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Amazon’s Foray Into Fanfiction Publishing Is a Mixed Bag for Authors

Yesterday, Amazon announced that it is entering into licensing agreements with rights-holders to offer a service that will allow fanfiction authors to publish and sell their work in Amazon’s Kindle store.

The program, called Kindle Worlds, pays undisclosed royalties to rights-holders (quaintly called World Licensors), and royalties of 20 percent of net (for works of 5,000 to 10,00 words) and 35 percent (for works over 10,000 words). Amazon hasn’t disclosed what their portion of the gross will be. They will set the price for the e-books, between US$0.99 and $3.99 for most works.

The publishing terms are not especially friendly to authors:

  • Authors must follow content guidelines set down by the World Licensor (including a no-crossovers rule)
  • Authors grant Amazon an exclusive license to “the story and all the original elements you include in that story,” which means they can only be published through Amazon publishing (and currently, only in Kindle format)
  • Amazon Publishing gets all rights to your story for the term of copyright
  • Amazon gives the World Licensor a license “to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you”

In other words, you technically own the copyright to the bits of your stories that aren’t already owned by the World Licensor, but you can’t do anything with them—like use them in another story you publish elsewhere—ever. While the World Licensor can take those bits and use them in any way they like without your permission or any requirement to pay you. So if you write a story, CW Television Network, for example, can decide to incorporate your OCs and your plot into the next season of Gossip Girl without any credit or compensation to you.

None of this bothers me especially. I’m a free-market kind of gal when it comes to publishing; put your name to a contract at your own risk. While I don’t believe derivative work is necessarily a violation of copyright, and I don’t believe the creators of an original work are automatically entitled to any and all profits from a derivative work, I have no problem with rights-holders essentially promising not to sue the creator of a derivative work in return for a share of the profits.

What worries me is that World Licensors who once tolerated fanworks or even encouraged them as a way to build fan engagement and “brand-loyalty” will decide to try to maximize profits by quashing the competition. Sites that continue to offer free fanfic in fandoms that are licensed through Kindle Worlds could be at increased risk for civil claims–including claims from Amazon, if the world licenses granted by rights-holders are exclusive.

It’s an interesting turn of events that moves the ball forward in legitimizing fanwork (which is not without its drawbacks). But while this may be good news to fanfic authors who are interested in monetizing their hobby and don’t mind the restrictions, it’s not such good news for fanwork creators overall.

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6 thoughts on “Amazon’s Foray Into Fanfiction Publishing Is a Mixed Bag for Authors

  1. I agree. This doesn’t sound like good news for most fanfic authors. In addition to the possibility you mention above about the original authors who now tolerate fanfic deciding to move against any that isn’t licensed, I also worry that if a fan author publishes with this program and they use characters or other “original,” noncanonical elements in their fic which resemble ones in other fanfiction by other fanfic authors, that Amazon will claim a right to those and try to force purely hobbyist fanfic authors to stop posting their stories freely.

    Personally, I would object to having my original characters owned by Amazon. In that instance, even if Amazon turns down any future fics by the author, that author cannot continue writing those characters in future stories and distributing the stories, even freely. Amazon definitely has the better part of the deal — they put zero into the story aside from obtaining licensing rights from the originating author (which admittedly is a big deal), but they own the characters and other original elements — the original author’s original characters are “legitimate” enough to license, but a fanfic author’s original characters are second-class.

    I think this is a win for Amazon, but overall, a lose for fanfic authors in general, and even, really, for the individual author who signs up with this program. Everything is on the side of Amazon here, with no chance of negotiation, since it’s a one-size-fits-all program. At least authors who write for large cross-media franchises — like Star Trek or Doctor Who — can negotiate contracts with the publishers (whether they get everything they want or not), and are treated as legitimate authors who are writing legitimate fiction within the framework of a certain fictional universe. In my view, Amazon is creating a second tier of authors with this program.

    The program wouldn’t appeal to me, in any case — first, I doubt very much that JKR (in whose fictional universe I play) would sign up with such a program, and second, I write fanfiction for the pleasure of writing AND for the pleasure of sharing that writing, including my original characters and plots, with fan readers.

    I’m going to point people to your article via my blogs.

    • Amazon is doing what it does best and gobbling up the verticals in publishing. Looks like all their current contracts are with television rights-holders; it will be interesting to see how traditional book publishers (like Scholastic) respond, given that Amazon has been squeezing them for years.

      At least Amazon takes a nominal risk in that it’s providing room on its servers and whatever back-end technology and staff is necessary to support the e-pubs. Which is probably small, since it’s already in place for Kindle Direct. The “World Licensors” are the real winners here. They take precisely zero risk and get writers they don’t have to pay. If I owned, say, Harry Potter and cared primarily about making more money, I’d sign up in a flash.

      • I like Amazon for a lot of reasons, and have issues with them in some areas, but this really doesn’t sit well with me.

        I mentioned Star Trek and Doctor Who specifically because they are television programs that have developed their own series of books and other literary-type media, such as radio plays (as opposed to video games, although those are also another sort of spin-off media). The ST & DW books have a thriving market. Yet there are still active fanfiction fandoms for both, and they’re tolerated because, as you say, they see them as a way of maintaining fan engagement and a kind of free advertising for the consumption of their other products. I don’t know if Amazon would look as kindly upon fanfiction in a fandom where they had a license with the original rights-holder.

        I presume that the World Licensors have contracts of limited duration and are big enough entities to hire lawyers to keep them from making unfavorable contracts; yet the fanfic authors lose the rights to their creations for the entire life of they copyright and have a take-it-or-leave-it contract.

  2. Pingback: Amazon’s New Program for Fanfiction Authors | MMADfan's Blog & Fanfic Site

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