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The Fifty Shades Factor: Amazon Gives Fanfic Authors A Shot At A Publishing Payday With Kindle Worlds

Recognizing that the world of fan fiction has produced a bona fide blockbuster, Amazon is now turning fanfic from a grey market to a sanctioned revenue opportunity with Kindle Worlds.

The site FanFiction.net, one of the larger outposts of amateur storytelling based on pop culture franchises, lists 25,000 separate contributions based on The Vampire Diaries alone. All of those works were created out of sheer love for the characters and premises of the books. Since fan fiction is not offered for sale, the copyright holders behind Diaries and many other works have turned a blind eye.

But that’s about to change.

A new initiative from Amazon called Kindle Worlds, introduced yesterday, is offering fanfic authors a cut of the sales when their works are published through the program. Amazon’s first partner in this project is Alloy Entertainment, a division of Warner Bros TV Group, which is providing the licenses to the franchises Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. (All three are book series that have been turned into TV shows.) Amazon promises that more licensed worlds are on the way, from "movies, comics, music, and games" as well as books and TV shows

Not every story about the blood-sucking hunks of Mystic Falls, Virginia, will fly. Authors must submit novel length fanfic—10,000 words or more—and once those works are accepted and published, authors will receive 35% of the e-book sales price. Amazon also announced plans to sell 5,000- to 10,000-word fanfic short stories for a buck or so, and kick back 20% of that to authors.

What convinced a copyright holder like Alloy Entertainment to experiment with monetizing fanfic? The cleverness and the clout of Amazon execs, of course. But it’s also very likely because of Fifty Shades of Grey. "I think that’s clearly got to be on their minds," agrees Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of law at Georgetown and a board member of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit devoted to protecting and preserving fan fiction and fan culture.

The enormously popular series of softcore S&M books—soon to be a major motion picture!—started out as an epic piece of Twilight fan fiction. When author E.L. James decided to publish the steamy work commercially, she had to alter character names and change details to put some distance between her work and the copyright-protected world of Twilight. (In fanfic circles, this practice is called "filing off the serial numbers.") If there had been a Kindle Worlds at the time, then maybe Twilight publisher Little, Brown and Company could’ve taken a cut of the spin-off that’s sold 70 million copies worldwide.

Or maybe not. Amazon’s content guidelines for Kindle Worlds authors explicitly states that they don’t want anything too explicit: "We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts." Yet depictions of graphic sexual acts are precisely what a lot of ardent fans of fanfic want to read. For instance, of the aforementioned 25,000 stories based on The Vampire Diaries found at fanfiction.net, over 7,000 are rated M for mature. (Yes, the parallel universe of fanfic has its own parallel age-rating system.)

Could a work like Fifty Shades of Grey be deemed too prurient for Kindle Worlds? "The content limitations are quite unclear," says Tushnet. "It will depend on what they think pornography means in this context." (An Amazon PR rep wasn’t able to offer clarity on just how much raunch is permissible but did confirm that each World will have its own content guidelines.)

But overall, does Tushnet think that Kindle Worlds is good for fans, or would they be better to file off the serial numbers of a piece of fanfic that they deem to be saleable? "My general reaction is that this opens up possibilities," says Tushnet. "Though writers should think about the rights they’re giving up. Amazon and Alloy are doing this because it’s good for Amazon and Alloy. It’s not a good contract, in that it gives a lot more away than authors of most books are required to give. But given how hard it is to get an audience for a self-published work, maybe having the built-in audience base of an established property is worth it."

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