Entertainment Weekly has declared January to be Fanuary with a whole month of content related to fans and fandom. As part of Fanuary, EW announced a fan fiction contest, open to all fandoms. The winner will have their work published in EW, both in their print magazine and on the website. This contest has already sparked some backlash from the fan community, with fans on Tumblr concerned about giving up ownership of their work to a major media company and the lack of understanding of what fanfic and fanart is from those outside fandom. Aja Romano has an excellent roundup of these concerns over on the Daily Dot.
EW is not the first company to run a fan fiction contest. In 2012, MTV ran a fan fiction contest for Teen Wolf fans. Writers could submit entries under 3,000 words, with the winner getting a trip to the Teen Wolf writer’s room and a meet and greet with Jeff Davis, the series creator and showrunner. This contest did not receive nearly the same kind of negative response that the EW contest has. Instead, MTV was lauded for “knowing what its fans want.”
Riana Elliott, the winner of the Teen Wolf fanfiction contest with her story “Side Effects”, says that she would have entered the contest if the prize was only publication of her work “simply because there was no other fandom she’d been a part of that had ever offered such a chance before.” Elliott notes that the creators of the show were very involved with fandom during the time period of the contest, and that interaction made the show special. “There are a lot of differences between the TW contest and this one,” she says. “To start, my work was always my own, although the contest did state they could use it for about a year after I won. EW seems to strip all authorship away. Second, the TW contest was about interaction between the fans—this one seems to just want to ‘cash in’ on the success of titles like 50 Shades of Grey, which has of course become the awful face of fan fiction as a whole.”
Winning the contest actually ruined the show and the fandom for Elliott. “When I had first won, I was ecstatic,” she says. “Then, as news hit, I was getting hundreds of messages. Most were encouraging, but there was the occasional death threat and smear. Then there was the digs at my writing itself, claiming I had nothing to offer and was chosen because I was a ‘safe bet’ (that is to say, the fanfic I entered had no pairings or shipping).” She says she doesn’t regret winning and the experience led her to add a creative writing minor to her degree, but it did leave her bitter about the show and the community.
Fan fiction contests and discussions of fandom in the mainstream media aren’t inherently bad, but when companies are simply trying to cash in on fandom at the expense of fans without any understanding of the community, then we have a problem.