JunoMagic posted a link this morning to the press release for Kindle Worlds, “the first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fan fiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.” (Here are the Kindle Worlds guidelines, again courtesy of Juno.) Yes, yes, you read correctly: Amazon is setting up a means for fanfic writers to publish their fanfic and make money on it.
My thoughts are still new and could change radically as we learn more about this project in the weeks and months to come. My first thought was, “Fanfic for profit?! I’m against that!” Because, in the past, I have spoken out against sites like FanLib, FanHistory, and LotRFF that seek to monetize fandom. But I haven’t been able to get likewise upset over Kindle Worlds. It is a different ball of wax, from where I’m standing.
First of all, the aforementioned for-profit fandom sites sought to harness fans’ passion for a show, movie, or book; their (essentially human) desire to create in that verse; and turn a profit on their energies without compensation to the fan. (I don’t count T-shirts with the company’s name on it to be compensation.) In many cases, these ventures were crafted to look like the non-profit archives fandom participants were used to frequenting, so fans weren’t even necessarily consenting to have their work used for profit. Neither were the rights holders, making these perilous ventures in the minds of many fans, with the potential to tar all fannish activity as a means to profit on someone else’s intellectual property. The mere thought makes me feel greasy.
Kindle Worlds, though, is expressly about granting what amounts to traditional publication to “fanfic,” including compensating authors with up to 40% of sales. In short, authors who pursue publication with Kindle Worlds know that they are entering for-profit territory. They are not posting on what they think is a new archive (or an old favorite … lookin’ at you, LotRFF!) only to discover that their story that has page clicks in the millions? Has been raking in a handsome profit for some business owner somewhere. Also, since the original rights holders are on-board, the idea that the project will draw negative scrutiny to fandom in general is not a concern.
There are some aspects of Kindle Worlds that I am watching with caution. First of all, there definitely appears to be a vetting process, as the press release declares “authorized stories” in the first paragraph. A vetting process is not inherently bad–many fandom outlets do the same, and of course, traditional publishers do as well–but I suspect that much of what is written in fandom will be rendered ineligible. The guidelines explicitly ban “pornography” (which I take to likely mean Adult or “NC-17” stories) and crossovers. What about AU? What about slash? What about crackfic? I could see any of these story falling under one of these designations receiving a rejection simply because of its genre, leaving large swaths of fannish activity confined to non-profit sites, just like at present.
I am downright concerned over the purchase of “all rights”: “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright” (Guidelines, “Start Writing Now”). For those unfamiliar with traditional publishing, publishing venues like literary magazines or anthologies typically obtain rights in only limited areas directly relevant to that particular publication. For example, an anthology may obtain first North American rights, meaning that it is the first venue in North America to print the story; the author could, therefore, sell first European rights to a British publication. Others may obtain digital rights, anthology rights, reprint rights, or audio rights. All rights, though, includes everything, so while you’re happily making 50 cents per download on your fanfic, Amazon is taking your great idea, making a blockbuster film, and they don’t have to share any of the revenue from that with you, because they–not you–own the film rights. Or they’re using your story for a new episode of the show, also without compensation. They spell that out in the same section linked above:
When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. 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.
It is up to each writer, of course, to decide what rights she or he is willing to sell. I made up my mind a decade ago to never sell all rights, but that is my decision and won’t be right for everyone. I just hope that Amazon is communicating fully to writers what exactly they are purchasing. While the explanation above is a step in the right direction, I’d still like to see an FAQ or similar document to spell out exactly what “all rights” means, what a writer can do with her work (can she remove it from the site? post it on a non-profit site? sell reprint rights, assuming Amazon isn’t always the only site purchasing fanfic? distribute copies to friends for free?) and what she will not be able to do. I hope Amazon realizes that fannish culture presupposes a lot of freedom for the author, and that fanfic authors may not necessarily be familiar with the restrictions that selling a work to a publisher entails.
What about the “morality” of making money on fanfic, from the author’s perspective? I don’t have a problem here, actually, although I suspect I may end up in the minority on this one. Would that all artists with talent could make a living–or even part of a living–on their work. I think it’s a shame that we value art so little that a short story that took weeks, months, or years to craft may sell to a literary magazine for little to nothing (yet our society always manages to cough up the millions required to sustain athletic teams. Just sayin’.)
As for its impact on fandom in general, especially the selected fandoms that will participate in Kindle Worlds … I am less sure here. I could see people who ordinarily would not touch fanfic–there is a stigma, after all–becoming enthralled with “official” fanfic and then being more open-minded to its free (and in many cases, probably higher-quality) counterparts on non-profit archives on the Web. I don’t see attrition in the opposite direction: People who participate in existing non-profit fan communities giving up involvement there in order to read exclusively on Kindle Worlds. After all, even less than a dollar per story could result in a dollars-per-day reading habit, which could be likewise accomplished for free on a non-profit site. The community and social aspect of fandom is also not something that I see being easily replicated on Kindle Worlds–or replicated at all–and that is a huge driving force behind fannish participation. Fandom is so wonderful, in a large part, in my opinion, because it is so communal and collaborative.
My chief concern would be a talent-drain among authors in the selected fandoms and especially genres acceptable to the project. If you write stories acceptable for Kindle Worlds, and you can make money on your work and don’t mind giving up all rights, then why would you offer it for free? This could essentially have the effect of removing popular authors from the community aspect altogether or paring down those genres of fanfic most acceptable for a project like Kindle Worlds (i.e., canon-compliant genfic).
I haven’t read a lot of commentary on this yet because I am just home from work, and most social-networking sites are blocked at my school. So this is all off the top of my head. I expect monster-shouting to ensue, but I don’t see reason for panic yet and have described myself as “cautiously optimistic” about the whole thing elsewhere. Even though Kindle Worlds claims to be offering “fan fiction,” based on the press release and guidelines I’ve read, they’re only sampling a very, very narrow portion of what’s commonly written under the heading of “fanfic.” I think a question to ask, before letting the monster-shouting begin, is how many of us write stories that fit the guidelines, were Tolkien fanfic to be accepted? How many of us would relinquish all rights to our work? How many of us would give up the community element? In those who raised their hands three times, we have the impact on our community, were Tolkien fanfic, hypothetically, to join the list of accepted fandoms.
ETA: While I was on hiatus, I started getting a ridiculous amount of spam on this site. I need to invest in better spam protection, but that isn’t something I have time to research and implement right now. (Actually the whole site needs an overhaul, but that’s an epic adventure for this summer!) Anyway, as a result of my trying to at least get spam to not appear on the site, most comments go to moderation. I’m monitoring this, but if you comment and it doesn’t show up, please email or message me, so that I can rescue your comment from all the spam comments about car covers and handbags and dui attorneys in san diego that it is (quite miserably, I’m sure) keeping company with.
ETA2: With the help of my sister, I have activated spam protection and, as a result, have turned off the setting that was causing most comments to go to moderation. Thanks, Sharon! Please continue to email me or message me if your comment does not appear.