At 8 P.M. each Tuesday evening in their respective Virginia homes, Nancy Naigle and her 70-year-old mother put on matching pajamas, plonk down in comfy chairs and nestle up with their laptops: It’s Pretty Little Liars o’clock. Every week, Naigle’s mother shoots her daughter messages over Facebook as Pretty Little Liars’ mysterious “A” torments Aria, Spencer, Hanna and Emily, the ABC Family show’s lead teenage characters.
“She was on the phone saying, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe Hanna got caught!’ when the episode finished. I was like ‘Oh, you’re talking about the show, mom,” says Naigle, who’s currently working on a fanfiction series based on Pretty Little Liars.
When Naigle asks her mother what she thought of Secret Talents, her fanfiction in which she transforms Zack, a coffee shop owner on the show, into a stadium-packing rockstar, her mom wasn’t so keen. Naigle laughs. “She said, Nan’, this is not so good.”
Nancy’s mom might not be a fan of Zack’s new lease of life as a Bono wannabe, but the 99-cent story has sold well on Kindle Worlds, a fanfiction-publishing platform launched by Amazon back in May. Spurred by the success of 50 Shades of Gray (which began as Twilight fanfiction and went on to sell 70 million copies), Amazon has purchased the rights to several high-profile “worlds,” or the people and places featured in a particular television program or novel’s storyline. Thus far, worlds licensed by Amazon include Warner Brothers’ Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and Vampire Diaries. The company’s hope? To snare the next e-book phenomenon.
Through a legally sound licensing system and royalties framework, the online retail giant has created a regulated commercial platform which sees original writers, fanfiction writers, licensees and, of course, Amazon itself benefit financially from pseudo-original content creation. Licensing agreements see fanfiction writers receive 35 percent royalties on stories over 10,000 words (25 percent on shorter works); the remaining 65 percent is split between Amazon, the licensee and the original author.
In less than two months, Kindle Worlds has published 106 works of fanfiction which span nine licensed worlds. Amazon sets story prices, which currently range from $0.99 to $3.99, and fanfiction writers must agree to the Kindle Worlds Publishing Agreement, which grants writers the right to produce fanfiction based on material from any particular licensed world. Fanfiction writers must also agree to a “no reversion” policy — their work cannot be removed from the site at a later date — and adhere to content regulations enforced by Amazon. Pornography, offensive content, copyright infringement, misleading titles, poorly formatted novels, excessive use of brand names and "crossover" stories including characters from different worlds are banned. Specific worlds adhere to stricter policies, depending upon the agreement between the original writer and Amazon. Drug and alcohol consumption, for example, are banned in Jason Starr’s Harbinger; “homosexuality and explorations of gender identity are not frowned upon in the least,” in Silo Saga by Hugh Howie, according to Kindle Worlds’ Content Quality Guide.
Rebecca Tushnet, a member of the legal committee of the Organization of Transformative Works, a noncommercial online fanfiction archive, is skeptical of Kindle Worlds. “Amazon’s doing an experiment, and the good thing about not paying advances is there's not a huge amount of overheads,” she explains. Groups like OTW are pushing back at Amazon’s exploitation of their genre. “It’s just another business model representing another way of Mechanical Turk-ization the world of literature,” says Tushnet.
Kindle Worlds’ ban on pornography, excessive swearing and character crossovers are also at odds with the content found on sites like Fanfiction.net, home to more than 3,000,000 users and 6,600,000 stories. “The whole point of fanfiction is to write about anything you want, so sex and swearing are the things people put into their work,” says Lila Rodriguez, a British graduate student who writes on Fanfiction.net. “I’m shocked Amazon thinks people will sign up for this so-called fanfiction.”
But whether Kindle Worlds is misappropriating, redefining or introducing fanfiction to a wider community — and whether that is a good thing — is a question writers, readers and publishers have very different answers to.
“There a long and rich tradition of commercialized fanfiction,” says Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director at Digital Book World, an online publishing resource. He refers to Spockanalia, a ‘60s Star Trek magazine which published fanfiction alongside original content. “I would consider Amazon going to [Kindle Worlds] authors very much in that tradition.”
While the creative wiggle room noncommercial fanfiction thrives on is restricted by Kindle Worlds’ writers contracts, Amazon’s commercial clout paves a clearly defined legal route into the fanfiction market, according to Greenfield. Ensuring the blessing of original writers for the fanfictionizing of their work means no one’s throwing legal cases into the Kindle World sandpit.
“I’m thrilled that Amazon has been pushing the digital frontiers to open up even more sharing of ideas and building new communities around the most popular characters and stories,” says novelist Scott Nicholson in a Kindle Worlds press release. His outlook — no doubt cushioned by the royalties he receives from Amazon for derivatives of his work — is a far cry from writers like Anne Rice, who once demanded Fanfiction.net take down any fanfiction based on her work.
In the same way Apple launched their e-books platform with a carefully curated stable of publishers in 2010, Amazon approached authors like Nancy Naigle and Carolyn Nash to create fanfiction in the lead up to the Kindle Worlds launch. Noncommercial fanfiction writers might balk at Nash’s admission that she’d never “met” the Upper East Side’s most sexually voracious and morally corrupt residents before she researched Gossip Girl as part of Amazon’s commission, but she takes a similarly hard stance against the “traditional” fanfiction community. “At least Amazon bought the licensing, and they’re not plagiarizing,” she says. “The other people? That’s exactly what they’re doing.”
A full-time writer, Nash views Kindle Worlds as a valuable marketing tool for extending her personal brand. “I write humorous contemporary, snarky comments so I was able to pull off that Kristen Bell voice,” she says about her Gossip Girl fanfiction.
And contrary to misappropriating the term fanfiction, Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield thinks Amazon and writers like Nash simply have their business brains switched on. “When you want to build a new business, I think it’s very common and logical that you want to prime the pump a little bit,” he says. “You don't just go out there and say, 'We’re open for business, who wants to be first?”
Small-town romance writer Nancy Naigle’s three Pretty Little Liars fanfictions (Secret Talents, The Path to RelAxAtion and The LiArs’ Lair) were also part of Kindle Worlds’ inaugural class — and the author’s first stab at writing fanfiction. She sees Kindle Worlds as a shoo-in for a fanfiction community that she has little time to spend finding “the secret trap door” to. “I just decided it would be Nan’ land and I’d make my own rules,” she says.
An Atlantic Ocean away, Lila Rodriguez, a noncommercial fanfiction writer, sits on a bed in East London. Perfume, creams and law books sit in a small cabinet next to her bed. Another cabinet’s crammed with shoes and boxes for her underwear, and a collection of papers she always says she’ll throw away, but doesn’t. Snuggled under her covers, she’s ready for a trip down what she calls her “rabbit hole to wonderland” — a fanfiction world inspired by The Duke and I by Julia Quinn and Texas Fire by Kimberley Raye.
Five years ago, Rodriguez wrote her first Gossip Girl fanfiction, based on her kindred spirit, Gossip Girl’s Vanessa Abrams, a young girl held back from following her own path by her parents. “I decided to use my own little wonderland to express how I would like a man to act in the bedroom,” she says. Rodriguez’s storylines include Chuck Bass recruiting Abrams for some strip club mind-games: “Me, you, strip club. You strip, I watch, get it?"
Rodriguez dips in and out of the fanfiction community, but hates the idea of Kindle Worlds because it tramples over the “gift” of free fanfiction. “We all have had nights where we stayed awake writing our stories because we wanted our fans to wake up to smiles,” she says. “I know what it feels like to want to read something so badly and having to pay for it.”
Whether Kindle Worlds can, will or even wants to tap into traditional fanfiction communities accustomed to free content, is, according to Greenfield, a waiting game — and they don’t have a recent, successful prototype to model on. In 2007, Chris and David Williams gathered $3 million to launch FanLib, a commercial fanfiction platform which became defunct in less than a year, undermined by a shaky legal structure and story-grabbing practices which saw them acquire full rights to fan work with no monetary compensation for authors other than a free T-shirt and the distinguish of being included.
But there is the potential for traditional fanfiction communities and Kindle Worlds to cater to entirely separate markets. “Fanfiction has a distinctive character because it’s noncommercial,” OTW’s Rachel Tushnet says. “I don't want new fans — because people are inventing fandom everyday — to think that Amazon is the only way to do fanfiction.” While no one holds the authority to enforce a standardized definition of fanfiction as a genre, Tushnet thinks Kindle Worlds is “a completely different thing” from the hobby she’s grown to love.
Explicit sex and swearing don't define noncommercial fanfiction, but the limitless scope of fanfiction “created for fans, by fans,” according to Tushnet, is what makes the genre unique and, in turn, what makes Kindle Worlds a misappropriation. While anti-pornography rules are standard for online companies like Amazon, Rebecca’s thinks Amazon’s control over content limits their ability to market to the existing fanfiction community. “It’s sort of like slapping homemade on the product they sell in the supermarket,” she says.
Whether Kindle Worlds will succeed and attract competitors in their pursuit to snare the next 50 Shades of Grey isn’t an easy question to answer, according to Digital Book World’s Greenfield. Given Apple’s connections within the entertainment industry, Greenfield sees the company as well positioned to move into the business of fanfiction, while others like Microsoft and Barnes & Noble are always looking for ways to innovate. “We might see an exact copy, something different or Amazon might be the only company to bring something out,” he says. “Kindle Worlds will stand on the narrative of the quality of the work.”
Iona Holloway is a Scottish magazine journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. She covers breaking technology and startups at Fast Company by day and get’s her book-kook on by night. She’s a Crossfit fan and takes great joy in beating the boys at her gym, although she could do without the calloused hands. She covers random cultural happenings on her own website, ionaholloway.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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