In my last post, I discussed the business implications of Amazon’s new fan fiction initiative, Kindle Worlds. But what does it mean for authors and readers of fan fiction? Kindle Worlds lets writers create stories about television shows created by Alloy Entertainment—including “The Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl,” and “Pretty Little Liars”—using the same characters, setting, plot points, and story universe, thus producing original derivative fiction.
As an author, I looked over the terms offered and a few less-than-attractive elements jumped out at me.
First, the stories published on Kindle Worlds are not self-published; they’re published by Amazon Publishing. “Amazon will acquire all rights to your new stories including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” Submitting to Kindle Worlds also doesn’t guarantee publication. Amazon chooses the stories to be included in the Worlds collection and sets the price—between $0.99 and $3.99.
Second, Amazon “will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.” In other words, if you write a fanfic and introduce an amazing new plot twist or awesome new character, the license holder—the creator of the original show—can use your idea in whatever way they want without paying you for it.
Finally, Amazon also retains “all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights for the term of the copyright.” This means Amazon can repurpose your content to create supplementary products, such as an anthology, without paying you. Author John Scalzi sums this up: “Amazon makes a show of saying that the writer owns the copyright on the original things that are copyrightable, but inasmuch as Amazon also acquires all rights for the length of the copyright and Alloy is given the right to exploit the new elements without further compensation, this show about you keeping your copyright appears to be just that: show.”
Alloy Entertainment gains access to a constantly renewable source of free story ideas at very little cost. Some have argued that this is not so much a monetized fan fiction community but a work-for-hire hybrid that bridges user-generated content and media tie-ins.
Writers who submit work to Amazon will only be entitled to a percentage of revenue of actual books sold. Amazon engages in these partnerships risk-free since they only have to pay once. This tilts things heavily in the favor of those who hold the corporate rights.
As a writer, I find self-publishing extremely tempting. To control your own content sounds like a dream compared to the hoops you have to jump through to get published traditionally these days. While the strategist in me applauds Amazon for its innovative move, as a writer, I wish the terms were more balanced.
The Reader Perspective: Has Fan Fiction Sold out?
TV shows, video games, and novels that have captured the public’s hearts and minds have generated hundreds of thousands of derivative stories. Fanfiction.net’s most popular book fandoms (the communities that surround a given series, book, or movie) include a vast number of reader-written stories: “Harry Potter” (643,273 stories), “Twilight” (209,981), “Lord of the Rings” (48,855). The top television fandoms also generate hefty numbers of fandoms: “Glee” (94,175), “Supernatural” (78,008), “Doctor Who” (49,183), “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (46,048) and “NCIS” (34,735).
These stories have traditionally been distributed for free. What will the lure of compensation and the associated corporate control do to content that has up to now been inspired by a manic love for the characters and universes that spark imaginations?
Thanks to the digital age, falling in love with a fictional universe means never having to leave, and always having the ability to make everything just the way you like it. Fandoms don’t like to follow rules, it seems to me, and that might throw a wrench into Kindle Worlds.
For one thing, according to Amazon guidelines, Kindle Worlds won’t accept pornography or explicitly sexual material (ironic considering the success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which started as a derivative work based upon the “Twilight” series).
In much fan fiction, readers experiment with characters in ways that aren’t allowed in the original universe. Many popular stories are sexually explicit and violent. And the “Slash” subgenre of fan fiction dramatizes sexual relationships between same-sex characters. Is the general public ready to see their favorite characters interact in unconventional ways?
And Amazon doesn’t allow crossover fan fiction. That means characters from separate worlds cannot interact together in the same story. But well-done crossovers are some of the most fun stories to read. There might be a runaway best-seller hiding in a Chuck Bass/Elena Gilbert or a Nate Archibald/Damon Salvatore pairing. (Bass and Archibald are characters in “Gossip Girl;” Gilbert and Salvatore in “Vampire Diaries.”)
I’m torn. If Amazon can help spotlight quality pieces of content, then everyone in the fandom benefits and gets to enjoy great new stories. But I wonder if some of the most interesting content, the stuff that people might be most willing to pay for, is beyond the scope of these guidelines.
The evolution of digital content will have implications on content creators everywhere. Ultimately, fan fiction will march on as usual. But perhaps those who are enterprising and talented will find a way to earn some money while writing about stories and characters they love. Currently, Amazon offers many authors of fan fiction that chance, but with a lot of strings attached. It will be interesting to see what other business models will arise in this space and the opportunities it may create for writers everywhere.