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May 23, 2013

Amazon’s Fan Fiction Model: Is It a Good Idea?

Kindle Worlds logo with text: Good Idea? Or Bad Idea?

The internet exploded yesterday with Amazon’s introduction of “Kindle Worlds,” a new publishing model for writers inspired to write fan fiction (fanfic). Everyone and anyone has been commenting on this development, often with gnashing of teeth.

Some see this as a win for the fanfic authors, and some see this as an exploitation and/or ripoff of the fanfic community and its writers. So let’s step back for a minute and take a look at what this really means—and what it doesn’t.

What We Know: Don’t Believe All the Headlines

I first learned of the announcement when my good friend Angela Quarles posted a link on my Facebook account to the MediaBistro/GalleyCat article. Unfortunately, GalleyCat used a misleading headline: Amazon To Allow Writers To Sell Fan Fiction.

Technically, yes, Amazon will be allowing writers to sell fan fiction. However, before anyone thinks “Oh, fanfic is completely ‘legal’ now because Amazon said so,” we need to realize that their model applies only to certain properties.

Currently, Amazon has negotiated to partner with the “worlds” (i.e. the media rights holder) of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. Amazon will publish fanfic in those worlds (if it conforms to certain guidelines) and the rights holder and the fanfic author will share revenue.

In other words, Amazon isn’t opening this up as a fanfic free-for-all but as a way to partner with certain properties who have approved this arrangement. Other properties will likely join in as they see this idea develop, but nothing is being done without permission of the rights holder.

What We Don’t Know: How Big Will This Get?

So far, all the properties in the program are TV shows with write-for-hire tie-in books. Will Amazon work with original fiction authors directly? What about video games and other media? Or are they only interested in large multimedia properties, where a single corporate entity already holds all the rights? Will any vetting occur? How much control will the rights holder have in kicking out a non-complying story? Will Amazon allow stories previously listed on a fanfic site?

We don’t know yet. However, I could see some authors of popular series thinking, “Hey, if people like E.L. James are going to rip off my characters and make money regardless of the questionable ethics, I may as well get in on it so I can get a cut.”

Ever since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, more and more in the fanfic community have been breaking the unwritten rule about “not profiting off fanfic.” This model provides a method for the original author to get something out of their hard work. At the same time, it allows fanfic authors to get something out of their work too. Seems like a win-win.

So Why the Drama? Let Me Explain…No, Let Me Sum Up

This unique concept has caught the attention of groups with varied backgrounds, ethics, and motivations. Some in one group hate Amazon’s idea for the very same reasons that another group loves it. They each have their own perspective (and summarizing requires me to generalize and stereotype a bit—sorry!).

(I’m basing my knowledge of these groups from my own fanfic experience, my communications with the fanfic community after the Fifty Shades of Grey blow-up last year, as well as several of yesterday’s conflicting posts and comments to Amazon’s announcement. I’m probably forgetting a few groups in here too. Again, sorry!)

  • Traditional FanFic Community: These writers and readers of fanfic believe not only that no one should profit off fanfic, but also that fanfic should be done for sheer love of the world, characters, and community. Even if the rights holder approves of published fanfic, any profit would be “dirty money” because it goes against the “for love alone” idea. Not surprisingly, most of them are against Amazon’s plan.
  • Freebie-Loving FanFic Readers: This group of readers love the fanfic community mostly because it supplies an endless variety of free stories. They’ll often read almost anything and everything, regardless of the story details or quality, just as long as it’s free. They don’t understand why anyone would pay for fanfic. Ever. In their mind, that defeats the purpose.
  • Edgy FanFic Fans: These writers and readers love the fanfic community because of the variety of stories that would never be accepted in the mainstream. They love exploring crossovers between worlds, non-canon relationships (i.e., Twilight‘s Bella and Jacob), erotica, etc. Many of these stories won’t be allowed under Amazon’s model, and since that’s what draws them to fanfic, they don’t understand why anyone would be interested in the idea.
  • Hobby FanFic Writers: These writers love to write fanfic as an escape. Many of these writers are already published with original fiction, and they use fanfic writing to break writer’s block or avoid deadline stress. Some of these writers would love to make money off their work with this program, but many of them worry that monetizing their hobby would create that stress they’re trying to avoid.
  • Ethical FanFic Writers: These writers love the world and characters, but care less about the fanfic community aspect (and possibly have never been a part of it). They wrote fanfic because they wanted to and might not have ever shared it with anyone. Some used fanfic as “training wheels” to build up to writing original fiction. The recent stampede to Pull-to-Publish (P2P) fanfic (changing the names of characters in a fanfic story and publishing it as “original fiction”) doesn’t appeal to them. They recognize that they don’t own the characters and ethics matter to them. The chance to share and make money on something that’s been sitting in a drawer sounds fantastic. They’re ecstatic about the potential of Amazon’s plan and hope it expands to the worlds they love so they can be a part of it.
  • Wanna-Be Tie-In Novelists: These writers would love to be a writer-for-hire on a tie-in story. They see this model as giving them an “in” with the rights holder. If their story is successful, they can hope the rights holder will contact them directly to write more stories in the world.
  • FanFic Writers Looking for a Gold Rush: These writers love the world and characters, but either didn’t think anything was wrong with P2P or saw so many others doing it that they figured it couldn’t be as wrong as they assumed. They might feel guilty about publishing fanfic, but the P2P gold rush mentality made them not want to miss out, especially because they did think it fair that they be compensated for their work. Accordingly, they might embrace Amazon’s plan if it spreads to their favorite worlds. They’d give up some of their royalty percentage, but they might gain exposure by being “part of the world” and able to appeal directly to those fans.
  • Non-Fan FanFic Writers: These writers often don’t care about the world or characters and were just interested in exploiting the fanfic community for readers. They feel no guilt for publishing their fanfic because they rationalize that the work they put into the writing supersedes any copyright or ethical considerations. They have no interest in switching to the Amazon plan, and would switch only if threatened with a lawsuit if they don’t.
  • Non-Fanfic Authors: These writers don’t understand the appeal of writing fanfic at all. They wonder why anyone with talent wouldn’t just write original fiction. Instead, they see only the “rights grab” of Amazon and are counseling writers to stay far away.
  • Amazon Haters: This group doesn’t necessarily care about fanfic one way or another and just hates the idea that Amazon is attempting to monetize yet another thing.

Each of those groups has only limited knowledge of the others. So they’ve been polling their echo chamber and coming back with results like “Everyone loves this idea,” “Everyone hates this idea,” “Everyone agrees that Amazon sucks,” etc.

None of that is true. The truth is that this publishing model will appeal to some and makes a great deal of sense for those authors. Just because it doesn’t appeal or make sense for other groups doesn’t mean it’s a deal with the devil.

Should Writers Want In? Or Not?

John Scalzi posted an article opining that this model rips off fanfic authors. He rightly points out that this model is more accurately called “unofficial media tie-in writing” (like the oodles of Star Wars and Star Trek books written on a write-for-hire basis) than true fan fiction. It’s almost like crowdsourcing for semi-legit in-world stories.

To support his negative opinion, he points out that the Amazon model’s license to write and publish in these worlds gives the rights holder a matching license to use any characters or ideas from the fanfic author’s story in other works with no further compensation. However, I’m not convinced that wording signals a ripoff:

  1. Rights holders must clarify that they have the right to fanfic elements. Otherwise, they’d land in lawsuit city with fanfic authors claiming their idea was stolen every time similar characters or events popped up in the official storyline.
  2. Media tie-in authors sign contracts with the same “rights grab” all the time. For example, one Star Wars tie-in author created the wife of Luke Skywalker and all later tie-in authors were allowed to use her character too.
  3. In fanfic communities, fanfic authors build on each other’s ideas already. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfic that was based on another Twilight fanfic story. Original work? Hardly.
  4. Finally, the whole concept of fanfic is that the fanfic author uses characters and ideas of the original author without compensating them. Most of the people complaining about this clause see nothing wrong with P2P either, so why is it okay for the fanfic author to make money on the original idea but not okay for the rights holder to do the reverse? (Especially when the fanfic author will be paid for their original story, and if the rights holder runs with one of their ideas, the fanfic author will be able to “advertise” that the idea originated in their story, leading to even more sales they will get paid for.)

Similar reasons of needing to preserve the original property’s rights explain the “term of copyright” clause. What else were rights holders going to do? Open themselves to lawsuits after the license expired in a couple of years? That would be unworkable.

As a matter of fact, a successful media tie-in author has stated that Amazon’s terms seem fair:

“For longer works (10,000 words or more), I get 35%… For short stories (which will be priced under $1), I get 20%…

…Standard royalties on work-for-hire tie-in novels range from 8% all the way down to nada. Of course, those contracts come with an advance, which Kindle Worlds (like all self-published Kindle books) doesn’t offer.

…“We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.” Which means you give up all future rights to your work. … Still, this is the same arrangement as with traditional tie-in work.

…Honestly, the advances for most tie-in novels are lousy. … If writers have to forgo a $5,000 advance to gain a 3500% increase in royalties, it might well be worth it.

…I might do so myself, if and when Kindle Worlds lines up the right property. Hell, I might be able to run a Kickstarter to get the advance lined up for me, deliver the book through Amazon, and then rake in 35% royalties for my trouble. That’s a tempting deal.”

So, for those fanfic authors who wouldn’t mind making money for the stories they love writing and want to avoid the ethical issues of P2P, I think this could turn into an interesting option. We’ll have to stay tuned to see if readers will be willing to pay, if other properties join the program, and if the restrictions help or hurt the experience. Personally, since I’m not a fan of publishing fan fiction through P2P, I’m looking forward to seeing how this changes the game. *smile*

What do you think of Amazon’s announcement? What are you most curious about in regards to how things will work? Which camp do you fall into as far as loving or hating the idea? Do you think the terms are good or bad for fanfic authors? What worlds would you love to see in the program?

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What do you think?

25 Comments on "Amazon’s Fan Fiction Model: Is It a Good Idea?"

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Alison
Alison

I have fewer problems with this than with P2P, because at least the provenance of the characters and world is openly acknowledged here. It’s not a case of someone writing Edward Cullen and then later pretending he was really Christian Gray all along. I have concerns about the terms, but that’s kind of an author beware situation–as long as someone knows what they’re getting into, then it’s up to them to decide whether they can live with it.

My concern is what effect this will have on fan fiction currently available on FanFiction.net, AO3, and other archives. If Alloy is going to license fan fic for Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries through Amazon, can we expect C&Ds to fan fiction archives? I can’t imagine Alloy would be okay with unlicensed, non-revenue-generating fan fiction of the properties it is licensing to generate revenue. And if this proves to be even moderately successful, I could see other, similar properties following suit.

I don’t think it’s the death of fan fiction, but it’s certainly another step toward significantly changing the landscape of fan fiction as we know it.

JL
JL
Thank you for taking a step back and giving an even handed overview. Personally, I am very much in favor of what Amazon is doing. First, the terms that Amazon has laid out are no different than those for most writers – that is screenwriters, comic book writers, technical writers, and ghost writers. They have simply taken what is largely an industry standard (with the exception of original fiction) and applied it, as you have said, to crowd-sourcing. Second, as somebody who has read and been involved with fanfiction for well over 25 years, I personally feel the internet has not been a positive thing for fanfiction and fandoms. Far too many online fandom communities today function as pornography fiction sites, simply window-dressed to look like fanfiction. (I can’t help but wonder if this is also why there is such a sharp difference in how people view fanfiction today. In the past, fandoms like Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek might quietly acknowledge fanfiction existed, but it wasn’t an issue, because the content of the fanfiction wasn’t an issue. Today, fanfiction has become an issue because the content has become an issue.) I like Amazon’s strong stance against pornography and suspect that they will be tapping a need that exists and is no longer being met by fandom. Third, I am retiring soon and while I could write, I am reluctant to trade my day job for another hamster wheel. I am releasing one book soon (it is orginal fiction turned… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
My first thought after reading the Kindle Worlds pages: That is so cool! 😀 After reading your post on the cons of this process, I see how Kindle Worlds can be a bad thing as well. But I still have a rather positive view on this. I used to like reading fanfiction on fanfiction.net (I wasn’t much of a fanfic writer, more just a reader and reviewer, lol), and I’ve had some really positive experiences with some stories from my favorite fandoms that were very well written and fun to read (in my opinion.) So it seems like with Kindle Worlds, especially as authors can now design a cover and turn it into a Kindle ebook, it “professionalizes” their fanfiction more, and may make some people more interested in reading them. I know some people who are against reading anything free online because that’s “cheap and unprofessional” (according to them). So ironically, some people may value fanfics more now because they need to pay, lol. Also, one issue I always had with fanfiction.net was that they didn’t have a “star rating” section. I understand why they wouldn’t have that, but it would be nice if there was a rating section (like with Youtube videos) so I can pick out some especially well written stories and not waste my time on…shoddier ones. So if these fanfics are published on Amazon, then people can now rate them and create a “quality filter” for me when I choose stories to read, yay! However,… Read more »
Suzanne Johnson

I’ve been following this whole discussion with interest the last 24 hours. I don’t keep up with pop culture enough to write fan-fic should I even want to (yeah, sad, never seen a single episode of any of these shows). But I do know some authors participating in the launch. They enjoy the challenge of writing in an existing world, and also hope the exposure they get from it might drive new readers to their original works. Only time will tell!

Widdershins

I knew I’d find a sane post about this here.
I like what JL said about picking up a few extra dollars … be interesting to see how that pans out.

Anne R. Allen

Thanks for such a balanced overview. The problem is the new Zon program seems to blur the lines between professional and amateur writers. Before this, we all knew that professionals write tie-ins & amateurs write fanfic.

But I think real fanfic won’t change. For writers who don’t want to follow a lot of guidelines and rules, fanfic will still exist. And readers will show up because it’s free. But if you want to go pro and write tie-ins, the Amazon program offers a path to do it and get paid. Not a bad thing.

Stephen
Stephen
Hi Jami, been a while! Very nice post today. I agree with you about Scalzi’s points in general. I think he and others I’ve seen who are worried about the contracts are over reacting. There are tens of thousands of writers trying to breaking in to TV for example, and they are – by necessity – really writing Fan-fic. Because you have to write sample after sample of current shows you like. But you don’t own any of the stuff you write in there. Nor should you. Writing based on someone else’s existing characters and world is fun, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as original stuff. The creators should own everything in this new model. Writers getting paid for fan-fic is a great thing, but I’d consider that money to be manna from heaven, and not “look a gift horse in the mouth” as they say. Your concerns about the effect on Fan-fic as a genre are very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that angle because I’m not really involved in it. But I could see how it might represent a shift, perhaps unwelcome for readers and writers of fan-fic as it exists today. But this program is not going to be open to all comers. It sounds like there is a fairly regimented submission and approval process. I could see some stars going out of it, maybe. As for Amazon’s program: I just wish I knew anything at all about the properties they’ve licensed. I think it would… Read more »
Mary Robbins
Mary Robbins

Hi, I’m new here, and I don’t know if it’s to late to comment or ask a question, but here goes. I’ve seen a lot of people commenting about the “We’ll own and be able to use your new character without paying you a dime” part, but what I’m most concerned about is “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” Does that mean if a fanfic author did publish a fic as part of Kindle Worlds, that Amazon would automatically own any new stories the author wrote after that, even if the new story was completely original and unrelated to fanfiction in any way?

I have no legal background whatsoever, but that “will acquire all rights to your new stories” sounds worrying.

ChemistKen

I think I fit pretty firmly into the “Ethical FanFic Writers” category. I had no plans for my fanfic story until I discovered I liked writing fiction, then I began using the story as training for writing my own stuff. But hey, if Rowling began licensing out her universe, I’d consider going that route. In the meantime, though I’ll keep working on my own worlds and stories.

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[…] Worlds—the rise of licensed, for-sale fan fiction. Mixed feelings abound. Jami Gold wonders if Kindle Worlds is a good idea, and Chuck Wendig waxes philosophical wondering whether Kindle Worlds will blur the line between […]

Toby Neal

I’m truly impressed with the depth of this piece and all the fanfic subgroups–who knew??? Honestly!
Thanks for making me aware of all this through your thoughful comment on my blog.
Aloha
Toby Neal

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