Amazon Steps Into the Cloistered World of Super-Fandom

Kindle Worlds is Amazon Publishing's bold foray into the world of fan-authored content

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What if you could make money for being a super-fan, just by doing something you already love? This is the enticing concept behind Amazon Publishing’s latest Kindle Project. For those devoted followers Amazon hopes to engage, the idea of making a profit from their pursuits of passion will be a tempting proposition—but many fans are already wary of what giving in to that temptation might mean.

As of June 27, Amazon’s “Kindle Worlds” is open for business. It’s a platform designed to, in effect, legalize and monetize fan-created texts based on movies, TV, books and other media. This so-called “fan fiction”—stories that take characters from established properties but put them in new situations, pairings or settings—is nothing new, but it has traditionally lived somewhat in the shadows. Although a few famous authors (Anne Rice, for example) have been vocal in their disapproval of what they see as appropriation of their work, most rights-holders turn a blind eye or even encourage fan fiction, so long as it’s an act of love rather than a commercial venture. The legal questions behind fan fiction, or fanfic, are a gray area with no case law, but most fan writers believe it falls under the doctrine of “fair use,” particularly when there’s no money involved. In the relatively rare cases where money has entered the picture, the common practice is what’s known to fans as “filing off the serial numbers”: changing all recognizable names and places, so the work has no recognizable link to the original content. The Twilight-to-Fifty Shades of Gray transformation is the most famous example.

Here’s where Kindle Worlds steps in: they don’t just leave the serial numbers on; they add some more. Imagine if the rights-holders—Worlds Licensors, in their lingo, and The Powers That Be to many fans—gave their okay to split profits with fans on fan fiction. That’s Kindle Worlds. Just submit your fan fiction, in an approved fandom, and if it gets the okay from Amazon and the Licensor, it will be available for sale via Amazon. Some of the money goes to you; some of it goes to the creator; it’s all above-board.

“Part of our mission is to act as a laboratory, looking for new business models for writers to be creative, for writers to reach out to an audience, for writers to earn a revenue through royalty generation,” says Philip Patrick, the Kindle Worlds publisher and director of business development. “Kindle Worlds is a prime example of that, for writers to have the ability to do that on the Kindle platform and reach an audience of readers.”

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Right now, the number of “Worlds” available in the platform is limited but includes big properties like Pretty Little Liars and Vampire Diaries. The roster is expanding regularly—and, for professional writers, getting in on it from the beginning makes economic sense, says author Barry Eisler, whose John Rain novels are part of the program. “Some people just do not like the feeling of other people writing stories with the characters they created,” he says. “Publishing for me is a business, not an ideology. When I sold the Bulgarian rights to my book, I was very excited to sell them—and this is just another subsidiary rights offer.” Plus, Eisler says, Kindle Worlds provides a net good for the writers everywhere by opening up the business to new writers and empowering those on both sides (fans and Licensors) to choose whether or not they want to participate.

Fans, however, aren’t so sure.

At least some of their reservations, expressed in the time between Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Worlds a few weeks ago and the actual launch of the platform, Amazon says are resolved by information now available. For example, the preliminary guidelines mention that each World will have its own set of guidelines as to how far away from the canon a story can deviate and how much, if any, adult content will be permitted; the specifics of those guidelines will be made available to writers before they start submitting. Fans are also concerned about the monetary terms of Amazon’s deal and the implications of writing something that can only be accessed via the dedicated platform.

A perhaps bigger issue, however, is that fans have already been burned by a project seen as similar to Kindle Worlds. Kristen Murphy is the president of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit organization for fans that supports the creation of “fannish” works like fan fiction. She points out that this isn’t the first time a non-fan organization has stepped in to try to turn fan devotion into a business. “I think a lot of fans are very suspicious of what looks like attempts by outsiders to come in and commodify the community and make money off of us,” she says. “There’s always going to be, I think, some of that suspicion.”

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The most obvious point of comparison, Murphy says, is to FanLib, a for-profit fan fiction archive that was launched in 2007, but only lasted for about a year. Like Kindle Worlds, FanLib was a commercial venture. Reaction from fans was largely negative: FanLib would retain the rights to fics that were entered into the official contests it held, the company’s interactions with fans were seen as arrogant and none of the money made by the for-profit archive would go to fan authors. FanLib also brought money into the fan equation without providing the legal framework to support fans if rights-holders got upset. Many fans at the time also thought that FanLib’s creators were missing the point of fan fiction by not understanding that the appreciation of fellow fans and the experience of writing was the enough of a reward—something that someone without the fannish gene might not be capable of grasping.

Kindle Worlds avoids some of the most egregious missteps committed by FanLib—participants will retain the rights to their original content, stay within the law and take home a share of profits (royalty rates of either 20% or 35% depending on length)—but it raises many of the same core questions.

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Henry Jenkins, the University of Southern California academic (or “aca-fan”) who is to fandom as Alfred Kinsey is to sex, believes it comes down to self-determination. In an upcoming roundtable discussion in Cinema Journal magazine, to which Jenkins provided early access for TIME, he discusses the way that Kindle Worlds allows us to look at how the line between a subculture and the mainstream can shift. Jenkins writes that Amazon and FanLib are very different—FanLib was “a reckless violation of the norms of fandom”—and that Kindle Worlds has both potential pros (an opportunity for a more diverse set of fans to think they might one day “go pro”) and cons (outside constraints placed on who can say what).

But either way, in Jenkins’ view, Kindle Worlds has the potential to change fandom by introducing the potential for payment into what had been a world without money or, in a worst-case scenario, attracting negative legal attention to those fans who choose to write outside its framework when they could opt in. And that would mean that fans would not be able to choose for themselves whether they wanted to be mainstreamed.

Amazon’s Patrick says that the goal of Kindle Worlds is not to harm the non-monetized fanfic world. “There is that ethos, of doing it for the love of writing and doing it for the love of being a fan. I think that always exists, period, that goes on forever and I think it’s awesome,” he says. “What we’re trying to do here is simply create yet another option for people to explore that form of creativity. We are creating a legal environment for our licensed properties for writers to write and earn a royalty, but by no means is that the only option that’s going to be available to writers. We’re just one of many now.”

Henry Jenkins says it’s too early to tell whether the number of options will decrease, intentionally or not: “It remains to be seen whether or not the availability of commercialized forms of fan fiction threaten those many fans who would prefer to continue to produce and share their works under a gift economy model,” he writes.

And as for the fan-fiction writers themselves?

It remains to be seen what they do, too. But Kristen Murphy says that, in her expertise, some fans have already made up their minds about Amazon: “Certainly some people are always going to be skeptical no matter what they do.”