RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And this Friday the 13th, fans of horror films and hobbits, science fiction and fantasy are descending on the San Diego Convention Center. They're gathering for the annual explosion of pop culture fandom that is Comic Con. One of the biggest phenomenons in pop culture at the moment is there, and it's not a man of steel or a boy slinging webs. As NPR's Nina Gregory reports, it's a 40-something woman who writes steamy romance.
NINA GREGORY, BYLINE: Snowqueens Icedragon - that's not her real name - began her lucrative literary career posting stories on fanfiction.net, a site where amateur writers share original stories starring characters from existing properties. Think Harry Potter, Buffy, Dr. Who. Her story, called "Master of the Universe," was inspired by the young-adult vampire series, "Twilight."
E.L. JAMES: I just thought it was as passionate love story. I found it erotic. I found it - well, just that really.
GREGORY: It didn't take long for her work to ignite passion. Readers posted tens of thousands of reviews. Anytime she posted on another fan fiction site, Twilighted.net, the traffic would crash the site. Eventually, a small publisher appeared, then a bigger one, and a new pen name.
JAMES: My name's E.L. James. I'm in my 40s, and I do lots of laundry. And write books.
GREGORY: Those books are the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy. And they evolved from Twilight fan fiction into pretty hard core erotica. The books have been in print for just four months. In that time, they've sold twenty million copies. The "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy took four years to reach those numbers.
"Fifty Shades" occupies four spots on The New York Times bestseller list - that's each of the books, plus the boxed set. It was the first title to sell a million copies on the Kindle. But this success was nothing E.L. James ever sought or imagined.
JAMES: Everywhere. It is everywhere, yes. That's a shock to me.
GREGORY: Perhaps it's such a shock because the books came from fan fiction. Two years ago, James was here at Comic-Con on a panel of fan fiction writers, long before these books ever existed. She knows the fan fiction community is passionate about many things, including its gift economy.
SUZANNE SCOTT: It's free. It's fun and it's free.
GREGORY: That's Suzanne Scott, a media scholar at Occidental College who studies fan culture.
SCOTT: Part of the reason that these texts circulate for free is because they build community. And so I think there's an anxiety that fandom is going to be transformed into a place where people go to go pro.
GREGORY: Francesca Coppa teaches English and film studies at Muhlenberg College and also studies the genre. She explains the draw for writers to remain amateur.
FRANCESCA COPPA: Nobody says, wow! You play the piano great, why don't you become a professional pianist. Oh, you garden really well. And so you have a world where very talented people may do things because they enjoy them and they're actually quite good at them, but they're really not interested in taking this into a commercial, professional arena.
GREGORY: While James did wrestle with whether to go pro, she doesn't appear to have any regrets.
JAMES: There are two things about this whole experience that I have found incredibly rewarding. The one that it brings women together to discuss it, to have fun, to debate it. The other thing is it people who haven't read books in years are reading it, which is why the sales figures are so high, I think, is because people who don't normally buy books are buying these books.
GREGORY: And that was apparent here at Comic-Con, amongst fans lining up to get their books signed.
JAMES: Hello, how are you doing?
AMI: I'm good, how are you?
JAMES: I'm good, thank you. What's your name?
AMI: Thank you for writing the books. Amy.
AMI: Yeah. I'm not a big reader, but all of a sudden I've read three of these.
JAMES: Fantastic. Yeah. That's amazing.
GREGORY: Though plans for a movie are in the works, James says the trilogy is done. For fans who have been clamoring for the story told from the man's point of view, perhaps they'll just have to pick up a pen and write their own fan fiction. Nina Gregory, NPR News, San Diego.
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