Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, May. 22nd
Blame E.L. James.
Anyone who watched how much money flowed into the pockets of the Twilight fan fiction writer turned New York Times bestselling author for her 50 Shades of Grey series knew that it wouldn't be long before someone found a way to harness the fanfic impulse for cold hard cash.
That it is Amazon leading the charge should come as even less of a surprise. Which is how we wound up today with the announcement of Kindle Worlds, a revenue sharing plan that is the equivalent of the YouTube cover song deal, but with written works of fan fiction.
Here's how it works:
At present there are three Worlds open to those who want to play for pay: Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries. You'll note that each of these has a TV show based on a popular YA novel series.
The standard deal is based on novelette length works and up:
Amazon Publishing will pay royalties to both the rights holders of the Worlds and the author. The standard author's royalty rate (for works of at least 10,000 words) will be 35% of net revenue.
The digital publishing giant is also experimenting with the short story format.
In addition, with the launch of Kindle Worlds, Amazon Publishing will pilot an experimental new program for particularly short works-between 5,000 and 10,000 words. For these short stories-typically priced under one dollar-Amazon will pay the royalties for the World's rights holder and pay authors a digital royalty of 20%.
Translation: nickels! Shiny nickels for everyone!
Amazon isn't the first company to try to bring cash into the fanfic world, an outfit called Fanlib played this card back in 2007-2008 and imploded. Part of the problem there is that fans do this work–and it is work–for the love of it. Money alters the equation, and brings in issues of control.
As fan fiction expert and MIT Media Lab professor Flourish Klink points out, as Kindle Worlds is set up those control issues would preclude an E.L. James like success:
People who take part in Kindle Worlds will be signing away a lot of the rights to their stories. Most importantly, the rights you give up prevent you from ever "filing the serial numbers off" of your story (á la 50 Shades of Grey) and selling it as original work. The rights also give the original world licensor the right to use your story ideas in the central series. I think that there are many people who will not mind giving up these rights, but there are many people who will—and there are also many people who will sign up for Kindle Worlds without fully understanding the rights they're giving away.
Flourish has dug into the Terms of Service and sussed out that porn and crossover fanfic is out of the question. While that may not be the bulk of fanfic it is an exceptionally popular sub-genre to the point where it is the first thing to come to mind for casual observers of fanfic.
Horror writer and transmedia storyteller Chuck Wendig has also weighed in on the announcement on his NSFW-language writing blog Terrible Minds. Wendig's take focuses on issues of "authorship and authenticity" when money enters into the equation:
The weird thing is what happens to that comfortable space that separated canonical from non-canonical. Like, one assumes that the fan-fic remains officially non-canonical — and yet, people are paying for it. And getting paid in return. Which lends a kind of intellectual and emotional legitimacy to it. And allows for a very weird thing to happen: it lets the licensed fan-fiction to become, in theory, bigger than the material that spawned it.
Wendig posits that the act of purchasing a piece of fanfic may make it feel more real to a fan.
There's a conventional wisdom amongst makers and consumers of pop culture here in the states that fans aren't so great at separating out multiple versions of the same story. It is one of the reasons that the reboot of the Star Trek film franchise relied upon a time travel story to act as a kind of emotional insurance for fans of the original series.
Consumers in Japan, however, have no such problems with multiple versions of the same property. Just look at how many times Mobile Suit Gundam has been rebooted over the decades. There is a strong tradition in Japan of self published works of fiction derivative of other's work and sold in fan markets.
Odds are that those who are willing to dive into this world can handle the difference between "official canon", the story world as the primary creators intend, and "head canon", the story each fan stitches together to create their own "greatest character hits" playlist.
There's a whole other dimension to this new venture: the strengthening ties between Amazon and Warner Bros.
The properties announced for the launch of Kindle Worlds–Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries–are all owned by a division of Warner Bros. called Alloy. Amazon and Warners already have deep ties thanks to the Amazon Studios initiative, and this latest announcement feels like it is cut from similar cloth.
Amazon like to be the biggest player on the block, it is one of the reasons that Jeff Bezos named the company after the mighty river. If there's even a modicum of success I expect that other intellectual property owners will join forces with the company.
What this all means for fan fiction as a community will depend largely on if fans embrace the idea. While keeping an analytical distance, Flourish Klink sees at least one upside:
There's nothing wrong with Kindle Worlds as one possibility among many. It actually represents one good thing: the recognition that fans are doing work for franchises, work which can and maybe should be compensated.
The Kindle Worlds submission platform will open in June.
Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)