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Amazon’s fan-fiction portal Kindle Worlds is a bust for fans, and for writers too

20 August 2014

From GigaOm:

It sounded like a good idea: fans of cultural figures like Kurt Vonnegut and G.I. Joe get permission to use their favorite characters to create new stories under the umbrella of Amazon, and everyone gets a cut of the profits. So how it did turn out?

So far the results of the project, known as Kindle Worlds, appear lackluster at best. Take the popular series Pretty Little Liars, which became available as an Amazon-licensed fan fiction title last year.

In the month of June, authors contributed 46 Pretty Little Liars works to Kindle Worlds, which sounds like a fair number — unless you compare it to the more than 6,000 such works that appeared during this time on two other fan fiction sites.

More broadly, on one of those sites, FanFiction.net, fans posted 100 new stories every hour across all categories. And Amazon? Its entire output for all 24 “Worlds” of content, which also includes franchises like Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries, was just 538 stories over the course of more than a year.

. . . .

According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap. Characters in other works can’t use drugs or employ profane language. And gay, bisexual or deviant sexual behavior might be off-limits too.

. . . .

Add it all up, and the fields of imagination and community in Kindle Worlds feel barren next to the rollicking, ribald world of the purely fan universes. The sanctioned space, it turns out, is just not as much fun as the unofficial ones. One fan fiction enthusiast cited by the paper likens Kindle Worlds to a playground of “five quiet, clean, polite children carefully playing together while helicopter parents hovered overhead … Whatever Amazon has created there is no life in it.”

For Amazon and its partners, it will be difficult to overcome such perceptions since the underlying problem is not just about licensing terms, but something more fundamental: the impossibility of having it both ways, of fostering maximum creativity while wielding maximum legal control.

Link to the rest at GigaOm and thanks to L for the tip.


47 Comments to “Amazon’s fan-fiction portal Kindle Worlds is a bust for fans, and for writers too”

  1. People complaining about the chance to make money from their fanfiction via an official license? Sorry, no sympathy. You’re being handed something valuable that belongs to someone else. Of course there are going to be rules for how you use it. Tie-in writers consider this standard fare.

    I doubt Amazon considers this to be a bust. It’s an obvious net to help catch the next 50 Shades. It’s probably costing them hardly anything to maintain. Sounds like a formula for easy money.

    • I agree, Jim. The terms for KW aren’t great, but not terribly different from a lot of other tie-in writing contracts.

      At any rate, that’s one terrible article. It’s like they didn’t bother to read the guidelines or check their facts.

      In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap.

      Uh, yeah. Whaaat? Snake-Eyes isn’t a villain and there’s a perfectly good (meta) reason why he’s not a Yankees fan. 🙂

    • Except they’ll never catch the next Fifty Shades through Kindle Worlds, because they don’t allow anything “objectionable,” including any sex beyond light vanilla. The metaphor of the two playgrounds across the street from one another is wonderfully apt. I’d rather play in the wilder playground, thanks. And as Scalzi pointed out when Kindle Worlds was first announced, the KW terms and compensation sucks rocks compared with a traditionally licensed work.


  2. “can only go as far as a Kindle device”…


  3. Tushnet’s actual paper is linked in the article, and it’s a ton more interesting. So click through.

    Apparently, some people argue that if people who own copyright are okay with free licensing of noncommercial use, you don’t need “fair use” anymore. Tushnet of course doesn’t agree that it’s just as good as fair use, or that the effects are exactly the same.

    Also, she says a lot of copyright owners think they should be able to make money off every single hint of use by somebody. “The aim is not just to put the genie of frictionless copying back into the bottle, but also to make it start granting copyright owners’ wishes.”

    There’s also a fair amount of talk about cases where the copyright owners are freehanded about use but not transformation, and when they are letting you use items in order to monitor your web traffic. She points out Content ID on YouTube as a prime example of serving some copyright owners but not everybody, or the whole copyright system. (And because of the stupid way it’s run, even performances of public domain songs like “Silent Night” can be falsely claimed by music publishers as theirs, and no remedy is given to people whose YouTube money is thus stolen or whose videos are blocked.)

    The fanfic section is interesting, but unfortunately there are no sales figures. There are comparisons with fanfic uploading figures at Kindle Worlds, fanfiction.net, and Archive of Our Own. Basically, it points out that going commercial and permitted, even if not canonically official, does involve a lot of loss of freedom and playfulness, and that Amazon doesn’t have as extensive a Kindle Worlds community for fans as most fanfic and fan sites do. It’s not the same thing, just by the nature of things. However, if writers are being compensated with enough sweet, sweet money, you’d expect that to make a difference.

    I do suspect that the “no writers under 18” really is a flashpoint in fanfic communities, because of course teenagers really could use some sweet, sweet money and many of the fandoms on Kindle Worlds are YA. So it’s like, “We want your cash, kiddies, but you can’t make any!” This isn’t the case on KDP as far as I can tell. (Although AFAIK, your bank account doesn’t tell them you’re under 18, not that I’m advising anybody to lie. I’m not sure why this is a problem, unless you earn enough to pay taxes and you don’t want your parents to notice the 1040.)

    The really important factor is that, if a fandom is skeptical about the quality of Kindle Worlds fanfic, how do you persuade people to go forth and buy? Admittedly most fandoms are bigger than the organized fandom bits, but you don’t want to cut off your money stream.

    Also, how many fans can afford to buy fanfic? If you’re a kid and you’re not using your own money, this could be pretty critical. Most fanfic readers are fast, voracious readers, and probably Kindle Worlds can’t keep up with the demand; whereas the readers probably can’t afford to pay as much money as they can afford time to slurp down free fanfic.

    Finally, there’s the point that old fans are a little paranoid because the record with commercial sites is that promises are made, things are okay for a while, and then the fanfic and the fan community are disappeared when the corporation loses interest. Kindle Worlds may disappear. But fanfic on the Web can survive a long time.

    • Not a lawyer and such, but I suspect the over-18 thing has to do with the fact that kids under 18 are not legally able to be held to to binding contracts. So they could back out and void the contract at any time. (I remember hearing stories of a teen who scored free flights on airlines by simply invalidating the purchase after he got where he was going.)

    • I read the whole thing too, and agree that there are a lot of issues here besides just making money.

      About the age thing, yes, there are a lot of fanfic writers under eighteen, but the vast majority of fanfic writers and readers are well into adulthood. Banning those under eighteen is one more reason why Kindle Worlds won’t ever become an actual fanfic community, but it’s only cutting Kindle out of a small chunk of the total available market of fan writers.

      I think the number one reason KW will never be more than an anemic shadow of the real fanfic community is the limitations on what can be written. Making fan writers color inside the lines (thank you Fanlib [eyeroll]) eliminates like 90% of the incentive to write and fun in reading fanfic.


  4. What I thought was telling about the Gigacom article was the stress on the number of stories uploaded as the mark of success–rather than looking at how the sales of Kindle Worlds books were doing. It seems to me if a significant number of writers are making money selling their KW works because people are buying what they have uploaded–then it is a win win. That is the figure I was interested in.

    It sounds like the only success the writer could really imagine is if KW replaced the fanfic sites but that seems like a sort of by-product of ADS–that Amazon will only be happy if it takes over the world (of fanfic.). And It is as if the continued success of Wattpad–for example– meant that KDP had failed.

    And the major constraint to KW seems to me to be the limits on excessive sex and violence and use of “brand names” (i.e. the Yankee cap). But as a reader who isn’t interested in that sort of fiction (and the potential market for readers of fan fiction who probably would be frightened away from the “free wheeling” fan fiction communities, this seems like a good thing that both KW and the fan fiction communities thrive.

    I would love to hear an analysis from writers who have used KW and their experiences.

    • I’d also like to hear from a KW writer. I have a lot of guesses about why it doesn’t work, or rather, is only interesting to a very small fraction of the fanfic readers and writers. Personally, I can only speak as a reader of fanfic. For background, I am a very avid reader, older and male. (So, totally not the “typical” fanfic community member.) My reading habits are mostly fanfic, with the occasional trad pub book and a few indies. The split is somewhere around 70/20/10 for Fanfic/Trad/indie. The reason for the focus on fanfic that types of content offered are generally more interesting and daring, also the ease of finding something I actually enjoy reading.

      I will say that it has never crossed my mind to look at KW. (I have also never heard of a writer moving over to KW. I have followed several from fanfic to indie, however.) It’s just something entirely different than actual fanfic. It’s amateur license content that has everything that makes fanfic interesting stripped out. Sure, it’s great for indies to get a chance to write licensed content but not something that interests me (or most fanfic readers).

      KW doesn’t have any of the major fandoms. The rules about explicit content are also problematic. Fanfic is very racey and focuses on romance plot-types.

      (going to have to cut that short there, will try to update later, work calls)

      • If you want to know the succesws of fan fiction, research Hugh Howey, best selling author of Wool. He allows fan fiction, and many people are making a decent living thanks to this. Michael Bunker got his start with a fan fiction book.
        As far as the rules being limited, you are free to keep writing your free fan fiction any way you want to, but if you want the author to give you a share of profits, you follow his rules. This is his right, it is his work you are copying.

    • I submitted a novella to one site in Kindle Worlds, it was accepted and went live last week. That’s not enough time to predict the future, but I know I made sales already.

    • “What I thought was telling about the Gigacom article was the stress on the number of stories uploaded as the mark of success–rather than looking at how the sales of Kindle Worlds books were doing.”

      That’s pretty much the point I made when I responded:

  5. He has now changed “device” to “account”. 🙂

    So, I read the article and skimmed the heavily footnoted academic(?) paper the article references. Lots of opinion and anecdotes, including a heavy leaning to advocating an extreme interpretation of “fair use”… and no substantive numbers… to back up the claim of Kindle Worlds being a commercial failure.

  6. Well, you look at the GI Joe site on Kindle Worlds, and you only see 49 results, most of which are short stories or novellas, for 99 cents or $1.99, and you wonder how much money they could be making.

    OTOH, if this were a commercial series all by one author out on the regular Amazon site, and that person had 49 short stories, you’d figure he was probably making some dough even if he wasn’t on Select.

    I saw some comics tie-ins by Mel Odom, and he’s a pro who’s done everything. So it must have cash in it somewhere.

    I think the main factor here is that Tushnet is very familiar with the fanfic world, but not with the self-publishing world.

    Also, I don’t remember seeing the Author Earnings site covering Kindle Worlds at all. Sweet, sweet money can help your artistic problems. 🙂

  7. I have 5 KW books so I’ll weigh in. My sales suck. You can’t promote because you can never lower the price. Don’t get me started on the pitiful G.I. Joe covers.

    I’ve commented on this before and you can read it on my own site, but the management of KW is terrible.

    I’d planned a 10-volume Joe series but considering the lack of interest together with the terrible covers, I decided to stop at 4 for now.

    When you have no sales on KW books even with some basic promo work on sites like Bookbasset it just seems like ‘what’s the point?’

    • Is G I Joe that interesting? Sorry but I never even heard of a GI Joe book so i can see why fan fiction GI Joe doesnt sell well. Why dont you turn your talents towards writing fan fiction for Wool? More than one writer has found success thanks to Wool.

  8. I honestly think Kindle Worlds would do better if it had titles that better interested fanfiction writers. GI Joe is probably their best title, but that’s not even in the top thousand most popular series for fanfiction in the fanfic communities out there.

    They should make a deal with someone like Viz Media. Viz has the rights for about thirty or fourty Japanese anime titles that are much more popular for fanfiction than the most popular Kindle Worlds title. The Japanese have a tradition of making money on fanworks, with many of the most popular manga writer-artists today having been recruited from the semi-pro fan-writer\artist market, so I see them being quite willing to come to such an agreement.

  9. According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap. Characters in other works can’t use drugs or employ profane language. And gay, bisexual or deviant sexual behavior might be off-limits too.

    This does sound like a killjoy. I’ve read and written fanfic, and part of the fun of fanfic is how crazy you can get with it. Take away the crazy, and you take away the joy.

  10. I have one up on KW (the Dead Man series) and didn’t run into any problems with content. There are guidelines, but they weren’t as onerous as “no Yankees cap”.

    In fact, I’m thinking about writing #2 and #3 that would bring the series to a conclusion. I had laid the groundwork in #1, but hadn’t figured out where to go next.

    As for problems, the worse was the lack of freedom to create the cover I want. You can upload an image of your creation, but you have to use their text program to put on the title and author. Very limiting.

    The marketing possibilities are limited, too. And if I do put up three novellas, I won’t be able to sell it as a trade paperback like the official compilations.

    As for sales, I’ve sold 28 copies since it went up in April, at 35%. And I’m fine with that. I treat it as an interesting experiment in a genre I don’t normally write in.

  11. As already stated, the “no Yankees cap” thing was inaccurate (Snake Eyes isn’t a villain). And, indeed, I’m pretty sure the condition was effectively included as a sly joke on the part of Hasbro. As I explained on Quora, the whole idea of Snake Eyes, G.I. Joe’s iconic man of mystery, doing something as mundane as rooting for any sports team is really rather ludicrous, and the idea of him actively rooting against one is even more so. I think it’s Hasbro’s way of saying, “Don’t take it all so seriously, it’s only fanfic.”

    • Exactly. Hasbro’s based in the heart of Red Sox country. I’m confident the reference is firmly tongue in cheek. Of course the most popular Joe character isn’t a Yankees fan. 🙂

      I’d like to see Hasbro and Amazon continue to add properties to KW, particularly the various D&D worlds. While Wizards of the Coast does still publish D&D related novels, I think adding them to KW would bring in a lot more fans and writers who’d be faithful to the canon.

  12. I see a lot of complaints about KW not being as wild and crazy as fanfic, but that’s the point. KW is supposed to be more “canonical”. If you want to write wild and crazy, stick with fanfic. I wouldn’t mind writing some of these if I had the time. I’m already overextended as it is.

    • That’s my take on it, too. There are “official” Star Wars, Star Trek and other franchise novels, but they aren’t considered fan fiction. I doubt if anyone reading such a novel considers him/herself to be reading fan fiction. So why can’t an indie author write something similar without the work being considered fan fiction? If Star Trek (or Firefly, or Stargate, or Star Wars, or Dungeons and Dragons, etc) were licensed for Kindle Worlds, I’d be all over it, and wouldn’t consider it fan fiction. If someone wants to write a story about Captain Kirk meeting Doctor Who, and then the two of them having a threesome with Princess Leia, that’s fan fiction, and belongs elsewhere. But Kindle Worlds should be, like you said, more “canonical.” The main problem with Kindle Worlds, as I see it, is that it lacks any decent, major franchises that would draw a significant number of both readers and writers. Until they fix that, Kindle Worlds is ultimately destined to fail.

    • Jim Butcher once commented that fanfic is a wild and scary world and how he hard read a fanfic combining The Dresden Files with My Little Pony. Title: My Little Denarians. It would take repeated waterboarding to make me read such a title… 🙂

  13. There is a work-around for creating covers for Kindle Worlds, which is to generate the cover you like, including text, with your usual tools, upload that image rather than one of the stock images Amazon provides, then leave the added text boxes for the title and author blank. The Kindle Worlds interface doesn’t suggest this is possible, but they do allow it.

    • Yes, I had a little trouble at first with my cover, but finally got one I liked. The World I picked was Bella Andre (writing as Lucy Kevin) and it’s romance, which I write anyway. They also have Barbara Freethy and Hugh Howey worlds.

    • Exactly. I eventually figured that out myself and then it was easy to get the cover I wanted.

  14. I read fanfic occasionally. One of the things that makes it great (and sometimes terrible) is that the writer has complete authority to do anything they want. AU is incredibly common – the vast majority of fics are AU to some degree. As is the insertion of “smut”, as ff writers like to call it. And most, if not all, of that would never fly in KWorlds.

    I briefly considered writing something for the Veronica Mars KW. For about five minutes. Then I realized I didn’t want to have to write something and re-edit it until it pleased the gatekeepers, for what they wanted to pay. It’s kind of like writing for one of the fantasy series franchises for a flat fee, it’s a living I guess but fwah.

    The only other thing that I think could justify it is if you wrote in a similar genre (i.e. young adult detective stories for a female audience), and you felt that putting some fanfic in KW under your name could serve as a gateway read to get people to buy your own original fiction world stuff. But I have no idea how many people would “cross over”.

    • I’m curious if any KW authors could chime in about the vetting on their books. I didn’t have any on mine, but my intention was to continue the series, not break it (which I don’t think is a bad thing; just not my desire).

      • I can’t speak first hand on the vetting (though secondhand, a friend of mine with a KW story indicated there was no vetting at all on his story), but I do know that one of the main guys at Valiant indicated that they read every Valiant-related KW story (Harbinger, Bloodshot, etc.) with an eye toward talent-seeking for their comic books. I don’t think anyone writing KW stories has gone on to write for Valiant directly, but it appears they are looking at KW as a potential talent farm.

      • I’ve published three Veronica Mars stories so far. Kindle Worlds did not request any changes or suggest any edits.

    • If you want to know how ‘cross overs’ are possible, research Michael Bunker, he wrote a fan fiction book about Wool, and then his second book, one not done in Kindle Worlds, reached number 36 on the best seller list on it’s FIRST day. You can be sure a lot of his readers came from finding his fan fiction book first.
      Just imagine it, you have a book but no one knows you, so you put together a 70 page little book of fan fiction. Now, imagine 10 percent of Wool fans look at fan fiction, you just borrowed a heck of a lot of readers, if just some of them like your version, they will look for more of your stuff.

  15. One of my short stories is a crack!fic of my own work. It actually sells no worse than most of my other short stories.

    As for Kindle Worlds… I’m unconvinced that number of titles or number of sales = the gauge for its success.

    What is the point of the Kindle Worlds program?

    If it’s just to create a means by which both the copyright holder and the fanfic writers can earn some renumeration (when usually, neither party would), then it might actually be successful as-is.

    We don’t necessarily know what the full point of the program was for Amazon (or the copyright holders who participate), and I’m sure there’s a monetary threshold in mind for their definition of “success”, but Amazon’s demonstrated before that it takes a long-tail view. Considering the precedent the KW program is setting, I suspect it has to mature a few more years before we can really judge its success or failure.

    Remember when WordPress was a headache to use, and blogs as daily diaries fizzled and died? Remember when you had to read your web host contracts carefully because several would own whatever domain name they registered for you? The market and products matured, and now folks look at me funny when I admit that I code by hand and use two different companies for my registrar and web host.

  16. I’ll add one other comment to this, because I do think it’s germane to why KW hasn’t taken off.

    Fanfic is largely written and consumed by folks who don’t have a lot of cash lying around. Many of the writers are high school or college students and most of their readers are as well.

    Fanfiction is free. And quick. And these days, a lot of it gets written as “ask” prompts on Tumblr and the like. I see a lot fewer full length FF novels now than I did 12-15 years ago. A fair amount of what’s written doesn’t even approach short story length.

    • A fair amount of what’s written doesn’t even approach short story length.

      This is one thing that surprises me that there isn’t more KW involvement–a 10-12k word story doesn’t take all that long to write. One could write one, upload it to KW, and be out a few hours of work (or whatever) and then see if it garners any interest or income.

      • Yeah.

        When I say these things don’t approach short story length, though, I’m really meaning that they don’t. The vast majority of fanfics I’ve stumbled on lately are published via Tumblr and the length suits that format – a few hundred words tops. They call them “drabbles”. It’s much like reading a single, short scene from a novel, but one where you’re already completely familiar with the characters and situation involved so the writer’s only goal is to show you inner monologue (or perhaps a bit of smut, in the case of movie/television shows that don’t go there onscreen).

        This stuff would never be KW, the authors would never think to put it there and KW’s gatekeepers would never publish it.

        • If you’re mainly reading fanfic on Tumblr, then it’s no wonder you’re seeing mostly shorter stuff. That’s not the norm elsewhere, though. Check out AO3 — there are plenty of works going up that are over 10K words, and quite a few over 100K. I’ve seen a few mega-stories at over 200K go by in the last few months, too, although I’d just as soon not dive into those, LOL!


          • >200K That’s not mega! Dalton is over 800K (with 17K reviews). Harry Crow is over 700K now. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality over 500K. And the Story of Three Boys (all together) is over 2 million. 🙂

            • That’s like saying Einstein wasn’t very smart because Stephen Hawking. 😛 A single work over 200K words is freaking huge, much longer works notwithstanding. 🙂

              Angie, waiting impatiently for the next MoR post

    • I’d also add better discoverability. It’s much easier on FF.net or AO3 to find stories that are for example >100K words & >1K favorites/kudos/reviews that star you favorite character(s) and are of your particular genre preference (fluffy romance, darkly pornographic, high adventure, etc.)

    • I would also add the fact that fandom is international and a huge number of fandom writers are not American.

      I was tempted briefly by Vampire Diaries (heavy on the Alaric&Damon UST 😉 ) except I’m not allowed to write it, because I’m living in Germany and don’t have a US bank account.

      Of course fandom itself was vehemntly against KW right from the beginning, because it’s not really fan fiction but writing-for-hire.

      • This.

        I’m Belgian and was thrilled to start writing in the John Rain universe. I contacted them when KW started and asked if it was an issue. They explicitly said all I needed was a US bank account and a tax number, US residency wasn’t needed. I got both and started writing, editing, got a cover, etc. When I wanted to publish, all of a sudden they say I need to be a US citizen. Escalated the issue to get a manager talking, even got help from Barry himself: no dice.

        As it stands now, KW is at the bottom of my writing list. If they ever open it up to international authors (which they claimed would happen this year…) I’ll still publish the story as I already finished the work. But given the way they treated me, it’ll take a shitload of sales to even consider writing a follow up.

        In a global economy, this protectionism makes no sense to me. Amazon has more than enough experience setting this up to take KW global either right away or very quickly after launch. It shouldn’t take years.
        It reminds me of KDP sending paper checks to non-US writers for the longest time. Those kinds of things aren’t used much anymore here. It was more expensive for me to cash that check (international transaction fees, bank fees, etc.) than what I was left with when my first book came out.

  17. I posted my first fanfic Christmas day 2007. Since then I’ve posted 17 stories, 9 of them larger then 50,000 words, and of those 4 over 100,000 words, 1 over 200,000. I’m over 100,000 on my current story and it will be my last.

    I have close to 50,000 words written, with many more to go, on something I hope to indie publish next year. My fanfic stories are very AU and that’s half the fun. One of my fandoms is on KW but it’s a crossover with one that isn’t. I’ve loved writing fanfic. It’s given me a place to learn the difference between it’s/its there/their ect. 🙂 It’s also how I know when I finish my book I will need an editor!

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