So, I started this post a few months ago when Amazon announced their Kindle Worlds experiment and never finished it. But I was reading yesterday's crowdfund post and people were disparaging fanfic writers in the comments and that just ticks me off to no end (for most of the same reasons FF Friday did). All of it is based on misconceptions, so this post is meant to address some of that. Fans certainly don't deserve any hate for fanfiction, it's hobby like any other. Actually, they deserve acknowledgement because they're doing something I could not do, and certainly not well.
Amazon's big announcement from yesterday has lead to many discussions about fanfic, fandom, and how Kindle Worlds would fit into the current fandom culture. But mostly I've read a whole lot of comments and articles from people who don't quite seem to grasp what fanfic is all about, and who definitely hold more than a few misconceptions about it. So this post will try and clear up a few misconceptions.
Now, you can't talk about fanfic without talking about fandom, and for the purposes of this post I'll define fandom as that group of people who spend their free time interacting with the canon source in ways that aren't standard, i.e. more than just watching, reading or playing something deciding "hey, I kinda like that". It's fanfic writers, fanartists, cosplayers, readers of fanfiction, people who hang around the forums discussing all the details and so on.
What is fanfic? Like the concept of fandom it can mean a lot of different things, but at the basis it's a story written someone else's characters playing in someone else's universe, and written by someone who is interested in that universe and those characters. You can restrict this version to fans who write and publish it for free, or you can expand it to officially licensed novels. Hell, you can even call the BBC's Sherlock fanfic. It's that thing that happens when fans wonder "what if...?" or "what was going on in that character's head in those few seconds of silence?" You can read a much better explanation of it here.
Now, onto the misconceptions:
1. Fanfiction is not illegal.
While no one's taken it to court exactly, fanfics would most likely qualify under fair use for transformative works. The Organisation for Transformative Works (an organisation made by the fans in order to address such legal issues) has an informative FAQ. [ETA: Christopher Hapka makes an excellent point about why this isn't necessarily true in the comments]
Not all authors hate it, either. Neil Gaiman encourages people to write fanfic if they so wish. He's not the only one. There are authors who have expressed a dislike of fanfics (Like George RR Martin and Anne Rice), and fans usually try to respect that. And then there's that time MTV decided it was a good idea to hold an official Teen Wolf fanfic contest.
2. Most fanfic writers aren't interested in monetizing their fics.
Fandom and fic writing is a hobby for the fic writers. They do it because they enjoy writing, or because they enjoy exploring these characters or this universe. It's something most of them do besides their day job. That doesn't mean they don't take it seriously: there are beta-readers (editors), entire communities dedicated to getting the tiniest details right (and people to nitpick when you don't), places to debate how accurate a portrayal would be over another.
There are those fans who would like to publish original fiction, and to them fanfic writing is also a good exercise. It's harder to get someone else's characters right than your own original ones (if you don't thinks so, try it). There are fans who have made the jump, the most famous examples examples being Cassandra Clare and E. L. James (50 Shades of Grey - which may or may not be a good indicator the quality of fanfics - I'd say they aren't). They aren't the only ones. There's a writer of officially licensed Stargate Atlantis Novels that started out writing fanfic. And then there are Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
The value fans put on fanfic is not directly measurable by money, or standard view of value.
Writers are quite fond and protective of their fanfics. So are the readers.
Fandom has it's own sort of economy. It's mostly gift based - people write fic or create art for kudos, friends' birthdays, for charity or for keeping AO3 online. That's thousands of dollars raised for things fans think are important.
Attempting to monetize fanfiction is not a new concept. Others have tried it before them and it didn't turn out so well for them.
3. Fanfiction is not mostly porn.
Fanfiction.net - the biggest pan-fandom archive on the internet doesn not alow explicit fics (enforcement is not always so great, but in my experience it's 90% porn free). On Archive Of Our Own (AO3) - probably the second biggest pan-fandom archive out there, explicit fics are less than a quarter of the actual published fics (not counting any fics that contain sex but have been mis-rated by the author):
Source: AO3 official census, oct 2012
There is quite a lot of fanfic based around relationships in their many forms, most of them romantic, with a rather strong bias towards gay male relationships.
Source: AO3 stats by destinationtoast
In my experience fanfic it's much more varied and representative of other races, sexualities, kinks and so on than anything in the mainstream media (including sci-fi, fantasy and other genre media). There are also a lot more female writers than male writers, although still mostly white (source: Unofficial AO3 Census by centrumlumina). The previous two links include A LOT more information on the breakdown of fanfics by category and the demographics of fanfic writers.
4. Fanfiction is not all crap
Sturgeon's law applies of course, and there really a lot of fanfiction out there. There are fics out there that are just as good as canon, some are even better. Yes, better. It's hard to explain or to give hard fact for this because it's obviously subjective. But I've read excellent fics, from really short 5-things types to novel-length ones that want to the missing season an unexpectedly cancelled show could have had.
It's easy to point and laugh if you've never even tried reading a fic, let alone tried to write one. It is a time consuming hobby, and fanfic writers put a lot of effort in their fics, and then post for our enjoyment (and subject themselves to public scrutiny). I'm not saying fanfic writers are beyond criticism, but there is a difference between constructive feedback and unbridled criticism that only serves to make the writer feel bad or simply silence them. And I think creativity should always be encouraged.
Please keep in mind that the things in this post are mostly coming from my own (necessarily limited) experience in fandom. I am not one of the veterans of fandom in the definition I laid out above but I have been around long enough to get the hang of a few things. However that does not make me an authority on it, and I apologise if I've left anything (and anyone) out. I am however happy to answer any questions or misconceptions that may arise from this post.