Filing Off The Serial Numbers
|Synonyms:||Filing The Serial Numbers Off, Pulling To Publish, Pull2Pub, P2P|
|See also:||profic, original fiction, original slash, fan fiction, uber|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
Filing off the serial numbers refers to taking a piece of existing fan fiction and removing any details that tie it to a copyrighted source. At the very least this involves renaming places and characters or replacing them with analogues.
This is done by a fan trying to turn pro, trying to sell the work as a piece of original fiction, and is not always easy or successful, as fan fiction often depends a lot on the audience's shared knowledge of canon and thus elides a lot of information integral to plot and characterization.
An exception would be Xena uber fiction and other fandom AUs because the characters already have different names, use different settings, and the stories can be (and often are) published as profic with just minimal edits.
In June 2006, there was a Con.txt panel entitled "Filing Off the Serial Numbers - Is It That Simple? Fanfiction Writers Going Pro."  In 2007, storm grant held a panel at Escapade about "Origifying FanFiction" and then later posted Going Pro 101: The Slasher’s Guide To Converting Fanfic To Original Fiction or Origifying FanFiction (OFF). Among the suggested panels proposed for MediaWest*Con in May 2008 was another entitled "Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Going Pro with your Fan Fic." 
Historically speaking, the practice of turning fan fiction into commercially published fiction was not widespread - the main hurdles were persuading a publisher to take a chance on publishing previously circulated fan fic. Some writers would not disclose the pre-existing fanfic version or, if they would mention it, would discuss it as an "unpublished draft circulated for feedback and comment among a writing group." Limiting access to the fanfic versions was also much easier in the days of print fanzines with fixed print runs.
In whole, these early fans were more accepting of the repurposed fan fiction, although the less work an author did to turn to their story into commercial work, the less inclined some would be to buy it. Others were enthused about seeing "one of their own" make it into professional writing. And, for many years, there was a feeling in the fan community that fan fiction could provide an important training ground for those fans who were inclined to take their writing into the commercial arena.
In recent years, fewer fans are supportive of these pro publishing activities. Ironically, this comes at a time where fans are finding it much easier to self-publish their fanfic or work through smaller, non-traditional presses. Fans may not appreciate having a beloved, or worse, unfinished WIP suddenly disappear so an author can publish it. Other fans have expressed dissatisfaction at buying a professional M/M work, only to discover they've already read the story in its earlier fanfic guise.
There is no fandom-wide agreement on how open fans should be about distributing copies, paper or electronic, of deleted works, and it's very difficult to truly delete something once it has been published on the Internet. These older fannish versions of now published works often remain available.
Fandoms that as of 2012, are seeing more and more fan fiction being republished as original fan fiction:
- Supernatural (most popular types of fan fiction are J2 AU stories with only a passing resemblance to the actors' real lives).
- Twilight (see Het examples below)
Origin of the Term
The term originally comes from the practice of eradicating the serial number off a firearm so that it is untraceable.
The term has been used to describe repurposed media fanfiction since at least 1996. On April 25, 1996, there was a post to Virgule-L on behalf of several pro publishers looking for submissions for m/m and other stories. The post stated that the publisher couldn't use anything that involved commercial, media characters but knew that many list members had stories written that "you can file off the serial numbers" and could change enough details so that the stories weren't as easily recognized. 
Another example, this one from alt.startrek.creative, is a 1997 post by a fan discussing a work of original fiction she and a partner had written: "...if by some miracle someone publishes it, we will certainly let everyone here know about it. (It'll be pretty obvious to you guys where we filed off the serial numbers.)" 
However, the term was in use as early as 1990 on usenet in discussions about the inspiration of commercial genre fiction. Examples:
- "Fowler Foulkes is mostly based on Arthur Conan Doyle -- or at least Dr. Derringer is Dr. Challenger with the serial numbers filed off"
- "The cultural context is the-fall-of-the-Roman-Empire-plus-invading-barbarians with the serial numbers filed off."
- "_Glory Road_ is fairly close to your request as well; the fantasy is 'actually' skiffy, but it's file-off-the-serial-numbers fantasy. Somewhat similar is _The Flying Sorcerers_ by Niven and Gerrold, with the exception of slightly more things having their serial numbers filed off."
On 6 February 1995, J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, used the term in a negative sense to deny that his show was derivative: "I wouldn't spend a grand total of 10 years of my life getting, and making this show just to do LoTR with the serial numbers filed off."
"Outing" Authors and Fannish Norms
Some fans feel that without specific author permission, pointing to a published novel and saying it originates in fandom would be a form of outing and therefore should be avoided. However, in this context, pseudonymity can also have its disadvantages. When J.J. Massa published her novel The Edge, it took a while (and only after it was published in print; the ebook version sold without problems) before a reader recognized it as the Chakotay/Paris AU Another Time, Another Place from Star Trek Voyager fandom. Said reader also knew who the original fanfic author was, and it was not J.J. Massa. When the author learned this, she began leaving comments on several reviews for The Edge claiming that it was actually her own story being republished without permission. Though she was initially met with skepticism, as she was a fanfic writer accusing a published romance author of plagiarism, the evidence was in her favor and the publisher withdrew the title.
Some early examples:
- Cowboy Blues (1985)
- many works by Jane of Australia -- in 1989, this Pros writer turned the first of many of her Pros novels into books published by the UK Gay Men's Press
- Alexis Rogers filed the serial numbers off of The Cost of Love, a S/H novel, and sold it (with the same title) to Lavender Press. (1990)
- Wayward Books
Slash Fic and M/M Romance
The growing professional and self-published M/M Romance market has attracted several slash fiction writers from a variety of fandoms. Some fans are open about their aspirations, discussing their attempts to get stories published or talking about the trials and tribulations of self-publishing ebooks. They sometimes give advanced notice to their readers when they are going to remove a fanfic from the Internet (sometimes under insistence of publishers) so they can publish the "filed off" version. Other fans more quietly friends-lock their stories first and then eventually remove them from the web.
Melissa Good's story Tropical Storm was the first commercially released Xena uber novel. Originally written in 1998, the print publication came in 1999 and other uber novels such as Accidental Love by BL Miller and Lucifer Rising by Sharon Bowers followed within the same year and even more in the years after that.   A few Star Trek Voyager ubers, such as Course of Action by Gun Brooke, continued this tradition.
A fan in 2014 remarked about Xena fandom and fiction: "I'm a big lesbian fiction reader, but not a huge Xena fan. A really remarkable percentage of lesbian romance/adventure novels from the mid-90s through the early 2000s are Xena fanfic with the serials sort of filed off. I say sort of because Xena canonically has Xena & Gabrielle being reincarnated in different lives where they don't remember their pasts, but find each other anyway (and get married in at least one instance). This gave fans the room to create an entire genre of "Ubers" with canon support, many of them modern day. Naturally many were published almost unaltered and didn't particularly need to change anything, even the names were usually different already. If you run into a lesbian romance with a tall, dark, very physical lead and a short, blonde one (especially if they're both viewpoint characters) check the front-matter or epilogue. Chances are you'll see a Xena or bards references." 
The Twilight fan fiction community has a robust ebook publishing market, with fan fiction writers taking their het fan fiction, changing names and sometimes situations/plots and republishing as original fiction. Publishers include Omnific Publishing, TWCS Publishing House (The Writer's Coffee Shop Publishing House), and Morgan Kearns. In the Twlight community this is known as "pulling to publish."
Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, a very famous example.
Like most media fandom communities, members of the Twilight fan community are divided as to both the ethics and legality of republishing fan fiction as original fan fiction. Some feel that the practice is acceptable if the plots and storylines are original (ex: a fan fiction AU) with the characters bearing only a passing resemblance to the TV or movie characters. Others feel that no amount of changes or differences make the practice ethical or legal.
We all know about the great stories out there in the Twilight fandom that have a totally original story line, all human characters, and brand new settings. Basically, the only thing that still connects it to Twilight is the physical description of the characters (ie: “bronze hair, pale skin, clumsy”) Is it ok to just change the names of these characters and publish? Ethically? No way. It would be making money off characters/a story that was based off of someone else’s work, and they are the only person entitled to make money from that. Plus, if the author finds out that you are trying this, all they have to do is release a statement saying no more fan fiction, and the party is ruined for everyone. Legally? ... Maybe. If the names, character traits, plot points, the tributes to canon (“About three things I was absolutely certain…”), and settings were all totally changed, then just maybe it could pass as an original story. Many stories would have to be extensively edited to make this happen, and by the time this is over, it might not even be recognizable to fans who enjoyed reading it.
More importantly, opponents feel that the more the story changes, the less marketable it becomes, making filing off the serial numbers a pointless exercise:
So if a favorite work in the fandom is turned into this new, scrubbed-clean-of-Twilight-references story, all the reasons people were reading in the first place are now gone. Not very many fans of Twilight are interested in reading about Edmund and Billa when all traits of the characters we love are wiped away. They are just two random people now. It’s just a backwards way to write a story, and unfair to readers to test out a story line or plot point on them, get everyone excited about it, then pull it offline (sometimes before it’s even finished), gut it of the pertinent stuff, then package it as completely original and expect people to pay for it.
While there are few voices as loudly in favor of repurposing Twillight fan fiction as there are those who are against it, the fact remains that it is a popular practice, to the point where Twilight fans now routinely save their favorite stories to their hard drives in anticipation of the fiction being pulled offline a few months later in order to be republished as original fiction.
In January 2012, the OTW links roundup offered the following example of the debate:
In the case of E.L. James' new novel it is fans who are questioning fan actions. "[A] number of readers commented that the series, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, began as Twilight fan fiction. Some of the commenters went so far as to say there could be copyright infringement issues, because of the connection." James' publisher denied both claims of infringement and any real similarity to Twilight. "Twilight and Fifty Shades Trilogy are worlds apart, new readers are totally surprised it was ever a Twilight fan fiction story."
In August 2012, Sylvain Reynard entered into a contract with Penguin Group’s Berkley imprint for Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture, a series that also began as Twilight fan fiction under the title of The University of Edward Masen. In November 2012, book publisher Simon & Schushter announced it would be republishing a reworked Twilight fan story called The Office under the title Beautiful Bastard.
Impact On Fandom Community
Most discussion of filing off the serial numbers focuses on the negative impact it can have on a fandom community. Typical concerns range from increased visibility (and the possibility of increased restrictions) on fan fiction from TPTB as more fan fiction gets re-purposed into original fiction. Some fans feel that they've been treated as virtual guinea pigs by writers testing the quality of their writing on fandom, only to later demand money for the same or similar story later. Others argue that it might have a dampening effect on reader participation:
What does it mean for fandom? The pulling to publish craze has made people reluctant to read incomplete fics or praise any fic too much lest the author decide his/her work of art deserves a wider audience. That’s not fair to those left behind. This? People are feeling duped right now. Readers often have an emotional investment in a story (witness the rage when one gets pulled), and when something like this happens, it stings. Our prediction is that it’s going to take its toll on reviews and fandom participation, and those authors who actually take pride in their own work are the ones who will suffer for it. And why shouldn’t it happen that way? This took how long to discover? And only because the book is searchable on Google. Plenty of books aren’t, or at least you’d have to know the exact passages (most fics aren’t basically a book with the names changed). This could be going on all over the place. We wouldn’t want to heap praise on something and find out it was copied.
- Fandom Authors Who Have Gone Big Time, fandom authors doing pro work from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom.
- The Ethics of Reworking Fanfiction: An editor's opinion, 2012
- Loving the Band: When good publishers ruin bad fanfic (2012)
- Master of the Universe versus Fifty Shades Comparison by Jane at "Dear Author,
- When Does Fan Fiction Cross an Ethical Line? by Jami Gold on March 6, 2012
- "Dear Author" Blog posts tagged "Fan Fiction"
- Re-publishing long S&H stories as original novels?; archive link (fans discussing the concept in the [starsky-hutch] LJ community), dated March 14, 2012
- Simon & Schuster to publish more reworked Twilight fanfic, dated November 8, 2012
- Goodreads: Pulled to Publish Fan Fiction List of novels that are believed to have been fan fiction originally. Includes discussion in the many comments. List created June 28, 2012. As of June 2013, there were 117 listings, as of March 2016, there were 237 listings 
- Fifty Shades of Grey: The Reddit Origins Essay (2014)
- Fifty Shades of Deja Vu: Repackaging Fanfiction by Nenia Campbell
- How fangirls changed the future of publishing; Archive by Aja Romano at The Daily Dot, November 9th, 2014
- Uniquely Pleasurable, Original slash panel at D.C. con. Posted June 13, 2006. Last accessed November 16, 2008; WebCite.
- WebCite. See also the July 2009 article Do you mind if the serial numbers still show? by Erastes;WebCite.
- Dusk Peterson, The Slash Skinny. Posted April 2007. Last accessed November 16, 2008; WebCite.
- Morgan Dawn's personal notes about discussions with fan fic writers turning pro, accessed October 2, 2013.
- Morgan Dawn's notes, regarding an email forwarded by "Circlet Press."
- post by Alara Rogers at alt.startrek.creative, April 18, 1997
- February 20 1990 post in rec.arts.sf-lovers 
- March 29, 1993 post in rec.arts.sf.written 
- July 22, 1994 post in rec.arts.sf.written 
- J. Michael Straczynski, collected Usenet postings, February 1995, at 
- See Talk:Filing Off The Serial Numbers.
- J.J. Massa - The Edge. (Accessed 20 November 2008); WebCite.
- Emily Veinglory, The JJ Massa Thang, 01 December 2007. (Accessed 20 November 2008), now offline, link goes to archived version.
- Kayleigh Jamison, Accusations of Plagiarism Against Well-Known Ebook Author, 01 December 2007. (Accessed 20 November 2008); WebCite.
- Ash Arceneaux, JJ Massa plagiarism accusation!, 30 November 2007; holy cow. Massa VS Amanda debacle, 01 December 2007. (Accessed 20 November 2008) (all cites are now offline).
- Alexis Rogers S/H website, accessed November 18, 2008
- Lunacy's Commercial Fiction Reviews. (Accessed 18 November 2008); WebCite.
- Vielka Clavijo. The Ultimate list of Uber Xena novels ever published, lists #1 - #17, Amazon.com Listmania! Lists. (Accessed 18 November 2008)
- Bards In Print. A section of The Bard's Corner archive with updates about novels from authors who started out writing Xena fanfiction and who have ventured out into the publishing world. (Accessed 18 November 2008)
- Gun Brooke. Course of Action, self-published in July 2004, then published with Bold Strokes Books in August 2005. (Accessed 18 November 2008)
- See FAQs Gun Brooke. (Accessed 18 November 2008)
- from a fan at fail-fandomanon
- reference link
- In 2010, Omnific Publishing launched with the following announcement: "Omnific Publishing is a publishing company specializing in the publication of authors with a proven track record of online success in transformative works. Omnific Publishing seeks to publish their original fiction in a number of different media, including ebooks, audiobooks, and print books. Omnific Publishing is a publishing house with a myriad of resources for author development and promotion, including post submission editing with Certified Editors, associated art development, publication in various media, national marketing, and profitability." Discussed in I don't even know what to say to this dated January 1, 2010 (accessed January 17, 2012); WebCite. See also Twilighted.Net Forums openly discussing republished fan fiction: "Yes, Boycotts and Barflies is one of the stories published by Omnific. Other former fan fics published by Omnific include: feathers_mmmm's I Love L.A., published under the title The Unidentified Redhead by Alice Clayton, qjmom's and someone else's...blanking right now..Passion Fish, Nicki Elson's Three Daves was a fan fic too, I think..." comment posted in twilighted.net's forum thread Who Is Published?, dated May 19, 2009, Accessed January 12, 2012.
- "My fic "News to Me" is now available as "Fade to Black". For more information or to purchase a copy go to http://www.MorganKearns.com." comment posted in twilighted.net's forum thread Who Is Published?, dated May 19, 2009, Accessed January 12, 2012. Fans also are keeping track of stories published as original fic here.
- "Pulling to publish has become such a pastime that it’s pretty much the default assumption when a story disappears." Twankharder Blog post "Betty Smith is the Messiah and we’re doing fandom wrong" dated April 3, 2011 (accessed Jan. 17, 2012); WebCite. See also "Dear d0t, Should I Pull My Fic? dated April 6, 2011 in which the blogger explains that "Pulling to publish is a MAJOR undertaking that most people don’t understand the ramifications of." WebCite.
- FYI: Publishing Fan Fiction, dated March 10, 2011 (accessed Jan 17, 2012); WebCite. See also some of the reviews on Amazon's page for The Forbidden Room by J. P. Barnaby which range from "Cool, I loved this when you had it on Fanfiction(dot)net as a Twilight fan fic!" to "The reviewers who are saying what this writer is doing is illegal, are absolutely 100% CORRECT. You cannot just take something, which began as fanfiction posted on another (free) site, change the names, then self-publish it, and sell it for money. That is illegal. It would behoove this writer to learn copyright laws before she self-publishes a novel and tries to sell it. The fact that there's not a self respecting publisher alive who will touch something splashed all over the internet (original or not) should be a tiny indication to that fact. If she really were brave, she would prepare a completely original manuscript and submit it to a legitimate publisher. Erotica is one of the last genres, which takes unsolicited submissions. She wouldn't even have to spend years trying to find a literary agent to represent her before submitting. Learn the rules of the craft before jumping in and you might just find out the rewards on the other side are far greater, not to mention your morals as a writer remain intact." (accessed Jan 17, 2012).
- FYI: Publishing Fan Fiction, dated March 10, 2011 (accessed Jan 17, 2012); WebCite.
- See comments in Sharing Deleted Fanworks discussing how the practice has impacted Twilight fan culture.
- Links roundup for 16 January 2012, dated January 16, 2012 (accessed January 17, 2012). Link to the Jan 13, 2012 Publisher's Weekly article here, Archived version.
- Twilight Fan Fiction History of Gabriel’s Inferno dated August 1, 2012; WebCite.
- Simon & Schuster to publish more reworked Twilight fanfic, dated November 8, 2012; WebCite accessed November 13, 2012. See also Hot Fanfiction: The Office dated August 25, 2009; WebCite.
- "This pulling to publish has gotta stop or there will be no more fanfiction. If it becomes apparent that fanfiction writers are publishing fanfiction (which is legally incredibly dodgy as all fanfiction are derivative works of a copyrighted story and characters) Stephenie Meyer could well ban it. Then no more FF stories for anyone." Anonymous comment posted in Kristen Stewart Coolspotters in 2011.
- "You've just been made a guinea pig-and you're going to shell out money to BUY something that was previously available for free? Well, good for you, I guess." comment in Fan Fiction gets published: Brookelockart breaks it down, dated Jan 11, 2012; WebCite.
- This takes “change the names and it’s totally publishable” to a whole new level dated Feb 12, 2011; WebCite.
- WebCite accessed November 13, 2012.
- Goodreads WebCite created March 17, 2013; Reference link dated June 1, 2013.