Amazon plans to publish fanfic — and pay royalties to both the original rights holder and the fanfic author. The platform is called Kindle Worlds, and they’ll be kicking it off with stories from established authors like Barbara Freethy and Trish Milburn. Only worlds for which Amazon has secured a license will be eligible. As of the original announcement, that includes only Warner Bros. Television Group’s “Gossip Girls”, “Pretty Little Liars”, and “Vampire Diaries” book/TV series. Amazon is pursuing additional licenses as well. The program will publish fan fiction novels, novellas, and even short stories.
I have really mixed feelings about this whole idea. On the one hand, there is some terrific writing in the fanfic field (as well as stuff that is hilariously awful.) It would be nice if people who put that much talent, energy, and passion into their work could actually profit from it. On the other hand, as author Jim Hines mentions in a recent blog post, there’s a prevailing mentality in the fanfic community that you don’t do it for money. My daughter, who sometimes writes fanfic, agrees that it is indeed something you do out of love, or as a way of practicing your writing skills — often both.
I also doubt there are many authors will be willing to let other people make money from the worlds they have so painstakingly created. I think we’re a lot more likely to see licenses for “worlds” owned by film and television studios (and written either for-hire or by multiple authors) than for those based on the work of a single author, especially if that author is still living. In other words, Amazon might get licenses for Firefly or Battlestar Galactica or even House, but probably not for something like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Although it’s true that Rowling is more supportive of fanfic than many authors, she has not been tolerant of anyone trying to profit from her work. On the other hand, Sara Shepard, who writes the Pretty Little Liars books, is excited to have fans playing in her world. (Publishers Weekly) Even if only a small percentage of authors and rights holders agree to license their worlds, it looks like there will be plenty of worlds for fanfic writers to play around in.
I’m actually surprised no one has thought of doing this sort of thing before. Forbes points out that fanfic has been around since at least the 1960s and Star Trek. “Content creators have had half a century to understand fanfic and do something constructive with it, but yet it’s Amazon who are making the move to woo fanfic writers.” (Suw Charman-Anderson, Forbes) Once again, Amazon saw and seized an opportunity that everyone else was ignoring because it’s never been done.
- The original rights holder will provide “Content Guidelines” which you have to follow for your story to be eligible. Those guidelines prohibit crossover stories, where characters or ideas from one show or book series turn up in another. They also prohibit porn “or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts”, but there’s no indication of what Amazon would consider offensive, which leaves authors in an awkward position (no pun intended) when writing about relationships — what’s acceptable and what’s not?
- “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” That means that you can’t then turn around, remove the fanfic elements from your story, and sell or self-publish it as an original story (in other words, your story can’t become the next Shades of Gray.) And “life of the copyright” is an awfully long time: the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.
- “… 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.” So if you come up with a really cool new device (like the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, but your own invention), you can’t use it outside the “World” for which you created it. And if the license holder decides to use a character or element you created, you get no compensation. That means your character could show up in the “official” books or the show, and you won’t get a cent.
- Amazon gets to set the price, which is unlikely to exceed $3.99 even for a novel. Of course, some novels sell quite well at $3.99, but when you self-publish a novel for Kindle and sell it at $3.99, you get 70% royalties. For works of over 10,000 words, you’ll only get 35%, because of course the original rights holder also gets a cut. And the royalties are lower for stories priced at $0.99, at 20%.
- It’s your responsibility to make sure your “content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other rights.” Since most fanfic authors don’t have agents and aren’t necessarily up on copyright law or even trademarks, this one could potentially come back and bite you.
- And of course, at present these works will only be available in Kindle format, which means you’ll need a Kindle or a device with a Kindle app to read them… and you’ll probably have to submit your works formatted for Kindle.
Author John Scalzi posted his thoughts on the implications in terms of authors’ rights. He worries about some of the same points, and goes into more detail. You might also like to read the articles at GalleyCat, Forbes, and Publishers Weekly.