The only thing more beautiful than the red cloth stretched across the cover of Sarah Lesure’s handcrafted book is the swirling font filling up the pages inside. Each page is meticulously crafted to feel luxurious, like an expensive tome tucked on a back shelf in a little book shop. Lesure spends hours making sure each book looks unique and regal, but she has to be careful not to use any specific imagery that could land her in trouble.
That’s because the books Lesure crafts contain works of fanfiction, and she’s found an entire community of avid readers looking to turn their unauthorized digital favorites into physical treats.
Nothing about the process is simple. There are “literally hundreds of moments where I could do something wrong and everything falls to shambles,” Lesure, a student who started bookbinding during a gap year in 2019, told The Verge. Her process includes typesetting, redoing the typesetting, doing that again and again until it’s right, printing, folding, sewing, making the cover, and finally putting it all together.
Fanfiction has traditionally been confined to online sites like Archive of Our Own (AO3) and FanFiction.Net, but some of the most prolific artists within the space have found a way to help people enjoy their favorite titles in new ways: binding the stories into physical novels designed to read better and stand out on bookshelves. The crafts have helped bring some of the most popular unofficial stories set in Harry Potter, Star Wars, and other universes onto shelves where they can sit right alongside their authorized counterparts.
Bookbinding fanfiction has seen an uptick in recent months particularly, thanks to TikTok, according to a number of bookbinders The Verge spoke to. And as new fans come across their work, artists have started opening their DMs to commissions.
One of TikTok and Twitter’s most popular fanfiction bookbinders started out by gifting a physical copy of her favorite work to the original author in March 2020. Known for her intricate detailing, Sam, who goes by @omgreylo on Twitter and TikTok, has since created more than 150 books.
“When I actually started, I worked on the bedroom floor with my infant on the bed and nursery rhymes playing on TV,” Sam told The Verge.
Bookbinding started as a way to pass the time in quarantine for many of the crafters The Verge spoke to, letting them learn a new skill and feel connected at a time when the entire world feels isolating. TikTok is crowded with memes about twenty- and thirty-somethings returning to fanfiction, something they haven’t done in years. Salina Li, an Etsy seller who learned about bookbinding from her older sister, said her “whole life has revolved around Harry Potter,” adding that “everything I could think of doing it is related to it.”
To make every book, creators have to decide on an assortment of physical details, like the margin size and how to start a new chapter. They’ll work with customers to figure out what colors and designs they would like to see in the finished product, and which designs they don’t want at all. It’s as much a business and a science as it is an art.
Different creators hate different parts of the process. Sam loathes the literal printer process; watching the pages come out, making sure that everything looks right and the printer doesn’t run out of ink. Lesure hates typesetting. She relied on DIY videos she found scrounging through YouTube, and nearly came close to quitting the first few times because of the difficulty. Graphic design students learn the skill in school, but without a teacher guiding a newcomer to the art form, like Lesure, it can be a daunting and exhausting task.
When Lesure finally finished her first book, it wasn’t long until her business took off. “I handcrafted the first few books just for my friends, and when we tweeted about it, it quickly picked up traction and random people would come up to me and ask if I’d take commissions,” Lesure told The Verge. “It all snowballed to where I am today — 30 books currently in process and orders up to April.”
When selling a book, Lesure and Sam recoup costs for materials and shipping, but neither says they make a profit off their work out of concern for the legalities surrounding fanfiction.
Fanfiction by definition toes the line of copyright law, with advocates arguing that most freely available stories technically fall under “fair use” provisions. For decades, nonprofit groups like the Organization for Transformative Works have spent time defending sites like AO3 from studios, publishers, and other groups that have tried to use copyright laws as a way to have works taken down. But bookbinding poses further issues since there’s usually an exchange of money between two parties.
“There’s virtually no law on whether recouping costs qualifies as commercial or not,” Betsy Rosenblatt, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of California Davis and a member of the Organization for Transformative Works, told The Verge. “And when I say virtually no law, I mean no law. It just hasn’t come up. The reason it doesn’t come up is because if somebody is only recouping costs, they’re unlikely to generate a lawsuit.”
Fan-inspired works can be tricky to market online. Bookbinders and fanfiction writers join other artists who sell unauthorized merchandise and face the threat of takedown notices. Li, a new fanfiction binder who operates an Etsy shop where she sells other artwork, said the legal consequences are rarely world-ending. “I’m just really hoping that they’ll look at me and be like, ‘Gosh, she barely gets anything, it’s fine,’” Li said.
Crafts that were listed for purchase on Li’s Etsy shop have been taken down because of copyright violations, she told The Verge. “It’s one of those guessing games you have to look out for, especially when you’re a small business owner,” Li said. She primarily charges for supplies and shipping of her bound fanfiction, she said, because “it isn’t my work.” She got permission to bind Harry Potter stories from an author named Sonia, but likewise, “Harry Potter isn’t hers either.”
Members of the fanfiction bookbinding community are also aware of another issue that lies just outside their tiny, innocuous world — self-printing shops. Artists like Sam and Lesure have publicly decried people using shops like Lulu or resorting to self-printing tools in stores like Barnes & Noble because of the increased legal risk that comes with it. Sam has heard fanfiction readers excuse using Barnes & Noble to print fanfiction, because “they have permission from the author.”
In those instances, she’ll remind people that “the fanfic author doesn’t have the right to say it’s fine,” trying to educate members of the community that the “material still belongs to Warner Bros., Scholastic, Disney or whatever.” A Barnes & Noble representative told The Verge, “We prohibit and rigorously enforce against the use of Barnes & Noble Press to post or print any content that infringes on copyrighted work.”
“I regularly get sent TikToks of teenagers bragging about illegally receiving their favorite fic from Barnes & Noble, and explaining to people how to do it,” Lesure said. “I love the enthusiasm for the concept of fanfiction as books, how crazy people go over it; it’s absolutely great. But especially on TikTok, the lack of legal understanding is very scary.”
The issue might never truly be solved, considering that what constitutes fair use of copyrighted material is determined on a case-by-case basis. But those fears shouldn’t stop fanfiction writers and bookbinders from creating, Rosenblatt said. Creators should “be aware, but they shouldn’t be scared,” she said.
“They’re engaging in something that’s too important to let fear stop them,” Rosenblatt said. “This kind of self-expression is too important, for finding meaning in life and for self-actualization and for building community, to let fear shut down something that is doing way, way more good than harm.”