16 June 2013 - 12:06 pm

Amazon’s slice of fanfic

I searched for 'fanfic' pictures and this was the most disturbing one I found. Ta-da! You're welcome. (Picture by masivefaddy)

I searched for ‘fanfic’ pictures and this was the most disturbing one I found. Ta-da! You’re welcome.
(Picture by masivefaddy)

You may have heard about Amazon’s latest stride into the fiction publishing world: Amazon Kindle Worlds. This is the new service that allows writers to publish and receive royalties for fanfic written in the worlds of publishing houses that have signed up and given permission.

Wow, that sounds great! Fanfic writers can now get permission to publish and they get paid, too! How awesome is that?

Not as awesome as it sounds.

I’ve been watching the reactions to this subject for a few weeks now (while I waited to get some time to write this post up), and overall, the feeling I get about this is unsettled.

Terms of the Deal

Let’s start here and see what the Kindle Worlds page has to say about the deal you’re signing up to if you decide to publish your fanfic through this shiny new service.

The main draw of this service is the fact that you get paid for your fanfic, so let’s take a look at the money stuff:

  • The rights holder gets royalties from your fanfic. This is fair enough; you’re using their intellectual property, so they should get a slice. How much they get is unstated. Note, however, that Amazon has signed up publishing houses, not writers; I have to question how much the authors of the original work will actually get out of this (if anything). That’s likely to depend on their particular deal with their publisher, but it’s worth being aware that you could be lining a publisher’s pockets, not your favourite author’s.
  • Royalties are paid at the lower rate of 35%. This is the worst self-publishing/ebook royalty on the market (that I’m aware of), and you’re nailed into it here. No choice. This is a continuation of Amazon’s policy of pushing authors towards the 35% royalty rate.
  • Worse: for short stories (5,000-10,000 words) are paid an even lower rate of 20%. The reason? Amazon’s credit card fees. Bullshit. They don’t buffer other small item prices for this reason and there’s no excuse for putting it on ebooks. I’m concerned about what this will mean for writers publishing through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) – are they going to expand this new, crappier level of royalty to those books, too?
  • No control over pricing. Amazon does it all for you. A good thing? That’s up to you, but I don’t like that they’re taking this control away from the author. This is seeming more and more like a traditional publishing deal, and not in a good way.
  • Royalties are paid on net, not gross. That means you get a percentage of the profit on the ebook, not the sale price (so, after Amazon’s expenses have come off and potentially even the rights holder’s royalties too). There’s no clarity about exactly what they’re taking off before it gets to ‘net’. This is different to all others ebook deals that I’m aware of. Even traditional publishing deals give you a percentage of the ticket price, not the profit, because the publisher’s percentage is supposed to cover their costs.

So it’s not a great fiscal adventure. Amazon are pretty much reaming you as much as possible while presenting a passable deal. Okay. But something is better than nothing, right?

Let’s keep looking and see what else is going on here. Time to examine copyright stuff:

  • You own the copyright to any original elements you put into your story. Characters, events, etc. (The copyright of the original work/world you’re writing in remains with the rights holder.) Seems fair enough on the surface. Except that you don’t get any choice about what happens to that copyright, nor any chance to capitalise on it.
  • Amazon gets full, exclusive license to your story and all its elements for the life of the copyright. What does that mean? You cannot sell or use that copyright anywhere else. Ever. (The life of copyright is your lifetime + 70 years.) You can’t publish your story anywhere else, not even for free on your website. You can’t use any characters from that story in another story anywhere else (but you could use them in another story on Kindle Worlds). You can’t use them in a screenplay, or make pictures out of them (so fanart of your original character is a no-no). You see where this is going?
  • Amazon or the original works owner can use your copyrighted material and you will get nothing for it. So if they pick up and use that shiny idea you had, you get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling but not a cent of the money from those movie franchises, or book sales, or anything else they might choose to flog to the masses. Hell, if another fanfic writer likes your ideas, they can ‘build on them’ (read: use and abuse) however they like, and get crappy royalties through Kindle Worlds for them, too.

As publishing deals go, this sucks balls. This is the kind of deal that, for original works, everyone in the business would be telling you to RUN RABBIT RUN, and the fact that this is fanfic doesn’t change that in the slightest. John Birmingham said that pretty much (only with more words and some helpful examples of what this all means), and John Scalzi wrote an unsettling post about it, too. The OTW (Organisation for Transformative Works, who work largely in the fanfic space) had a similar reaction to this deal.

So, it’s a deal with crappy (no) rights attached and a pretty poor financial recompense offering. Not the best publishing deal.

But is that all that this program will do? No. This is the first time fanfiction has been legitimised in this way and there are many rumblings about the potential ripples it will cause.

Fanfiction Impacts

Whoo-hoo, they said fanfiction is okay! We’re allowed to write it and make money from it! That’s a good thing, right?

Well, only if you write the kind of fanfic they’re looking for. Not too graphic, not pornographic, no cross-overs, and only written in the worlds they have licensed.

But what about the rest? There are fears that writers who choose not to publish through Kindle Worlds, or who want to continue to offer their work for free on mainstays of the fanfic world like fanfiction.net, will suddenly get cracked down on.

Fanfic has long fought to be allowed to exist without fears that the rights holders will object to their use and misuse of copyrighted material, and it seems that only in the last few years, free fanfic has been allowed to flourish relatively unmolested. It has become acceptable (as long as the fanficcer isn’t making money off it), or at least tolerated. The exceptions to this are increasingly few and far between.

Should Amazon choose to enforce its newfound ‘world’ licenses, they could crack down on free fanfic and start that fight all over again. They’d be completely within their rights to do this. This is not to say that they will, but it’s a distinct possibility (and considering how money-grabbing they appear to be, it wouldn’t surprise me or many other commenters on this subject; it is a common fear).

Of course, I suspect that would blow up in their face. They’d enrage the fanfic community and authors would turn away from the Kindle Worlds program in droves (at least, I hope they would!). But just because it’s stupid, doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway.

In another vein, will the KW program reduce the amount of free fanfic available for readers, because writers are all going to go get paid for their writing? I doubt it, if only because of the restrictions on it. Fanfic is all about the freedom to do whatever the hell you want, and there will always be those who want to write outside the boundaries of the program. For example, the ‘no porn’ restriction will keep the slash in the unofficial venues where it currently exists. And I’m sure there are plenty of writers who just won’t want to go the KW way.

Also, I have to ask, is there a big market for people paying for fanfiction? How likely is it to pull readers away from free fanfic? (I’m not convinced that it’s entirely the same audience.) Are fanfic readers likely to pay the prices that Amazon is going to charge?  These aren’t questions I can answer yet.

Authorised/Tie-in Fiction Impacts

Authorised books in licensed domains already exist; this part isn’t new. Some writers make their living writing tie-in novels in copyrighted worlds they don’t own, like Doctor Who, Star Wars, Warhammer, and so on. How will this affect them? Will this legitimised form of fanfic replace these authorised lines of novels?

I would like to doubt it, but it will depend on how the rights holders consider this new program. Could KW be a cheap, low-fuss way for them to get spin-off novels done? Yes. But the fanfic options are, by nature, not canon, not edited, and not vetted. Quality and content will vary widely. One would hope that the right holders of big chains like Star Trek, etc, would want more from their lines. But how likely are they to care that much? Would they just pick and choose the fanfic offerings they like and put on a stamp of a approval, and call it good?

John Scalzi sums it up perfectly: “If I were a pro writer who primarily worked in media tie-in markets, I would have some real concerns.” Yup, me too.

The Author Side

What does this mean to authors producing worlds that might tumble under KW’s banner? Well, I’d keep an eagle eye on your publishing contracts and exactly what rights you’re signing away. You may not get a choice in being part of the program if you hand those reins to a publisher. Previously, authors may not have worried too much, assuming that those particular rights would have been used for authorised tie-in-type material. Opening it up to fanfiction, however, is a different kettle of fish.

Should you be negotiating with your publisher on these grounds, specifically? Yes, if you care about it, and if not, for the fiscal side of things. It’s definitely something to keep in mind if you’re looking at a publishing contract. If you’re not sure, get advice!

For those who already have contracts, you may be open to this program already. It’s probably worth checking with your agent/lawyer/publisher (again, at least for the fiscal issue, if you don’t care much about the fanfic itself).

And it’s not just traditional publishing that is affected. There’s also talk of this option being available through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which I’ve used to publish the Apocalypse Blog ebooks on Kindle/Amazon. I could license fanfic in the AB world! Yay?

Personally, this whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d want to sign those particular rights away (even for tie-ins). I’m a bit jealous of my babies that way*. From what I’ve seen, I don’t want any part of KW, from either side of the deal. As nice as it might be to make a bit of money that way, I couldn’t in all conscience support such a program. Too many skeevy parts for my liking!

Over on the Web Fiction Guide forums, there has been an interesting discussion about most of these points, too, between writers of various types of web fiction. It seems that a lot of authors have a view about Kindle Worlds.

This is touching many people and I am concerned about many of its knock-on impacts. It seems to me that Amazon has made an unsettling move that could set the scene for more action in the e-publishing world that won’t be good for creators. It is part of a larger, disturbing pattern in Amazon’s shaping of the publishing of Kindle ebooks.

Back at the beginning of the year, Smashwords predicted that Amazon will be kicked out of the number-one ebook seller position. Increasingly, I hope that this is so, for the sake of authors everywhere. In the meantime, I will be watching the KW situation with curiosity, from way over here where it won’t touch me.

(*Note: This doesn’t reflect my attitude towards free fanfic; that’s another post entirely, but the short version is that I don’t object to it and would be flattered if someone did it in one of my worlds.)

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