Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey: Reader, Writer, or Both?

The Tolkien Fan Fiction survey was open to both readers and writers of Tolkien-based fan fiction. As the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost explains, that requirement was too steep for twenty-one participants, who didn’t read or write Tolkien-based fan fiction (and presumably misunderstood the purpose of the survey), in addition to one person who did not grant consent to participate. That left 1052 participants providing responses to answer my first question: How many participants in the Tolkien fan fiction community read stories, how many write them, and how many do both?

pie graphs of how many people in the Tolkien fan fiction community are readers and writers

We Are a Community of Readers

The Tolkien fan fiction community overwhelmingly consists of people who read Tolkien fanfic. Probably this is not a surprise: 99.5% of respondents answered YES to the question “Do you read Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?”

Only two (0.19%) participants answered NO to the question. (Three people or 0.29% preferred not to answer.)

A majority of participants were also writers, with 61.0% answering YES to the question “Do you write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?” (37.7% answered NO and 1.24% preferred not to answer.)

Other Reading & Writing Factoids

  • Participants who identified as women are slightly less likely than participants who identified as male or nonbinary to be writers: 89.1% of respondents who answered YES to the question about whether they were writers identified as female, whereas 92.0% who answered NO identified as female. While the difference is not huge, I found it interesting, since fan fiction is roundly considered to a genre dominated by women. And of course it still is–but men and nonbinary people in the Tolkien fan fiction community are more likely to be writers as well as readers.
    F NB M
    Writers 89.1% 6.80% 4.11%
    Non-Writers 92.0% 5.15% 2.84%
  • Participants who write are slightly older than those who don’t. Writers had a mean age of 29.52 years and a median age of 25 years (n = 631). Nonwriters had a mean age of 25.27 years and a median age of 22 years (n = 391).
  • Writers are much more likely than nonwriters to leave feedback on the stories they read. I asked, “Do you leave comments or other feedback on Tolkien-based fan fiction stories?” and 86.5% of the writers answered YES. Of the nonwriters, only 59.3% answered YES to that question.
  • Responses to a similar question confirmed the same trend. I also asked readers of Tolkien-based fan fiction to “[e]stimate the percentage of Tolkien-based fan fiction stories that you leave comments or other feedback on.” Once again, writers tended to leave feedback more often than non-writers. The mean average of the percentage of stories on which participants reported leaving feedback was as follows (n= 899):
    Yes = 40.1% (n = 562)
    No = 23.3% (n = 325)
    Prefer not to answer = 34.6% (n = 11)


It was not surprising to me that many more people in the Tolkien fan fiction community participate as readers rather than writers, nor was it surprising that writers are almost universally readers as well. I suspect this would be the case among fans of any genre of fiction: Many people enjoy reading that genre without ever attempting to write it themselves. If anything, I’d guess the number of writers in the Tolkien fanfic community to be higher than among fans of other genres. (Keep in mind, I do not have data to back this up.) I would be very surprised, for example, if 61% of readers of fantasy or mystery novels also write stories in those genres. That most writers are also readers is also not surprising: Writers in any genre are presumably interested and inspired by others who write in that genre. I doubt you could find a romance writer, for example, who does not and has never read romance novels. Fanfic would be no different.

I was surprised by the demographic trends I uncovered. Fan fiction has a reputation of being a young writers’ genre and one that is embarked upon with little in the way of preparation or training, yet the data showed that writers tended to be older than those who were just readers. This suggests there might be an initiation stage involved in writing fan fiction, and in the Tolkien community, that initiation stage is fairly long. Camille Bacon-Smith proposed something similar in her study of pre-Internet Star Trek fandom: Fans were initiated into fan fiction by a mentor, who taught them how to read and understand the meanings behind the various fanfic genres and gradually introduced them to more controversial material. (New fans were steered away from genres like slash and hurt/comfort, for example, that they were not yet prepared to understand.) Internet fandom, of course, changed that, but it seems that participants (in the Tolkien fandom at least) might be undertaking a self-guided initiation period where they read fan fiction to learn the canon and the norms of the community before beginning to write it themselves.

Another possibility is that writers have a stronger and longer-running commitment to the community, which makes them older as a general rule. Readers, on the other hand, are perhaps more likely to be casual fans who enjoy reading Tolkien fanfic but aren’t deeply involved or comfortable with the fandom to write it themselves.

I was definitely surprised by the results on gender. The differences are small but fan fiction is generally viewed as a woman’s genre; I have seen meta critiquing fanfic as a genre for pulling women out of o-fic genres that carry the possibility of earning profit or prestige for one’s writing. (Now isn’t the time to get into my dislike of this argument, but last week I happened to write briefly about fanfic, profit, and prestige here.) In short, I’ve always had the impression that many people believe fanfic to be a genre that is safe and welcoming to women, whereas they feel less comfortable and welcome in other genres.

The numbers don’t show that. Men are slightly more likely to make the leap from reading to writing Tolkien-based fan fiction. This may reflect a higher level of confidence in their abilities and canon knowledge. Without meaning offense to male fanfic writers, I have noticed that male writers often have a high (sometimes inflated) opinion of their own work and its contribution to the fandom. (#NotAllMaleWriters. Most are lovely people and many are genuinely talented.) I have never, for example, received an email from a woman promoting her fanfic or suggesting that my archive is going to be improved by her stories on it. I have received several such emails from male writers, and given that men are a tiny minority of the Tolkien fanfic community, I don’t think this anecdata is without value.

I’m withholding discussion of the nonbinary numbers for now. I suspect this may have an archive component that I will explore more fully in a later post. However, do feel free to share thoughts on these numbers in the comments.

I was not surprised that writers tend to leave more feedback than people who just read; I was surprised by the extent of the difference here. My initial reaction as an author–and like most fanfic authors, as an author who wonders at the difference between her read counts and review counts–is that there are a lot of readers who are enjoying free entertainment without giving much back. Then a more reasonable version of me jumps in and points out that I don’t actually know what these readers contribute to fandom; I just know that more than 40% of them don’t leave feedback. (It’s important to note that I didn’t distinguish between comments and one-click feedback like kudos and likes in this question. I will probably devote a whole month to data on habits related to leaving feedback–I have started on these posts, in fact–so I’m not going to go too deep into this now.)

There are plenty of reasons why people don’t leave feedback. A lot of sites require registration to leave feedback, and many readers may lurk without accounts and therefore be unable to leave feedback. (I know, I know, authors–I hear you: So why not register for an account? Many of us were lurkers at one point and can surely empathize with this shadowy and often anxiety-ridden form of fandom existence.) One participant left a comment on their number, noting that they don’t leave feedback because English is not their first language. As someone who can read Spanish pretty well but would rather eat a stinkbug than chance the humiliation of commenting in it, I can understand this feeling. The Tolkien fandom is a very international community, so this may be a bigger factor than we confident English speakers tend to consider.

Writers, on the other hand, are presumably comfortable enough in English to write in it and have accounts on archives to post their work. But there’s also the elephant in the room: Writers know what it’s like to be a writer. They know the time and energy that goes into producing a story. They know the feelings of anxiety and anticipation when they share a new story on an archive. They know the thrill of getting feedback on that story and the disappointment and self-doubt that can result when a story is met only with silence. As much as we try to explain this to people who don’t write, it’s not the same as actually living it.

And, at the end of the day, more than 13% of participants were writers and still didn’t leave feedback on the work of other writers. This is an interesting group whom I will likely look at more in the weeks to come.

Do you have other interpretations of the data? Did any of the numbers surprise you? Is there data I didn’t share that you’d like to see? Please comment and let me know!

Next week’s topic … Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community.

Creative Commons License
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

You may use, share, repost, or reprint the statistics and information in this post in any nonprofit project. If you do so, you MUST credit me with my name (Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic/professional contexts or Dawn Felagund in fannish contexts) and link to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category on my blog:

For permissions not covered by this license or any questions, email me at

See the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost for more information on this project, permissions, et cetera, et cetera.


16 Responses to “Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey: Reader, Writer, or Both?”

  1. […] Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey: Reader, Writer, or Both? […]

  2. Noah says:

    I commented on LJ, but I forgot that’s an RSS. Do you want some statistical analysis of those figures? I have to practice for my final in two weeks. :-)


  3. Noah says:

    Oh! It looks like you already analyzed it. That’s what I get for reading posts in reverse order.

  4. Sinneahtes says:

    Interesting! On the topic of writing versus responding (speaking as someone who didn’t write fanfic and occasionally gave feedback):

    I wish I had seen (or thought to use) more “kudos” or “like” buttons back when I read fanfic. It could easily take me hours and drain my brain to write and post one short comment, and that time consumption and exhaustion was also probably a big factor in why I never wrote or posted my own fanfiction, actually. (I don’t recall leaving many (if any) short “Great story!” comments because I had seen authors publicly/semi-publicly complain about reviews like that. That might have been a few complainers ruining something for everybody though.)

    Rambling a bit further, I also recall feeling kind of awkward about leaving feedback when I didn’t have stories of my own up to be judged in return, like that would be “unfair” or me or something (and some people did apparently think that you have to be a good writer to be able to have decent opinions on other peoples’ stories).

    I vaguely recall sensing a bit of a “cliquey” vibe from some writers and sort of feeling like commenting on one of their stories was sort of butting in to someone else’s friend group (no matter how public their stories and how much they said they wanted more comments from other people), but I don’t think I could expand on that memory very much–just tossing out a thought in case it might have any relevance at all.

    Most of what I remember of reading and responding to fanfic comes from several years ago, so I don’t know how obsolete my thoughts might be.

    I’m looking forward to your further thoughts!

    • Dawn says:

      It honestly tees me off when I hear about writers who set a bar for who is allowed to comment on their work or how comments should be written. (Aside from writers who take offense at people who are being rude, of course.) Most writers I know love comments in any form and would rather get a “Great story!” than nothing at all. (I’ve had kudos–which I’m not particularly wild about as a concept [I have absolutely no problem with people using them when they’re offered and appreciate readers who give them to my story]–explained to me as the one-click replacement for that “Great story!” or “Keep writing!” comment, which I do understand.)

      On the other hand, as a mod of multiple archives and fandom projects, I have seen my fair share of authors walk away from an archive or even walk away from writing fanfic altogether because they’re not getting feedback on their work and figure that it’s not any good or that it’s not appealing to the readership of a particular site. And I know many, many more writers whose low comment counts are discouraging or that they take as a negative reflection of the quality of their work–and this includes some writers that I look up to.

      So I wish that authors that only wanted a select few or a select type of comments would just be up-front about it on their stories. Maybe they’d realize what pompous asses they sound like or, at the least, send willing reviewers to other authors who *do* appreciate when someone takes even 30 seconds of their time to know that a story was read and enjoyed rather than waste their time writing comments to a fanfic writer who only wants the New York Times Book Review to write an article as a comment on

      Because I understand that 99% of us authors can covet every review we receive and all it takes it one vocal person to make it seem like comments have to be of a certain type or from only certain people to make a reader who is just trying to show appreciation and courtesy to an author whose work they enjoy begin second-guessing if they’re not in fact stepping on someone’s toes. And when talented authors are walking away from the fandom because of a lack of feedback and the lack of confidence that brings, that really makes me angry. Feedback is THE ONLY extrinsic reward we get for our writing, and that a very tiny minority of authors would try to deny that to the rest of us … I can’t even.

  5. Scarlet says:

    I’m glad to see this series. It was interesting to read the above analysis.
    Out of it, the point that interests me most is the one about the writers who do not leave feedback.
    I’ll look forward to your future post on that subject.

    (On a side note, I smiled reading about male writers promoting themselves *humbly*. I have an idea about who might he be, and I’ll leave it at that for now….)

    In regard to the above comment, I must agree with what the commenter said.

    I too, felt more then once that a short “thank you”, or the likes were only tolerated, even though publicly it was encouraged.

    I also got at least once, in a circumstances I don’t recall at this moment, that unless I was a writer, my view on the inner world of the author, as it was expressed in the stories, was not welcomed.

    Add to that the fact that sometimes one does not have much to say at the end of a story, except “Thank you”, and you get some of the “why” there are less then hoped-for comments.

    This topic was discussed in depth and length before, on the fandom various places, forums, archives, Lj, etc. Still, being such a central point between author and their readers, I decided to share my experience and thoughts, again.

    • Dawn says:

      Thanks, Scarlet–I’m glad the analysis was interesting! :) I will definitely do a piece on those writers. I just started a draft so that I make sure to remember once I reach that point.

      I don’t doubt yours and Niki’s experiences. It just gets me because a writer who doesn’t want/appreciate feedback can always shut off notifications and simply not read what they receive. But then there are people for whom a sentence or two from a handful of readers would have kept them from walking away. So it makes me resentful that people scare off would-be commenters that way.

      I’ve also had difficulty commenting on some stories, even as a person who is used to providing feedback on writing. I always try, though, but every now and then, I do fail at that.

      I didn’t have a particular guy in mind with #NotAllMaleWriters. 😉 I’ve had several guys over the years who, through correspondence with me related to my groups or not, tend to promote their work as a benefit for me to have on my site or something that readers are going to anticipate reading because it is exceptionally good. On the other hand, I have never had a writer whom I knew was a woman do that.

  6. Brooke says:

    The bit about men being more likely to be writers actually makes sense to me. Aside from what you said about an inflated sense of confidence (which I’ve seen a lot of), I’d also suggest that it seems rather like most other female dominated activities: women can lurk without actively participating because they’re already stereotyped for being women, but men who want to lurk already seem to experience questions about their masculinity or whatever, so either go full force into it or pull back. I’ve seen it both in academic centers (quite a few guys who utterly refused to touch any portion of my studies they saw as feminine) and hobby (makeup and fashion forums, flower gardening, certain crafts, theater). Men who are involved might as well be deeply involved, since even the slightest hint of interest leads to questions about sexuality/masculinity/whatever else (“Your clothes always match. Are you gay, or does your wife dress you?” i.e. the compacted but not exaggerated question I’ve heard several men asked).

    (And ugh to your aside about the argument about fanfic pulling women out of genres that could make them money or give them a prestige – as a cynic, I’m pretty sure that if women wrote literary fiction in droves, that would become a disliked genre and cast as writing by hacks).

    As someone with a probably unusually high number of people who frequently comment who don’t have English as a first (or even primary language), I definitely think not being comfortable writing in it is a factor. It takes a long enough time for some of my readers to read what I’ve written, and I appreciate it enough to know that it is evidently worth the effort to read them even if I don’t get comments on all of them.

    Plus, I’m anxious enough when I leave written feedback and it is my primary language, partially because I’ve gotten bitchy responses or comments left on my works about my English. Granted, it’s also because as a writer, I get more anxious when I do get a notification about comments than I do when there’s no response, and a far worse initial reaction with them than favs or kudos. (I like the nice ones, though then I feel guilty because it takes me forever to respond, and everyone seems to disagree on what is an appropriate length of time and I feel bad posting new stories before I respond. The negative ones stand out far more in my mind though).

    • Dawn says:

      Men being slightly more likely to write (which I tend to interpret as a sign of confidence in one’s abilities and canon knowledge, at least if one is sharing that writing) makes sense to me too. I’m not sure about lurking. Lurking by its very definition is anonymous, is it not? Do you think reading fanfic confers the kind of visibility on someone who chooses not to be visible that a male lurker would see it as a challenge to his masculinity?

      as a cynic, I’m pretty sure that if women wrote literary fiction in droves, that would become a disliked genre and cast as writing by hacks

      HA. This is why I love you, Brooke! 😀

      I definitely think not being comfortable writing in it is a factor.

      I agree. Even for native or fluent English speakers, not everyone has the language (we would say “content area vocabulary” in eduspeak :) ) to discuss writing, and this isn’t helped when, as Niki and Scarlet both observe, some writers thoughtlessly or deliberately-asshattishly imply that comments from non-writers aren’t worth much. I often hold myself up as an example of commenting because I comment on almost everything I read, but that’s not exactly fair: I’m highly trained in the evaluation and critique of writing, and I have the language to write comments that precisely identify what I like about a story (and even I find myself at a loss for words before the best authors). It isn’t exactly fair to hold someone to those same standards whose last experience using that kind of language and thought process was high school English.

      (I like the nice ones, though then I feel guilty because it takes me forever to respond, and everyone seems to disagree on what is an appropriate length of time and I feel bad posting new stories before I respond. The negative ones stand out far more in my mind though).

      I’ve had spells of being horrible with replies too. (Our reasons are probably much the same: that s-word! :D)

      The negative ones sticking around is the great paradox of writing. I can remember some early critiques against AMC from now more than ten years ago. It did get better for me, and as I gained more confidence (the theme of this reply, it seems!), I gained the ability to distinguish between what was productive concrit and what was someone being an ass or just having different tastes than me in terms of what makes “good writing.”

      Incidentally, the same holds true for commenters. I have seen reams and reams written by authors about how they appreciate feedback, and all it takes it one thoughtless or ignorant comment from one person about how comments are too short or non-writers shouldn’t comment, and you have commenters afraid to speak to an author they don’t know or write something less than a thesis-grade analysis of a story.

  7. RinaBlackcat says:

    I was eagerly waiting for the results of the survey. Glad we can read it now, thank you. (It’s all interesting, but I’m especially curious about the difference, if there is any between only-Tolkien-fandom writers and multifandom’s ones.)
    A couple of words from an author who very rearly leaves comments:

    “So why not register for an account?” – I may be the only one person who have problems with it, but once I tryed to register on a cite I was only “lurking” in, for the only purpose to leave a comment for a story I liked… and failed. For some reason the cite (if I remember correctly, it was AO3, but I may be mistaken) was sure I’m a robot and keep refusing me registration. A sad reason for not leaving a comment, but here it is. :(

    I’m glad my comment gave a tip about non-English speakers. “Writers, on the other hand, are presumably comfortable enough in English to write in it” – ha-ha, but writers may write in their native non-english langauge too 😀

    There are other reasons for not leaving comments. Setting aside the hard task of formulating something coherent even in your native language – what if you don’t really like the story so much? Not because you think it’s bad – it just haven’t touch your heart somehow. Why say such thing to an author?

    • Dawn says:

      The Tolkien vs. multifandom question is one that I’m interested in as well because I’ve spent years struggling how to articulate the differences I perceive between them, made more complicated by the fact that I’m monofandom and so can only speak to what I see as an outsider-looking-in for fandoms other than Tolkien. I can tell you, based on the preliminary survey results (1 Jan. 2015; n=742) that 26% of writers wrote only Tolkien fanfic, and 65% considered Tolkien their primary fandom. (So far, I have not seen any dramatic differences between the primary and final results, so the final results will probably be similar.) To compare, Centrum Lumina reported in private correspondence to me that only 13% of the people who took her AO3 Census were monofandom.

      I definitely now bump this part of my investigation up a bit. 😉 I will probably do a series of posts, similar to the demographics and reviewing habits series I have planned.

      writers may write in their native non-english langauge too

      You’re right, of course; I should have been clearer that I was talking about English-language fandom.

      what if you don’t really like the story so much?

      Well, I think many authors assume that is why 900 people have read their story but only 3 have commented. :) Of course that can be the case. But when you’re talking about stories and authors that are roundly recognized as being exceptional or groundbreaking, it is hard to believe that 897 people found the story too mediocre to be worth saying anything to the author.

      I also get a lot of correspondence that goes something like, “I’ve been reading your work for years and love your stories but have never told you.” These are often people who have seen my meta/blog posts about reviewing and how, yes, a failure to recognize the authors whose work one loves will often make those authors stop writing.

      Ultimately, I don’t think there is a single reason why people don’t review. There are language and technical difficulties, but there are also people who will read and adore an author’s work for years and never say a thing (then possibly mourn the fact that that person has slowed down or stopped writing altogether). And there are a lot of reasons why people do that too that have nothing to do with being lazy/unappreciative. It could probably be a book unto itself. :)

      • RinaBlackcat says:

        I think I was one of those writing to you “have read you for ages, like very much, never stopped by to say that”. :/ And alas, there was a case when I was the only one commenting on a story of one author, and when I stopped, she stopped writing. Pity. The most common reason for me of not commenting is still “too hard to formulate”.

        • Dawn says:

          Oh, I never mind those comments! Some of the most touching and memorable have been from people who have been reading me forever and decide relatively late to let me know.

          It’s also validating when I know that people are taking my meta about reviewing to heart. :)

          Probably the biggest reason I’ve removed accounts from the sites I moderate is because people aren’t getting feedback. (I never ask, but they very often volunteer this information. And this includes only people who actually contact the mods to delete their account, not those who just let the account go inactive.)

  8. RinaBlackcat says:

    Damn, I’ve typed “convey” instead of “survey”. Don’t know how to correct it now. Would you please do it for the non-english writer ? :)

Leave a Reply