Last Wednesday, Amazon announced the launch of Kindle Worlds for writers of fan fiction. It’s billed as a way to give writers an outlet – and the legal license – to write, promote and sell fan fiction e-books. At first blush, this seems like a great opportunity: Formerly unknown fanfic authors can now earn both income and notoriety from their work!
But it isn’t just about the writers. Kindle Worlds relies on the participation of four entities, and each has something to gain and a lot to lose.
The Rights Holders
The rights holders are taking the biggest risk in this venture, and kudos to them for recognizing the value of giving their fans free and clear access to their brands. The possibility of cultivating the community that already exists around their brands was doubtless a major draw to Amazon’s newest scheme.
The risk, though, is that Kindle Worlds is open to anyone’s submissions. The rights holders each have submitted content guidelines for acceptable work, but it must rely on the community and on Amazon’s employees and algorithms to make sure those guidelines are followed. Rightsholders surrender true quality control of their brand’s fan fiction, which opens them up to association with all sorts of unsavory elements.
I want to believe in the inherent goodness of people as much as the next guy, but I’ve been disillusioned by humanity’s capacity for depravity too often to expect everyone to behave well. Some great fanfiction will surely come from Kindle Worlds, but so will some unbelievable ugliness.
To writers of fan fiction, Kindle Worlds seems like a godsend. After spending all that time writing stories and never showing them to anyone, I can now make real cash and win recognition from it? Count me in!
But hold your horses. You aren’t just selling your stories online, you’re giving them to Amazon to sell online. Amazon doesn’t have the greatest track record for customer service or for treating third-party sellers fairly. One of the ways a writer/seller can find themselves suspended from Amazon – and from their profits – is “Poor Customer Experience,” which is based on customer feedback. Unscrupulous sellers have used feedback time and time again as a tool to eliminate competition, leaving sellers frustrated, angry, unpaid, and with little recourse.
But even assuming that everything works the way Amazon says it will, the potential problems are still pretty scary. The communities that will grow around Kindle Worlds, artificial though they will be, will ultimately be controlled by Amazon.
Let me restate that: Amazon will own the communities around these brands. And because the system will be open to anyone, these won’t be welcoming communities of only true fans, but gated communities controlled by Amazon itself, systematically letting in opportunists hoping to exploit the brands to make a few bucks.
An organic community would be preferable, growing in a place like, say, GoodReads. But wait! Amazon is in the process of buying GoodReads, preemptively eliminating one of Kindle Worlds’ biggest fanfic and community competitors! That’s no mere coincidence.
I don’t know what effect Amazon Worlds will have on consumers, but the possibilities don’t look good. Yes, you’ll be able to join in the community fun and explore the fictional world of one of your favorite brands in strange new ways. But once again, Amazon will own that community. If you want to participate in that community, you have to play by Amazon’s rules and pay Amazon’s fees. No ePub files for you!
It’s no secret that Amazon doesn’t have a great track record for letting customers keep what they pay for. So, what happens when Amazon’s contract with the rights holders is up? What happens to all the fanfic on your Kindle that you paid for? You won’t know until it happens, but what you do know is that it’s entirely up to Amazon.
Amazon and What’s Really Going On
What inspired Amazon’s new venture? It all comes down to one book: Fifty Shades of Grey. This fastest-selling paperback of all time, which landed its author E.L. James on Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in 2012, began its life as a Twilight fan fiction e-book. Imagine the profits Amazon would have made if the book had been available only for the Kindle?
Amazon has recognized the financial potential of breakout fan fiction and now hopes to corner the market on it. The next Fifty Shades, Amazon hopes, will be available exclusively for Kindle. Thankfully, it has obtained licenses from only a few brands: Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl, Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars, and L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries. But more brands are sure to come soon.
The true fans of these brands have already found one other. They already have their networks online, on social media, and in meatspace, and those fans who aren’t yet part of that community can still find their way into it fairly easily. Amazon hopes to wall these communities in, controlling the only way in and collecting their admission fees.
I think it’s short-sighted of these brands to hand their communities over to Amazon. Instead of forcing fan fiction through a sometimes suspect middleman, these brands should instead reach out to their communities directly. Create your own space, invite your fans in and let the community grow (independently of any platform) around you. It worked for Star Wars (though its recent acquisition by Disney leaves the future of brand-community interaction in limbo). Even J.K. Rowling is doing it to a certain degree.
On paper, Kindle Worlds could be lucrative for Amazon. And the rights holders may be convinced that this venture will add to their bottom line, but they seem to have forgotten a more important element: Will it be best for their customers?
I certainly don’t think so. What do you think?