In one of the strangest comebacks in literary history, L.J. Smith is using fan fiction to reclaim her own series.
When Alloy Entertainment fired L.J. Smith from the popular young-adult book series "The Vampire Diaries" and replaced her with a ghostwriter three years ago, a civil war broke out among fans. One camp swore fealty to the characters and embraced the new books, which still feature Ms. Smith's name prominently on the cover as the series' creator. The other, more vocal faction sided with Ms. Smith and boycotted the ghostwritten novels.
"I would not read those books if they were the last books on earth," said Christina Crowley, a 35-year-old substitute teacher in Riverview, Mich., and a staunch L.J. Smith fan. "I didn't want to read her characters written by someone else."
Now, in one of the stranger comebacks in literary history, Ms. Smith is independently resurrecting her stories about the adolescent undead. She's publishing her own version of "The Vampire Diaries" digitally on Amazon, as fan fiction, creating a parallel fictional universe that many hard-core fans regard as more legitimate than the official canon.
"I wanted to finish the story," Ms. Smith said. "So many people still wrote to me constantly saying, can you just tell me how it ends?"
The fact that Ms. Smith can now legally publish and sell her unofficial Vampire Diaries novels highlights a dramatic shift in the way publishers and entertainment companies view fan fiction. Fan fiction, or works by amateur writers that feature characters and settings from their favorite books, TV shows, movies and comics, has thrived online for decades. But it's always existed in a sort of legal gray zone. Selling stories based on other people's copyrighted creations is illegal, unless it's a clear parody, which is protected as free speech under the First Amendment. It's also permissible if the characters and setting are altered so much that the story no longer seems derivative.
In the past, most publishers and studios quietly tolerated fan fiction, or saw it as free promotion, as long as fan writers didn't try to sell their work.
But that was before the astonishing success of "Fifty Shades of Grey." E.L. James's erotic trilogy—which originated as fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series—has sold more than 100 million copies in two years. Now, entertainment companies are searching for new ways to make money off fan writing and harness the next potential breakout hit.