If you’re active in fandom, particularly if you work as a fanfic writer, you’ve probably heard of something called Kindle Worlds. Basically, Amazon will allow people to write stories set in the “universes” of popular shows, movies, or books that will be sold as eBooks on the Kindle platform. The book’s price, which promises to be around $5 for a novel/novella or $2 for a substantive short story (5k-10k words), will be split between Amazon, the story author, and the creator of the original universe.
To say fandom (at least my corners of fandom) are not pleased would be an understatement. There’s a lot to be concerned about here, and not a whole lot of information to go on. And that’s a big part of the problem. Amazon’s guidelines for this new project are 685 words long, according to an automated word-counter. I still have some of the old Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards FAQs on my computer, so I did a quick check. For comparison, the latest version of our nominations FAQ – the document that covered the how-tos and policies about nominations, was 3,036 words long, or nearly four and a half times as long. In addition, the MEFAs had FAQs and help documents on categorization, story eligibility, ratings, and voting/scoring, and that’s just what I personally have on my hard drive. Some might call us a wee bit excessive but my point is that the information Amazon has available to the general public is nowhere near the length you need to get across all the details of how the program will work.
That lack of information doesn’t change the fact that some people in fandom are worried. And on some points, they have reasons to worry. Specifically:
1) At least under US law, it’s not clear whether fanfic violates copyright law. Practically speaking, most authors tolerate it as long as you aren’t making a profit off of it, but there’s no guarantee they’ll always do that. And there are some exceptions: Anne Rice has fought vigorously to ban all fanfic based on her work, and even JK Rowlings who’s usually cool with it wrote a C&D letter to an archive specializing in sexually explicit HP fanfic because her series is so popular with children. Wouldn’t an author who could make money off of fiction through KindleWorlds balk at sites giving it away for free (meaning no cut for the primary author)?
2) Similarly, if authors can make money at KW, wouldn’t they choose to publish there rather than at sites that don’t pay for it? Wouldn’t this starve the archives and destroy communities built around the free exchange of fanfic, even if the primary authors don’t go after it directly?
3) The few guidelines we have say KW gets “total rights” to the story. That seems to mean if you develop a character or custom or location or whatever that’s not in the original universe (say, a son of Faramir’s or a certain inn down in Dol Amroth that gets no mention in the books), if you use it in a KW story you don’t get the right to use it anywhere else. Wouldn’t that make it next to impossible for a writer to publish both in KW and at any other archives? At least in my fandom, people tend to write shorter stories that build on each other, so the same OC or location could easily feature in a dozen stories written over several years.
These are reasonable questions, and this is one of the reasons why we need more information. I’ve written Amazon encouraging them to clarify their position, and hope they will. But I’m cautiously optimistic. On the first point, authors and movie/show creators probably earn more off having a vibrant fandom than they could ever hope to make directly through something like KW, since fandom is what keeps people engaging in their works and ready to buy up anything even vaguely connected to them. (For example, many Tolkien fans have been eagerly awaiting the Arthur book Christopher Tolkien published just this week, based on his father’s drafts. These are people who love Tolkien but might not otherwise buy an Arthurian poem. Indeed, without fanfic, my Tolkien books would probably site beside my Louisa May Alcott and L. Frank Baum books gathering dust. Fanfic archives exist in a precarious legal situation (and a scary one – the time investment by admins and coders that goes into building a thriving archive can run into thousands of hours over the years), so I understand why they’re scared. But so long as archives can exist alongside KW, I suspect it’s still in the original authors’ best interests to leave those archives alone. Those who are opposed to fanfic aren’t usually driven by money, anyway.
The third question is a bigger sticking point for me. If I thought KW was trying to compete with fanfic archives I’d be more solidly opposed to it because I like my archives. I actually wrote a letter to Amazon protesting this policy because on top of being a threat to archives, I thought it was insulting to fanfic authors by denying them ownership of what they came up with on their own. But today Dawn Felagund posted a link (discovered by Rhapsody) to a thread where one of the KW authors talks about her contract. And it looks like she will be holding on to ownership of her characters. I don’t know whether the policy is changing or we’re just misreading it, but if this same courtesy gets extended to other authors, I don’t think #3 is a concern. Interestingly, Rhapsody’s articles makes me breathe easier about #2, too. The author makes it seem like KW won’t operate like an archive. Works are submitted and accepted or rejected. It looks like you have to work with an editor to get them up to scratch. I suspect you’ll lack the instant gratification and the community perspective that a lot of fan sites thrive on. I suspect that not every story someone writes will be accepted by KW.
These are reasonable concerns, though. I get why people in fandom are uncomfortable with this, and to a certain extent I agree with them. I’m cautiously optimistic, not 100% sold, and am definitely keen to hear more on all these issues.
But I actually think there’s more going on here. Actually, I’ve been very reminded of a “Star Trek: Enterprise” episode – “Fortunate Son,” available here for those of you who have Amazon Prime or don’t mind shelling out $2. The episode is about a a cargo ship, the Fortunate, and the tensions between cargo ships and the much faster, much more technologically advanced starships like Enterprise. (The whole series is about the first Enterprise, indeed the first ship of what will become Starfleet.) Throughout the episode, the cargo-ship’s crew are reluctant to accept help, and the first mate is downright confrontational with Ens. Mayweather, whose parents captain a cargo ship but who left it to serve on the Enterprise. In some ways, it’s hardly Star Trek’s best work; the stakes are low and the plot a bit predictable. But there’s an interesting tension between “owning” a space simply because you were the first out there and you have always thrived on the challenge of self-reliance, and on the other hand being the newcomers whose very arrival will radically alter the situation. There’s an exchange between the two ship’s captains at the end of the show (beginning about 4:00 from the end) that really captures this dynamic:
Captain Keene [discussing his first-officer]: The ones that grew up out here feel like they have some special claim, like this particular stretch of space is theirs. They see another ship within ten light-years, they get jumpy.
Captain Jonathan Archer: They’re going to be seeing a lot more ships than they’re used to.
Captain Keene: Ships get faster, that’s progress, I suppose. My family’s been on the Fortunate for three generations. Now, I’m gonna need at least a warp three engine to stay in business.
Captain Jonathan Archer: Maybe that’s not so bad. At warp three, help’s a lot closer than before. You won’t have to go it alone.
Captain Keene: Going it alone’s all we’ve ever done. For some of us, it’s the reason we’re out here – a chance to prove ourselves.
Captain Jonathan Archer: I think you’ve already done that.
Captain Keene: Well, we’ll adapt. We always have. But things just won’t be the same.
From the Fortunate‘s perspective this stretch of space is theirs because they have always worked it and because it’s where they live. I see a lot of that in this Kindle Worlds controversy. Fanfic has never claimed to “own” a certain universe, in fact we bend over backwards to acknowledge that we don’t claim the characters as our own. But there’s something almost… bohemian about the way fandom can operate. We don’t do what we do for the money. There is no money, only appreciation and feedback and reputation and the like. But I think a lot of people in fanfic resist the implication that money could serve as fair compensation for their art. We are after a higher calling, we give something that money simply can’t buy. And here comes KW which by its very nature threatens to change the landscape. It doesn’t have to mean to disrupt fandom Fanfic won’t just be about the community and the wish to share your passion with friends; it will become just another thing we do for money.
I get the appeal of this, but this discussion over KW has also brought out the limits of this thinking. More than once I’ve seen people asking who in their right mind would pay for fanfic? There’s a sense that not only is fanfic priceless, it’s also (apart from the sentimental value of a well-chosen gift) worthless. Fanfic does have that friendship component, and I don’t want my fannish friends to think I’m not appreciative of that friendship. But at least for me, I want my stories to be objectively good, the kind of thing anyone who at least understood enough Tolkien to get the backstory would appreciate. I write because I want to fine-tune my craft as a writer, and because I want to explore the questions and themes I find both in Tolkien and in the larger world. I don’t need the money but I do need (or at least strongly desire) the awareness that this would be worth purchasing if I asked you to. People have been throwing the word commercialization around, as if stories that are for sell have no worth beyond the money the author gets out of them. I don’t think that’s it as well. But perhaps there is an element of professionalization, a recognition that this work can be approached on something more than the level of friendship?
Maybe that’s a way Kindle Worlds can actually help fanfic. Ever since I started writing fanfic, I wanted it to be taken seriously. Looking back, I think what I really wanted was the opportunity to write something like the Star Trek tie-in novels where I could explore the world but it be taken seriously as something written. Not great literature for all times, perhaps, but at least something on the level of the latest Dean Koontz or John Grisham novel. My writing wasn’t there mechanically, of course, but I think that’s what I was aiming for. What I found was fanfic, and it’s been good. It continues to be good, but I think deep down I still want that world where I see if my writing is actually any good apart from the relationships. Now, if fanfic really is about the relationships more than the quality of the work, maybe something like KW could give people looking for something slightly different another jungle gym to play in, leaving the archives for folks more interested in those relationships.
Honestly, to me KW sounds more similar to tie-in novels than fanfic proper, though I can understand why it would worry people who write fanfic. I’m cautious and will look forward to hearing more about KW, but I’m also hopeful that it will enrich fandom rather than detract for it (or even just not impact it much one way or the other). The more interesting question for me is this: do we write fanfic because of the people involved in our community, or is it more to tell a story that will affect people in the right way whether they know us or not? Or is there room for both?