In the current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, my friend Nele Noppe has a piece on Why we should talk about commodifying fan work. In her article, Noppe reviews much current English-language scholarship that considers the possibility of some kind of legal and legitimate “hybrid” fannish economy emerging, and concludes that, while such an economy may very well emerge at some point, for a variety of reasons, it’s not here yet. In particular, Noppe notes that
A final reason why a viable hybrid economy for fan work is unlikely to emerge soon is that many of the fans who would power it may not be prepared to imagine the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of such a system. Up to now, fans and fan scholars have rarely even speculated about the potential inherent in linking fan work to commodity culture. … The most important question here is not whether fans will at some point be given the option to commodify and monetize their works, but how the fan community in general will deal with new modes of fannish production emerging alongside the traditional gift economy.
It strikes me, however, that the issue here may not be a question of waiting for new modes of fannish production to emerge, but of recognizing the fact that, in many cases, they already have emerged.
Noppe mentions the example of the Japanese dôjinshi market several times in her piece, quite sensibly in light of the fact that the fannish/”amateur” dôjin production sphere is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a hybrid economy. In Japan, fan-created comic books and, in recent years, animation, video games, and other forms of media have not only been wildly successful in the semi-sequestered fannish economy, but have been picked up by professional companies for further production and wider distribution, going on to launch their creators into fully professional careers and spawning mega-hit transmedia franchises that have defined whole eras in the Japanese contents industry. Moreover, despite a lack of explicitly permissive laws, the line between professional and “amateur” or fannish production in Japanese media is often quite fuzzy: professional creators routinely sell fan works of their own professional media creations, or even actual professionally produced elements of their creation such as production stills, at dôjin (“like-minded”) markets, the largest of which is Comiket in Tokyo.
Although the Japanese contents industry undoubtedly possesses the most highly developed “hybrid” economy in the Laurence Lessig-derived sense that Noppe discusses, there are ample signs that the English-language contents industry is already starting to develop in a similar direction, particularly in the world of book publishing. Multiple professional authors working today in YA and SFF avowedly came out of fandom, whether putting their fan fiction-honed writing skills to work on wholly original works or “filing off the serial numbers” and selling works that were originally fannish as entirely “original” novels and stories. Moreover, while it seems that formerly professional authors were reluctant to discuss their roots in fan fiction, more and more authors (not coincidentally, overwhelmingly female) are not only willing to own their fannish roots, but to “cross streams” and jump back into fandom for exchanges such as Yuletide, among other forms of fannish activity.
At the same time, the rise of ebooks and of high-quality self-publishing operations such as Lulu have made it easier than ever for fans to make their content, whether original or fannish or a hybrid of the two (never, as the above discussion should make clear, very clearly separated in the first place), available to others for free, at cost, or for profit with very little extra effort. These developments are transforming not only fandom, but also the contents industry, leading not only to reactionary legislative efforts such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. Congress but also to true innovation in both the fannish and professional contents spheres, some of which Henry Jenkins has discussed in his continuing investigations of professional transmedia storytelling.
So, where is all this going? As a historian, I am professionally allergic to predicting the future, but inasmuch as these developments are happening right now, it seems clear that some kind of rapprochement is in order, not only between fannish and professional content creators, but also between fans and themselves. English-language fandom has historically been highly leery of anything that seems to violate the spirit of the “fannish gift economy,” and with good reason; the non-commercial principles by which fandom has operated are one of the things that set it apart from the mainstream of global cultural economies. But the twenty-first century, for good and for ill, is not the twentieth, and it seems clear that fandom is already in the process of evolving into a different configuration vis-a-vis professionalization and the contents industry. The sooner we recognize that it’s happening, the sooner we can begin to think about and consciously decide how we want to do fandom, and be fans, in light of that fact.