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Like Hollywood, publishing is struggling to keep up with the popularity of digital access to content. Is publishing's embrace of fan fiction elevating a digital art form or, like Hollywood, banking on trends and built-in audiences?

When best-selling Kindle author Hugh Howey started writing books, he wasn’t out make millions or write the Great American Novel — he was just a sci-fi fan.

“My first book was basically a rip-off of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ ” Howey said. "No musician learns an instrument and plays original music right away. You don’t discover your voice the first day, you paint still lives."

Howey’s career took off after his 2011 Kindle self-published book “Wool” was picked up and distributed by Simon and Schuster for six figures. But Howey is also a well-known champion for the genre that gave him the writing bug: Fan fiction.

Fan fiction is fiction written by fans of established franchises — like Harry Potter or Star Trek— that uses characters, settings or plotlines of established fiction franchises.

For example, fans of Star Wars who visit fanfiction.net find stories that follow Obi-Wan Kenobi on Jedi rescue missions, or stories that completely reimagine the movie series without the existence of Darth Vader. Others introduce completely new characters while only borrowing certain elements of Star Wars, like characters that fight with light sabers.

Traditional publishing houses once disregarded fan fiction, as the Daily Beast put it, as "an annoying copycat little brother."

But with the Internet, fan fiction has been given a new legitimacy publishers are eager to capitalize on amid tumbling revenue and advertising streams.

“Fan fiction has absolutely become part of the fiber of what we publish,” Gallery Books vice president Jennifer Bergstrom told the Washington Post last fall. “This is changing at a time when traditional publishing needs it most.”

Many fan fiction authors and presses that publish fan fiction worry that publishing’s new fascination with fan fiction is about quantity vs. quality, much like Hollywood’s preoccupation with sequels and adapted vs. original screenplays.

"Publishing is certainly desperate and afraid these days, looking for proven commodities,” said Morgan Leigh Davies, editor-in-chief of fan fiction publisher Big Bang Press. “So if (fan fiction website) Wattpad says 1 million people liked this, it must have some appeal! So we'll publish it."

Safe bet

Much of the traditional publishing industry’s actions surrounding fan fiction mirror Hollywood’s approach to box office success: Find popular content, make a hit book or film, and repeat, either with sequels or similar content.

Case in point: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Originally written as online “Twilight” fan fiction, "Shades" author EL James said the concept for her book grew out of a love of "Twilight" and mimicked key plotlines, character personality and actions without casting the "Twilight" characters explicitly.

James made enough changes in her original writing and in pre-publication editing for publishers to consider "Fifty Shades" an original work, but with enough elements from "Twilight" to engage the "Twilight" audience. In both stories, awkward young women get wrapped up in dangerous worlds they cannot control because of the men they love. They have similar friendships, visit similar places, take similar actions and their stories have similar outcomes.

Random House's attempt to appeal to "Twilight" fans with a similar story in "Shades" paid off — the trilogy's publication bumped Random House's overall sales profits by 75 percent in 2012.

In many ways, Random House’s decision to publish “Fifty Shades” was a safe bet. Because most fan fiction today is born online, the Internet offers big publishers a way to gauge a book or story’s popularity prior to publication.

“While many people cite ‘Fifty Shades’ as a huge breakthrough, what isn't discussed is that its initial publisher, The Writer's Coffee Shop, was an entity created from within fandom to commercially publish work of its own authors,” said Claudia Rebaza of the Organization for Transformative Works. “It was only after the book had already been a publishing success that Random House chose to pick it up.”

For the moment, publishers seem keen to ride the successful wave of “50 Shades." Simon and Schuster snapped up “After” — a fan fiction story whose main character is Harry Styles, lead singer of One Direction — for six figures last summer.

“Things come in fads, so whatever it is — vampires and werewolves are hot right now — publishers want more of that,” Howey said. “I think what’ll happen is, publishing will get to where Hollywood is now where everything is a sequel or an adaptation.”

Best of times

The popularity of erotic fan fiction like "Fifty Shades of Grey" leads to a stereotyping that isn’t good for the fan fiction genre, Davies said.

“Publishing fundamentally doesn't understand what fan fiction is or how the community works,” Davies said. “I think they tend to see the erotica element to the exclusion of everything else.”

Fan fiction is a much older and richer tradition than what the so-called “Fifty Shades effect” would have newcomers to fan fiction believe, Howey said.

“‘Fifty Shades’ put fan fiction on people’s radar, but it’s a gross simplification of what’s been going on,” Howey said. “(Publishers) keep commissioning more of what’s selling, but the reality is, readers want a constant flow of all kinds of books.”

For all the successes stories like “Fifty Shades” may bring the publishing world, Howey says the future of self-publishing and independent writers is bright.

“Just as there have been independent filmmakers enrich the film industry, there are and will be independent authors who experiment and write groundbreaking works,” Howey said. “There’s never been an easier time to write what you want to write.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson