending with true cliffhangers. Fanfiction is a gift economy, and writers are careful to include disclaimers about copyright ownership (the disclaimers themselves are often witty and entertaining). The writers invite their readers to review each chapter and sometimes even to suggest pointers for the narrative arc. “Beta” readers, who qualify for the role by being experienced fanfiction writers themselves, edit the chapters before they are posted. A dedicated community is built around the stories, and Tumblr and Twitter are alive with reviews, cross blogging, memes, and accolades for favorite writers. The popularity of individual stories or writers largely depends on discovery provided by the web through reader recommendations, both on the fanfiction sites, regular fanfic awards, and on social media. And for readers, it provides communities, forums, private messaging, and the ability to connect directly with the writers. Most of the world’s fanfic resides on fanfic.net.

The contemporary game-changer though is Wattpad, the huge online writing and reading site. The initially slow growth of Wattpad in its early years in the mid-2000s to its recent explosion in uptake, particularly by fanfiction writers, should give all publishers pause for thought. If anyone still has doubts about the importance of fanfiction to contemporary reading and writing and critically to youth culture, statistics from Wattpad dispel that: 4,700,000 uploads of fanfiction alone on Wattpad, with 60% growth since 2012 (to October 2013) (“Wattpad’s Infographic on the Past, Present, and Future of Fan Fiction: Publishing Perspectives” 2013). The design and organization of the Wattpad site reveals an appreciation that stories are stories, whether they are “original” or derivative: the site doesn’t distinguish between fanfiction and other fiction. It unabashedly courts young writers, as well as critically established, well-respected authors, and digital explorers such as Margaret Atwood.

In the parts of the world where content is not always readily available via sanctioned media, online viewing of content is commonplace. Those readers and writers are completely at home online, accessing all kinds of content. Wattpad has huge growth in Asia, and the numbers are likely to continue to grow.

While Fanfic.net and Wattpad are two of the most prominent fanfic sites, fanfic writers and fans use a variety of sites to explore their fandoms. Tumblr is huge, and the ability to blog, and reblog with ease, and the fact that it is the home of memes make it the perfect tool for fan culture. The Archive of Our Own was set up by fans for fans to preserve fan culture, and is linked to the Organization of Transformative Works (http://transformativeworks.org/), “a nonprofit organization run by and for fans to provide access to and preserve the history of fanworks and fan cultures.”Fanfiction writers explore other media, too, with some more recent sites being Widbook, Booktrack, and others providing different means of spreading the word. Although fanfiction lives on the Internet, it isn’t confined to it. Comic Con and the other “cons” are central meeting places for fans, and a lot of activity takes place online across the world, arranging “meetups” at the cons.

In my presentation at the Books in Browsers conference in 2013, I shared some fan creations from the Castle fandom (“my” fandom). Castle, the hit ABC TV show, is interesting in that there are also very successful, best-selling official tie-in “Nikki Heat” novels by “Richard Castle” published by Hyperion (Disney Worldwide Publishing), complete with a cover photo of Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle. And there is fanfiction that flies under the radar and lives on the web. One of the most well-respected and prolific writers in the Castle fandom is “Chezchuckles” (Laura Bontrager, a librarian’s assistant and an author whose original romance our company Say Books published as an online, serialized book and then an ebook). She has written an AU (alternative universe) series called Close Encounters, a spinoff of an episode of Castle called “Close Encounters of the Murderous Kind,” which has its own obvious pop culture references. Chezchuckles has now written 12 “books” in the Close Encounters series, which has links to a YouTube channel with a soundtrack for the series comprising links to 32 songs from Tom Jones to Kings of Leon. The series has also spawned its own fan club and Tumblr account, “Iheartspycastle.” A graphic designer in Canada (@jyleafer15) created a trailer for it using original footage from the various seasons of Castle, as well as from films Nathan Fillion has appeared in, and overlaid it with her own text to create the appearance of a CIA mission. The video won an award in a recent Castle fanfiction video competition. The quality is high, and shows the amount of time fans are willing to dedicate to their craft. Chezchuckles updates her Tumblr page on an almost daily basis, interacts with her fans, answers any question they ask her, and has a wonderful rapport with everyone.

Fanfiction shows that the web need not be just a technology for making or distributing books (ebooks and print), or for social marketing, but a home, distribution, and communication technology for long-form narrative content itself. Fanfiction and its fans take the web seriously; it is the default mode of operation and interaction. The online platform means that readers can be based anywhere in the world and are defined by their interest in the particular fandom and genre, rather than by their own geographical or political location.

Fanfiction and the Internet combine to form the perfect storm—or a breath of fresh air—for the publishing industry.

The Internet provides the ideal place to play with text, and to expand our notions of what books and publishing can and could be. The publishing industry cannot afford to build stronger and higher walls around content, copyright, or distribution. In the past, power was distributed hierarchically, with publishers at the top, and readers (and some might argue, the authors) at the bottom. With the Internet, the readers are here, and they can choose where, when, and how they get their content. We have to think creatively and one route is to go to where the readers are.

However, and this is crucially important, with fanfiction, the original story is not abandoned. It is reinvented and expanded in a desire for more. Fanfiction readers and writers are those who love the story more than anyone else. Fanfiction is based on love and joy: the joy of writing and reading, and the joy that comes from affirmation and a feeling of belonging. There is no overt pecuniary interest. If one wants to put a dollar on it, fanfiction is free marketing for the original content. For example, the writers and cast of Castle acknowledge that fan power, particularly via Twitter, played a very important role in getting ABC to retain the series after its modest first season (we are now midway through the sixth season). And the tie-in “Nikki Heat” books have routinely topped the best-seller lists.

Fanfiction writers and readers read and read.

There are fanfiction writers who are brilliant, witty, intelligent, and very literate, and most fanfiction writers write with admiration for, and acknowledgment of, the “original” creators.

So while fanfiction revisits modes of storytelling, pushes the limits, goes beyond the text, and stretches the horizons, ultimately, it brings our readers home.


Anna von Veh has worked for various multinational publishing companies and is co-founder of Say Books, a digital publishing and services company.

Anna speaks at publishing technology conferences around the globe on a variety of subjects related to digital publishing and production, and also, increasingly, on fanfiction and publishing. Anna sees fanfiction’s use of the Internet and technology, and its community focus, as a model for publishing, and believes fanfiction itself can be embraced. Anna presented most recently, on the subject of this article, at the 2013 Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco, and she has been interviewed and had articles published in various international publishing magazines and journals.

Twitter: @saybooks

website: www.saybooksonline.com

email: anna@saybooksonline.com


No copyrights were deliberately harmed in the making of the original presentation (or the writing of this article).

This can be considered my fanfic of “Context First” – and, somewhat unusually, I had the author’s permission #brianolearyisasport


  • [For an overview of fanfiction, see Anne Jamison’s edited collection, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World, Smart Pop Press, which was published after the writing of this article.]
  • Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. “Of Mimicry and Man.” In The Location of Culture, 125–33. London: Routledge.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spiva. Corrected edition. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gaston, Sean, and Ian Maclachlan. 2011. Reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Continuum International Publishing.
  • McGuire, Hugh, and Brian (Brian Francis) O’Leary. 2012. Book a Futurist’s Manifesto: Essays from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
  • O’Leary, Brian. 2011. “Context First: A Unified Field Theory of Publishing.”Keynote speech presented at the Tools for Change Conference 2011, February 15. http://www.toccon.com/toc2011/public/schedule/detail/16323.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • “Wattpad’s Infographic on the Past, Present, and Future of Fan Fiction : Publishing Perspectives.” 2013. Accessed December 9. http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/06/wattpads-infographic-on-the-past-present-and-future-of-fan-fiction/.