Much has been made of the fact that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel about a wealthy industrialist into BDSM and the young college graduate who falls for him, started out as Twilight fan fiction, and became a phenomenon once James changed the names. But she was hardly the first writer to hone her chops in fan fiction: Cassandra Clare, who started out in various fandoms, had a young adult fiction hit with her Mortal Instruments series, which has now spawned a movie adaptation with a $60 million budget. The Star Wars Expanded Universe is a professionalized version of fan fiction, giving authors space, within specific guidelines, to build out new stories and characters within a preexisting world. And given how many people have spent so many hours laboring over their keyboards for so many years, maybe the really surprising thing is that someone hasn’t figured out a way to monetize their work without changing the names or making them invent new stories before.
That changed yesterday, when Amazon announced its Kindle Worlds program, which is cleverly set up to benefit both the creators of original content and the people who write original stories set in the worlds invented by those creators and makes use of their characters. Authors of fan fiction published and sold through the Kindle Worlds program will be paid a royalty rate of 35 percent for works longer than 10,000 words, and 20 percent for short stories between 5,000 and 10,000 words. It’s not quite clear what percentage or flat fee the original creators of that licensed content will receive. But Amazon suggests that most of the pieces sold through the program will be priced in between $.99 and $3.99, though I can see those figures getting higher if Amazon gets its hands on some of the popular, book-length projects that have circulated in various fandoms for years.
Works can get rejected from the program — Amazon’s reserving the right to kick out submissions that provide a “poor customer experience,” and the guidelines for the program say it won’t accept pornographic material, which constitutes a significant percentage of fan fiction, work that uses racial slurs, employs excessive violence, or relies on heavily profane speech. And perhaps the biggest constraint right now is what fictional universes it’s possible for writers to work in. Kindle Worlds debuted with the rights to some of the content from Warner Bros. Television Group’s Alloy Entertainment, a notorious content factory, including Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries.
It makes sense that Kindle Worlds starts with content from Alloy, a publishing house with a highly-defined style where authors have been known to be assigned to projects cooked up because they seem likely to sell well, and to adapt well for film and television, as proved to be true for the three properties that are kicking off the Kindle Worlds universe. And while Amazon’s announcement of the program said that they’d be announcing many new licenses for fan fiction writers to work in, I would bet that it’ll be difficult for the program to get access to some of the properties that have inspired particularly lively fan fiction communities, like Harry Potter or the West Wing. It might make sense that Alloy’s authors, who are part of a profit-oriented program, don’t have much anxiety about other people playing in the universes that they built out. But authors who are more proprietary about their characters might be more twitchy about the prospect of other people getting paid to play in the worlds that they created. I can see someone like Charlaine Harris, who is ending her Southern Vampire series because she feels the universe is wrung out, and is under enormous and irrational pressure from fans to continue, wanting to definitively close off the world they created.
The question, then, will be whether standard author contracts make it easy for publishing houses to sign the works they publish over to Kindle Worlds, or whether this is a provision they’re going to have to negotiate as an addendum, and find standard language for in the future. And it’ll be interesting to see which authors decide they’re interested in participating and which hold out, in part as an indication of how proprietary authors feel about their creations. It could be very strange to see authors of original works get eclipsed by writers playing in the worlds other people have created as has, to a certain extent, been true with Fifty Shades of Grey.