Does Kindle Worlds Mean the End of Fandom? And Monster Shouting

One of the more intriguing questions being posed about Kindle Worlds is whether or not it poses a threat to fandom as we know it. A couple of arguments have been made. First and primarily, I am hearing that, once rights holders realize that they can corral and profit on fandom, they will banninate all “unauthorized” fanworks. The second argument I’ve heard is that Kindle Worlds will function to shine a light on fandom, calling attention to us in a way that is not flattering and may make rights holders realize that we pose a threat to their profits.

I think these are good questions to talk about and debate because we don’t know what the future holds, whether Kindle Worlds will obtain licenses for more than few works put out by Alloy, whether they will have success, or whether they will eventually fade into the night. How much of an impact will they have on us, including those of us writing in fandoms, like the Tolkien fandom, that are unlikely to ever participate in Kindle Worlds?

To take the first argument: Kindle Worlds will make rights holders sit up and realize that they can contain and profit on fanworks. In this scenario, they either set up with Kindle Worlds or something like Kindle Worlds to allow fans to produce “authorized fan fiction.” Anyone who creates fanworks outside of these bounds receives the dreaded cease-and-desist letter. Taken to its extreme, communities and archives collapse; the impact even on large multifandom archives like FanFiction.net could be devastating.

Having gone to the bottom of that slippery slope, I want to first point out that this scenario is not much different than the Great Fear looming over producers of fanworks already. That Great Fear is that, one day, we will come home to a letter or an email containing a C&D letter from the rights holders of whatever fandom or fandoms we participate in, or that archive owners will receive the same and shut down. As an archive owner as well as a creator of fanworks, I can’t say that the Great Fear hasn’t crossed my mind on more than one occasion. A rights holder deciding that they want to allow only authorized fanfic isn’t much different from a rights holder deciding that fanfic is banned entirely. (I won’t say that it is actually better. Producing authorized, sanitized, corporate-approved writing is not an improvement, in my mind, over having to go entirely underground.)

So asking why rights holders don’t crack down more on fanworks is very similar to the hypothetical question of why rights holders wouldn’t crack down only on “unauthorized” fanworks. I am not an expert on the debate over the legality of tranformative works and certainly not a lawyer; however, I have seen the point made that rights holders haven’t wanted to “go there” on the transformative-works question because the odds are not necessarily in their favor, and the decision in such a hypothetical court case could definitively provide fans with more explicit rights than we currently have while occupying the legal gray area. The legal battle would be the same, whether over unauthorized fanworks or fanworks in general, and presumably, rights holders still don’t want to go there.

The point is often made as well that rights holders overlook transformative fanworks because they have come to realize that, even if they cringe over how fans play in their world, those fans are a source of sustained interest in their products and some of their best customers. Look at the Tolkien fandom. Tolkien has been in his grave for over 30 years. For the duration of that time, there has been a vibrant fandom associated with the works he created. These are the people who buy the endless new posthumous books (case in point: my copy of The Fall of Arthur arrived in the mail earlier this week), who will spend ridiculous amounts of money for any scrap of new information about Middle-earth, who propelled the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies to record success at the box office. Without the Tolkien fandom, built in part on creating fanworks, the movies would not open to midnight shows full of Elf-ear- and Hobbit-foot-wearing fans who will probably see the movie again two, three more times but would be reduced to just another sword-and-sorcery flick here and gone in a matter of weeks from theaters.

The point about Kindle Worlds, of course, is that it channels that fan activity toward profitable ends, and fan activity that is not profitable will be deemed unacceptable. But is it necessarily the case that fan activity that doesn’t result in direct revenue isn’t beneficial to a rights holder?

I have said since the outset and continue to say, based on the limited information that we have about how this project will work, that Kindle Worlds and projects like it will likely benefit from coexisting with existing fannish activities. First and foremost, it is likely that most of their writers and a good number of their readers are coming from these communities. Presumably, Amazon is smart enough to realize that the way to get people to hang out at your shiny new community center isn’t by burning down their homes so that they have nowhere else to go. As entities like Fanlib and Keith Manders have learned, fandom may not agree on much, but we can put up a united front when it counts, when we feel our existence is being threatened. I would argue that the best way for Kindle Worlds to derail their new project? Is to let it become associated with the closure of existing fan communities. I may have never even heard of Pretty Little Liars much less their fandom before the Kindle Worlds reveal two days ago, but let archives and authors in that fandom start getting C&D letters and they will become the fannish equivalent of the spotted owl to me, i.e., I have no problem with doing the Web equivalent of chaining myself to a tree in front of bulldozers to preserve them.

To the contrary, Kindle Worlds has the opportunity to benefit from existing fan communities. After all, we have done for free the difficult work of setting up communities where interest in the original work–even when that original work is no longer in production–is not only sustained but often self-renewing. As much as I enjoy Tolkien’s books, I’ve no doubt that my interest would be far less intense today if I didn’t have a community providing constant new commentary on those works, often in the form of fiction and art. The Fall of Arthur probably wouldn’t be sitting a few feet from my hand, i.e., the Tolkien Estate would not still be making money off of me, without fandom to sustain my interest. Fans who lose interest in the original world because of a dearth of opportunities to continue to interact with that world will not be lining up to pay for fan fiction from Kindle Worlds. However, were Kindle Worlds to actively recruit popular authors to their service–and it will be interesting to see, as the project unfolds, whether they will make overtures toward the so-called “big-name fans” to write for them (maybe offering better terms?)–fans who ordinarily wouldn’t think of paying to download fanfic might fork over that $3.99. But again, this cannot happen without active and vibrant fan communities to produce BNFs and their fangirls.

The argument is made: “Why pay for what you can get for free?” In other words, once fans hooked on fan fiction realize that they can go to traditional archives and read for free, what’s to keep them spending their money on stories from Kindle Worlds? But I’d argue that that question–Why pay for what you can get for free?–works both ways. Why would Amazon want to spend the money to build a fan community from the ground up to sustain their Kindle Worlds project when dozens of those communities for any given fandom already exist, and if Amazon presents their project correctly, they can benefit off of them for free? When I think of the hours that I have put into building just an archive and community for a small fandom, I could, at some points in the SWG’s life, come close to making a living on that work, had I been paid for it. If Amazon brings down traditional fandom, they will have to pay people to build something resembling it–and inevitably, what they create will be but a pale comparison since it will be driven by something other than the needs and wants of fans.

In all, am I fully happy with Kindle Worlds? No, I’m not. Could it have a negative impact on what we do? Sure it could … but operating in a legal gray area, as we do, that isn’t much different from what we face now. My feeling, thinking about it, is that Kindle Worlds and traditional fandoms will coexist. I feel strongly that traditional fandom benefits both rights holders and Kindle Worlds, and I think Amazon can afford to pay consultants smart enough to know that. Now will traditional fandom benefit from Kindle Worlds? On that I am less certain and will get to below.

The argument is also being made that Kindle Worlds could shine a light on fannish activity and makes rights holders aware of exactly how fans play with their original works. I’ll be quick on this one. None of us should deceive ourselves into believing that the rights holder in our particular fandom isn’t keenly aware of us. They are. We’re not in the closet anymore, people. Fan fiction has received coverage in the mainstream media. They know we’re here, they know what they’re doing, and they’re already keeping an eye on us.

However, for the reasons enumerated above, they either don’t want to go there because they don’t like the legal odds or they recognize that our happy utopian gift economy can have very real benefits for their dollars-and-cents economy. Pretending that Kindle Worlds is somehow going to startle the Tolkien Estate into awareness that fans are enthusiastically slashing Frodo and Sam is naive: They already know.

This is where I get into the monster-shouting bit. A few people remarked that my initial post Here Comes Kindle Worlds was reasonable and rational in tone. I wrote it at work. I can blog at work, but I can’t access most social media sites, so I was responding primarily to the press release and guidelines with very little idea of what other fandomfolk were saying. I posted my piece and then went and read some of the growing pile of commentary from fans. Much of it was thoughtful as always, but then there was the monster-shouting.

The monster-shouter was a character in Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which was one of my favorite books when I was an elfling. He roams around New York City after the arrival of the plague that wipes out most of humankind, shouting about monsters. Since I was an elfling, monster-shouter has been my go-to term for those who warn stridently about things that don’t exist, often in the face of legitimate threats. I knew that the Kindle Worlds announcement would bring out the monster-shouters, and it did. People who clearly hadn’t read anything about this before reacting to it with much running around and screaming with hands in the air. Had I been able to hear the monster-shouting from my insulated place at work, then I doubt the initial post would have been so neutral in tone.

Lyra’s If you kindle Worlds, will they burn up? is a much closer approximation to how I felt, post-exposure to monster-shouting. “Sweet Eru, we’ve known about Kindle Worlds … for ONE DAY,” Lyra writes, “and I’m already sick of the matter – to be precise, of the fannish reactions of the alarmist and rabble-rousing sort.”

Yes, the monster-shouters. Just like in The Stand, there is plenty to be concerned about Kindle Worlds, but that’s not enough for some people without inventing monsters of a world-ending variety to rail against. The frustrating thing about monster-shouting is that it distracts from conversations about what is real and of concern about Kindle Worlds. I have seen far fewer people, for example, talking about the implications of a project that specifically targets fandoms that attract young writers than I have seen making the monster-shouty assertion, “JUST WAIT TILL THE RIGHTS HOLDERS FIND OUT IT WILL BE JUST LIKE FANLIB ALL OVER!!!1!”

Monster-shouting does no one any favors. I honestly don’t understand the idea of reacting to something you can’t be arsed to read two pages about. Okay, whatever. People often can’t be bothered to read a handful of guidelines about a project I’m running before either reacting emotionally to that project or asking me something that is in the guidelines–both the reacting and the asking, I would note, actions that take longer to carry out than reading the guidelines would have taken. What is it about reading and informing oneself that is so repellent to otherwise intelligent people, just because it has to be done on the Internet? But I digress. Monster-shouting muddies the waters of what would otherwise be a thoughtful discussion. It takes time and passion that could be more productively exerted. And it casts us, as a community already located on the periphery of what is deemed acceptable artistic expression and so apt already to be distrusted or easily maligned, as a bunch of ignorant hysterics. Even if we don’t care what outsiders think, we should should care that writers in the fandoms targeted by Kindle Worlds can find good meta about it, should they go looking for it. It’s bitterly ironic when someone rails about the possibility of writers being taken advantage of by the terms Kindle Worlds is offering while, in the same breath, polluting the discussion with monster-shouting.

I have found myself, in these past few days, feeling almost like a defender of Kindle Worlds, which I dislike because I’m not. But I also can’t sit by and let information that is straight-up wrong go uncorrected. Blame the teacher in me. I have a lot of concerns (although many of them are predicated on information we don’t yet have, like the actual contract for writers or elaboration on the vetting process) and am almost certain that I will not ever be completely happy with this project, although I also feel that something like this is an inevitable development, as fandom becomes more mainstream. But, ultimately, Kindle Worlds is a profit-driven project; its priorities are not and never will be promoting new authors or developing fan communities. In my mind, that makes it somewhat incompatible by default with traditional fandom and suspect among communities that recognize a very different currency than dollars and cents.

I have a lot of questions. I do wonder how traditional fandom will be perceived by rights holders if Kindle Worlds is a success. I have given my opinion here but would love to see more on why people feel the opposite than I do … and many do. What could Amazon do to make sure the writers go into this project with fully open eyes? Assuming they don’t, what is our obligation in fandom to step up and do that? What could we do? What is the likelihood that the terms will be used to take advantage of writers? They are pretty typical based on contracts offered writers of authorized tie-ins (and some have made the convincing argument that Kindle Worlds is closer to that than actual fan fiction), but then Alloy Entertainment has a pretty skeevy reputation, from what I understand. What about the fact that Kindle Worlds targets fandoms made up largely of young writers? Does this reflect a desire to exploit them, or is it more a reflection of how young people view transformative works as legitimate artistic expression and just as worthy for compensation as original fiction? What would make us, Fandom, fully happy with Kindle Worlds? Is that even possible? How does being paid for one’s writing change one’s perception of that story and of oneself as an author? If an author has access to a dollar-and-cents economy and a gift economy, which will she choose? What will be the tipping point where she chooses one over the other, i.e., at what point will a check in the mail replace the glow of happiness from prolific, positive comments or vice versa? How will Kindle Worlds interact with traditional fandom? How will authors who participate in Kindle Worlds be perceived in traditional fan communities? Will success with Kindle Worlds affect an author’s status in a traditional fannish community?

These are all questions on my mind that I hope, once the fervor of the initial reactions dies down, that we can discuss in the weeks and months to come.

Okay, some admin stuff. The spam issue should be solved (thank you, Sharon!), which means that most legitimate comments that were being flagged for moderation should post without moderation now. Welcome to new readers here! I am trying to launch this project again, as my semester comes to a close and my teaching career settles into something sane (i.e., not requiring me to take home hours of work each night). I will have more information in the coming weeks for anyone interested in writing or guest-posting here. In the meantime, you can follow new posts to this blog on LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, and Tumblr. And, yes, I know the site is archaic. It’s going to get dragged kicking and screaming into the year 2013–because it’s so 2009–over the summer.

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