Amazon announced today the launch of a new publishing platform for fan fiction, Kindle Worlds. The basic idea is that for certain licensed properties (this is not a free-for-all!), anyone can write stories in that world, publish them to Kindle, and get a cut of the royalties – along with the original copyright holder, and Amazon. So far, there are licenses for Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars.
Here’s my prediction: A lot of fan fiction writers are going to hate that this exists.
Amateur content must be really infuriating for those in the big money content business. People have been writing and reading fan fiction for free since long before the Internet, and this isn’t the first attempt for someone to monetize it. A notable example was Fanlib, a for-profit fan fiction archive that was heavily criticized for being an attempt to profit from fan labor. It was, in fact, a big part of the inspiration for The Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit formed to protect the interests of fans (and one of their first big projects was an open-source, fan-run archive). (If you want to read more about Fanlib, there’s a great post from fan scholar Henry Jenkins on the debacle.)
There are two reasons why Kindle Worlds is less problematic than Fanlib: first, it only deals in licensed works, which means that the writers (and Amazon) aren’t taking legal risks. And second, it compensates the writers as well – which could be a huge incentive for some fan fiction writers to publish their work there rather than putting it out into the world for free.
However, this is where I think that we’ll see some backlash about the spirit of fan culture, which highly values its “gift economy.” You might remember that the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey started out as fan fiction, and E.L. James actually got a lot of heat from the community for pulling what she’d put out there for free and commercializing it instead. In this NPR piece about that issue, one of the interviewees pointed out that “[p]art of the reason that these texts circulate for free is because they build community. And there’s a sense that once you start selling those pieces of fan fiction, the values of that community [dissolve].”
All that said, it’s possible that many fans will think this is a great opportunity – both for writers, and for readers who want to support them. Though there is another reason that this might not be as successful as Amazon is hoping. From the content guidelines: “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” It’s unclear whether this is the same as Amazon’s normal ban against “pornography” that doesn’t include the huge amount of erotica that they publish, or a higher standard imposed by the licensing agreements. But one thing is for sure – a lot of the fan fiction that people would be willing to pay for includes “graphic sexual acts.”
In any case, this is still unfolding and I’ll be interested to see what the reaction actually is. If you’re interested in fandom, today might be a good day to hang out on Tumblr with a bowl of popcorn.