Lately I’ve been half-following a few threads and discussions about whether fanfiction writers should charge for their work the way fan artists do. It’s an interesting debate; certainly, I agree that written works have every bit as much value as visual art, and I know firsthand the amount of work that can go into producing good-quality fanfiction that keeps readers coming back for more.
There are multiple reasons why I can’t come to a definite answer to the question. First and foremost, there’s the legality issue. Technically, an artist cannot charge money for art (or access to view art) that uses someone else’s characters. All an artist can do, legally, is take on a commission in return for a donation to cover the cost of materials. So as an artist, you can produce fan art for an individual at their request provided that you do not share the art with anyone else or make a profit from the work. I assume the same rules would apply to fanfiction – private commissions in return for a donation towards, say, PC upkeep or internet access could be allowed, or non-profit ‘zines, but anything else would be a no-no.
I fully respect an original creator’s right to profit from their work and not have anyone else making money off the back of their efforts. Imagine creating a character who is wildly popular, and then you find someone else is selling T-shirts with your character on. The T-shirt vendor argues that they are charging for the work they put into printing the shirts, but buyers are purchasing the shirts specifically for your work on the character design; if the vendor made T-shirts with their own artwork, they likely wouldn’t sell if no one knows the character they used. This is someone else profiting from your work, and this is why it’s not okay to make a profit by using someone else’s creation.
But let’s set that aside for a moment. Fan artists do charge for their work, earning or supplementing an income via online shops or stalls at cons. So why shouldn’t writers do the same?*
Well, there is the option of a ‘zine. Working independently or collaborating, writers can and do produce anthologies to sell, so any fan writer who wants to charge for access to their work can do so if they are prepared to put in the effort. I’ve certainly considered it myself.
What stops me, honestly, is thinking back to those early fanfiction writers of the ‘60s, those Star Trek fans meeting in their own homes to share with each other their private writings about possible relationships between Kirk and Spock. The whole thing had a powerful subversive sense to it, as these women were writing at a time when their work, if released into the wider public sphere, could have landed them in real trouble. Not for writing about someone else’s creations, but for writing about m/m relationships in a climate that very much hated and feared gay people.
These women were writing their stories not to pursue careers as authors but out of love for the show, for the characters, and to connect with each other through their fandom. Something about the idea of charging for access to fanfiction feels, to me, entirely at odds with that spirit of defiance and creativity. It feels like monetising what started as almost a protest, and monetising things created out of love.
I have real issues with the way current Western societies demand that we monetise the things that bring us joy. You’re good at art? Devote your whole life to being a professional artist even though the pay is terrible and there’s no union to support you. You can sing? Go on ‘The X Factor’ and share your gift with the world alongside several hundred other singers who all sound the same because the world can never have enough singers. You can craft? Start a business selling your creations and all the supplies required, turning your home into your place of work so you’re always at work even when you’re trying to relax or look after your kids.
I do have strong feelings about this whole thing, and I know my opinions on the subject are not likely to be shared by many people. But I’m a big believer in keeping your hobbies as hobbies. Because they’re there to bring you joy, to make you happy and to help you relax and unwind outside of work. I also believe it’s important to spend at least some of your working life doing something that supports or benefits others. We can do without another wave of X Factor singers, but society depends on teachers, nurses, construction workers, retail staff, janitors, farmers, factory workers…the people who make our daily life possible. If I gave up my full time work to make a living off my hobby, I would honestly feel selfish. Okay, I’m biased because my full time work is for a charity, but even so, working a ‘regular’ job makes me feel part of my local community and part of the bigger global community because I do something that helps others, and because I’m living a regular life buying stuff in shops and paying taxes and all of that, I’m actively supporting the society that supports me.
If we all became YouTube content creators, who would be left to make the unicorn frappes we vlogged about?
Coming down off my soapbox, though, I do dislike the way we’re expected to value prominent artists so much more than the people who make our daily lives possible. Why is someone who plays video games on Twitch worth more than someone who works in the factory where those game consoles are made? There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing a regular job to pay the bills and creating stuff for fun. And monetising the thing that makes you happy, to the point where you depend on it to pay your bills, must surely suck a lot of the joy out of it.
I write, or craft, or watch shows, because they make me happy. These hobbies help me to relax and take my mind off my job. I can do as much or as little of those things as I want, whenever I want. If I had to do them every day, on a schedule, with deadlines, I would soon come to resent them. They wouldn’t bring me joy anymore.
That is why I am not a professional geek. Despite doing my degree in Broadcasting Studies, I decided that ultimately I preferred to keep that stuff for fun. At some point I got it into my head that I didn’t have the right personality to work in media, and struggling with mental ill health didn’t help. I still use the stuff I learnt during my degree – I’ve written scripts for theatre and radio, performed on stage at plenty of arts events, and of course I now blog about media and fandom with that theoretical knowledge to support my writing. My degree taught me about feminism and representation in media, with access to materials I never would have found on my own. And it came with the university experience of living away from home for the first time, in a new place, managing my time and my studies without the rigid structure of school to rely on. I didn’t waste my time at university (no matter what my parents think!) but it did help me to figure out what wasn’t for me, career-wise, and that was just as useful as knowing what I did want to do.
If the opportunity ever comes up for me to make a living from my writing, I can’t say I won’t consider it. Being a professional fan still has its appeal. But mostly, I write to share ideas and to connect with other people who like what I like. It’s tough to do that offline, so my fanfiction and my blog give me opportunities to interact with people in ways I can manage.
Kudos to all you professional geeks out there – you make my online time so much more interesting – but for now, I’m going to remain an amateur.
*Also, a lot of fanfiction is just bad.