Kindle Worlds: A Very Clever Idea

Amazon seems to be on the verge of doing something really clever with its new Kindle Worlds program. It looks as if it has found a genuinely new way of developing, creating and marketing tie-in fiction, and also a method of making fan fiction profitable, not only for Amazon, but for the fans and the creators of the worlds those fans write in.

It’s early days yet, of course, and we have not really seen any of the final product but what it appears to be is a system similar to Kindle Direct Publishing which will allow fans to upload their stories and create ebooks set in the worlds of those creators who have agreed to participate in the program. (At the moment there are Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and the Vampire Diaries. Apparently there will be more.) The writers will be able to give their work covers using a library of relevant stock art and then have them distributed through Amazon’s Kindle publishing system.

I’ve been involved in the tie-in industry for almost 25 years and I confess I thought this is genius when I read this. It’s so simple and so obvious once you think of it, and yet no one has previously tried to do it. For good reason too, for once you start to wander into the realms of intellectual property development you enter a legal minefield.

The benefits to Amazon are self-evident. It gets a mass of new products with an enthusiastic fanbase that are exclusive to Amazon’s distribution system. It is breaking into an entirely new market. In truth, it is boldly going where no one has gone before and in a way creating that entirely new market.

The benefits to the creators are equally obvious. They get to share in the revenues of the fan-created works. They get a whole new revenue stream from the crowd-sourced creations. They get the benefit of a massive community with a financial interest in promoting their franchise.

The writers get a very decent royalty– 35% — for work they were previously doing for free. Any copyrightable elements of their stories that are not already part of the franchise become their’s although they do grant the licensor the right to use them as part of the franchise. I am not a lawyer but this seems to me in some ways to resemble the Open Gaming License that Wizards of the Coasts used when it revived D&D. It should avoid any in-fighting over who can use what although I imagine there is still some possibility of nasty squabbles arising.

If you are at all interested in writing fan-fiction set in the universes that Amazon has licensed, what is not to love about finding a global audience for your work at a 35% royalty. I can envision people using this as a springboard to other things.

Downsides?

I can’t really find any for Amazon. It has already created the distribution and payment systems needed to make this work. Presumably its lawyers have been hard at work on the legal framework.

For the creators? There is the very strong possibility of brand dilution if too much sub-standard work is produced. There is also the possibility of some legal squabbling if a smart lawyer finds some way to exploit the setup. Also I can’t imagine any companies who want to have total control over their IP would sign up for this program. For one thing, you have the problem of what is canonical and what is not arising very swiftly as people add new stuff to the background and other people build on it. This system of crowdsourcing seems much better suited to some types of IP than others.

For the writers? Well, you are giving Amazon exclusive distribution rights for the duration of copyright. That is pretty restrictive but it’s certainly no worse than if you were signing a work for hire contract. The royalty rate appears to be based on net rather than gross which may not be very generous if Amazon decides to define net the way some film companies do.

For the community in general? One springs to mind. By allowing the monetisation of something that was previously free, Amazon is giving the copyright holders an incentive to come down on the people who still produce things for free. Whether the right’s holders would actually do this and face the inevitable backlash from the community remains to be seen.

Right now none of the IPs in the program really interest me but there are some I would very seriously consider writing for if they became available.

Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts based on a very cursory reading of the press release and the front page Amazon has put up. I would write more but I am having real trouble accessing Amazon from my office today. I can’t even get through to copy the links to the Kindle Worlds page. Doubtless I will have more to say in the future.

What are your thoughts on this matter? Are there any franchises you are just champing at the bit to write in?

Addendum: Matt Forbeck addresses a lot more points in far more detail here. What Matt has to say is very much worth your time if you have any interest in this subject.

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Comments

  1. Well I do have that Flashman story I found tucked into an old bound volume of The Glasgow Herald in the Mitchell Library a few years back…

  2. One thing that you did mention is that Amazon say that they will be exercising some kind of quality control and aren’t going to publish any old garbage (as they allow on plain ole regular Kindle publishing). However, I can’t see that it will be economically feasible for anyone to be able to pay an actual human being to read through an entire book to check for quality. So I think that all they will be able to do is to have something like Smashwords’ Meatgrinder to check that the layout is legible at least.

    • The quality control thing looks like the terms in the KDP contract that they use for things like formatting, typos etc, Nick. I suspect the boilerplate will also allow them to remove stories people complain about or the IP holder dislikes/feels aren’t up to snuff. I agree I can’t see them having human QA on every manuscript. I should also point out that quality is often an entirely subjective experience anyway :).

  3. I’ve heard people call this a way of monetizing fanfic, but it really seems more of a way to crowdsource tie-in fiction. If it works it will be brilliant, assuming enough IP holders want to get on board with it.

    None of the IPs look very interesting to me, but if an interesting one did sign up I would seriously consider writing a novella to try it out.

    • Agreed, Jonathan, particularly about the crowd-sourcing. I also agree it really depends on which IP holders sign up. I would certainly be interested in Conan, for example :).

  4. I have to admit, the fangirl side of me is drooling a little, thinking about a few franchises/worlds I’d love to write for (but it’s very unlikely they would be part of this program). But my writer/business side is cringing a little. The brand dilution is one of the things that concerns me. I can see how this could make the original creators really hurt–how far can a story diverge from it’s original, and still be labeled as that thing? You see fantasies in fan fiction all the time, people morphing characters into people they WANT them to be, rather than who they really are (well, as real as a character can be ;)). How much can you change the rules of magic and still have it be the same system? Etc. The other thing that bothers me–Amazon is looking out for themselves and their bottom line. I can see a lot of writers who are not business savvy getting taken advantage of here. Yes, they have the option of reading through the contract, of getting that savviness, but I think Amazon is counting on them NOT. It bothers me, but at the same time, people do need to learn to take responsibility for themselves. It’ll be interesting to see what other franchises join in, and what direction this whole thing will take.

    • All very fair points, Melanie. I can see certain types of IP franchises becoming involved in this. In particular I can imagine those with short half-lives– like TV series which will one day end or have already done so (Firefly anyone?) where this might help keep the IP alive and provide a long tail revenue stream at pretty much no cost to the owners. I can see dead authors estates perhaps becoming involved too.

      As for writers being exploited, it’s possible. So far Amazon have been pretty good to writers though and I don’t see them changing this any time soon. Of course, my ability to predict the future is exactly zero so make of that what you will. Amazon’s basic contract terms seem at least as good as most work for hire contracts I have seen and a lot better than some. The main difference is the lack of advance but then many tie-in producers are not exactly famous for large advances. I’ve made a living in this part of the publishing industry for a very long time and I would not hesitate to do business with Amazon if the right IP came along, if I had the time and I was in the mood :).

      In terms of internal consistency, I think you’re spot on. This would be one of my main worries if I were an IP owner.

  5. Are you ready for the monetization of slash fanfics between Mayasha and the demon prince? You know it is but a matter of time. 😛

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