Hi folks, The Bookloft here. Some of you may have heard of Amazon's new Kindle Worlds program, and its strategy for monetizing fanfiction. We've been getting questions about our thoughts, and here is an overview.
Fanfiction writers from around the world write stories featuring characters and ideas from their favorite media in new context. This can be used to illuminate certain hidden textual clues from the original story, or for flights of fancy about how it could have been, or sometimes purely for titillation. A major demographic of fanfiction is 18-35 year old women, often seeking and writing content that is inherently adult. One particularly popular flavor has become "slash" fiction, in which characters of the same gender become romantically involved despite this not occurring in the original story. Stories are posted online, and people discuss, laud, and critique pieces, often borrowing ideas from each other and expounding on them further. Fan authors and readers can create deep personal bonds through this method - large online communities have developed around this model; one can already see why traditional publishers take some objection to this. Fanfiction, though, is not created for monetary gain, making copyright issues in the fanfiction communities a legal gray area. Publishers are usually content to leave these groups alone, as long as nobody is profitting off of infringed authorial rights.
Opinions about fanfiction vary among authors: George R.R. Martin is opposed to fanfiction in general (and especially without authorial consent); J.K. Rowling supports Harry Potter fanfiction, as long as "it remains a non-commercial activity to ensure fans are not exploited and it is not being published in the strict sense of traditional print publishing;" and the Tolkien estate is notoriously tight with the rights to his legacy.
Now comes Amazon into the picture. Kindle Worlds is a program soon to be actualized that will allow fanfiction writers within certain narrative "worlds" (the books that they piggy-back on) to publish and distribute their pieces electronically through Amazon. At the moment, only three worlds are represented - Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl - but more are certainly on the way. This works because Alloy Entertainment, who owns the rights to these three franchises, is on board with the project, as are the original authors. The three worlds represented now are not the largest or most rabid fanbases, and it remains to be seen whether Amazon can obtain the rights to what would be some of the more lucrative properties.
What do the fan authors who sign up for this deal get? For works over 10,000 words, they get royalties equal to 35% of the net profit for every month, and 20% for works under 10,000. Note that this is net profits, on items that will cost between $0.99 and $3.99. It is unlikely that any but a lucky few will make a substantial amount of money on this, but will act more as a supplemental income for an activity that is already being done.
What do Amazon and Alloy and any other publishers that jump on board get from it? Both Amazon and Alloy get a cut from the sales. In addition, Amazon gets exclusive copyright and distribution rights to the stories. Author John Scalzi pointed out on his Whatever blog that this means they can assemble anthologies or distribute stories in different languages without paying the writers (found here). Alloy gets rights to mine the stories for any original characters and ideas that they want to take and add into their official franchise entries without recompense to the authors.
This is legal, a contract between consenting parties, so it removes some of the ambiguity from the normal legal state of fanfiction. With this legitimacy, however, comes a price: that of censorship. Fanfiction has a reputation for being, on occasion, pornographic. Amazon will not be allowing graphic sexual acts in the stories published through this method. They will also be monitoring for "offensive content." Obviously, there will be some sort of screening process - whether it will be an actual person or a computer picking out keywords, or a combination of both is yet to be seen. Amazon also holds the right to deny publication based on what they define as a "poor customer experience," which can take many forms. While this may be their way of maintaining quality control, it is also a broad net that could be thrown at many an unsuspecting author. Already a large portion of what attracts people to fanfiction is disqualified, but how will this censorship affect slash fiction, or other topics that can get steamy without being specifically pornographic?
One part of the process that has not been addressed, and is probably easy to overlook on both sides, is protection for the drafts that are barred from being published. Since they do go through a screening process, and are therefore read by an entity (electronic or biological), they have certainly entered Amazon's servers. Are these drafts protected from the idea mining that will take place with the published writings? Can Amazon cite a poor customer experience, and then pass the document to Alloy because it had one good idea among some unacceptable ones? It is unlikely, but something that should be addressed before the program goes live nonetheless.
Is it fair? Do fanfiction authors have to stoop to what would be considered a terrible deal for standard publication just because of its seeming self-referentialism, or does the craft deserve more consideration, perhaps as a "found object" art more than intellectual property theft? While it is obviously an attempt at further corporate gain, is it also giving a valuable level of legitimacy to the craft that is worth the costs? In some cases it could be, especially considering that fanfiction authors have little in the way of intellectual rights. Perhaps the thrill that they liked your idea and put it into the series (making it canon) will be enough. This is to say nothing about the cultural etiquette found within the fanfiction communities; how will this development affect these communities? Will there be a sense of betrayal inherent in selling fanfiction that splits established communities in two (see 50 Shades of Gray and the fallout from its publication)?
It may end up being a non-issue; the type of censorship used in selection excludes much of what makes these communities unique. Pornographic material rules out an extensive amount of fanfiction and much of its draw. Slash fiction, another popular topic, may not make it past the "offensive content" or "poor experience" clauses because of its (however inaccurate) association with overtly sexual content.
Given all of this, Kindle Worlds may simply become another fanfiction community with its own idiosyncracies and etiquette. On the other hand, there is the possibility of a single author selling works on Amazon, and writing other pieces that would not be acceptable there and sharing these with other communities. Since fanfiction stories are intimately informed by each other, would this encourage Amazon to pursue legal action against other, often nebulous, fanfiction communities where traditional publishers have thusfar lacked the audacity to tread?