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Will Kindle Worlds Commodify Fan Fiction?

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I learned about the unfathomable amount of cash that Yahoo planned to throw at Tumblr last month, when the news inevitably crept up on my Tumblr dashboard. The reactions were predictably negative, and the general sentiment was clear: “They are going to ruin all of what we’ve built.” For the most part, they echoed the reactions of the press at large, questioning yet another one of these crazy big internet deals, the wisdom of banking so much on users as advertising targets, and the near-universal assertion that you “can’t buy cool.” Was there ever a more stark contrast than between the purple-and-white tabloid jumble of Yahoo’s homepage and the stripped-down malleability of Tumblr? Yahoo went on record promising “not to screw it up,” which was somehow less reassuring than it should have been.

But I lead a double life on Tumblr: I follow bookish people and things, posting my own work there, attached to my real name, but I also lurk around a number of interlocking fandoms — interlocking because one has inevitably led me to the next: as people whose taste I trust migrate towards new obsessions, I sometimes migrate in turn. They have begun to crowd my dash, the weight of a thousand animated gifs slowing the site’s functionality to a crawl — and I love everything about them. There is a vernacular that links these communities, some of it held over from the time when LiveJournal ruled the fannish world, and some of it new and constantly evolving, borne on a blogging platform designed for sharing and speed and expansive warm-heartedness — I spend so much time smiling while scrolling around on Tumblr that it’s kind of alarming. (I browse Twitter stony-faced, occasionally barking out a harsh laugh, which means I’m either doing it wrong or Twitter and I just aren’t meant for each other.)

For the most part, fan communities seem to shy away from any organization that tries to insert itself from the top down. There is a sense that on Tumblr, fandom is planted and cultivated — grown, in a way that feels more palpable than LiveJournal ever did. It’s in your average stack of reblogged posts, fanning out in a sideways pyramid, each subsequent comment riffing on the one before it — and then seeing it days later, the joke or the expression of sympathy of the series of gifs piling up exponentially. You go to “like” it and note, with some surprise, that you already have. You can literally build on an idea, and this is how fandoms blossom and thrive.

It is an organic space, which must be at the heart of what’s made it such an unprofitable space, the sponsored posts unobtrusively tucked over to the far right, simple enough to train your eye away from, and subtle enough to even invite a curious click or two. But how would the intrusion of an organization as heavy-handed as Yahoo affect these communities? Rumors began to spread suggesting that content would soon be censored, and that advertisers would be given much more space within a matter of days. Nothing was confirmed, but a vague sense of foreboding persisted: would they know to leave well enough alone, or would all of this organic community building prove too tempting not to attempt to monetize, to control, to ruin?

The answer, of course, remains to be seen — it’s far too early in the game. We woke up to a blogging platform that looked much the same as the day before; a week later, no discernible change. The site chugs onwards, a million little corners of the internet, perfect little microcosms of the world — or the world as we wish it could be. For now, anyway.

It is fitting, perhaps, that the same week as the Yahoo/Tumblr acquisition, Amazon announced a project entitled “Kindle Worlds.” It feels like more of a broader trend than a coincidence, because the Kindle Worlds endeavor is about an organization inserting itself from the top down. “Worlds,” we learn, are Amazon-ese for fandoms — individual universes constructed by books, movies, television shows, comics, etc. — and the program is a platform for publishing fan fiction — quoting myself here, from a year ago (I’m currently accepting my lot as The Millions’ official fanfic correspondent): “fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely.” Yeah, I apparently used the term “worlds” as well, but at least I didn’t capitalize it.

The Amazon deal was struck with Alloy Entertainment, the YA juggernaut behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, amongst a number of other ubiquitous book-cum-television-show enterprises about teenage girls being cruel and/or sexy. These three are the official launch-point for Kindle Worlds: fanfic writers in these communities (and elsewhere eventually, Amazon promises, with “licenses for more Worlds on the way”) will be able to digitally publish their stuff for Kindle via Amazon, exchanging full rights to their ideas for somewhere between 20-35% of the profits, based on the length of their stories. The first offerings when the store launches in June will be commissioned works, the Worlds homepage filled with cheerful testimonials from these writers beside a dusting of hard facts and figures.

Much has already been written on the financial and legal details of Kindle Worlds, and the interpretations tend to vary based on the source. With a few exceptions, fan fiction is written, disseminated, and consumed entirely for free: obvious legal reasons compel writers to mark each story with very clear disclaimers, crediting their source material, however far an interpretation strays from the original. In the extremely rare instance that a fan work is published for money, it is after the story has been transformed beyond recognition — the Fifty Shades trilogy is the most famous example, evolving from 100 chapters of Twilight fan fiction. To the casual observer, Kindle Worlds might seem like a vast step up for your average fanfic writer, the best of whom are paid in praise alone. There’s actual money here, though, to be fair, not a whole lot of it, accompanied the establishment’s stamp of approval, published by Amazon and sanctioned by the corporation that owns the source material.

The actual money leads to other financial questions, because with Alloy, we’re not talking about borrowing the characters of a single author: these books, and the scripts of the accompanying shows, are written by a slew of work-for-hire writers. Book-industry types far more familiar with media tie-in writing than me have suggested that the Kindle Worlds move might be another Amazon attempt to circumvent traditional publishers and writing models. If this actually catches on, Alloy and other organizations may come out winners, because by publishing on this platform, a fan fiction writer gives up rights to the content of their stories — Alloy and Amazon will have full rights to original characters and ideas. Why hire a team of traditional writers when your fans can generate new ideas for you — at no cost beyond the few cents per Kindle single you’re required to pay them?

The whole venture hints at broader questions that swirl around a lot of Amazon’s recent projects as they attempt to knock traditional publishing models out of whack. If it didn’t feel like such a fundamental and remotely insulting misunderstanding of fan culture, if it didn’t feel like a prime chance for corporations to exploit rather than promote, I might even praise Amazon (praise Amazon, for Christ’s sakes) for trying yet one more thing that deviates from the publishing status quo. If the barriers for entry are lowered, does publishing great fiction becomes a question of talent alone — even as something crucial is given up in the exchange? There are parallels with self-publishing and parallels with the broader Kindle Single platform. Who deserves to be published? Why isn’t it simply the person whom people would most like to read?

Surely every person in the entire realm of fan fiction is tired of the monetization question by now. The simple answer is that it really, really isn’t about the money. But people keep on asking anyway: how can so much time and energy and a sheer dizzying number of words be spent on something for no financial compensation? It’s easy enough to say that the person who asks that question doesn’t understand the idea of fan fiction, or doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be a fan of something in general — but that feels dismissive and unhelpful. There is a disconnect here, though, and it’s one that’s tricky for me to articulate, between Amazon and Alloy and the fan fiction community, or between Tumblr and Yahoo and the people who look at 100,000 reblogs and can only see a missed opportunity for advertising.

Is a person who believes in the ultimate democratizing power of the internet bound to be disappointed sooner or later? That scrappy start-ups inevitably sell out — great ideas get acquired by big companies, then twisted beyond recognition? Of course, those great ideas can come from anywhere, right? Perhaps that’s not enough to stem the disillusionment. So maybe that’s one of the appeals of fan fiction, or of the exchange of images and ideas amongst fandoms on Tumblr and elsewhere: there is absolutely no endgame there, beyond the satisfaction of sharing something you like, obsess over, deeply love with other people who love it just as deeply.

There is an enormously freeing diversity in the world of fan fiction. I don’t mean that the writers are diverse — they are mostly female, and surely there must be socioeconomic implications in the ability to sustain such a hobby. I mean that the whole point of it, beyond all that deep love and celebrating any given fandom, is taking a character or a setting or just the tiniest inkling of an idea and rolling with it. The possibilities spin off into exponentially increasing permutations, spurring weird stuff and beautiful stuff, quite often fiction that’s better written than the source material that inspired it, creating fandoms that are so broad and varied and encompassing that a person can usually find whatever they’re seeking within. If not, well, that person may as well just write it herself. If that’s not the most accurate reflection of the rest of the internet — the organic, cultivated internet, grown from the bottom up, with no contracts, no exchanges of cash — then I don’t know what is.

Surprise Me!