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Self Publishing Fan Fiction: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Fan fiction is fun to write, but is it a good way to make money?

Fan fiction is fun to write, but is it a good way to make money?

Writing Fan Fictions

I was approached with questions about self-publishing a book of fan fiction based on anime characters. Can I just say, “Yiiiiikkkkkes!” The whole subject of fan fiction puts me in a panic. Let me explain why and share a few things you need to know.

Before we get started, I want to say that I am not a lawyer, nor does any of this constitute legal advice of any kind. The following merely informs you of the potential issues and challenges within the fan fiction arena. Consulting a media liability or intellectual property (IP) attorney before self-publishing any fan fiction is highly recommended.

What Is Fan Fiction?

Popular books, movies, television shows, art, comic and cartoon characters, music, and celebrities can have rabid fan bases. Fans may be so inspired by them that they write or create art based on the objects of their affection. These amateur fan creations are often referred to as fan fiction (also known as fanfic).

Even if their skills are at a professional level, fan fiction is usually written by amateurs for consumption by fellow fans. As such, fan fiction may have little relevance or appeal in non-fan markets.

Fans who create fan fiction or art often aren't authorized to create any of these works if they have not received official permission from the copyright owners to do so.

Fan fiction may not be protectable under fair use as parody or criticism might be. It would more likely be defined as a derivative work based on an original copyrighted work or other intellectual property.

In the case of fiction works or art based on real people, living or dead, it may violate the subject’s rights to publicity. Rights to publicity protect people from others using their likeness or any part of their personal identity or persona (voice, signature, stage name, etc.) for commercial purposes without consent and possibly compensation. In some states in the US, a dead person’s survivors or estate can claim the right of publicity benefits.

One of the biggest issues with fan fiction is “commercial use.” If you’re self-publishing to make money, it's commercial use. That’s typically when aggrieved parties want to enforce their rights. Some rights holders can be very aggressive in bringing lawsuits for infringement (Disney is a great example). Even if you’re victorious in any legal claim brought against you over rights, attorney and court costs to defend yourself could be financially devastating.

Rights holders may still object to your use of their content or intellectual property even if you don't self-publish for money. This is especially the case if the rights holder feels that your work is offensive or could damage them or their reputation in some way.

In spite of all these warnings, if you decide you still want to go ahead with self-publishing your fan fiction, get an attorney to help you investigate the possibilities of a licensing arrangement with a rights holder. Be aware that licensing could be very costly and that rights holders may not even be interested in working with you or granting permission.

The real problem with fan fiction is that there is so much gray area in these cases. And if it’s legally gray, somebody’s usually gonna pay. Don’t let it be you! Get legal counsel before you jump into fan fiction, and have them on call for any future disputes.

What About Contests? Aren’t Those Okay?

Watch out for fan fiction contests, too. While the rights holders may sanction the use of their intellectual property for these contests, you may have to give up your copyrights for submitted content, whether you win or not. Rights holders may do this to prevent any “they stole my idea” lawsuits. Always read the terms and conditions for any fan fiction contests before entering your work.

But Won’t My FanFic Help Me Get Noticed?

Don’t think that popular franchises and rights holders (Disney, Marvel, etc.) will be scouring the fanfic world to find new talent for book deals, writing assignments, or other creative work. They may even avoid people like you, again, because of the “they stole my idea” lawsuits. And it goes the other way, too. If you publish successful fan fiction, you could put yourself on the rights holders’ radar for a lawsuit against you.

What About Works in the Public Domain?

There is less risk of legal issues over rights when publishing fan fiction for works and intellectual property that are clearly in the public domain. (Important: "Public domain" does not mean "on the internet.") But verifying public domain status can sometimes be tricky. Make sure you do your research. Seeking the help of an attorney is highly recommended in this process.

If the original work is very old—which many public domain works are—it may not have any market appeal. You might spend a great deal of effort and money in rebuilding a market that is nonexistent.

Why Do You Want to Do It Anyway?

I get it. As a Star Trek fan, I can understand why fans would want to do fan fiction based on any popular franchise’s amazing character lineups and storylines. But I have to ask, why don’t you want to create your own characters and stories birthed from your own imagination?

Remember, readers of fan fiction are still just fans of the original work or person. True, you may build a group of fans for your fan fiction work. But what happens when you stop writing that fan fiction? Will they still be interested in your writing? And what happens when the subject falls out of favor with the market and the fanbase dwindles?

Marketing your fan fiction work will take just as much investment as something you create from your imagination. You’re actually doing marketing for the original creator, who will not reimburse you for your efforts and cash outlay. You’re also not building an author platform for yourself.

Considering both the legal and marketing challenges, I don’t feel that fan fiction is worth the risk and investment for me. Should you decide to do it, at least you now know some of the issues you’ll face.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 13, 2021:

Rodric, haven't we all wanted TNG to be real! Where do I sign up? :)

Do be careful when it comes to fan fiction. It's fraught with many legal issues, especially if it's stories based on those characters and story lines. You won't just lose your rights, you might receive a cease and desist or outright lawsuit if the rights holders so choose. But I understand your motivation.

I totally agree on the politicization of the later Trek iterations. Not for me! While I did think DS9 and Voyager did have some merit, I really just find TOS and TNG the only ones worth watching.

Thanks for chiming into the discussion! Live long and prosper!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 13, 2021:

Chitrangada, fan fiction may be more popular in some regional markets than others. Here in the States it's a thing. Thanks for reading and your kind comments, as always! Have a beautiful day!

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on July 12, 2021:

Heidi, I wrote a Star Trek fan fiction on HubPages just because I love the universe so much, the Trekiverse. Growing up, I wanted the universe to one day manifest TNG more than the original. I can see how doing fan fiction can cause legal issues. I am willing to lose all rights to my writing if it means furthering the Trekiverse in some way.

My TNG, Voyager, and DS9 perspective urges me to hope for that type of future. I don't like the politicizing elements the newer iterations of the Trekiverseadd to the mix, but I give them fair chance. Thanks for the advice in this article. I'm going to update the article and put it in the feed, my fanfiction.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 12, 2021:

Great article with useful information!

Honestly, I wasn't aware about the Fan fiction thing! Thank you for sharing this information with the readers! Have a good day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 12, 2021:

Denise, I don't think unauthorized or even unauthorized derivative works have the same appeal as the original. It's like they're riding on the coattails of the original work. Appreciate you adding your thoughts to the conversation. Have a beautiful week!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 07, 2021:

I have to agree with all your reasons. I've read a few authorized books on existing characters but probably wouldn't pick up one that was unauthorized anyway. Thanks for spelling it all out so thoroughly.



Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 06, 2021:

MG, I wasn't too much aware of it either until I heard some authors talk about it on social media. Something new every day, right? Thanks for reading and commenting! Have a great day!

MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 03, 2021:

Nice article. Didn't know much about fan fiction, thanks for sharing.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 03, 2021:

Flourish, I just don't get it either. Fanfic is just a mess from so many standpoints that it's just not advisable for self publishing. Thanks for chiming in! Enjoy the July 4th holiday weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 03, 2021:

Peggy, that's my question, too! Fanfic is just a mess from so many standpoints. Thanks for chiming in, as always. Have a fun July 4th holiday!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 02, 2021:

You have given many valid reasons to shy away from producing fan fiction. As you mentioned, why not create your own fiction instead?

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 02, 2021:

Why someone would want to write about someone else's character (e.g., Spiderman, Harry Potter) rather than make up their own is beyond me. You point out that it's a creative and legal quagmire.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 01, 2021:

Bill, you and me both! I am completely stunned by the whole notion of fan fiction. Even more than regular self publishing, it dances on the edge of legality in so many ways, I can't even imagine getting into it. But I received a question about it. So there you go.

Hope Bev continues to heal. Gosh, that's scary. But I was glad to see that Tobey is keeping her company. :)

Thanks, as always, for reading and chiming in. Have a relaxing July 4th weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 01, 2021:

Pamela, you're so right! More than even regular self publishing, you really need to assess the fanfic landscape and be ready for what could happen. Thanks for your kind comments! Have a wonderful July 4th holiday!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 01, 2021:

It's a fascinating field but seriously, do I really care? Not that I don't care about your article, that's not what I'm saying, but the whole thing about loving a comic figure so much that you write about it???? I would rather walk through the woods with the doggies. :) Happy Weekend, my friend.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 01, 2021:

You always give us great advice, Heidi. This is an interesting and informative article, as always. Marketing fan fiction sounds very complicated. I think anyone ought to consider those legal and marketing challenges before going this route.