Sometimes I think that in its quest to be a business innovator, Amazon borrows the wrong traits from the uber-innovator Google, which is notorious for introducing side projects with a definite “Whoa, totally cool!” vibe before they’d exactly figured out how useful or sustainable it was.
The latest from Amazon, as I’m sure you heard roughly everywhere on the internet yesterday, is the announcement of Kindle Worlds, which is meant to tap the hordes of fan fiction writers out there. In a nutshell:
- Amazon licenses the right to publish works based on a franchise (they have three starting out the gate — Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries)
- Fanfic authors can publish stories in those universes on Kindle, and be paid royalties for it
Most of the comments I’ve heard have been supportive of this. After all, Amazon loves selling content instead of media because there’s no up-front wholesale cost for them, and this allows them to vend a whole universe (several universes, actually) of content that would otherwise have been ignored.
Contrarian that I am, I am going to say that not only is this going to be a trainwreck of semi-apocalyptic proportions, but it’s a wholly foreseeable trainwreck, as soon as one looks at this from the perspective of the licensor.
Now, you’ll notice that none of the real heavy-hitters of the fanfic franchises are in the initial announcement, but let’s take the case of the lion of the jungle, the ultimate franchise for which fan fiction was invented:
Now, Paramount has always been forward-thinking about their approach to expanding the Star Trek franchise. Their proliferation of tie-in and spinoff novels are the example of every other media franchise looking to expand into print. And Paramount has on the whole been very lenient with fanficcers, letting authors (and filmmakers, too) play in their intellectual sandbox as a way of cementing the fans’ devotion to the brand. As long as you’re doing it for-the-luv and not trying to make money off their IP, they’ve let fanficcers go to town.
But there has always been a high, thick concrete wall between the officially licensed books and the fan fiction. And that wall is there in the name of quality control.
Ask Peter David or Lee Goldberg or Mike Stackpole or any writer who’s done licensed tie-in novels, and they’ll tell you that the licensor takes a very hands-on approach to the tie-in work, the degree of licensor involvement being roughly commensurate to the breadth of the spin-off products’ reach (e.g., there’s going to be a lot more licensor micromanagement for Star Wars or Star Trek novels than for Monk or Diagnosis: Murder novels). And that’s perfectly understandable. The licensors are in charge of protecting the franchise property as a whole, and they know that a poor tie-in novel can affect readers’ attitude toward all the other tie-in novels, and anything else in that franchise, including the original movies or TV show (especially if they’re ongoing).
Which means that the licensor is going to shoot down any tie-in work which drastically changes the character, tone, or maturity level of the original work. That’s why, in all their decades of licensing literally hundreds of Star Trek novels, Paramount has never given the thumbs-up to a novel featuring a Kirk/Spock gay romance, despite the inexplicable fact that such stories have been so common in Star Trek fan fiction right from the beginning.
So, let’s say that you’re the corporate entity known as Paramount, and Amazon comes to you with this Kindle Worlds proposal. You license the franchise to Amazon, and anyone who wants to can write a Star Trek novel (or story, even — the stated guidelines are that it only needs to be 5,000 words long) and upload it to sell as a Kindle ebook, and Paramount will get a cut without lifting a finger.
Anyone can write a Star Trek novel.
Now, Kindle Desktop Publishing currently has some minimal content guidelines: no pornography (“That’s Smashwords’s job!”), “offensive content,” or copyright infringement. And maybe there will be additional guidelines for Kindle Worlds, specific to the franchise or property (“No Kirk/Spock, Geordi/Data, Bashir/Garak…”), and even restrictions against crossover fanfic (“Even though Amazon holds the licenses to both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, you may not have Leonard Nimoy’s characters team up with each other”). But these are still de minimus controls, far from the overseer role that Paramount has traditionally taken over content, style, and quality. There is no way on the surface for you to ixnay blatant Mary Sues, or obviously politically-oriented stories that have the Enterprise deposing a Federation President who imprisons malcontents on the planet Guantanamo II, or a five-novel series in which Kirk comes down with the space clappe and Spock runs the ship like it should be run, dammit.
In other words, in exchange for whatever their cut is from Amazon, you give up entirely control of the franchise. Instead, you consent to having the franchise weakened and watered down but poorly written, derivative, wish-fulfilling fully licensed fan fiction.
Call me crazy, but I’m going to guess that Paramount (the real Paramount, not you) is gonna give it about 90 seconds’ consideration and then decide, “Aw, HELL no.”
Now. Here’s the other way in which I think that Amazon has really stepped in it with this.
As you may have noticed, there is something of a difference of opinion regarding the legitimacy of self-published works. Kindle and other ebook publishers have allowed some authors of quality to bypass traditional publishing and create a splash with self-published books, and a lot of readers who would have turned up their noses at something obviously self-published on paper ten years ago (if they even encountered it, as it wouldn’t show up in most book stores) will now give serious consideration to “indie-published” ebooks. But there’s still a lot of dross out there, as everyone who’s Aunt Mabel told them that their hidden-in-a-drawer first-and-only manuscript was really really good, never mind what those 119 stupid publishers said when they rejected it has now shoved it up on Amazon.
The proponents of traditional publishing — both the publishers themselves, and those at the top of the bestseller lists who see their own fortunes tied to that publishing model — play up the lack of gatekeepers in indie publishing as being evidence of its substandard output.
How much more traction will those voices for traditional publishing have if they can point to oodles and oodles of fan fiction as being the median output of Kindle Direct Publishing? High-quality self-publishers could end up tarred by association.
As I said, these negatives either aren’t seen or aren’t given much credence by most of the other commenters I’ve seen. I hope that I’m just out in left field. But I don’t think so.