With Amazon's Kindle Worlds, fanfiction authors can now earn money from their formerly not-for-profit enterprise.
I CONFESS: I'm an occasional reader of the weird, wacky and wonderful of fanfiction where people write stories based on their favourite TV shows or books. Some do it so well that it might've been another episode of the series. Others go in directions that would probably be unauthorised by right holders: relationship pairings that would raise eyebrows, crossovers with other TV shows, gender swaps, male pregnancies...
I've watched fanfiction grow from costly 'zine publications (paper publications distributed by mail), to being posted on the Internet on free websites like the now-defunct Geocities, to being archived by websites such as Fanfiction.net and then in the last few years, the lit form took its tentative step towards the e-book world via applications such as Wattpad.
Then came 50 Shades of Grey (which was originally Masters of the Universe, a Twlight fanfic) and suddenly fanfic was given a veneer of legitimacy. Fanfiction has always existed in a legal grey area as writers are playing with copyrighted characters and worlds. Creators of the original worlds mostly tolerated it if no one profited from it. But with 50 Shades of Grey, "filing off the serial numbers" (ie, turn fanfiction into original fiction) has become quite the trend. (For more about this matter, read my article on the subject, Quantity over Quality http://www.thestar.com.my/Lifestyle/Books/News/2012/04/01/Quantity-over-quality.aspx).
I suppose it's not surprising then that Amazon launched Kindle Worlds (www.amazon.com/kindleworlds) in May this year. Have that Gossip Girl fanfiction sitting in your hard drive? Why not submit it to Kindle Worlds and earn money? And best of all, the copyright owners are happy for you to do it.
This from Amazon's press release: The "standard" royalty rate for works of at least 10,000 words will be given 35% of net revenue while short works between 5,000 to 10,000 words will earn authors a royalty of 20%. The rights holders will get a share too, of course.
Currently, writers can choose to write in 13 "Worlds" such as Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Even authors of original works such as Hugh Howey (the indie success story of the Wool series), Barry Eisler (John Rain series) and Kurt Vonnegut have opened up their worlds.
I feel so lucky and honored to have been invited into this program, and even luckier to have talented writers out there who care to explore these worlds. The fact that some of them are now making history is just too cool for words, said Howey in a blog post (http://www.hughhowey.com/amazons-kindle-worlds-program-is-live/).
But judging from the comments on blogs and forums I've seen, most writers (professional and fanfiction) are circling Kindle Worlds with narrowed eyes.
Some object because the concept goes against the spirit of fanfiction itself. Fans do it because they love the book or TV series, and a strong community often grows around the fandom with readers and writers interacting freely and enthusiastically. Getting paid for the work seemed mercenary.
Others worry that fanfiction writers unwilling to join the fray will be prosecuted in the future.
Then there are the terms in Kindle World's publishing contract. Many writers say it stands to benefit the rights holders more than the writer.
Hugo-award-winning author and prolific blogger John Scalzi, highlighted a few that he didn't like. Terms such as, “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”
"New stories" is so broad it could potentially cover works unrelated to the fandom you're writing for.
One of the commentators of his post Amazon's Kindle Worlds: Instant Thoughts (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/05/22/amazons-kindle-worlds-instant-thoughts), Genevieve , said: "Worst case scenario, as far as I can tell, would be building a vampire reading audience through this program, and then finding out that Alloy or whomever can go after everything else you ever write about vampires, even if it’s nominally in your own world.
"My first reaction is that this is awesome for people with enough money to exploit writers. They can make money off your work forever in whatever way they see fit, never have to pay you, and might be able to sue you if you ever decide to go off on your own in the same genre. That would be, um, pretty evil."
What about the readers?
Well, over the years I've found fanfiction so good that I still have them in my hard drive (and now in my e-book reader). Some were so bad I wish I never clicked on them. In the early years of dial-up Internet, finding quality fanfiction seemed easy, but these days there are more bad than good, I feel. (I strongly suspect that the good writers have gone on to write their own works, and now with e-book publishing being so profitable, more prefer to self-publish their own works and profit from them.)
Now, if Kindle Worlds is going to be an open platform where anyone can post their scribblings about Edward and Bella, I'm not sure if I'll be patient enough to wade through the reviews and shell out some hard-earned cash to read sub-par work.
Better yet, why pay for fanfiction when you can get them free? And with Kindle World's stricter guidelines, you can't get the wacky and weird stuff - so don't expect Sherlock Holmes to walk through a dimensional portal and end up in Hogwarts, for one. Takes the fun out of fanfic, I think!
Elizabeth Tai is wary of Kindle Worlds as a writer but mildly curious as a reader. She may yet part with her cash and tell you all about her experience in a future column. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.