Some novelists draw on their own experience; others borrow from history, mythology or classic literary tropes.
Anna Todd, a 25-year-old debut novelist in Texas, found inspiration in Harry Styles, the tousle-haired heartthrob from the British boy band One Direction.
When Todd started writing her erotica novel, “After,” a steamy online romance about a college freshman who falls for a tattooed misfit named Harry Styles, it was mostly to entertain herself. She dashed off a few chapters and posted them on the free fiction site Wattpad last spring.
“I didn’t think anyone would read it,” she said.
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A year and a half later, her hobby has turned into a lucrative career. Her One Direction saga has swelled to more than 2,500 pages and been viewed more than a billion times on Wattpad, the free story-sharing site. She signed a six-figure, multi-book deal with the Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery Books, and Paramount Pictures has acquired screen rights.
Gallery, which released “After” last week, is now aiming to transform a viral Web phenomenon into a print best-seller. But getting readers to pay $16 for the novel could be tough. As part of Todd’s highly unusual publishing deal, “After” will remain available free on Wattpad. The 584-page paperback will have cleaner punctuation and some extra content — mostly added and extended sex scenes — but most of the story is unchanged.
“When we met with Anna, my first question was, how are we going to get people to pay money for something they’ve been getting for free?” said Jennifer Bergstrom, Gallery’s vice president and publisher. “It’s never been done before, but we were so impressed with the staggering numbers, we didn’t even think for a second that we shouldn’t do it.”
Gallery is making a big bet on Todd. It’s breaking the opus into a four-book series and releasing the volumes in quick succession, with new installments coming in November, December and February — an extremely fast publishing cycle aimed at fostering binge reading.
Fan fiction — stories based on other writers’ fictional characters (like Harry Potter) or celebrities (like Taylor Swift) — has thrived on the Internet for years. As long as fan fiction writers don’t try to sell stories based on copyrighted works, they can write and post them legally. But publishers and entertainment companies have only recently started to mine free fan fiction sites for potential best-sellers.
Some publishers have already struck gold with books that began as fan fiction. E.L. James’ erotica trilogy, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which started as fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” vampire saga, has sold more than 100 million copies.
Gallery has published around a half-dozen novels that started out as fan fiction, including “Beautiful Bastard,” an erotica series also based on “Twilight” that has more than a million copies in print. (“Fifty Shades,” “Beautiful Bastard” and most other books that began as fan fiction were removed from the Web once publishers bought them.) Fan fiction based on public-domain works (“Android Karenina,” “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) are a booming genre of their own.
But commercializing fan fiction can be a minefield, particularly when it involves a beloved boy band. Some of One Direction’s passionate and easily rankled fans have turned on Todd, arguing that she’s trading on the band’s brand and its celebrity for her own gain.
Thousands of angry fans are taking to social media to protest the book, which they say tarnishes the image of a band member, Styles, and paints him as a drunken, emotionally abusive womanizer. One detractor started a petition at change.org, drawing more than 1,200 signatures, denouncing the possible film.
“Many people have said they think about Harry differently or they don’t like Harry from One Direction anymore just because of this fan fiction,” Alice Drake, a 14-year-old One Direction fan from Australia, said in an email. “The way Harry in this book is portrayed is disgusting.”
“After,” in its printed form, scrubs out the references to One Direction by changing the character names. The romantic lead, Harry Styles, becomes Hardin Scott, and his rowdy frat boy sidekicks, originally named for the other four band members, all get new names.
But Gallery barely hides the story’s origins. The book’s cover identifies Todd as the “Wattpad Sensation Imaginator1D” — 1D, as in One Direction. And this month, on Twitter, Simon & Schuster urged its nearly 400,000 followers to “Get a peek inside One Direction fan fiction ‘After,’ by Anna Todd,” with a link to an excerpt. “If You’ve Fantasized About Harry Styles, This Book Is for You,” the headline on the excerpt says.
“Everyone knows it’s One Direction,” Bergstrom said.
A representative for One Direction said the band had no comment on the novel. (Tickets go on sale Saturday for the band’s concert at Arrowhead Stadium next summer.)
Copyright and trademark experts say fictional representations of real people are protected as free speech. It’s illegal to use a photograph or a celebrity or a band’s name to sell merchandise without the subject’s consent, but there’s nothing to stop novelists from creating fictional characters based on living celebrities.
Still, Todd said she gets daily threats from incensed One Direction fans on Tumblr and Twitter, where they have rallied with the hashtags #AntiAfter and #SuspendAnnaTodd.
“I love Harry Styles just as much as anyone, and I would never do anything that would hurt his feelings,” Todd said. “It’s just a character.”
Todd, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, never set out to be a writer. She married right after high school and moved with her husband, who is in the Army and has done several tours of duty in Iraq, to Fort Hood, Texas. She enrolled at Central Texas College, hoping to be the first person in her family to graduate from college, but never earned a degree.
Then she found her calling — in the unlikely form of a baby-faced pop star. Todd started out as a reader on Wattpad in 2012, and quickly found herself spending several hours a day reading serialized fictional stories about One Direction. Last spring, she started writing her own story.
“It took over my life,” she said.
With her husband’s support, Todd quit her job working at a makeup store counter to write full time. She updated “After” with a new chapter every day to meet readers’ demands and tapped out much of the book on her cellphone. She wrote for five hours a day and spent three hours trading messages with readers on Wattpad, Twitter and Instagram and drew on those comments to help her shape the story.
“The only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone,” she said.
The Wattpad version has continued to suck in new readers, and has drawn more than 6 million comments.
“This fanfic will make u hate and love Harry at the same time,” one reader wrote.
“Just know that Harry in this book is a punk version of him,” wrote another. “It’s not based on what the real Harry would do.”