From Friends to Lovers: The Fanfic-to-Romance Pipeline Goes Mainstream

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Ali Hazelwood, a New York Times best-selling author of the romance novels The Love Hypothesis, Love on the Brain, and Love, Theoretically, found her literary agent in January 2020 in an unusual way. Instead of the long process most authors undertake that involves sending out countless letters seeking representation, it was an agent who reached out after reading stories Hazelwood had written on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan-fiction site. Her stories focused on a relationship between the saber-crossed Star Wars duo Kylo Ren and Rey Skywalker, a pairing often abbreviated to Reylo. Once Hazelwood posted that she was considering reworking her fics to publish them, Thao Le from the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency sent a message encouraging her to submit. They’ve worked together since, and today, Hazelwood’s career comes full circle with the publication of From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi, an official collection of Star Wars short stories that includes one by her.

That pathway to representation was an inversion of the one experienced by Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs almost a decade prior. Back in 2011, the author pair — who publish as Christina Lauren — felt they needed to hide from their agent the fact that they had met while writing Twilight fan fiction. At the time, E.L. James avoided emphasizing that her blockbuster erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, had begun as a Twilight fanfic titled “Masters of the Universe,” which gave Billings and Hobbs the impression that the publishing industry wouldn’t take fan-fiction works as seriously as original content.

When they finally told their agent, Holly Root, she was delighted and took a book based on one of their fics, Beautiful Bastard, to publishing houses. It sold in just 12 hours. The pair have since published nearly 30 novels, and they’ve hit the New York Times best-seller list multiple times.

Once considered a frivolous endeavor undertaken by sex-obsessed amateurs, fan fiction is now fully in fashion, enabling romance writers — and their publishers — to celebrate (and capitalize on) their Archive of Our Own roots. In July, Julie Soto, who writes Harry Potter fan fiction envisioning a relationship between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, published her debut novel, Forget Me Not. The upcoming titles My Roommate Is a Vampire, You, Again, and The Hurricane Wars, as well as multiple 2022 releases, have their origins in Reylo fanfic; so prevalent is that pairing that it’s become a meme in romance fan spaces to imagine Adam Driver walking into a bookstore and seeing himself on the covers of dozens of titles.

Top publishing houses including Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House are making a clear push in the space, with proper package and promotional rollouts. Marketing materials have embraced — critics might say too much — fanfic-style tropes such as “enemies to lovers,” “only one bed,” “fake dating,” and “fated mates” that match the tagging system found on Archive of Our Own. (The odder yet nevertheless popular “male pregnancy” trope hasn’t achieved quite as much mainstream traction.) The Love Hypothesis even features fan art on the cover.

The appeal is understandable: Fic writers bring knowledge of how to market a story and build an audience, a boon for editorial houses. The fans authors have gained writing fic will buy books, in some cases carrying them to the best-seller list. For writers who demonstrate a facility for telling a certain kind of story, the process of transitioning into writing traditional books is as much a matter of format and structure as anything else.

Not that those are trivial elements. Romance novels rarely run longer than 100,000 words and typically have a three-act structure. Fan-fiction stories can run hundreds of thousands of words and take a meandering approach to plot. There’s a learning curve. “When you’re writing a romance, there’s a beginning and an end. You have a plot and emotional beats,” explains romance author and fan-fiction reader Adriana Herrera. “With a fic it’s more episodic. There’s a different flow to it.”

Beyond the structural nature of adapting their work, fanfic writers often have to reskin IP-based elements. Some fanfic writers, Hazelwood and Christina Lauren included, rewrite their fics before publishing them. It’s a process known as “filing off the serial numbers,” which involves more than simply changing the names. That’s how Hazelwood’s Reylo fanfic became The Love Hypothesis: While her fic “Head Over Feet” put Kylo and Rey in an academic setting instead of a galaxy far, far away, when it came time to revise the story for book publishing, she also added an antagonist, condensed characters, combined scenes, and raised the stakes with a tight timeline, all changes that gave it a more traditional narrative arc.

Hazelwood describes rewriting her fiction as “harrowing,” explaining that it was far more difficult than writing an original book. Christa Tomlinson, an indie romance writer, says it took her months to transform a fic based on WWE into a story about a SWAT team. Building original characters — their quirks and distinct traits — proved more difficult for her than developing a plot. She chose the law-enforcement world because it allowed her to keep the sense of “camaraderie and brotherhood” from her original fic while moving it out of a wrestling milieu. Some of the plot had to change as a result, though Tomlinson kept the bones of her story the same.

Not all fic writers are benefiting from the boom — yet, at least. Publishers have made some progress diversifying their love stories, but disparities remain. In a dynamic that mirrors traditional publishing, white fic readers don’t widely consume stories about characters of color written by people of color. That leads to fewer opportunities for those writers — even as they embrace the same styles and stories as their white peers. Similarly, queer love stories, especially those featuring two male leads, are wildly popular in fan-fiction libraries, but the Big Five publishing houses haven’t repackaged these stories the same way they did for Hazelwood or Billings and Hobbs.

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, the fan-fiction-to-romance pipeline continues to grow. Earlier this year, the Reylo fandom helped propel books from their favorite fic writers to the top of the Barnes & Noble best-seller list during the store’s annual preorder sale, even with minimal advertising from editorial houses. YA fantasy author Rosamund Hodge promises her upcoming release, What Monstrous Gods, has Reylo vibes. Indie publisher Lake Country Press has built a niche business around publishing Reylo books, including upcoming books Sliding into Love by Juliet Bridges and Katrina Kwan’s Knives, Seasoning and a Dash of Love. Julie Soto promises her next book, Not Another Love Song, will be “familiar” to fanfic readers.

Jen Prokop, romance critic and co-host of the romance podcast Fated Mates, points to Hazelwood as a model for fan-fiction authors looking to publish original works. The Love Hypothesis, she says, is clearly Reylo fan fiction to people who know, but to others, it’s a fun romance featuring two scientists. “Ali is clearly a big romance reader as well as being a fic reader,” she says. “I think part of the reason that she’s such a success is that she knows both fic and the genre.”

Even Hollywood has noticed the trend. Last October, Bisous Pictures, which produced Netflix’s Persuasion adaptation, announced it would be bringing The Love Hypothesis to screens. Fans immediately took to social media to express their hopes — half in jest, half completely serious — that Star Wars co-stars Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley would play the movie’s leads.

The Fanfic-to-Romance Pipeline Goes Mainstream