Amazon’s Kindle Worlds

This has been dashed off fairly quickly, I may add to it in 24 hours, as I think of other elements I want to address.

NB – I am a scholar, with a scholarly interest in fandom. I am not a lawyer, nor am I a publisher. But the opinions expressed below are based on things that I have read from people I respect, and people who *do* seem to know what they’re talking about.

A day or so ago, Amazon announced their newest project, Kindle Worlds, an attempt to monetise, and ‘legitimise’ fan fiction. Almost immediately, my social media lit up with response. Some people were raving about the potential for this to see creators and fic authors get compensated for their work. Others were far less positive, and saw a number of concerning aspects to this move.

My immediate instinct was that something *felt* wrong about this idea. But I was really struggling to construct an argument that actually laid out the problems with it.

Here are the arguments that I’ve heard:

“This will legitimise fan fiction” – no. Fan fiction is already legitimate. As far back as we have storytelling, we have people taking known characters and worlds, and telling new stories with them. We have people taking existing stories, and telling them in new contexts, to make them relevant, to make them ‘current’, to make them speak to a new audience. This is not new. The form is legitimised in academia, and it is legitimised within fan cultures. Industry may not always be in favour of it, but that doesn’t delegitimise it.

“This will make fan fiction illegal” – no. It will not change the legal space of fan fiction. The current legal status of fan fiction rests on the Fair Use statute (in the US – obviously, different national contexts have different copyright exemptions). The relevant parts of the Fair Use statute revolve around how much of the source material is drawn on, how ‘transformative’ it is, and crucially, how it will impact economically on the *original* text. Now, I don’t think many people are reading Dr Who slash as a substitute for watching it on TV. But, either way, the legal status doesn’t change with this.

“Fan fiction authors will lose the rights to their stories” – yes, but only in the way that every author with a publishing deal loses the rights to their stories. When you sign a publishing deal, unless you are a pretty powerful author, you are going to lose a lot of rights. You’re not going to get a lot of say over things like cover design, possibly no say over translations of your work for different markets. I’m not hugely well read on publishing contracts, but I’m not certain how much say you would get on your material being licenced for other mediums, such as movie or TV adaptations. Publishing contracts are pretty restrictive for newcomers. Sure, if you’re awesome like Cory Doctorow, or you find an awesome publisher who wants you, you might get more say in the distribution of your work. But odds are, if you’re new to the publishing scene, you’re getting told to sign a crappy contract, and be happy with it. This Kindle Worlds contract does not seem dramatically different.

“This will kill off real fan fiction/fanfiction.net/AO3” – can’t see it happening. This argument comes in two forms, the “legal”, and the “spiritual”. Legally, I don’t see why this makes FF.net or AO3 any more likely to be shut down (see the point above). It may, possibly, bring a little more scrutiny to the transformative nature of the work. But, coming to the “spiritual” argument, I think that those spaces will be fulfilling a very different goal than Kindle Worlds. Kindle Worlds is not going to be allowing cross-media stories, not going to be allowing stories which involve sex, and it will be interesting to see how they handle slash fic in general, with my guess being that they’ll reject a lot. And there will be plenty of people who don’t see KW as a space with which they wish to be involved.

“It will kill off jobs for media tie-in authors” – this was one of the concerns raised by John Scalzi in his blog post about this. Firstly, I just can’t see this happening. Most media tie-in pieces, by virtue of being ‘authorised’, become canonical (not all, sure, there are exceptions). They hold a different place in the storyverse to fic, whether it’s paid fic or not. And secondly, if that turns out to be true, I can’t say that I’m all that upset about it. That may sound horrible, but the way of the world is that certain jobs disappear, and new ones appear. I’m not crying a little tear every time I send an email because I’m putting the postman out of business. I simply don’t buy an argument about lost jobs if the model around their job means that it isn’t needed any more. But, to reiterate, I don’t see that happening.

“The producers can steal my stories and make money off them” – Yes, but. Yes, this contract means that the source text author has the right to take your plots and characters, and build them back into the source text with no additional compensation. But, and I realise this is a tricky point, there is very little that you could do to stop them doing this currently. It would be very very difficult to prove that a producer has stolen an idea or a character from a piece of fic. Given that fic authors are unlikely to be registered with a Writers Guild, I’m not even certain what protection they would have. So, yes, they can. But I’m pretty sure they could now, with fic authors having very little protection.

When it comes down to it, there are 4 parties involved here: Amazon, media creators/authors, fic authors, and fans/audiences/readers. So let’s look at how this will affect each of these.

Amazon – well, Amazon are pretty damn happy here. It’s win/win/win for them. They get to offer more content, to a possible new audience. They get to make their cut. They probably have very little in the way of overheads, although they may have to provide some work to ensure that the material meets the quality standards they’ve put in place.

Media creators/authors – mostly win here. They get to receive some money for something which is happening anyway. However, there is one important factor which has been mostly overlooked here. It is unclear whether Alloy Entertainment has sought permission from the likes of Sara Shepard, before making Pretty Little Liars one of the offerings, and whether they had any obligation to. Some authors will love this as an idea, and others will not. However, should this become successful, it is unclear how much say authors will have in whether their work is included in the ‘authorised’ list, or whether that decision will be entirely up to their distributor/publisher. While I’m completely fine with people writing fan fic about any text they like, if they’re going to profit off it, I think that the original author deserves to have a say.

Fic authors – It’s hard to tell what the ramifications are for fic authors. On one level, there is no compulsion to be involved, so it’s completely up to them whether or not they sign up for the service. On another, it provides the possible (albeit remote) outcome of being discovered, becoming recognised for their work, and earning some money from it. On the flip side, this is not a contract that is friendly towards fic authors. They are surrendering the rights to characters they create, should the original author decide they want to incorporate them into the source text. They are surrendering further distribution rights, should Amazon want to make an anthology, or the like. But, these facts are all fairly well signposted in the contract, and have been widely discussed, so I do believe that writers will be fairly well informed going in.

Fans/readers – I really can’t decide what this means for audiences. In some ways, it provides readers with a way to compensate/reward authors whose work they appreciate.  In another way, it’s asking people to pay for something they have previously received for free, which is always going to be a little problematic.

It seems to me that a lot of the ick-factor around this comes from ideals around a discourse of the purity of amateurism. There is a sense that, if you are doing something for no direct economic return, that you are doing it for the love, for the art. And if you start getting paid for it, that you’ve sold out, that you’re working for ‘the man’, that you’ve become mercenary in some sense. Now, that’s not to say that there won’t be people who turn their hand to writing fic because they think they can make a quick buck. I’m sure there will be. And I’m pretty sure they will be sorely disappointed. But, I also think it’s a mistake to immediately leap to the idea that it’s somehow more noble to not get paid for something than to get paid for it.

So, what do I think is going to happen? Please note, this is *entirely* speculative.

I think a whole lot of people will sign up, and will upload a whole bunch of fic. I think that some people will pay a little money for it. I think that you will find a couple of stories, or a couple of authors, who find a market. This market may well not be people who have ever read fic before. Remember, one thing that Amazon does very very very well is its recommendation engine. Everyone who has bought Gossip Girl, PLL or Vampire Diaries content through Amazon is going to be getting this material recommended to them. So, it will open up new markets for fic, or at least attempt to convert existing markets.

I can see this material eventually being given a different term, something which distinguishes this from the fic which is available on FF.net or AO3. I can see the two existing side by side. I can see the number of contributions falling off dramatically, as fic authors realise that they aren’t going to be able to give up their day job on the basis of this. I can possibly see one author becoming very well known off the basis of a piece of fic here, and possibly being picked up by one of the series to join the writing staff. But, I really don’t see this changing the eco-system all that very much, at all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 2 years time, Amazon puts out a press release announcing that Kindle Worlds will not be accepting any more submissions, and it slowly fading away. Fic will still exist, authors will still exist, fans will still exist, and everyone will carry on their merry way.

Of course, I could be very wrong.

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