The challenges and opportunities associated with fan-created content are arguably even more prominent in licensed publishing than they are among publishers in general. Films, TV shows, interactive games, and the like often spur pockets of very intense and creative enthusiasts, who not only write fan fiction but also create other content that may lend itself to books or comics.

Penguin Young Readers Group’s Grosset & Dunlap imprint and Jim Henson Productions turned to the Dark Crystal fan community to seek an author for a prequel novel tied to the 1982 Jim Henson film. The Dark Crystal Author Quest contest, as it was known, resulted in a compilation e-book of the five finalists’ entries, as well as a full-length novel by J.M. Lee. The latter will be published next June in both print and e-book editions.

Grosset and Henson received 500 entries from would-be authors, who were required to submit a 10,000-word sample that followed specific parameters. “That was so surprising to us,” says Francesco Sedita, Grosset & Dunlap’s president and publisher. “We were amazed at the quantity and quality of the submissions. It’s not just filling a form in; it’s a big task. There were so many more than we expected that were just wonderful. The fans were really committed, the subject matter compelled them to tell great stories, and they know the world of The Dark Crystal so well.”

Many of the entrants, including the winner, were long-time fan fiction writers, albeit unpublished. “The community already existed; we just opened a door to it,” Sedita says.

Other licensors and publishers have dabbled in similar types of efforts. Back in 2013, Sanrio hosted a fan fiction contest for Hello Kitty; the winner, Michaela Hyde, had her story integrated into Viz’s Hello Kitty Fashion Music Wonderland graphic novel, as an alternate ending. The special edition was available at Sanrio’s website and at retail boutiques.

Fan Fiction Means Fan Engagement

Disney Publishing Worldwide also has gone the fan-fiction route with Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series, which takes place in Disney theme parks. When writing the second book in his series, Pearson got the idea to involve an active online writing community, the Kingdom Keepers Alliance, by prompting fans to create and share anecdotes involving the series’ characters, some of which were integrated into Pearson’s overarching story lines.

In 2014, the concept was taken to the next level with the introduction of Kingdom Keepers Insider, an official online community platform where fans respond to writing challenges for a chance to be published within the series. Forty winners to date have had their work featured in a Kingdom Keepers book, according to Disney spokesperson Heather Hust Rivera.

Meanwhile, Hasbro is exploring fan fiction through Amazon’s Kindle Worlds initiative, starting with its GI Joe franchise, which appeals to adults as well as younger readers and has a rich world for storytelling. “There’s lots of fan fiction out there, but some goes in a direction that we, as the brand holder and as a family-friendly company, are not comfortable with,” says Michael Kelly, senior director of global publishing at Hasbro. On Kindle Worlds, fans have the freedom to create, but within licensor-set guidelines. “It seemed an innovative way to explore the idea of fans contributing content to the lore.”

GI Joe has been on Kindle Worlds for about a year. “The minute we flipped the switch we got quite a few enthusiastic contributors,” Kelly reports, recalling that one fan submitted a story of more than 300 pages in the first week. “It’s clear that they’re so engaged with the brand that they have stories to tell. We’re giving them a venue to express that passion and share that story. It will be interesting to see how it develops.”

Currently, the main objective is to enhance fans’ experience with GI Joe. “It’s an experiment to allow fans to engage in an environment that’s collaborative and enriching to the brand,” Kelly says. It is possible that Hasbro and its licensees will ultimately publish fan-submitted manuscripts. “There’s a mechanism in place for that to happen,” Kelly adds.

User-generated content from other areas of Hasbro’s business has also affected its licensed publishing program. The company’s comic book licensee, IDW, has published several titles tied to Hasbro’s Fan Built Bot initiative, in which consumers vote on features and component parts to create a brand-new Transformers character.

The first Fan-Built Bot was a female Transformer called Windblade. “She was created through the online voting process as a fully formed Transformer who was unique but had no story,” Kelly says. “Our publishers are the conduit for building the world and the characters within the lore. [Windblade] has become very popular, not just because she was created by the fans, but because she [now] has a compelling story.” IDW is now publishing titles for a second Fan-Built Bot. Comics are included in toy packages, as well as in traditional retail channels.

Respecting the Fan Experience

As user-generated content becomes a more integral part of the entertainment industry, licensed publishers need to avoid intruding on the fans’ experience. This is particularly true in the world of first-person interactive gaming. Typically, the game’s developers create the key in-game events, but players have many ways to personalize as they go along, from the look of their avatar to the decisions they make during game play.

Dark Horse published a novel tied to Eve Online, a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) that involves factions, battles, heists, and exchanging money and resources. In this case, the game’s dedicated fan base creates a much greater than usual portion of the in-game action, with developer CCP Games providing the tools and users taking it from there.

To create its tie-in title, Eve True Stories, Dark Horse had fans vote on which of the major events of the game’s first 10 years was the most interesting. Though Eve Online is notable because of its fans’ deep involvement in creating the overall experience, many game-based tie-in titles present the same challenges.

“The nature of the game is that it’s about your character and the impact of the decisions you make,” says Nick McWhorter, v-p of media licensing at Dark Horse, which has also published tie-ins to role-playing games including Mass Effect and Dragon Age, from Electronic Arts-owned developer BioWare. “It’s a bit of a delicate dance to create a main character and plot that will build backstory but won’t interfere. We can add to the gamers’ experience by telling stories that add a little background or fill in the nooks and crannies of the narrative.”

McWhorter notes that some of the characters Dark Horse has created for the licensed comics were later added to the games themselves. “The publishing is not off to the side,” he says. “It becomes part of the canon.”

Fans Influence Product Development

Intellectual property owners increasingly keep an eye on social media and online platforms such as Etsy, Instagram, and Pinterest to see what fans are creating on their own, in order to generate ideas for officially licensed merchandise.

“We’ve gotten a lot of inspiration for consumer products from monitoring what’s out there,” says Pete Yoder, Cartoon Network Enterprises’ v-p of consumer products for North America. The network also has hosted T-shirt-design challenges on crowdsourcing platforms such as Threadless and through licensees like Mighty Fine.

One of the network’s most active properties for user-generated content is Adventure Time. “It’s an expression of the fans’ loyalty to the brand,” Yoder says. “We’ve seen some incredible stuff.” Sharing fan-created DIY projects on social media spurred the idea for a pattern book, Adventure Time Crafts, published by PotterCraft last fall.

“Leveraging user-generated content is so important to us,” Yoder explains. “We take it very seriously. We have a big dialogue with our fans, both on-air and in consumer products, and we continue to explore ways we can grow that. It’s a big initiative for us.”

Other licensors and licensees also expect fan-created content to have an increasing influence on publishing. Penguin, for example, would consider other opportunities to host a contest similar to the Dark Crystal effort. “I would absolutely do it again,” Sedita says. “It has to be the right timing and the right property, but this is just the beginning for us.”

“User-generated content has become a more and more important part of our lives in general,” Kelly notes. “You see crowdsourcing and fan involvement everywhere. It’s very different from a couple of years ago, when it was ‘Here’s our brand, take it or leave it.’ Now it’s ‘Here are our brands, they’re living things, and we want you to engage with them at all different levels.’ ”

Kelly adds that fan fiction is one of the deepest ways for fans to interact with a licensed property. “You can show your engagement by wearing a T-shirt,” he says. “But with fan fiction, you’re contributing to the creative process. We’re asking our fans to be part of the creative process and to grow with us.”