A Eulogy for Fan-Fiction

This blog is what is known as a #longread. Take it in chunks if you have to. I promise I cut it down as much as I could.

1. Teenage Girls Start A Literary Movement.

Have you ever wished that your favorite characters from the last book you’d read had gone on a proper date? That the main characters of a “Monster Of The Week” tv show could have a relaxing week instead? Have you ever wanted to be dicked down sloppy style by a werewolf?

For over two decades, online fan fiction sites like and Ao3 have delivered on these promises. Every character and story has a fic. Your favorite fic has a Tumblr blog or two dedicated to its progress. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that these sites have defined the current generation of writers.

In 2010 a bored Lithuanian researcher conducted an incredibly professional and well-documented study of’s demographics. Surveying almost 100,000 accounts, the researcher (seemingly only known by their blog’s name "FNN Research") found that the site's users were overwhelmingly American teenage girls, age 13-17. So overwhelming was this demographic that over seventy-five percent of users fell into this exact age range, nationality, and gender distribution.

In a few short years what was once the domain of Star Trek nerds had become something to be derided and confined to Tumblr. After all, the internet always hates whatever women (and particularly teenage girls) are doing. This treatment continued for almost a decade. A decade in which the majority of Americans didn't engage with fanfiction or anything these teenage girls were doing online.

Which is a shame, because those teenage girls were incubating. Any creative worker, but particularly those who write and speak, will tell you that good feedback is the best gift in the world. An educated peer critiquing your work will help more than any series of drills. In the absence of peers, a mass will do. Feedback of a certain scale will be diagnosed and converted into data, even if the individual members of the collective are uneducated and unhelpful.

The teenage girls, the hundreds of thousands with accounts, got both. For that missing decade when the culture hated them, fan-fiction sites became incubators.

By 2020, a new generation of young writers had taken the genre-fiction market by storm: N.K. Jemisin(The City We Became), Emily Tesh(Silver in the Wood) Tamsyn Muir(Gideon the Ninth)1, Cassandra Clair(Mortal Instruments) and Claudia Grey(Evernight) to name just a few. Each was a devout and proud Fan-Fiction writer2.

Now those teenage girls were winning MacArthur Genius grants, transforming genres, and writing a lot of New York Times Bestsellers. By 2020, the pipeline was established and recognized as a revitalizing force for modern genre fiction. That's where I've chosen to start.

2. The Far Side Of The World.

Meanwhile, an industry was being captured. For reasons too lengthy to get into3, the concept of serial storytelling still thrives in East Asia. They have popular short story magazines, regularly published serials, and by the mid 2000’s web distribution for both.

“In China, the most popular novels can often last as long as 3 million characters. Writers publish about 3,000 to 8,000 words every day and sometimes feel the need to write more just to keep up with readers' appetites.”

It's impossible to emphasize enough how popular serials are in China. The Three Body Problem, was a magazine serial before it was the most famous science fiction book of its decade. Concurrent to the rise of AO3's writers in America, Chinese “Web Fiction” usually called “Web Novels” were read by an estimated 330 Million readers (2017).

Genres like “litRPG” and “Wuxia” dominate the market, but serious scifi and epic romance (the television adaptations of which have caught on with American viewers on Netflix) are also published online one chapter at a time. Readers will subscribe for less than 10RMB (roughly a dollar) per chapter. Any good Web Novel author publishes several chapters a day.

According to the tech journal Protocol4:

"In China, the most popular novels can often last as long as 3 million characters. Writers publish about 3,000 to 8,000 words every day and sometimes feel the need to write more just to keep up with readers' appetites.”

Any reader who has ever followed an ongoing fan-fic will recognize the appeal of this model. Online communities form on pages dedicated to a particular web novel. Feedback given by fans on a per-line basis is incorporated within hours of publication. Authors are accessible and responsive on social media like QQ, elaborating on their characters, world, and anything else they’re asked.


Readers will check their favorite ongoing stories on the way to work, refreshing the feed like a bored American might their Tumblr dash or Twitter feed. The chapters would be around 3,000 words if written in English. Long enough to contain multiple scenes but short enough to read on the train or during lunch. With the Pay-By-Chapter model writers will keep their novels going for millions of words, hundreds of thousands of chapters.

As with all things in China, this means scale. I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, but China is a big country. Like, really big. A lot of people live there. Resultantly, the web novel industry is valued at more than $10 Billion.

Which, as with all things China, means that Tencent got involved.

(Disclosure, I have worked for Tencent multiple times. It was in a different industry, but I did like the amount of money they paid me)

3. WeChat, you write.

Tencent, to get it out of the way, is The Chinese Megacorp. They own the equivalent of the App Store, Facebook, Whatsapp, Paypal, Twitter, and Google, most of which they’ve rolled into a single app called WeChat.

You’ll see their logo before video games (Their western arm is called “Level Infinite”), movies (including Wonder Woman, Venom, Terminator), and now fan-fiction.

In 2015 the two largest web novel platforms, “Qidan” and “Tencent Literature” Voltroned to form “China Literature.” The merger combined Shanda Cloudary’s industry dominating reading platform “Qidan” with Tencent’s unparalleled 1.2 Billion user social media ecosystem.

The new company claimed 229 Million monthly active users in 2020, an overwhelming majority of the market. In 2019, the Chinese research firm BigData Research claimed that 25% of all online reading traffic was owned by China Literature. The company earned $31.9 million a year at that point.

South China Morning Post talked to a writer named Linhai Tingtao5, whose sports drama "We Are the Champions" had been read by 10 million users. The Beijing Municipal government claimed6 in 2017 that the industry was growing by 20% every year.

In 2020, China Literature filed for an IPO in Hong Kong, a step which would allow the company to expand beyond the Chinese market. In its paperwork, China Literature claimed earnings of $384 Million annually. Their IPO compared the platform's growth to Amazon’s Kindle store (which is questionable, you could spin those numbers either way).

Listed internationally, the company began to chase overseas readers. These overseas fans had been translating web novels for years, but now there was money in it.

China Literature’s international platform (called simply WebNovel) pays translators to adapt their most successful Chinese works to English. Then WebNovel offered Quidan style revenue sharing to English language authors writing original work.

By 2021 the Chinese firm iResearch[^ir] found that there were 145 million international readers of Chinese web novels. To borrow a phrase from Protocol7 claims that would make it “China's most successful 21-century cultural export.”

4. Watt are you going to do about it?

In 2011 (four years before the birth of China Literature), Hong Kong born Canadian Allen Lau and his business partner Ivan Yuen were celebrating. After years of disappointing readership and slow growth, their bet was paying off. Lau and Yuen had launched Wattpad in 2006 and spent years self-funding an incomplete but burgeoning web novel platform.

At a time when it seemed suicidal they’d made the decision to focus almost exclusively on the mobile reading and writing experience. Wattpad had spent years with only a few thousand users. Now their app had exploded. With 9 Million app downloads, their pitch deck had suddenly connected with investors to the tune of almost $60 Million dollars.

The company began challenging the grassroots and far less featured competition. Wattpad grew out it’s staff.. In 2011, a Netflix film based on a WattPad story "The Kissing Booth" was a smash hit. Like Ao3 before it, hit fan-fiction was being re-skinned, published and adapted.

But WattPad has greater ambitions. The company has begun a full throated push to convert fan-fiction writers into original web novel writers. With a combination of cash prize contests, Qidan's exact monetization features, and a growing publishing arm, it’s clear Wattpad has entered a race with WebNovel. To WattPad the mission seems simple. Convert western fan-fiction into a web novel industry before WebNovel and China Literature conquer the overseas market.

In America and the west, Wattpad has a sizable head start. Webnovel is approaching from the east, sweeping through South East Asia towards Europe. As for Tencent and China Literature? They win either way.

In 2017, Tencent took a sizable share of Wattpad as part of a 51milliondollarfundinground.ThislatesttourhaddoubledtheCanadiancompanyswarchest,pushingtheirtotalraiseupto117 million investor dollars. That second round accounted for almost half of the company's fundraising.

To WattPad the mission seems simple. Convert western fan-fiction into a web novel industry before WebNovel and China Literature conquer the overseas market.

(I’m not a subject expert on Wattpad. I relied heavily on the work done by in 2012)8

5. Das Capital of Damocles.

So here’s my question, the one that prompted all 1,500 words before: What does it mean that fan fiction is no longer a hobby?

Of course, it still is. I’m catastrophizing. So long as there are quirky blorbos in tv shows, Tumblr users will write about them fucking. What’s true is that the online ecosystem responsible for the current generation of refreshingly anarchistic fiction has been replaced.

Where Ao3 used to stand alone there are now competing ecosystems offering real monetization for specific kinds of fiction.



The future which is coming for us is not the same environment that produced N.K. Jemisin and Claudia Grey.

Tamsyn Muir, whose work I adore, was recently dragged over the twitter coals for the content of her teenage fan-fiction. In an environment where so called "Popcorn Fiction" was pushed, dominating the front page of whatever app ends up winning the west, would she have written edgy and controversial fan-fiction?

Without those risks, could she have developed her unique and astonishing writing style (it feels a bit like being hit on the head with a brick. In a good way).

N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is one of my favorite books, partially because of its surreal and unabashedly political dissection of modern life.

While I have no doubt that Jemisin would be a fantastic writer in any world, Chinese web novels are not political. They are playing broad, trying to capture as many $1 a chapter readers as possible. What would it mean if Jemisin had come up in that environment? What would her work be if a teenage N.K. Jemisin had been encouraged to capture readers and revenue share?

What do we lose if fan-fiction becomes web novels?

6. I don’t know.

I’d love to say I did. I’m generally opposed to western hand-wringing about Asian "cultural invasion". Most of the hysteria about TikTok is blatantly Sinophobic. Temu isn’t going to change the world, just the quality of your t-shirts. To borrow a concern of the Chinese Government9, K-pop isn’t going to feminize our young men (unfortunately).

But there’s big money in the web novel game. Just like Ao3 and Tumblr captured a generation before it, Wattpad will own the writers growing up on it now. Unlike those previous generations it will reward specific behaviors with cold hard cash.

We must examine this future. Watch for the creep of capitalism in our fan-fiction. If there’s one thing I’d ask of any reader who’s made it this far (aside from putting your email in the box at the bottom of this page, so I can send you future blogs) it’s to visit

Read the top web novels. The translated ones. The western originals. Ask yourself what the fiction is motivated by, and what would rise to the top of the platform. A platform with the same incentive structure and the entire writership of American youth.

In the words of Filmmaker, Writer, and Icon, Werner Herzog: “We must see what is coming at us. The poet must not avert his eyes.”

Werner is my blorbo


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Not really a footnote:

Some of the topics included brought up the excellent essay who's afraid of amber heard by Rayne Fisher-Quann.

Give me your email, I'll mail you blogs like this.


[^ir]:iResearch's paper. You'll have to translate that one, or know Chinese.

  1. Muir gave an incredible interview (Read it here) about her time as a fan-fiction writer, including a classic Muir-goes-hard-as-hell turn of phrase "there's a lot of blood on my dance floor". .

  2. In any fic writer’s wildest fantasy, Andy Weir(The Martian) wrote a Ready Player One fan-fic on his blog which author Earnest Cline enjoyed so much he canonized and included it in a later paperback edition of the book.

  3. This is a really fun topic though. Maybe another time.

  4. Heavily referencedfor stats and exact dates in this piece. Read Zeyi Yang's more focused market analysis .

  5. SCMP on the China Literature merger. Well worth a read.

  6. link to the people's website.

  7. A second plug for Zeyi Yang's work.

  8. Great interview with Wattpad's founders. Interviewer not listed, which is a shame.

  9. The CCP has declared war on twinks.

#Ao3 #BibbitBlog #Fan-Fiction #Industry #N.K. Jemisin #Publishing #Technology #The City We Became #Tumblr #Wattpad #Web Novel #Writing