I am always amused when fanfic authors get upset when the creators and copyright holders of the characters they are writing about dare to assert their legal, creative and moral rights. A great example comes from this recent Wall Street Journal article about Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, which allows fanfic authors a platform to write, publish and sell books about characters and fictional worlds they didn’t create and don’t own.
To avoid copyright infringement, Amazon struck deals with several authors and entertainment companies. Amazon gives them a cut of royalties and the rights to use the new characters and plot lines in the fan-fiction material in exchange for licensing their intellectual property. So far, Amazon has acquired licenses for 22 fictional properties, ranging from the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, to the comic series G.I. Joe, to Alloy Entertainment’s popular teen book and TV series “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Vampire Diaries.” […]The move to profit from fan fiction has alarmed some writers and copyright experts who see it as a naked attempt to rob amateur writers of their intellectual property, before they have a chance to build an audience.
What irks some of these fanfic authors are the clauses in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract that reminds them that, hey, you’re welcome to play here, but you don’t own the underlying rights, the creators and copyright holders of the characters do.
The move to profit from fan fiction has alarmed some writers and copyright experts who see it as a naked attempt to rob amateur writers of their intellectual property, before they have a chance to build an audience.
These same “experts” aren’t concerned when amateur writers nakedly rob authors of their intellectual property by writing and disseminating unauthorized fanfic based on characters and worlds the fanficcers didn’t create and don’t own. They are only concerned when the creators and rights holders have the audicity to exert their moral, artistic, and legal rights to “profit for fan fiction”:
“It feels like a land grab,” said Francesca Coppa, an English professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn., who writes “Sherlock,” “True Blood” and other fan fiction on the side. “Big companies are trying to insert themselves explicitly to get people who don’t know any better to sign away rights to things that might be profitable.”
No one is stopping Ms. Coppa or these writers from going out and writing their own, wholly original, legally unencumbered stories. Instead, these writers choose to write Vampire Diaries or Silo Saga fanfic instead… to utilize characters that don’t belong to them and then whine when the creators want to share in any profits that arise from the sale of those works. If there’s a “land grab” here, it’s not the creators and copyright holders who are making it… it’s the fanfic authors who think they should be able to freely use, and profit from, other people’s creations. The fanfic writers should be delighted and thrilled to have the chance through Kindle Worlds to actually sell their fanfic…instead of complaining that they can’t own the stories set in the fictional worlds that they didn’t create.
“Under the Amazon agreement, writers are giving away more rights than they would for something that is quote unquote original,” Ms. Tandy said. “Writers should be very careful that they’re comfortable giving away those rights.”
I love how Ms. Tandy puts quotes around original as if its a lesser form of writing than stuff based on someone else’s work…and implies that it’s unfair for the creators of original work to want their legal, creative and moral rights protected…and that fanfic authors of quote unquote unoriginal work somehow deserve greater protections. She has it all ass-backwards. Fanfic writers aren’t “giving away” more rights in this scenario, they are being granted rights they didn’t already have… to use and profit from characters they didn’t create and don’t own.
(I should mention my own novel franchise, The Dead Man, is part of Kindle Worlds and that there are presently four licensed fanfiction books based on the series, which I co-created with William Rabkin. I also wrote, as a work-for-hire writer for Penguin/Putnam, eight books based on Diagnosis Murder and fifteen books based on Monk, two TV series that I didn’t create. So I know what it means to write novels that I don’t own and, on the other side, to own a franchise licensed to Kindle Worlds.)
It astonishes me that writers, who make their living from their words, don’t bother to read the contracts that they sign. If you want a good example of this, read the Wall Street Journal interview with Vampire Diaries author L.J. Smith.
She was hired by Alloy Entertainment to write a horror book series that they had in mind about a woman in love with two vampires. When she signed the deal, she failed to notice that it was a work-for-hire contract and that Alloy owned the underlying rights…. because she apparently didn’t bother to read her contract.
The books were an enormous success, and inspired a TV show, but she wanted to take the series in a different direction than Alloy did. So they fired her and hired another writer to continue the series.
Ms. Smith was stunned.
“I knew that they were a book packager, but I didn’t realize that they could take the series away from me,” she says. “I was heartbroken.”
She should have read the contract before she signed it. She was dealing with a book packager, after all. What business did she think they were in? How did she think they made their money? Okay, so she made a dumb, rookie mistake. You’d think she would have learned an important lesson from that “heart-breaking” experience. You’d be wrong.
Now that Amazon is offering people the opportunity to write, publish and sell Vampire Diaries fanfiction through their Kindle World’s platform, LJ Smith has decided to write new Vampire Diaries novels and take the series in the creative direction she always wanted it to go. But she was stunned to learn that she doesn’t own the work that she’s publishing on Kindle Worlds:
Ms. Smith says that when she began publishing her Vampire Diaries fan fiction on Amazon this past January, she wasn’t aware that she was giving up the copyright to those stories, too. Nor did she realize she’d be giving Alloy a cut of earnings from the new stories. But had she known, it wouldn’t have deterred her, she says. “It wouldn’t have stopped me,” she says. “I didn’t do these books for money. They’re entirely a labor of love.”
If Smith had bothered to read her simple, and very clear, Kindle Worlds contract, none of that would have been a surprise. I hope she takes the time to read the next publishing contract that she signs or she could end up writing entirely for love.
There have been lots of questions and concerns among professional “tie-in” writers — the authors who write books based on TV shows, movies, games, etc — about Amazon’s new Kindle Worlds program. So the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, which I co-founded with Max Allan Collins,approached Amazon’s Philip Patrick, Director, Business Development and Publisher of Kindle Worlds, to see if he’d be willing to answer some questions from our members and, to our delight, he was. Here are some of the questions and his replies:
Q: I have a mid-list career (and growing) as a cozy mystery writer, and as an indie publisher. Work in tie-ins has become harder to find and less lucrative over the last couple years, and I’ve mostly stepped back from the field. Initially I dismissed Kindle Worlds as a bad bet. But now I am rethinking that. Do you see this program as a way to expand the troubled tie-in market for authors and to create more opportunities for franchise holders?
Philip Patrick: We see Kindle Worlds as another option for all writers and readers, and a great opportunity for professional writers to explore the stories and Worlds they feel passionate about. Licensors have an opportunity to deeply engage with their enthusiastic fans, and earn new revenues from the Worlds they created. Our job is to create the best possible experience for writers, readers, and World licensors.
Q: There’s lots of fanfiction out there and the vast majority is awful. What kind of curation is Kindle Worlds going to do, not so much for adherence to franchise rules but in terms of writing quality?
PP: Part of our mission at Kindle Worlds and Amazon Publishing is to act as a laboratory and develop new ways for writers to be creative, to connect with readers, and to earn money. In the case of Kindle Worlds, we don’t see ourselves as curators, because part of our job is to open up these Worlds to writers and readers who feel passionately about their characters and stories. Ultimately our customers will decide which writers and stories they enjoy through their reviews, but the quality is already coming through: Kindle Worlds stories have received great reviews – more than 840 customer reviews, in total – averaging around 4.3 stars. The prospect of selling a book and having it get reviewed by passionate fans makes a writer better, we think.
Q: What other properties does KW expect to acquire? Can you talk about what type of properties they are interested in and what makes them appropriate for KW?
PP: It all comes down to great storytelling, compelling characters, and vibrant geographies that writers are excited to explore. Some Worlds are going to be more current than others, of course, but there are many iconic works and characters that Kindle Worlds writers are going to love.
Q: What is the criteria and process for selecting worlds/franchises/properties, how are the owners compensated, etc? Can authors contact Amazon about licensing their books and short fiction for Kindle Worlds? Basically, what opportunities exist for authors on the licensing side of KW?
PP: We are always looking for new Worlds from authors and other licensors, and because royalties are split three ways – between the licensor, the writer, and the publisher – there is incentive and opportunity for all three.
Q: KW allows authors to keep their copyrights. Yet the effect of the agreement is work-for-hire. Can you explain your thinking?
PP: Kindle Worlds differs from works-for-hire in that our authors retain 35% of net revenue of their books’ sales. We like to think of our royalties as an incentive to write really good stuff, so it sells well for a long time. Authors get to contribute to a World and make an on-going profit off their original works in that World, which is really cool, a win-win for the author and the World. An author grants us an exclusive license to the story and all of the original elements the author includes in that story. We then allow the original World licensor and other Kindle Worlds authors to use those new elements. That seems fair to us and it’s why we have the rights set up as we do. If a writer doesn’t want to make that concession, we understand and we have a lot of ways they can publish their own original work on Amazon.
Q: The audio royalty seems low, as does the sublicense royalty. Can this be negotiated on an individual basis?
PP: No, we don’t negotiate individual terms. We feel the royalty rates are very competitive.
Q: With the price of the work to be set by Amazon and with the royalty rate set at 35%, what incentive is there for a writer to write stories longer than 10,000 words? If a longer story is going to get the same rate as a shorter work, it would seem to make the most sense for a writer to write more short works than one longer one (e.g., 5x 10k word stories rather than 1x 50k story). Can you address this seeming inequality of payment?
PP: The current standard author’s royalty rate for works of at least 10,000 words is 35% of net revenue, while shorter works (between 5,000 to 10,000 words) pay authors a digital royalty of 20% of net revenue. Kindle Worlds is an option and a choice for authors – we think many will quite like the choice.
Q: KW reserves the right not to publish submitted works. Could you provide some information as to what happens during the review and approval process? What happens after a writer hits the submit button? Does Amazon review the story, does the IP holder review the story? Are there editorial changes to be made or is the story simply approved or denied without editorial changes to be made?
PP: Every Licensor sets Content Guidelines for their Worlds. Once a writer submits his or her story, we review it to ensure that it follows those Content Guidelines for its World. The pre-publication review process typically takes a day or two. If we have questions during the review, we reach out to the author to figure out answers. But there is no storyline approval a writer has to go through. This is an open playing field with some boundaries (the Content Guidelines), but if a writer writes within those Guidelines, then we very much expect to publish the writer’s story.
Q:What are the top three mistakes writers are making when submitting stories to KW and what can writers, professional and amateur, do to make the KW process easier on themselves from submission to approval?
PP: Great question. My biggest piece of advice would be to follow the Content Guidelines and really focus on a story that will appeal to a World’s core fan base. As you all know, that takes some work to do. But it is worth it.
Q: Will Amazon promote works by established authors differently than works by “fans”? Would KW let readers know our credits so they can take that into account when deciding whether to make a purchase? If so, how do we let KW “editors” know during the submission process that we are pros with published books, also available on Amazon, to our credit?
PP: Every story will ultimately stand on its own merits, particularly the stories our customers respond to with positive reviews and recommendations. Amazon highlights all of an author’s works through their author pages, both previously published novels and Kindle Worlds titles.
Q: Say an author wants to write a Quantum Leap novel (expired show) or Person of Interest (a current Warner Brothers Television show). Can an author work with KW to obtain a license to write in that universe?
PP: We know that a lot of IAMTW members have long and deep relationships with both current and expired properties and we’re happy to receive suggestions. Our feedback email on site is checked on a regular basis and that is a great way to reach us.
Q: How does the editorial staff handle creative control specifically related to the individual property? An example: I write a Vampire Diaries novel where I kill everyone off. Readers complain that I don’t have the voice right, I clearly have never watched the show, etc. Do readers have a say in whether a KW book remains in print? Will KW ask an author to do a rewrite in response to reader reviews?
PP: One creative challenge in Kindle Worlds is that incredibly passionate and knowledgeable fans are typically among the first readers. If a story misses the mark, those fans will voice their response through customer reviews. How a writer responds to customer reviews is really up to him or her. We wouldn’t put a book out of print or demand re-writes based on customer reviews alone. The Kindle Worlds platform is flexible enough, though, for a writer to rework and republish their story based on customer feedback. That’s a unique feature of digital publishing overall: a writer can modify his or her work almost in real time, as they receive critical feedback. We’d gladly accept a new version of a book if a writer wanted to make changes after customer reviews came rolling in.
Q: At the moment the requirement to have a US bank account is a barrier for non-US writers to become involved with Kindle Worlds. Are any plans to relax this or provide another route.
PP: Yes, we are working to make the platform more accessible globally.
Q: Do publishers and license holders (Universal, Paramount, etc.) see this program as a real threat to the tie-in publishing world as it exists now? Are they unlikely to allow KW fiction if an existing book line (for example, Monk, Star Trek, Leverage, Supernatural, etc.) already exists? The argument against KW could be “why would a reader buy a $7.99 Supernatural book if they can get the KW stories for significantly less?”
PP: This is a new option and a choice for those licensors. Kindle Worlds may not be attractive for everyone, and that’s fine. But the response so far has been very encouraging, and we continue to receive useful feedback from all of our partners: licensors, writers, and fans.
Q: On the author side, are the publishers pressuring franchise holders NOT to do business with KW because they are concerned fewer pro authors will work for them, with the restriction and tiny royalties/advances, when they can get a bigger royalty writing for KW?
PP: You’d have to talk to them.
Q: Is one of the things holding back KW from acquiring more name-brand franchises (Star Trek, Superman, X-Files, Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, etc.) that franchise holders are worried that allowing non-pro, cheaper Kindle World’s fiction will diminish the value, financially and creatively, of their properties?
PP: First, I’d say we are thrilled with the Kindle Worlds we’ve launched to date, and very excited about what we have coming up. This is a new business and a complex one at that, so we’ve always expected it would take some time to develop. That said, we are constantly adding new World Licensors and will be announcing new Worlds in the coming weeks and months.
Q: How likely are we to see vintage TV (WIld Wild West, Remington Steele, Mannix, Lost in Space, Knightrider, Hart to Hart, Stargate, Farscape, etc) and movie properties (Dirty Harry, Independence Day, High Noon, Bill & Ted, Breakfast Club, etc) included in Kindle Worlds? The franchises on KW now don’t seem to be the ones likely to draw lots of passionate readers or writers.
PP: Those are all great suggestions; we are actively exploring many different properties, so stay tuned on that front. I’d challenge the idea, however, that the Worlds we have don’t draw passionate readers or writers. Since June, we’ve published more than 250 Kindle Worlds titles, and they’ve earned hundreds of positive reviews, with an overall review average around 4.3. We’re thrilled with the response to date.
Q: Where does Amazon hope to see the KW program a year from now?
PP: The response so far has been very encouraging. We are thrilled with writers who have been publishing with us and the readers who have been buying their stories. And we’re excited to continue to add new Worlds for writers and more stories for readers.
My friend Barry Eisler recently interviewed Amazon’s Philip Patrick about Kindle Worlds, a new program that allows fanficcers to write, publish, and sell, their own books set in popular book, TV and movie franchises. I’m very excited about this program. So much so, that we’re in talks with Kindle Worlds about bringing THE DEAD MAN series of novels into the program. On the face of it, this might be shocking news for people who’ve read my views on fanfic in the past…and misinterpreted them. Kindle Worlds is fanfiction written with the consent of the creators/rights holders, who can set whatever limits they want on how their characters/franchise are used. I think its a brilliant marriage of traditional tie-in writing and fan fiction… a win/win for creators and for the fans of their work. Here’s an excerpt from Barry and Philip’s discussion:
Philip: In general, our strong bias is to give writers as much creative freedom as is appropriate to each World. The people who understand that appropriateness best are the original rights holders—we’re calling them World Licensors—who will know what their audience expects and wants and how far the bounds can be pushed. There are shows, for instance, where mature content is part of the storytelling. And there are other shows where that isn’t the case. That makes sense to me on a lot of levels. So we’re asking each World Licensor to outline what is appropriate for their World’s audience in Content Guidelines. We’ll review submissions to see if they are within those guidelines. Our message to writers is pretty straightforward—follow any World’s guidelines and we will publish your story. And if something falls into a gray area, there’s always room for dialogue. We’ll talk to World Licensors as we review stories and we also will communicate back and forth with a writer if we have any questions.