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Brave New Kindle Worlds

Richard Lee Byers contemplates the birth of paid fan fiction

Amazon has announced the launch of Kindle Worlds. Thanks to a deal with Alloy Entertainment (a part of Warner Bros. Television Group), writers of fan fiction set in the worlds of "Gossip Girl," "Pretty Little Liars," and "The Vampire Diaries" can now upload their stories to Amazon for sale as Kindle eBooks. The licensor has granted permission, and the authors will earn royalties.

As you’d expect, there are guidelines. So far, they come down to two prohibitions: no pornography and no crossovers. At first glance, both seem straightforward, but on further consideration, each gives rise to questions.

Such as, who’s defining pornography, and how are they defining it?

If Alloy Entertainment is providing the definition, I suspect the answer to the second question is simple enough. If they couldn’t show something on The CW, they don’t want to see it in your fanfic.

But if Amazon is doing the defining, things are more ambiguous. As I understand it, the company’s official position is that they would never stoop to peddling filthy porn. But they’ll be happy to sell you "erotica," including works as explicit as "Fifty Shades of Grey." Writers could conceivably have quite a bit of leeway.

Where crossovers are concerned, what about the disguised crossover? What if the vamps from Mystic Falls meet the monster-hunting brothers Stan and Dane Westchester? Or billionaire Bryce Wade and his vigilante alter ego the Human Bat? Would a writer have any chance of sliding those stories past the gatekeepers?

It may depend on who’s doing the policing and what resources they’ve allocated to the task. It’s possible there’s a lot of fanfic set in these three universes and the authors are eager to upload it. If so, it could take a good many man-hours to sort through the resulting deluge.

Still, I imagine Alloy Entertainment and Amazon will cope somehow. The big question is, how profitable will Kindle Worlds prove to be?

If the answer turns out to be, "Very," expect more of this. Licensors will open up other properties (Amazon’s press release already says they’ll "announce more licenses soon.") Amazon may offer the more successful titles as paper-and-ink books as well as eBooks. Competitors like Barnes & Noble and iTunes will hustle to secure fanfic licenses of their own.

Indeed, a day may come when fanfic writers are free to write and sell stories derived from almost any franchise. If so, what will that day look like?

Assuming they’re willing to adhere to whatever guidelines are in place, will any fanfic writers give away their work? It’s difficult to see why. Why wouldn’t you choose royalties and the licensor’s blessing over no money and the possibility of a cease-and-desist letter?

And where will the success of paid fanfic leave professional writers who do tie-in novels?

Because I am one, I’d like to believe we’ll still get work. Our skill, professionalism and reputations should count for something, right? No fanfic writer is likely to write a Star Trek novel that will sell like a Peter David Trek book, or a Star Wars story that will perform like one of Timothy Zahn’s.

But what if the profit from, let’s say, 20 fanfic novels equals or exceeds the profit from one professional effort? And what if the fanfic writers turn out hundreds of books a year? Is it possible that at some point, those who control the property will decide it’s just not worth it to hassle with negotiating contracts and paying advances anymore? Should that happen, the pro is out of luck.

Or arguably not. The pro will still have the option to publish the same way the fanfic writers are.

Mind you, for many of us, this would feel like a lousy option. By pro standards, the take-it-or-leave-it contract for a Kindle Worlds story is bad. Not only is there no advance, whatever original characters or story elements the writer creates, the licensor owns them outright and can put them in movies, television episodes, on T-shirts, in Lego sets, or wherever without any compensation to the author above and beyond the royalties due for the original story.

But realistically, that’s not terribly likely to happen. And if a pro is hungry for a payday, and there’s real money to be made by going this route, he might give it a shot.

In any case, however the Kindle Worlds experiment plays out, it’s going to be interesting to watch.

About the Author

Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than 30 fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. Look for his eBook supehero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all the rest of his work on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+. Follow his blog here.
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