May 23, 2013

Kindle Worlds, and why it may be bad for fandom

Amazon has attracted a fair amount of attention this week with the announcement of Kindle Worlds, an e-book initiative that allows fans of particular American TV dramas to write their own fan fiction based on those shows, publish it online via Amazon and earn a profit from it. Responses have varied from excitement to horror, and as a part-time professional writer who first developed his writing skills using fan fiction, I was particularly interested in the concept. Rather than simply rely on my opinions, I thought it might be worth talking to a few of Australia's prominent science fiction and fantasy writers, editors and publishers to get their feedback as well.

Here's how it works: you write a fan fiction (10,000 words or longer) based on Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars or The Vampire Diaries. They're all Warner Bros properties, but Amazon are reportedly planning to add more properties down the road. Assuming the deal with WB expands, future properties that could be incorporated may include Person of Interest, Nikita, Supernatural and Arrow. You then used Amazon's special Kindle Worlds web portal to design a cover, publish it online exclusively via Kindle and then receive monthly payments (35% of the sale price) for any copies of the fanfic sold. While you retain copyright on your story, Amazon claim an exclusive license on all elements in the story for the duration of that copyright: basically a slightly tortured way of Amazon taking your copyright any from you. Create a new character, or a specific story, and Amazon effectively own it. They could on-sell that concept to Warner Bros for use in the actual TV series, and you'd have no rights or participation in that whatsoever. Thinking of creating a fan fiction turned literary bestseller in the vein of 50 Shades of Grey? Forget it: you won't own your story any more, and any profits generated from a quick name replace will be going straight to large corporations.

Now, with Kindle Worlds, you too can write Gossip Girl. Sort of.
Of course there's the other way of looking at it: if you're a fan writing your stories for free right now, this is a legitimate means of earning money from your art - and it is art, no matter what the sniffy literati tell you. It's a derivative art, but so is most of the work of Alan Moore - and few accuse him of being untalented or unimaginative. If you're already writing fan fiction based on these properties, and have no passion or ambition to push yourself further, why not just upload the fiction and earn a few dollars while you're doing it?

The fundamental question I think is this: is it okay for Amazon and Warner Bros to profit from your enthusiasm for their works? On the one level they do this already. You like their shows and so you purchase the DVDs and the merchandise. On another level it is the crassest manipulation and exploitation of a fanbase that I have ever seen. Understand that there is no financial risk in this venture for Warner Bros: they are not paying an advance to any writers, and they are effectively keeping all of the copyright - even on the parts they have had no financial involvement in generating. They are taking something that is already quite successful on a creative level - fans writing spin-off fiction purely for the entertainment of other fans - and turning it into a commercial exercise.

There is a strong industry in tie-in fiction based on films, TV shows and other media. There are professional writers who earn a solid, sometimes even lucrative living off these books. Sometimes (check out Virgin's Doctor Who New Adventures from the early 1990s) they turn out to be genuinely talented works of fiction. With this new model of commercially exploiting fans to generate this sort of content themselves, there isn't really a need for professional tie-in fiction any more. Warner Bros and Amazon will continue to profit - in fact with the vast bulk of material they can generate with this scheme they're likely to profit more than ever. Actual talented writers, however, are going to be worse off.

I was curious as to what a few writers around the traps thought of the Kindle Worlds concept, so I asked around. Author Scott Westerfeld told me:
It will be interesting. The big drawback is for a kid who writes fanfic, then realizes they have a pretty decent novel set in someone else's world, then wants to 'file the serial numbers off' and make it their own. Which is what happened with 50 Shades, famously, but also a lot of other authors who are very successful. 

Yes, there is a counter-argument that they don't HAVE to send their fanfic in to Amazon, but to have the world's largest book-related company trying to get the world's least knowledgeable group of writers to sign away their work isn't what I'd call a great development.
Prolific science fiction author Sean Williams told me:
Some of the smaller franchises still willfully exploit new writers who are desperate for any sale at all. This seems a lot like the more of the same, but yes, with the power imbalance even more extreme on both sides.

I can't wait for the data. How many fanfic writers will make a living out of it, and how many of those will ever move on to develop original franchises? How many of those go on to regret those early sales? As someone who has successfully filed off the odd serial number or two in my time, it's not impossible, and I don't regret the way I went about it. That's not to say it's for everyone, though. Or even that we'll actually get much data of any kind. I'm waiting to see what happens.
Here's what Melbourne author Narrelle Harris (and ex-fanfic writer) had to say:
I have a soft spot for fanfic, seeing as that's how I started as a writer 30-odd years ago. I certainly wouldn't object to fanfic (in its usual incarnation) based on any of my work, so long as the writers stick to the usual principle that it's done for love, not money, that the interaction doesn't entitle them to copyright of my IP and that nothing they write affects the canon of the original.
I'm still working through my response to this news, though. My first reaction was that it seemed like a bit of a grab to make money out of fannish response to works, and that made me unhappy. My second response was to be uncertain about how 'official' fan works, which pay actual money to both fan authors and the holders of the IP (either TV/film creators or authors) would affect a creator's control over the official work. That's the bit I'm still working through. I don't mind creative response to my work - and my new creative project, Kitty and Cadaver, will be inviting such response. I wouldn't be comfortable with someone who is not me dictating the direction of my characters and plot in canon, though. Not without my say-so.
So, that response depends on how the rules will work for fan-written contributions in a shared world. I assume the IP holders (particularly in single authorship cases) will require permission and some kind of contract with the writer.
The set-up feels different for TV shows, for example, where there are already multiple authors - that feels in the same sphere as novelisations, for example, or comic book spinoffs. Similar issues of what constitutes canon and creative control of the direction of the story/characters suggest themselves though.
I'm not against the idea in principle at all - and as someone who started in fanfic, I think being against it as a basic concept would be a hypocritical response. However, as someone who is trying to make a living from my IP, and also is emotionally invested in my own creations, I feel like I haven't got enough information about the nuts and bolts of it yet.
Crime author and role-playing game (RPG) designer Patrick O'Duffy said:
I think that while Amazon's positioning it as 'get paid for your fanfic!', it's actually about turning fandom into an IP farm. It's an attempt to make fanfic authors into work-for-hire writers, with minimal effort or cost on the part of the IP holder. And while some authors may benefit from getting their work semi-sanctioned, most will see little return on their effort while Alloy/TW get a ready source of plots, concepts and characters they can exploit as they wish without paying creators.

There's nothing wrong with work-for-hire; I wrote a pile of WFH RPG material, and I read lots of WFH comics. But the creators of those works are in a better position than these Worlds authors, who are doing WFH without being 'hired'. And as a reader, it removes the collaboration/curation aspect of most WFH, the input of an editor or line developer.
So on the whole... I have an opinion, yes, and it's negative. The only ones benefiting from this are Amazon and Alloy/TW.  But all that said, I don't write or read fanfic. If those who do are interested in this, then I hope it works out well for them.
Twitter's @crankynick makes a very pertinent point, and one I haven't seen discussed yet:
I think the interesting thing will be what actions Warner (& potentially others) then begin to take against fanfic in the wild, so to speak. Without no potential revenue streams they've largely decided it wasn't worth the shitfight that pursuing fanfic sites would cause, one suspects - but if there's now money at stake it may only really be a matter of time before the lawyers get involved to protect what they see as their rights over their intellectual property elsewhere.
And the reverse of that may also be interesting - the fallout in fanfic communities over people taking their work from existing sites to try to charge for it will cause not a few dramas in and of itself.
It will be an interesting little shitfight.
Thanks to all my guests for providing their opinions. You can find more information about Narrelle Harris' Kitty and Cadaver here. You can find more information about Patrick O'Duffy and his crime novella The Obituarist here. Check out Sean Williams here, and Scott Westerfeld here. Happy birthday, Sean.

1 comment:

  1. Trust ol' Nick to bring up the point I was going to. Good piece.


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