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Can fanfic be tamed? Amazon hopes so.
It’s a familiar lament: why can’t media companies harness and encourage the creative energy of millions of fans of its hit shows and books, instead of blasting these people with “cease and desist” letters when they choose express their love through acts of creativity?
Fox, the TV network that canceled Joss Whedon’s space-western “Firefly” before its fans could even choose a spot and design for a cool tattoo, made news last month when they started sending C and D letters to Etsy crafters who were knitting and selling unlicensed “Jayne hats.” Apparently, a network can treat a show with complete disdain and yet still want to render its bones down for a saleable adhesive product. In the network’s opinion, even these one-off knitters needed to be slapped down to protect the license.
Compare this and other similar tales to how Lucasfilm works with “Star Wars” fans. They encourage and support fan films set in the “Star Wars” universe. Fans can even create and sell their own merch, like the gorgeously-accurate Imperial Stormtrooper armor that’s become the Business Casual of pop culture conventions. Lucasfilm pays close attention to what the fan community is doing. A fan will receive a friendly letter on scary letterhead if it’s clear that their enterprise has evolved from “a fan sharing their love with other fans” to “an entrepreneur trying to pay off student loans.” If the product is particularly great, Lucasfilm will even grant the fan an actual license.
This anecdotal data comes from a conversation I had inside the licensing department at Lucasfilm’s San Francisco campus. Their love for the properties they control is genuine, as is their admiration for the Star Wars fans who were inspired by George Lucas and Lucasfilm’s creative works to make creative works of their own.
I’m not going to get into the legal nitty-gritty of why a corporation can’t allow just anyone to sell just any kind of tie-in merchandise. I’m satisfied to be just another person who wonders why the bloody hell Fox couldn’t have at least let “Firefly” keep going until all 14 of the episodes it had already produced could air.
(Yes, fine, the show wasn’t technically being produced by Seth McFarlane but was that such a terrible thing, Fox? If you’re about to say “yes,” please watch any three consecutive episodes of “The Cleveland Show” and say it again while looking me in the eye.)
Today, Amazon took what step to cool down — maybe — the ongoing shoving match between companies and fans. “Kindle Worlds” is an unusual new publishing program that allows fans to sell authorized fan fiction through Amazon.com as Kindle titles.
The author will receive 35% of net revenue from all sales. That’s competitive with what authors receive under Amazon’s conventional Direct Publishing program, where self-publishers can choose between a 35% or 70% cut. DP authors only get the higher percentage if they allow Amazon to charge the author for the bandwidth and storage costs associated with delivering the book to the purchaser.
In Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s additional role is to set up relationships with existing properties, and enforce guidelines with the authors. The program launches in June, and includes licenses for Warner Brothers properties “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Amazon says that they hope to expand into other realms as the program builds.
The guidelines for the content are pretty much what you’d expect a licenseholder to demand. No porno; beyond that, the book can’t be patently offensive (Warner Brothers isn’t interested in your “Gossip Girl joins a skinhead movement” story); you can’t use your story to promote a commercial brand, or your crummy local band; and even if the “no porn” rule weren’t in effect, they still wouldn’t want your Spock/Chuck Bass slashfic (no crossovers to other properties are allowed).
“Kindle Worlds” allows authors to take fanfic that would normally be posted on a fanfiction archive and turn it into a revenue-generator. On that basis, it’s going to be attractive to fans, but there’s still much more to Kindle Worlds that Amazon needs to explain.
First, it appears as though the program forces the author to work on spec. Amazon hasn’t said what the vetting process for manuscripts will be. Are they performing a cursory check for compliance with guidelines, or are they judging the value of the work? If the latter, Kindle Worlds demands a large upfront investment of time and labor on the part of the author, and the luxury of choice on the part of the license holder without putting any skin in the game.
Participants in the conventional Direct Publishing program can toil on their novel-length works with an almost certain assurance that their work will pay off at the end, in the form of an eventual Amazon SKU. The book might not sell, but at least the authors knows that the novel they’re slaving over will be available.
And the author is responsible for properly formatting the ebook. Amazon provides automated conversion tools and they work pretty well, for what they are. Still, turning a manuscript into an ebook is more similar to developing a piece of software than clicking a button to convert a Word doc into a PDF.
Rights to one’s own work are also a little muddled. The good news: the author appears to keep nonexclusive rights to his or her original characters and situations. Wanna drop a vampire into “Gossip Girl”‘s high school? Your “Ted Mulwyn” character might be shamefully derivative of “Twilight”‘s Ed Cullen, but that’s a discussion best left between you and the gods of originality. You’re not giving up the right to write a Ted Mulwyn solo book later. You’ll just have to send him off to a new school (“Hogsnorts,” perhaps?) because you’ll have no rights to use any of “Gossip Girl”‘s properties outside of the Amazon program.
Okay, but the author is also granting the “Gossip Girl” rightsholders “a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation.” So if Warner Brothers likes the cut of this Ted Mulwyn’s jib, it appears as though they can use him in officially-licensed books, movies, and TV shows without paying the author anything.
Amazon also retains a license to the author’s original content for the life of that copyright. If the book is a hit, can Amazon then approach a best-selling author to write a series of Kindle-exclusive sequels to the fanfic? Or even strike a deal with a conventional print publisher? Would they need the original KW author’s approval? Would they even need to pay him or her royalties?
And do remember that Amazon also has a TV production studio. The language on the Kindle Worlds page that describes the relationship between a Kindle Worlds author and Amazon is conversational; I’m certain that authors will be required to click through something more obtuse and comprehensive when the program goes live next month. But as-is, we can’t dismiss the possibility that Amazon (and its first-look production partner…yes, Warner Studios) is buying worldwide rights to exploit the author’s work across all media for the life of the copyright, for nothing more than the possibility of royalties for the ebook.
The issues of allowing licensed fanfic are at least as complicated as the issues that would arise if Fox did nothing about those Etsy knit caps even though they’d already sold the apparel license for “Firefly.” I can speculate about Amazon potentially turning a great fan script into a lucrative TV franchise, but I can’t do that without noting that Amazon, and the original propertyholders, are avoid a huge ungodly and unfair mess by writing the agreement this way.
I mean, it’s easy for me to feel sympathy for “Gossip Girl”‘s rightsholders. All I need to do is imagine them creating a promotional webisode in which their characters attend some sort of sporting event, and then picture the inevitable backlash of Kindle Worlds authors who will rush to claim that the concept of a high school where sporting events happen was their idea, dammit.
(Inevitably followed by phrases like “I bet when you thought you could steal from me, you didn’t dare to imagine that my stepfather’s uncle is a personal injury attorney keenly interested in fighting to make sure you make this right…”)
I’ve sent Amazon some questions about these and other issues. I’ll update this post if and when I get a response.
I certainly appreciate that Amazon is creating a system that allows fans to express their creativity and their love for a commercial property. These fans were going to do that anyway, of course, but I speak from experience when I say that it’s quite lovely to be paid for your work. It’s also great to see a corporation start to see the upside of loosening its grip a little and encouraging an enthusiastic fanbase.
But is “Kindle Worlds” an improvement? Lucasfilm nurtures its “Star Wars” fans but prevents them from earning an income from their Lucasfilm-related work. Fox just slaps them down. This new program could prove to be the worst of both worlds: Warner Brothers energizes the value of a canceled TV show with scads of new content that they don’t have to pay a dime for, while also being able to exploit fans much more directly in the form of acquiring rights to new content.
The program might also be missing the point of fanfic. Those authors have been writing millions of words’ worth of the stuff for decades…all without any hope of making any real money from it. So it’s clear that the most valuable authors aren’t in it for royalties. They’re in it for the ability to play with any idea they might have about any character they enjoy watching or reading. Kindle Worlds can’t help them do either one of those things.
But the fanfiction community can. And when a writer posts a “Gossip Girl” fanfic on FanFiction.net (the site’s GG library currently features nearly 10,000 stories), he or she isn’t going to make a dime off of it…but they’re not granting Warner Brothers any rights to their work whatsoever, either. And if they want to explore what would happen if Samantha from “Sex And The City” became the new principal of Constance Billard School, they’re free to go there.
So even if Amazon’s intentions are pure, they’re going to have to work to establish trust and make it clear that “Kindle Worlds” isn’t just exploiting the irrational enthusiasm of fans who don’t particularly care what happens to their work after it’s published.
The “Fifty Shades Of Grey” series somehow became the highest-selling books in paperback history. Yup, it’s even outsold the “Harry Potter” series. You might already know about “Fifty Shades”‘ origins, but it bears repeating: they were originally written as “Twilight” fanfics. The author wanted to sell the work, and that would have been impossible with all of the “Twilight” references. So she gave it a rewrite that transformed it into 100% her own intellectual property.
And now she’s stinkin’ rich. Like, crazy-wealthy “I can own a giraffe if I want one” rich.
If she’d published the first book under an Kindle Worlds agreement, it probably would have stalled as a weird book that would have been known that narrow category of “Twilight” fans but completely invisible to a wider world market for naughty fiction. Would she have been able to make that crucial leap from the ebook market to airport bookshops?
And if Amazon (or the “Twilight” rightsholders) had seen that mass-market potential, would she have been required to receive royalties? Would she even have been hired to write a second and third book?
We’ll never know. Partly because “Fifty Shades Of Grey” would have been 86′d from Kindle Worlds due to all of the spanking.
Andy Ihnatko is The Chicago Sun-Times’ technology columnist. You can follow him on Twitter at @ihnatko.