A Sad Tale of Self-Publishing Gone Awry: The ‘Destiel’ Book

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Destiel shippers are a very passionate bunch.  We have a long history of campaigning for the ship, winning almost every shipping poll we’ve ever been in, gaining attention in mainstream press, and winning some pretty great awards.  When a book called Destiel was released, I wasn’t exactly surprised that there was some passionate debate (again, we’re super passionate folks!), but I was dismayed at the outright vitriol being flung at the author via social media.  We Destiel fans are often controversial and a bit defensive over slights, but we also have a reputation for supporting our own and championing fan created works more than any fandom I’ve ever personally been in before.  It seemed contradictory to our core fandom values to be attacking a young author for writing a book about a thing we all hold so dear.  So I had to find out why this book, which at first glance was coming from within the community, causing so much derision across social media?

When I looked into the incident, the controversy became clear to me.  This young author made some horrible PR decisions right out of the gate (these will be discussed later in this article), which led to the fandom predictably being put on the defensive against a perceived outsider who appeared to be either here to mock us or exploit us for their own personal gains.  The bad PR moves kept piling up one after another and soon the author began to attempt some damage control by offering books to people in exchange for reviews. As a supporter of fan-created content and as an independent publisher myself, I was happy to give it a read, but before I can adequately review the book, its context must be understood.  How did something that could have rallied a fandom together in celebration end up making it incredibly angry instead?

We need to lay out exactly what this book is, and what it is not, before we can even touch on the content – because as with all things in fandom, context matters.

  • This book IS: called “Destiel” and depicts a homoerotic romance story set in a science fiction/fantasy setting.
  • This book is NOT: about Dean and Castiel from Supernatural.  As EL James and Cassandra Clare did before her, Jordyn Burlot had to file off the serial numbers of the original work, so to speak, in order to avoid any potential copyright issues. Furthermore, the series is set in an an AU type setting, which means it’s removed from the universe that Dean and Castiel come from.  As the author states in a now deleted blog post, “‘Destiel’ the word is an idea. It is a popular culture reference generated by lots of people talking about fictional stuff going on between fictional people.”  Whether or not she filed off the serial numbers successfully is another matter entirely.
  • This book IS: a self-published piece, not released by a mainstream publishing channel. Copyhouse is a company that writers can pay to produce their book, starting with the basic package at around USD$470.  Many authors self publish and I’m supportive of this, but it’s important to know the context of a piece’s publication history when it comes to how their PR is being handled.
  • This book is NOT: a piece of popular fanfiction that gained a large following then got picked up by a major publishing company, such as the Mortal Instruments series or 50 Shades of Grey series.
  • This book IS: controversial because of the author’s now deleted (but archived) blog post seemingly mocking Destiel fans by calling them “bizarre” and “absurd lunacy.” There are also the threats of lawsuit by her publisher against people who spoke out about the issue.  Basically, it had really bad PR right from the start.  She has since attempted to correct these earlier missteps.  Whether the publisher is backing off of attempted lawsuits is unclear, though I suppose we’ll find out once this piece is published.  If someone attempts to sue us for a bad review, this article will be updated to reflect that.
  • This book is NOT: controversial because it’s an LGBTQ romance.  In fact, it probably would have had a fair shot at gaining some traction had it not been let out of the gate with the aforementioned mountain of PR issues.  The indie author scene likes to support its own and there’s a large market for homoerotic fiction.  Unfortunately by naming it “Destiel” and failing to have a proper PR plan in place, the whole thing became a mess before it had a chance to grow on its own.
  • This book IS: written by someone who called the Army over a bad book review (see tweets: 1, 2, 3, 4) and had an online meltdown over criticism in the same vein as Jacqueline Howett.
  • This book is NOT: written by someone who handles criticism well.  I suspect I’ll have a libel or copyright lawsuit sitting in my inbox shortly after this piece is published.  But that’s okay.  As much as criticism stings, there is nothing actually illegal about it.

I did give my review copy a read and it certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read.  However, it floats between being a piece of fanfiction and an original work in an incredibly awkward way.  If the author had left it online as a piece of fanfiction, it may have had some level of success.  AU pieces have a strong following in our fandom and I’m sure she would have gained some readers.  As it stands, she filed the serial numbers off just enough to not get sued, but left enough obvious clues to the original context in an attempt to draw in an already enormous fanbase.  By doing this, it gives the impression that she’s trying to exploit this fanbase and make money off of them.  If this wasn’t her intention, she certainly isn’t helping matters by suing reviewers, calling employers over bad reviews (including the US Army!), and blocking anyone who attempts to explain to her how her actions are coming off.  But I digress. This weird middle ground between original work and fanfiction is awkward and doesn’t play out well on the pages.

Filing off the serial numbers to your fanfic to make an original piece is a difficult thing to do.  I haven’t even bothered trying to turn my fanfiction into original works because I know I can’t separate it enough to make a viable story that stands on its own.  Losing the context of the fandom a work came from can often lead to incredible complications in your reading experience (see: Context Matters: Why 50 Shades of Grey Makes It Hard to Be a Fangirl by Undie Girl).  In this case, Dean and Castiel are renamed Sean and Destiel, which is hardly a change from the original names at all and actually uses the fandom ship name in an obvious play on our fandom culture.  The characters are very clearly Dean and Cas, and had this piece been published as an actual piece of fanfic I would have complimented how spot-on Dean’s dialogue is.  I could really hear Dean whenever he spoke, which is no easy task.  Unfortunately, if you want to make it an original piece, these things need to be changed even more and it has to be able to withstand scrutiny without the knowledge of the original work.  You need to decide on whether or not you want this to be a fanfic or an original piece.  It cannot be both.  Again, if you straddle that line, you come off as exploitative.

The piece itself is set firmly in the science fiction genre with small bits of fantasy sprinkled throughout (most notably with the antagonists), which contrasts with the urban fantasy/horror genre of the original work this is based off of.  Castiel Destiel is a time traveler who seems to have fallen in love with Dean Sean before the story even begins.  It follows the story from his point of view as his feelings for Sean develop. There are also strange creatures who posses people, much like demons or Leviathans do in Supernatural. One of these creatures possesses Sean and he spends much of the story incapacitated or vulnerable in one way or another.  The creatures seem to be straight from the author’s own mind, but they correlate enough to already existing monsters to the point that they aren’t exactly the most unique antagonist to put in a story.

Still, the concepts surrounding Destiel’s time travel and this strange future he comes from show that this author does have enough creative power to come up with her own works.  So why did she feel the need to ride on the popularity of Destiel fandom?  With a good editor and a much more experienced PR team, she could have written a 100% original work from the material she had here and could have had a fair shot at being an author with her own work.  Or she could have bypassed publishing the piece entirely and published it on AO3 as a piece of fanfiction.  Instead it’s awkward and has blown up way bigger than it should have in the first place.  I feel bad that something that has the seeds of a unique story hasn’t had the chance to grow and blossom into its own creation.  The hints of a unique universe are there, but you have to wade through the not-so-subtle nods to Destiel fandom to see them.

Conclusion

This is a sad tale of an author who wanted to push her writing career forward, but made a lot of mistakes along the way.  I only hope that any inspiring writers who currently write fanfiction will take note of this incident and not make the same errors in judgment.  Don’t use a fandom to push a piece of original work like this.  Don’t attempt to sue critics or call the Army (or other employers) over negative reviews.  If you take a piece of fanfiction and want to file the serial numbers off like EL James or Cassandra Clare have done, be sure you file them thoroughly and completely off so that your work can stand on its own two feet.  And make sure your piece is edited and that you have a good PR team in place.  If you choose to be your own PR team, great, but make sure you have some thick skin because you will be criticized for your work.  Even the most successful authors in the world get bad reviews.  And if you are going to be your own editor… DON’T.  No seriously, you need a second, third, perhaps a fourth set of eyes on your piece before you even consider publication.  Editors not only catch basic spelling and grammar errors, but help make decisions about plot or characterization, which this piece could have definitely used some feedback on before publishing.

Fanworks and self-published authors are two things that I strongly support.  But there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.  I’m not the judge, jury, and executioner on the right and wrong way to publish your fanfic, but the overwhelmingly negative amount of feedback towards this piece should be an indicator that something went terribly wrong along the way.  This is not the first piece of Destiel fanfiction to be self-published as an original work, nor will it be the last.  But with any luck, it’ll be the only one to ever inspire this much controversy and ire.  If the odds are in our favor, we’ll be back to supporting each other and encouraging each others’ creative endeavors in no time.

In regards to any lawsuit threats or attempts, please look up the US Fair Use factors, the Copyright Law of 1976,  the law definition of ‘libel‘ (hint: none of this is libel), and then feel free to get in touch with us.  But it is my hope that instead there will be reflection about what’s happened and that this situation will be a learning experience for all involved.

Author: Angel Wilson

Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.



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