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Fandom Matters

Original published @ Guardian Books

One of the notable features of science fiction and fantasy fandom is that it exists around five to 10 years ahead of the curve when it comes to information technology. The 50% of the early world wide web that wasn’t porn was made up of Star Trek: The Next Generation fansites; with every new territory opened up by technology, be it blogs, social networks or ebooks, SF fans have been among the early colonists. This is partly because SF and fantasy is part of the genetic code of most tech geeks. But it’s also because SF fandom is a tight-knit community, and from the earliest days of print fanzines onwards it has recognised new ways to build the strength of that community.

SF and fantasy writers understand that community, or they pay with their careers. Frankly, trying to become a SF author without an intimate understanding of SF fandom is like trying to become a Catholic priest without talking to the Vatican. For most SF and fantasy writers this understanding is innate; they’ve been fans from birth, and the web of conventions, societies, publishers and online communities that make up the architecture of fandom have likely been their safe haven from the annoyingly ungeeky “mainstream” for much of their life. Even the authors who appear to criticise or reject fandom, such as Harlan Ellison, do so with the studied skills of the expert insider.

So the success of a novel such as Fifty Shades of Grey is far less surprising to anyone who understands the dynamics of fandom than to the mainstream publishing industry. When James Bridle pointed to the book as evidence of fan-fiction as a rich seam for publishers, he managed to come amusingly close to the point while missing it altogether. That it was fan-fiction based in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightverse is beside the point. That it was chosen by fans and made successful through their support is far more significant. Because what fans want above all else – what in fact defines the very essence of fandom – is ownership of that which we adore.

It is the emerging culture of fandom, empowered by the internet andsocial media, that explains the phenomenal success of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter. The platform’s most high profile success stories – The Order of the Stick’s $1m fundraiser, for example – tell only a part of the story. More informative perhaps is author Chuck Wendig,who raised just under $7,000 for the latest instalment in his Atlanta Burns series through crowdfunding. Wendig isn’t a superstar (yet) and doesn’t have a huge established readership (also yet). But what he has gained is the warm regard of a fandom through his Terribleminds blog. Every fan who buys a piece of Wendig gets to feel a real sense of ownership, far more than if they had just walked into a shop and paid for the book itself. In a very real sense Kickstarter makes fans as important as creators, because it is the fans who directly empower the artist to make the art.

But the demands of fandom are far from the lofty expectations of many who seek artistic fame and fortune. As musician Amanda Palmer relates to Techdirt, the people who are contributing to her Kickstarter, whichstands at $577,010 with 24 days to go at the time of writing, are giving because they know her. Twitter is the platform that has allowed her as an artist to develop a personal rapport with tens of thousands of people, on top of a relentless tour schedule. Palmer spends hours every day sharing her life on Twitter, and when it came time to support an artist they felt a personal bond with, her fandom have come through with more solid financial support that most artists will ever receive from a record label or book publisher. In Palmer’s own words, we are entering the age of the social artist.

Any writer working today who can’t answer the question, “What fandom am I writing for?” may as well pack up their pens and paper and settle into that call centre job. It doesn’t have to be SF fandom. In fact, preferably not, as we’re already swamped with refugee literary writers desperately trying to make out they’ve always been geeks at heart. In this age, fandom’s are the only true arbiters of taste. The publishers that survive will be the ones that understand that their role is to amplify the signal of those artists already chosen by fandom. The writers who succeed will be the ones who are there day in and day out, as much a part of fandom as any other fan, and on first name terms with the neighbours. Because if you aren’t willing to live on the ground as one of the fans, why should you expect them to hoist you on their shoulders for your shot at reaching the stars?

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