Sunday, May 10, 2009

How far can fan fiction publishing go?

Someone asked recently, one of the authors actually, about the possibility of getting one of the eBooks that we published as part of the 2008 Twelve Trek Days of Christmas, printed as a hardcopy printed book. I must admit I would love to see something with my name on the cover on my bookshelf! A vanity? Perhaps. Who is without it? But there is also the sense of accomplishment and empowerment that is to be gained from creating something that you can be proud of.

The simple answer is, yes, you can do it as a home publishing job, no problems. You can download a copy as a pdf from the Issuu Website - there's a link to it on the Twelve Days webpage which will take you to a page like this one - where you choose 'Download'. Please note though, you will need membership of Issuu to use the download facility. The pages are designed to be printed on folio A4 or US Letter paper (ie printed in landscape and folded in half vertically) without any adjustments so that you can print them as a 12 page "booklet", sew them and bind them.

No, I'm serious, it can be done by amateurs! It's not easy, probably on a par with skilled woodwork or needlework, but it can be done.

But could I get it professionally printed, I hear you say.

Well, before I go on we need to be perfectly clear here, we are NOT talking about printing for commercial purposes. I know, you're groaning, you've heard it a thousand times, well one more time won't kill you! ;) We don't own the concept of Star Trek, the universe, any of the canon characters or races, in fact fan fiction authors can lay claim only to the characters, plots and concepts they create ourselves. This means you can't sell your fan fiction, in fact you can't even legally give it away ... if you follow the letter of the law rather than it's intent.

It would be easy to get bogged down in debate about the legal and ethical fine points of copyright but the status quo with regards to Star Trek fan productions is that CBS / Paramount are actually pretty enlightened. Basically it boils down to "if you don't divert any money away from the copyright owners, we won't exercise our rights under law". In a way it is like a 'Mexican stand-off' where both sides, fans and studio, stand to potentially lose everything if one or the other pulls the trigger!

So back to the subject on hand: could (or should) a fan fiction writer or one of their fans be able to have a copy of one of their books printed by a professional printer?

Theoretically, there's no reason why you can't take the downloaded pdf file of one of those eBooks to a "Print-On-Demand" (POD) printer who could use it without any further work to make a hardback book, since I folio A4/US Letter is a common paper size for hardback novels. They'd even have a front and back cover!

Current policy though for most POD printers, for example Lulu which is arguably the highest profile POD outfit on the internet, won't print fan fiction because they say that we don't own the copyright. Well, give 'em an award for stating the bleedin' obvious! Every fan production, not just fan fiction, has some permutation of the standard rider saying, "we don't own it, we're just playing with it!"

I believe that for the publisher the copyright could be a moot point.

What has been copyrighted and protected by CBS / Paramount though? The book? The words on the page? Those funny-looking squiggly things that, in our heads, we turn into the author's words? What if I turned it into an audio book? That's not a book, its not even printed! Or a serial in a fanzine? These are just different media, if I took someone else's work and published it in another media of course I would be stealing it!

What is protected by copyright is the fictional Star Trek universe that CBS/Paramount owns ... and Pocket Books licenses. To my way of thinking the media is of secondary importance.

What are we asking the printer to do? Sell us a book? No, we are providing them with a computer file to print and bind for our own private purposes, we are not giving them the file to print out for anyone else. They do not own the intellectual property of the story in the book, even we as the author only lay claim to our own creations in it, the rest belongs to Paramount! All they are doing is providing us with a service - to print and bind the file.

If you were asking the printer to do 2000 copies, so that it was obvious that you were planning on selling them, then they'd have a duty of care to not only NOT do the job but to warn the copyright owner. However if you are asking him to print a single copy (or up to a dozen if you were rich enough and wanted to give them away) then obviously you are not trying to make a profit, nor could the numbers be deemed in any way to be commercial quantities.

In these terms I believe it would be virtually impossible to show that there was any diversion of money from Paramount. Has Pocket Books lost the potential sale of that book to the person who is having it printed? No, because the fan fiction author would never get it printed by S&S in a pink fit! Have they lost the potential sale of a comparable book to that person? I doubt it. Either they are a fan of the Pocket Books offerings or they are not. On the one hand a fanfic author might be a massive consumer of Trek books to learn from the professionals. On the other hand - and I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings to S&S - many fan fic authors write their own books precisely because they are dissatisfied with the professional offerings and their chances of a sale to them are slim at the best of times.

What's the difference between us providing an eBook for a fan to read or providing them with a file that they could turn into a book if they prefer hard-copy? I think the difference is one of perception. The book is a very visible and well-known icon of the publishing industry - to create one's own books is to set oneself up against a commercial giant and, perhaps more importantly in these hard economic times, a major employer.

Where the media is of objective importance is in the profit margin that could be lost by the copyright owner or licensee. The difference in profit between a hardback or paperback book and an eBook downloaded over the internet is massive! The profit margin for an eBook is actually larger because there are no printing, transport, storage, distribution and retail costs at all!

If the printers and publishers wanted to truly make more money they should embrace fan fiction rather than marginalising it! A printer who does a single copy of a fan fiction novel for personal use is making a profit on the printing NOT the story. They are selling us a service NOT a product. Refusing to do so will not put one penny more into the pocket of the copyright or license owner.

If Pocket Books are serious about wanting to make a profit from their Star Trek license, they could start by releasing all their catalogue of classic Trek novels as eBooks at zero cost to themselves for printing, distribution and warehousing and, after a minuscule management cost realise a profit from their massive back-catalogue that is currently being wasted!

I'd be interested in others thoughts on this. Should authors be able to have copies printed for their own use by professional printers, bearing in mind that this would represent no discernible loss of revenue for the copyright owner or their licensee? Or could this be seen as a dangerous precedent that the unscrupulous might take advantage of? Perhaps it is best for the fan fiction community and those such as myself who are trying to distribute it to fans in a handsome format/media to err on the side of safety bearing in mind the aggressiveness of corporate lawyers?


HED said...

Great article.
I had the project of using Lulu's POD services to create hardback copies of my fanfiction anthology. My goal was to give away the book as a gift for my family.

But I just found out in the FAQ that fanfiction is prohibited on I just couldn't believe it ! This is how I found your article.

As you say in your post, authors should be able to use POD to make personal, non commercial, copies for their work.

I didn't see such harsh policies for the t-shirt printing serices, for example. People are uploading their custom star wars / linux / mickey mouse designs and ordering their t-shirt. What's the difference with printing fan-fiction for personal use ?

Ooo i'm a little upset now. I'm going to give a look to your "do it yourself bookbinding" link :)

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you on this point. I find it strange that we as Fan-Fiction writers are denied our right to put our "final touches" on something we have worked hard on. My fan-fiction is almost 100 pages on a 8.5 x 11 paper. If I was to put this together, it would look aweful. I want to bind it for my own purpose (and to give to the family and friends who have supported me). Honestly, I think creating a fan fiction should mean something special.

What it should mean is that we care so much about the topic - we want to write our own. Literacy! Imagination! Isn't that what writing is all about - to inspire.

There should be an extra section on that is just for fan-fiction. The person would be limited to a certain amount of copies, etc.

Overall, why are the authors of Fan-Fictions being scrutinized by the money hungry marketers.

Kirok of LStok said...

That's an interesting point. fan fiction is a very personal thing and, no matter what anyone else thinks, it has a special place in your life. All you are asking for is to give your hand-crafted story a real-world home on your bookshelf.

Look at it this way, if CBS/Paramount don't let you publish your fanfic will it make you to buy any commercially available books? I doubt if it will bring them one extra cent.