The Fan Fiction Universe:
Some Statistical Comparisons
This is substantially the paper I presented at the Carnegie Mellon conference
One Hundred Years of Mass Culture: Beyond Good and Evil on September
Fan fiction, stories produced by fans using characters and situations
from mass culture, began among Star Trek fans in the mid-1960s; by 1990
it had grown enough to be the subject of several academic studies, of
which Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers is the best.
One striking characteristic of fan fiction from its earliest days in
print is that most writers and readers are female. It's probably because
fanfic is a women's genre that its most notorious subgenre has developed:
slash. Slash is erotic fiction about two media characters of the same
sex -- originally, Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. Slash was
deeply controversial when it first surfaced in the mid-70s, and remains
a hot-button topic for many in the fanfic community. It is also extremely
popular, encompassing a range from soft-focus romances to bluntly explicit
I have been involved in online fan fiction for about 2 ½ years. In 1999
I became one of the organizers of the Foresmutters
Project, an effort to put stories and commentary from the earliest
days of slash online. Because the FSP is the only slash history site on
the Web, a lot of people contact me asking for information or interviews
about slash, and fanfic in general. One question that always comes up
is: how many fanfic stories are there?
Other common questions include: how many people are doing this? Are we
talking about a few nutcases, or is this some kind of mass movement? Which
sources (TV shows, movies, comics, etc.) generate the most fanfic? And
how much of it is that weird slash stuff?
These are all good questions, and at present they cannot be definitively
answered. But it's possible to gather some preliminary statistics, to
get a feeling for the shape of the fanfic landscape even if we cannot
yet hope to fully map it.
The easiest question to address is, how many stories are there? Online
media fandom, like Star Trek fandom and science fiction fandom before
it, is self-organizing -- fans expect to work together on large projects
such as running conventions. Online, one of the largest projects in most
fandoms is to organize archives, sites where many stories from a fandom
are kept together.
Since archives from different fandoms rarely overlap, the sum of the
stories from the largest archives represents a lower bound on the total
number of stories available online.
Table 1 shows statistics from most of
the largest fanfic archives. Many, many fandoms are too new to have a
central archive, while others -- like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Xena:
Warrior Princess -- are "cat-herding" fandoms, where many characters and
romantic pairings have their own mailing lists and archives. The extremely
limited subset of archives listed here represents over 130,000 stories.
Given this number, and the hundreds of smaller archives and fandoms,
I conservatively estimate the total number of online fanfic stories to
be 500,000; it could easily be higher, since some fandoms have no public
archives and restrict their activities to private lists.
This leads to questions about how the stories and fans are distributed.
Which fandoms are the largest; which are growing the fastest?
I've taken two approaches to this question. First, I went to the most
comprehensive collection of online fanfic links, Karen Nicholas' "Fan
Fiction on the Net". I counted how many sites she has for each fandom
in the "regular" (also known as general interest, or "gen"), "adult" (aka
"het" or "heterosexual fiction"), and "slash" divisions. [Table
The thing that first struck me is how few of the highest-rated, most
popular shows on TV are represented in fanfic. Instead, the list is heavily
weighted toward shows (popular or otherwise) with a fantastic element.
The only major exception is General Hospital, which may be on the list
because it's the soap opera that is on latest in the afternoon, when teenagers
are home from school.
The hegemony of science fiction and fantasy is only slightly less complete
for slash fandoms (Table 2b). In slash, there
is a higher percentage of shows without a fantastic element. Such shows
are almost universally police dramas with intense interpersonal relationships.
The major exception is "Sports Night," which was a half-hour comedy. They
tell me, though, that it would probably have become one of the biggest
slash fandoms if the series had continued for another two seasons or more.
I had hoped to use Karen Nicholas' site for longitudinal studies, but
she has been ill and the site has not been updated in some time. I then
decided to try a different approach: counting hits collected by a search
engine. Table 3 shows the results of Google!
searches. The first column is the number of hits on "fan fiction" plus
the name of the source; the next column is the subset with the word "slash";
the last column is the percentage slash.
I do not imagine that these numbers tell how many web pages are dedicated
to each of these fandoms. Among other things, it's estimated that no
search engine covers more than 17% of the Web, and they're falling
further behind all the time. Nor do these figures reflect how many stories
there are in each fandom, since most archive sites (especially those with
slash) are deliberately set up to be search-engine resistant: you can
get a hit for the index page, but not for individual stories.
I suspect that the number of hits, especially their relative rankings,
correlates with the current level of interest in the fandom -- with the
number of fans, rather than the number of stories.
For instance, when I collected these figures and showed them to the Fanfic
Critics Association mailing list, we were all surprised at how few
hits there were for "The Professionals," a British secret agent show from
the early 80s that has never been broadcast in North America. But the
chemistry between the two leads is so compelling that the fandom has spawned
hundreds of slash stories over 20 years: the Pros
Circuit Archive alone has over 500 stories. I think what's going on
is that Pros fans are few -- so I get few web page hits -- but dedicated
and persistent, so the fandom is still creatively important.
On the other hand, Table 3 shows that there
are two types of fanfic high up on the Hits Parade that don't even appear
on Table 2a: (A) anime-, game-, and manga-based,
and (B) music-based.
No one has really examined this phenomenon yet, but there are a few points
that stand out:
1) Both these types of fanfic are based on something other than
live-action TV or movies. Anime, games, and manga are drawn media: the
characters are clearly and obviously not human beings.
At the other extreme, the members of a music group like the Backstreet
Boys or NSYNC look very much like real people, not characters. This is
very different from the situation in more traditional fanfic, where is
a clear distinction between Captain Kirk and William Shatner. Indeed,
fanfic writers have maintained loudly for years that we're writing about
the characters, not the actors, and "actor fic" is very strongly deprecated
-- many long-time fans are frankly horrified at the amount of "real-person"
fic being produced these days. It is notable, however, that these stories
are not exactly about real people -- they're about entertainment personas.
2) The fans for these stories appear to be much younger than traditional
fanfic readers. The carried out in 1984 , gave a mean age of 34; the survey
in October 1999 of members of the "Master and Apprentice" (Star Wars:
The Phantom Menace slash) mailing list showed a mean age of 30.
By contrast, a large number of the anime/game/manga-based and music-based
stories are hosted at fanfiction.net. Fanfiction.net
is the biggest single fanfic site on the Web, and has been doing an (extremely
haphazard) survey of its readers, most of whom turn out to be under 18.
It is no coincidence that fanfiction.net now houses more than 7300 Harry
3) Anime/game/manga- and music-based stories are extremely common in Japan.
In Japan, most fan work is in the form of amateur manga, doujinshi, not
text-based stories. These are produced in enormous numbers: Comiket,
a twice-yearly doujinshi sale/con, has 45,000 dealers and from 200,000
to 400,000 attendees per day. To my knowledge, no one has yet done any
detailed analysis of the extent and kind of Japanese-language fan work
In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins said: "Fan fiction is a way
of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary
myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk." The data
I've collected suggest that this work of cultural repair, in which amateurs
take mass media entertainment and transform it, using it for personal
creativity and even art, is one of the fast-growing activities on the
Web. Whether it has larger cultural effects will only be clear with time.
My thanks to Laura
Jacquez Valentine and to the members of the Fanfiction
Critics Association and Aestheticism
mailing lists. Consider yourselves co-authors.