Fanfiction is somewhat of an uncharted territory, which few actual writers/critics take serious note of or are very enthusiastic about. It has been long asked and established whether publishing fanfics is even legally possible at all. Yes, it is possible as long as the work in question doesn't violate copyrights and the plot line isn't too dependent on the original novel it was inspired from. But have there been cases where works that count as fanfiction to some degree have been literally successful and turned out as bestsellers?

Of course, I understand that it isn't very fruitful or wise for a budding writer to work in this genre. One will just be wasting their time and talent. I just feel having examples of the exceptional bestseller fanfics at hand would be useful for all of those writers out there.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Monica Cellio Oct 14 at 1:42

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    Where does "Grendel" fall as the story of Beowulf from the monster's perspective fall? Is that considered fanfic? – J.D. Ray Oct 12 at 22:07
  • 1
    This has turned into a list question. I'm not sure what value there is in listing every published work of fan fiction - definitely not what Stack Exchange is designed for. Maybe I should start a meta question about it. – pipe Oct 14 at 0:14
  • 1
    I've put this question on hold because "list" questions are a bad fit for the Stack Exchange format -- they get a bunch of answers each contributing one thing instead of a comprehensive answer. – Monica Cellio Oct 14 at 1:45
  • I guess the last edit is a failure. – rus9384 Oct 14 at 19:03
  • I think this can be made on-topic just by removing the (now incomplete) last paragraph. "Have there been any published fanfics that became best-sellers" can be answered with a "yes" and one or two examples. "Give me a list of every published fanfic that became a best-seller" is decidedly off-topic. – F1Krazy Oct 14 at 19:31
up vote 24 down vote accepted

The main obstacle to fanfics flooding the market is copyright. As long as the original author holds the copyright for their work, fanfics can only live as free stuff on the internet. (Or, as Kirk points out, they can be "reskinned", "retooled", so they're not obviously recognisable as fanfic. In which case, it all depends on how good your lawyers are compared to the lawyers of the original writer.) I personally think that making money off somebody else's work in this fashion is sort of stealing. Cervantes notably was extremely unhappy about someone publishing a Don Quixote fanfic, and went on to publish his own Don Quixote II, in which he mocked the fanfic. But such moral considerations are beside the point.

Once the copyright is over, the work you wanted to write fanfic about is either long forgotten, in which case the fanfic loses its point, or it's become a classic, in which case judgement of your fanfic is going to be rather harsh: what can you, unknown modern writer, add to the time-honoured classic? Such works do exist, but are less common.

And then, when a work is old enough, it turns out that yes, you do have something to add to it. Enough time has passed that retelling the same story in a different way is now original, interesting, respected, literary. Once and Future King and Mists of Avalon are both Le Morte d'Arthur fanfics. Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia is an Aeneid fanfic. Except that at this point they are no longer called fanfics.

What differentiates your run-of-the-mill fanfic from works like Once and Future King or Wide Sargasso Sea that you mention, is that the former aim mostly at producing more of the same, with some measure of insert-fic and/or doing things to the original book's romances. Whereas works of the latter kind seek to engage with the source material, and using it, say something new, unique. In this fashion, they outgrow the "fanfic" definition.

  • Incredibly thorough! +1 – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 12 at 22:40
  • I'd give you +1+1 if it were possible, for the reference to Cervantes and his fury over some other mug publishing a Don Quixote tale. – Chappo Oct 12 at 22:52
  • 2
    Copyright isn't the only legal issue - trade marks are also a potential problem, so even if a work doesn't infringe copyright it could still not be publishable. – Jules Oct 13 at 7:54
  • 1
    Fanfic predates the Internet by many years. When I used to go to Star Trek conventions in the 70's there were many 'zines with fan fiction. – Barmar Oct 13 at 17:31
  • I have been led to understand that the Shannara series began as an attempt to continue Lord of the Rings, but was shot down by the IP holders of the latter, so it was re-skinned. I could be wrong. – EvilSnack Oct 13 at 23:31

Why wouldn't it be possible?

Yes. Fifty Shades et al are Twilight fanfics. Note that you may have to reskin a work (change characters, names, settings, etc) to get far enough away from the original work.

Let's try this again: Is Sherlock Holmes on the BBC fanfic? Yup.

  • Thanks for such a quick response! What do you think of my own answer? – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 12 at 21:51
  • 1
    Should be noted that Sherlock Holmes fanfiction is really common in literature too, what with it being more than fifty years old and thus on public domain. – Matthew Dave Oct 13 at 2:05
  • 2
    "Fifty Shades et al are Twilight fanfics" - this is a massive stretch, especially considering that romance/sex-fantasy novels are well-established long before either of those examples were written. The example of Sherlock Holmes is at least undeniable and more than sufficient. – Nij Oct 13 at 2:35
  • 4
    @Nij Fifty Shades was once a Twilight fic called 'Master of the Universe', however I'm not sure what he meant by 'et al'. – Matthew Dave Oct 13 at 2:43
  • 7
    @Nij Fifty Shades is undeniably a reskinned Twilight fanfic. This is established fact and not speculation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Lauren Ipsum Oct 13 at 10:52

For a while, Amazon ran a program called Kindle Worlds where writers could write "fanfic" within the world of subscribed authors (Hugh Howey's Wool series, for example) within certain original author-established parameters. I wrote and published a story in that system, and it sold better than I expected (several hundred copies, maybe), and I had, over the course of a few years, a couple hundred extra dollars. No bestseller, but I can see how one could come out of a situation like that.

"Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" did quite well - well enough to get a fan audiobook, fanfiction of it's own, a Wikipedia page and reviews in The Washington Post, VICE and The Atlantic.

There are no sales figures I'm aware of.

  • 2
    Hi Syfer! Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take a look at our tour and help center pages, you might find them useful. With regards to your answer, HPMOR is of course brilliant, and it was very popular, but there were never sales - it was always free on the internet. The reason for this is copyright: only J.K. Rowling has the right to sell Harry Potter books. – Galastel Oct 13 at 7:20

Wide Sargasso Sea comes to mind.

It cannot exactly be considered a fanfic, given that it was a direct result of the writer's disagreement with Bronte's unflattering portrayal of a certain Creole character. Madwife Bertha of Jane Eyre is almost antagonistic, in the sense that it is one of the forces that hold the titular protagonist from fulfilling her dreams and hopes.

But it can certainly be called a "rip-off" (for the lack of a better word) of Jane Eyre, based on one of the central characters from the same. (The storyline doesn't rely too heavily on Jane Eyre though.) And it's a classic in that and can be thought of as a bestseller by extension. I don't suppose the messages and themes in it would have been too popular in those times and that they would have sold either. But it is not unheard of now and definitely critically acclaimed and a fine piece of work in my opinion, serving as an elegant response (or you could see it as a payback) to the subtle literary degradation of the Creole people.

Jean Rhys might have been a fan of Bronte's work in general, but this one surely didn't sprout from any especial feelings of admiration towards her. She just took the liberty of taking an almost antagonistic character (whom she renames "Antoinette") from Jane Eyre and explaining her backstory from a completely different angle. And that is to convey that Antoinette had been unjustly shown as a mere mad woman with animalistic instincts who is simply incapable of being sympathised with. She literally fleshes out that character and walks us through her fall (one that she makes us realise is very human).

  • Hmm, "rip-off" might be a bit strong - connotations of unfair dealing. Interesting question about whether WSS is fanfic vs a reinterpretation of the original, similar to Apocalypse Now being a cinematic reinterpretation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But +1 for broadening the debate by suggesting WSS. – Chappo Oct 12 at 23:22
  • @Chappo Glad you thought so! – Soha Farhin Pine Oct 12 at 23:29

I am not sure if this one counts, but there are several works that call themselves fanfiction of the original Holy Bible [1]. And surely they do not encounter copyright and other problems that other fanfics usually have to deal with.

Some of these works managed to be quite successful. Such as the ones listed in here, or, maybe Dante's the divine comedy .

  • Dante's The Divine Comedy cannot possibly be considered as fanfic, or even as proto-fanfic. – Chappo Oct 13 at 22:32

Star Trek Strange New Worlds was a yearly publication of a book of short stories of fan fiction sanctioned by Paramount Licensing. Considering at least some of the prize-winners within these books went on to publish individual Star trek books and the vast number of Star Trek-related books by previously unknown authors, I would say these count as "fan-fic" writers.

Of course, whether any of these can be classified as "best-selling" is dependent on your definition, but they are certainly professionally published and endorsed.

Yes, unless you decide that a commercially-successful story can’t be called “fanfic.” The debate seems entirely to be about whether we call books that can get legally published, “fanfics.”

There have been a lot of bestsellers that everyone would agree were “fanfic” if they’d originally been posted for free on the Internet, or even were. Some well-known liminal cases: officially authorized (Spock Must Die, Heir to the Empire), or based on works in the public domain (West Side Story, and for that matter, Romeo and Juliet).

Or where the author directly stated that they changed the characters’ names so they wouldn’t get sued. This is perhaps most blatant when a fanfic openly gets rewritten into an “original” novel with the characters renamed. Fifty Shades of Gray famously started out as an explicit “All-Human” fanfic of Twilight, in more than one sense. David Brin’s The Life Eaters was a rewrite of his novella “Thor Meets Captain America.” There are a lot of modern fanfics that essentially try to re-tell a famous story from a different perspective—usually the villain’s. Gregory McGuire’s Wicked, John Gardner’s Grendel, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Mary Gentle, for example, has said:

And then there’s Grunts!, which is my take on fantasy—genre fantasy, I should say, and fantasy war-gaming, and how "fantasy" ends up being portrayed in the media. And Tolkien. Ursula Le Guin said reading Lord of the Rings made her want to go out and form the Hobbit Socialist Party. It’s very difficult to disagree with that. I’d had my “proud, noble, orcish warriors” story in mind since I was about fifteen... but it only really jelled when I realised it was going to be a black comedy, best imagined in animated form; and the “proud noble warriors” told me they were more like “mean motherfuckers with big guns!”

The Star Trek anthologies Strange New Worlds are another instance where even the authors receiving royalty checks seemed to get confused about whether they were writing “fanfic” that didn’t count as professional publication. I remember, shortly after the first one came out, reading a conversation on Usenet where one of those writers bemoaned that Paramount was only taking pitches from published authors, and someone from Paramount replied: Oh no, we published you ourselves in Strange New Worlds, so you’re welcome to pitch to us again.

The 50 shades of grey book was originally written as Twilight fan-fiction. When it came to publishing just some of the names where changed, so yes Fan-Fiction can be tremendously succsesful!

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.