On May 22 press releases zapped from Amazon’s South Lake Union campus announcing the launch of Kindle Worlds, a new publishing platform for the amateur authors who craft unauthorized stories about characters like Bella Swan and Her-mione Granger. It would be, Amazon promised, the first opportunity for writers “to create fan fiction…and earn royalties doing so.” The backlash started later that day.
Some reactions, like Rachel Edidin’s at wired.com, were measured, expressing doubt that fanfic authors would run to Amazon “for a -far-from-guaranteed paycheck.” Others were apoplectic. “This is just part and parcel of the ongoing predatory efforts to pick the pockets of aspiring writers,” fumed Greg Hatcher at -techcitement.com. But in almost all cases the underlying message was the same: What exactly made Amazon think this was a good idea?
It didn’t necessarily seem to be a bad one. For launch, the Bezos behemoth partnered with intellectual property rights owners for various “worlds”—specifically the book series based on the TV dramas Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars—and invited fanfic writers to submit stories set in those worlds. If they passed muster and didn’t include scenes deemed too steamy by the company’s censors, they’d be published as ebooks and authors could make up to 35 percent in royalties.
What could be wrong with that? To avoid copyright lawsuits, writers of fan fiction publish their work for free and typically use pen names. (E. L. James, who started out writing stories inspired by the Twilight series, published a first draft of what would later become Fifty Shades of Grey under the name Snowqueens Icedragon. Just sayin’.) Kindle Worlds would legitimize the craft, allowing authors to take credit for their work and get paid in the process. Plus, with the kind of platform that a mega company like Amazon could provide, a wannabe Stephenie Meyer could get noticed more quickly. “Fan fiction comes with a built-in audience,” says Joseph Brassey, a published author from Tacoma who got his start by contributing to The Mongoliad, a multiauthor, serialized tale set in thirteenth-century Europe and headed up by Neal Stephenson. “There’s definitely potential for someone who writes something really good to get their name out in front of people while making money.”
The devil—or in this case, the vampiric corporate attorney—is in the details. In exchange for exposure and a little cash, Kindle Worlds writers agree to give up all rights to original characters they create. In other words, the intellectual property owner could launch a new franchise around that character and the writer won’t see a dime. “The terms are strongly stacked in Amazon’s favor,” says Betsy Rosenblatt, a professor at Whittier Law School and the legal chair for fanfic advocacy group the Organization for Transformative Works. “They’re getting a great benefit but not giving much in return.”
Even if it’s possible to overlook what Greg Hatcher, the Techcitement writer who also teaches an after-school program at Madison Middle School for aspiring comics writers, calls a “blatantly crass” attempt to capitalize on the next E. L. James, Kindle Worlds may miss the whole point of fanfic: Most people who pen these spinoff stories about Wookie romances and sociopolitical satire set in Klingon high schools don’t do it for fame or money. They do it for the fan communities their work creates. “Most fanfic writers who do this for the love of it and for the community will shun this,” says Sharon Cumberland, a Seattle U professor of creative writing and fanfic aficionado. “It gives me a creepy feeling.” Kind of like a vampire story starring Jeff Bezos.
Published: August 2013