Fifty Shades of Grey: The Reddit Origins Essay

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Title: Fifty Shades of Grey: The Reddit Origins Essay
Date(s): July 30, 2014
Medium: online
Fandom: Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight
External Links: original thread, Archived version
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Fifty Shades of Grey: The Reddit Origins Essay is a 2014 discussion in the form of posts to a long comment by hurricangst.

The original topic of the post was Fifty Shades of Grey. hurricangst posted a comment Reddit about the origins of the pro book, explained the dynamics of the Twilight fandom, and discussed E.L. James' skill as a marketer. Discussion ensued regarding fandom ethics, fandom and profit, pulling to publish, and much more.

The post and some excerpts are included below.

The Original Post

This is looooong. I'm not sorry. It's worth it.

Well to understand this, you really need to understand the Twilight fanfic community. Bear with me! It pretty much gets written off as laughable and silly (can't blame people), but truthfully, Twilight fanfic commonly has very little do with Twilight. Even Twilight's fandom hates Twilight. A lot of people got into the series, found the community, and began to either:

1. See the validity of the criticisms now that they were forced to write in the universe.
2. Grow tired of writing and reading about the exact same 5 things.
3. Grow tired of writing in a universe that didn't support porn.

I mean, porn for Twilight was pretty decent up until the last book, where Meyer jossed her own canon and got Bella pregnant. Now there were all these weird biological 'variables' authors had to consider. Did Edward have to wear a condom in our fics for her to not get pregnant (no one warned her to get pregnant)? And if he did, wouldn't his super vampire venom/semen just burst right through the sucker? And if so, wouldn't Bella be at risk of 'turning' into a vampire anyway?

That's not a good time. Having to consider all that dumb shit was frankly awkward. It was fun for a few months (DOES THE JIZZ SPARKLE?!), until we all realized that Meyer was a moron who knew nothing about even human anatomy. By that point, everyone was just frustrated. we just wanted to create and consume some fucking porn, give us a break.

We could have totally moved to another fandom or begin writing original stories, but everyone was already there, you know? We'd already made friends and established trends in the community. Moving was not an attractive option for anyone, especially given that Twilight is a mono-fandom, meaning it was a first-and-only fandom for most of us (whereas in other fanfic communities you'd see a lot of overlap with other canons).

So Twilight All-Human AUs were ultimately invented. There were stories where vampires didn't exist (like FSOG). They got CRAZY popular within the community because they were essentially just generic romance novels with characters we already knew (made it easy to write and consume, as we already liked and cared about the characters). Though there were always nods to the original Twilight series within them, you didn't even have to know Twilight to enjoy an AH-AU. I've gotten tons of reviews on my fanfic where readers say they've never even picked up the book.

By 2010, probably a good 75% of Twilight fanfic being produced was All-Human. It was literally a chore to find a fanfic that had anything to do with vampires.

Fifty Shades was part of this. A lot of people here are saying it's ripping off Secretary, but it's not. It's ripping off another really popular Twilight AH-AU called "The Submissive", written by TaraSueMe. [The Submissive] was the first very popular BDSM Twilight fic (and frankly, so much better). Whenever a fic reached mega-popularity, there always began a brief spike of fics using those tropes. For instance, there was once a really popular fic about Edward being a tattoo artist (Clipped Wings & Inked Armor), which spawned all kinds of fics about Edward and Bella having tattoos. There were even contests with prizes to see who wrote the best tattoo fic.

So basically, The Submissive spawned off tons of BDSM fic. Fifty Shades was one of them. This is really important because it indicates a very strong practice of collective collaboration in the community at the time that would later be at the root of a lot anger when Erika published. Just about everything in her books is derivative... and not derivative of other media, and not even just derivative of Twilight, but directly derivative of other Twilight fanfics. Sure, you could say it was ripping off Secretary, but considering intent, Fifty Shades is actually a ripoff The Submissive and dozens of other insanely popular Twilight fanfics.

In reddit-speak, think of these kinds of stories as reposts. It's generally frowned upon to repost without giving credit here, but reposts can still get a shitload of karma, because some people hadn't seen the original, or other people liked the content more than they disliked reposts. We're all sitting here going, "Oh that's kind of lame they're getting karma from someone else's idea," but no one really cares too much. This is what Twilight fanfic was like.

FSOG got a shitload of karma. Ask me how! Well, the short of it: Erika is a marketing professional. The long of it:

Erika made reposts of already-proven-popular content
Erika posted short updates to the story very frequently, keeping it at the top of the story search list
Since people could give 'karma' (reviews) for every single chapter/update, the more chapters a story had, the more karma it had

FSOG had 80 [edit: was actually 110] chapters. That means that a lot of people actually reviewed that fucking thing EIGHTY times. So even if she had only 100 super loyal readers, that's 8,000 11,000 reviews (think upvotes). People see a story with 8,000 reviews and want to click it to see what all the fuss is about. I think it had something like 20,000 reviews when it was pulled down for publishing.

Hence, FSOG went viral.

To put into perspective the social power of the Twilight fanfic community, consider this: There was a fandom-run charity auction to benefit pediatric cancer research. These auctions, held annually, lasted 1 week. That's it. Just 7 days. Mostly authors would auction off stories. So if you donated in my name, I'd write you 10,000 words of porn in my Tattward universe, or something new, etc. That's how it worked.

The 2009 auction raised $80,000.
The 2010 auction raised $140,000.
The 2011 auction raised $20,00.

This charity has raised more than $230,000 in 3 weeks. Erika participated in the 2010 auction. A story from her fanfic (FSOG) raised $30,000 of that, all by itself. In some chats made public by another author (that's some quality drama: [1]), Erika freely admits to not wanting to participate in the charity at all, but felt pressured to do so by her readers. (Fun fact: a signed copy of Eclipse only went for like $100. Twilight fandom; where no fans of Twilight go!) (Edit: Another fun fact! Erika's going to publish that story she wrote for the charity auction, for profit.)

But now, with the ability to connect the social power of the community with a monetary sum of her story's worth, Erika shortly thereafter decided to publish.

She then leveraged the community's sense of nostalgia and loyalty, urging everyone to buy the book and give it good ratings, so as to see 'one of their own succeed in the publishing world'. There were multiple campaigns from her friends (tens of thousands of what she only saw herself as 'fans') to blast her Amazon page and send the book up the ranks. It of course worked.

Once a (genre fiction) book gets to #1 on Amazon's bestseller list, you're done. Mission accomplished. Book and movie deals to follow. Enjoy your money.

Erika never looked back. She actually has blocked every single person I still know from fandom on her twitter account. She used the community to get her book (most ideas created by the community itself) to #1 then essentially shut the door on them all.

Pretty brilliant, really.

But then, that's why she's not putting out any new content, and why she probably never will. She is likely incapable of producing fiction without the use of existing characters and a collaborative community. Erika Leonard is not a creator, she is a marketer.

There's also a great reason why the 2011 charity auction made so much less money. Because after everyone saw Erika publish FSOG and make bank, they all wanted to do the same. Not really many popular stories left to leverage social currency--it's all going into their pockets. Most of those really popular fics (including the two mentioned here [The Submissive and Clipped Wings]) have since been published and done quite well. [EDIT: holy shit, 2 gold?!] -- comment by hurricangst

Some Comments to the Post at the Reddit Site

Wow, that is some grade A wank. I've never been in Twilight fandom, but it reminds me of some of the stuff that went down with Cassie Clare and her gang in the HP fandom back in the day. A lot of them ended up getting publishing deals and making bank, but they burned so many bridges on the way that I know people to this day who'd throw them an anchor if they were drowning. -- comment by ClimateMom, September 2014

Yes, the CC wank is a really great parallel! Minus the plagiarism, plus some charity!wank. I do think CC was in HP fandom longer, and contributed a great deal more to it, than EL James did in Twilight. All she's ever written are 2 fics. Her other one was a big fat flop, so she's pretty much devoted the last 5 years of her life to this one single story. Which is funny only because it's changed exactly none. -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

Oh, nostalgia! I remember the days of my twitter feed being split in two by people who were adamant in that we support SqIcedragon/Erika and people who wanted her to die in a ditch somewhere. I recall the drama around AngstGoddess/Sam's big reveal of their private chats. Even remember when she went and said she was never gonna P2P... -- comment by ForgetDaDamnPassword, September 2014

At the time I didn't think I'd want to leave [Twilight fandom] because it was just so consuming. Mostly just the drama, really. I'd already stopped reading and writing for like a whole year before I finally left,but everything was so ridiculous you couldn't look away. Remember Clipped Wings & Inked Armor? And how they made a 'trailer' for it, even though it'd already been finished for like forever? And then they made a teaser for the trailer? Just stuff like that. It was gold. Remember that FSOG fan song, "love comes in little spurts"? Oh god. How is that not plastered all over Reddit? It's the best, dumbest, most earnest thing in the world. -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

Seriously, Twilight fandom got really crazy big for a few years there. It was not totally uncommon to get multi-million clicks on a semi-popular story. It's weird looking back on it and calling it "Twilight fandom" because it was really more like "Romance Novel fandom". For real, for a period there, calling a Twilight fanfic author a 'Twilight fan' would be the ultimate insult. But they never stopped writing about Edward and Bella! It's so weird.

I can't fathom just up and buying a book just because it appears on a list.

It's not so much that people will automatically buy a #1 (I'm sure some would), but getting to #1 gets a book a ton of media recognition. It's like the biggest marketing tool ever, all for free. If you have gimmick (like it being erotica, or self-published), it adds some human interest to it, gives it a compelling narrative other than, "This thing is popular!" Now, it's, "Erotica is getting popular, look at this!"

And erotica is really... lowered reader standards. It's like when most people go looking for porn. No one cares that the acting is shit, we just want to get off. -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

Actually, the [Twilight] fandom's pretty much dead now compared to how it used to be. After FSOG's success and everyone started publishing their own fanfic, stories would only stay online for as long as it took the author to complete them, then they'd take them away (sometimes they'd even post half and ask people to buy the book to get the ending), so people were either wary of reading new stories, or just didn't have any old ones around to read. Then you also get authors who come to the fandom and post their original novels, with the names changed to Edward and Bella, get a bunch of reviews and recognition, then publish it for pay.

Also, Twilight fandom now has multiple micro-publishers. Basically sites that used to archive fanfic now also publish 'books'. What they do is keep an eye on what stories get popular on their archives, then go to the author and offer to publish it for them. They slap a shitty cover on it, do minimal editing (change the identifiable Twilight names) and then take a significant portion of the profits.

The whole community is one giant scam these days. -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

I think it's hard for people with no experience in a fanfic community to sympathize because from all outward appearances, she wrote the story and it makes sense to want to get paid for it. Good on her! Except it's a lot more nuanced than that. What she's done isn't technically illegal (at least Meyer hasn't seen reason to pursue any action, and there's very little precedence), but it's ethically shitty and it's really difficult to explain why because of the creative/collaborative stuff, but also because it requires some kind of affection for the community to really understand. Finding someone not within the Twilight fanfic community who has any affection for it... well, you're hard pressed. Not only do people not a give shit (can't blame them), but everyone also really hates Twilight. They think, "Oh she's capitalizing off of the shittiest book ever haha, great!" But she's not. She's capitalizing on a group of people who have no leverage, legal or otherwise, to defend their creative property. People are basically forced to publish their works to gain any security, and even then, if they don't get epic huge, they probably won't have the means to support a legal battle.

It's already spread to other fan communities. I think eventually there will be no space for people to safely exercise their writing skills and fan creativity alongside their peers.

In fact, that you mention Vampire Diaries is particularly interesting, as the right holders have allowed its inclusion into Amazon Worlds, which is a feature where people can legally sell their fanfic. If Amazon Worlds took off (it won't because it's too prohibitory, but that's another essay!) then right holders everywhere would have literally no reason to allow the existence of unauthorized fanfiction, as they'd then have a pathway with which they could also profit from it. -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

...other fandoms/communities were openly quite shitty toward all Twilight fans--and I do think played a part in our insistence to remain within the insular safety of our own space.

But mostly? I don't really think that had much to do with it, ultimately. No one really seemed to care about being fannish for other things. Twilight fandom was an enormous energy suck. It probably sounds a bit dramatic, but no lie, being in that fandom for a lot of people was like a career. Authors were doing branding and marketing long before people began publishing their fic for real profit. Before real profit, there was social profit.

Take tby789 for example, author of The Office (now available in stores!). In an essay she wrote about her time in fandom, she describes bringing on a reader as her "Director of Marketing":

Interviewer: My students talked a lot about the marketing of fic in the Twilight fandom—how much of :it seemed commercial, like branding, even though there was no money changing hands. How did that :come about?
tby789: We definitely had an “Office” “brand.” And the visuals were a big part of the package. I :didn’t want garish; I wanted everything in black-and-white images. Classy smut. We used to joke :that it needs to look like money. And they did. There were avis, blinkies, banners, videos, and I liked them to have a look. But it wasn’t just the visuals; we wanted readers to feel like they were a part of something. So we started calling readers “interns” and giving them titles (usually Moi [Director of Marketing], whose title was “research and development,” handled this part). As the author, I was CEO...

There was no time or creative energy left to get immersed in anything else. This wasn't even just an author thing. There were Big Name Authors (BNAs) but there were also Big Name Readers. These were basically like... full-time rabid fans of a BNA. They devoted so much of their time to helping out the BNAs, reviewing their chapters, making them fanart, promoting their fics, kissing their asses with cringe-worthy intensity, you name it. Which is why you saw what looked like BNAs having 'employees', such as Moi, tby789's Director of Marketing. EL James had tons of Big Name Readers who were consistently at her beck and call, which is why these authors were able to raise so much money for charity and later, themselves.

(Make no mistake about it, even though the charity auctions sound really quaint and generous, it was just one big popularity pissing contest. Every BNA wanted to raise the most to validate their position in the social hierarchy. It got so ugly and out of hand that the auction organizers nearly threw in the towel for the 2011 auction, it grew into such a spectacle of diva'ness, and the Big Name Readers, who were rallying the troops for their BNAs, were usually the ones at fault.) The whole thing was just fucking ridiculous, it's really no surprise the whole thing turned commercial with the kind of attitude a lot of people had about it. I think that's what made Twilight unique to other fandoms. It was all taken Very Seriously™, because it was no longer Twilight fandom (no one liked that anymore), it was our fandom. Probably a lot of us couldn't understand a fandom where people did this fanfiction thing casually and were able to put it away at a moment's whim to play with something else.

(And hey, thanks for the encouragement! Usually when I try to talk about this stuff no fucks are given. I was invited to participate in a book about the subject, but declined due to the fact I found the organizer to be a biased dick.) -- comment by hurricangst, September 2014

Speaking from the perspective of somebody involved in other fandoms around the time the Twilight fandom was taking off, we used to call it a "feral" fandom because it had a very high percentage of people who had never been involved in fandom before and weren't involved in any other fandoms. (Including both young teens joining their first fandom and young and middle-aged women who'd simply never been aware of fannish culture before, or if they were, associated it with the stereotypical male geek studying Klingon in his parents' basement.) Many of them didn't even necessarily seem aware that there was this long-standing and well-developed female fannish culture, so to some extent they kind of had to reinvent the wheel, as it were. Some reinvented it better than others - there was some shockingly bad behavior at the first Comic Con after the film was cast that gave Twifans a pretty bad reputation in the rest of fandom for awhile. I'm sure we were being unfairly judgmental over the actions of a few bad eggs, but in combination with the poor opinion most of us had of the books, I think a lot of us ended up wary at best, outright hostile at worst. Adding even further to the divide, most of the other popular fandoms were very slash-focused, while Twilight's most popular ships were het, and there was a perception (whether accurate or not, I don't know) that Twifandom had a lot of homophobia due to its association with Mormons. -- comment by ClimateMom, September 2014

...Wow. I knew Erika was bad, but that scheme would have to be one of the most moustache-twirlingly evil things that's happened in the history of fandom. -- comment by Toyhammer98, September 2014

I read more of your post than I ever did of Twilight or 50 Shade of Gray, and, honestly, it took me until the last paragraph to figure out who this "Erika" was and why she was so damn important to you. Still, you make a nice point. It's funny to think that someone sucked the lifeblood of a vampire community only to realize they were human all along. Is this what irony feels like? -- comment by ForeignMaterials, September 2014

This makes the Diamond Club FSOG parody even more hilarious, considering both are just repackaging content written by others. -- comment by RexStardust, September 2014

As a reader of both of those fanfic writers before any of the drama and from a strictly readers point of view AG could write circles around all of em. Love her writing and sometimes I go back as re-read her last story to the very last chapter hoping that maybe one day a new one will appear. After reading all this, I'm certain it most likely will never happen. So sad. -- comment by Gmorktheharbringer, September 2014