Some novelists draw on 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 posted a few chapters on the free story-sharing site Wattpad last spring.
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. 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 this 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 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. “It’s never been done before, but we were so impressed with the numbers.”
Gallery is making a big bet on Todd. It’s breaking the opus into a four-book series and releasing them in quick succession, with instalments 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 online 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. E L James’s erotica trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight 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.
But commercialising fan fiction can be a minefield, particularly when it involves a boy band. Some of One Direction’s passionate fans have turned on Todd, arguing that she’s trading on the band’s brand for her own gain. Thousands of angry fans are taking to social media to protest against the book, which they say tarnishes the image of Styles and paints him as a drunken, emotionally abusive womaniser. “Many people have said they don’t like Harry from One Direction anymore just because of this fan fiction,” said Alice Drake, a 14-year-old One Direction fan from Australia.
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 4 lakh followers to “Get a peek inside One Direction fan fiction After, by Anna Todd”.
“Everyone knows it’s One Direction,” Bergstrom said.
A representative for One Direction said the band had no comment on the novel.
Still, Todd said she gets daily threats on Tumblr and Twitter, where they have rallied with the hashtags #AntiAfter and #SuspendAnnaTodd.