There's big news in the world of fandom this week as Amazon announced its Kindle Worlds program. It's a program in which anyone can submit a story to Amazon for electronic publication via the Kindle and receive a portion of the proceeds for every one that's sold. While this may sound like something they've been doing for quite some time (it is) the significant part of this story is that Amazon has teamed up wtih Alloy Entertainment to allow these stories to be about intellectual properties that ran on television. Currently "Gossip Girl," "Pretty Little Liars," and "The Vampire Diaries" with promises of more licenses to come later. The upshot of this announcement is that you can get paid to legally write "Vampire Diaries" fan fiction.
Now, there's the caveat, of course, that the stories are all vetted by Amazon and Alloy, so they're not just going to publish any old garbage. And to no real surprise, they've given a blanket "no chance in hell" on porn, or crossovers with other media properties. I also suspect Alloy also has some ethereal rules about the stories falling in line with the basic premise of the respective shows -- so I'm kind of doubting they'll approve a story where Serena van der Woodsen uses an alien time machine to go back and kill Hitler, regardless of how well-written it is. That said, though, that still gives a wide berth for fans of the shows to legally write, and get paid for, their fan fiction.
Many people have already called this a game-changer, and it seems hard to disagree with that. Amazon is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla and, for better of worse, they hold a lot of sway in the direction of the broader conversation. Let me pull out Lucasfilm as a previous example of how those 800-pound gorillas influence the overall conversation.
There have been fan films of "Star Wars" almost since the movie's debut. "Hardware Wars" was released late in 1977, mere months after "A New Hope" first hit theaters. But the explosion of "Star Wars" fan films didn't really hit until the early 2000s. This was due, in part, to some technological advances in wat could be done with home computers, but in larger part due to a fan film called "The Dark Redemption" which was written as a sort of prologue to "A New Hope." Initially, Lucasfilm saw it as a very real and direct threat to their "Star Wars" property; it was generally regarded as the first serious and well-executed attempt to expand on the "Star Wars" universe. Prior works were either obvious parodies or simply executed in such a way that there would be no confusing it with an official Lucasfilm release. (That's a nice way of saying that they weren't very good.) "The Dark Redemption," while still not quite up to par with the technical sophistication of ILM, presented itself very well and could conceivably be seen as fully sanctioned prologue to the original film.
There was some legal wrangling and a fair amount of posturing, but ultimately it came down that (allegedly) George Lucas himself said that "Star Wars" fan films were okay provided there was no attempt or intent to make money from the works. Having said that, and in light of what fans saw was capable in "The Dark Redemption," the number of fan films exploded. Not just "Star Wars," but with virtually every movie and TV show that had a fan base at all. "Indiana Jones," "Ghostbusters," "Back to the Future," "Batman," "Lord of the Rings"... the owners of those properties have largely remained silent on the matter, but seem to have taken to following in line behind Lucas as fans took Lucas' tacit approval to everything they loved.
I suspect something similar happening with this Amazon deal. There are significant differences here, of course, the most notable of which is the monetization of fan activities. In fact, one of the biggest and most repeated criticisms of Kindle Worlds I've seen so far is that the writers are paid a pittance for their work, relative to what a contracted writer would earn. But the immediate counter-arguement to that is that fanfic writers weren't being paid before anyway, so they now at least get something. But regardless, Amazon has a great deal of say in how stories are sold these days, and that they're putting a distinct (and legal) monetary value on fan fiction is sure to give other property owners something to think about.
For Alloy, it's basically just a licensing agreement. Another revenue stream not appreciably any different than a line of t-shirts featuring some of the actors or a logo. They're still going to have some measure of control (via their approval process) but they don't have to really do much of the actual development work themselves.
I've heard many people cite that fanfic is a useful tool for apprentice writers, as it gives them a means to focus on developing a story without having to create characters and settings whole cloth. And it certainly provides an imaginative outlet for individuals who want to get more out of their favorite stories than what is expressly presented. But part of the benefit of fanfic is getting constructive feedback from readers, and Amazon is incidentally (I think) making a feedback loop more difficult here.
By making attaching these stories to a monetary value, they're setting up a roadblock to people who might read them. Sure, we're talking a dollar or less, but that's considerably more than the "free" price tag that's the current going rate. So less people are likely to read (and thus comment on) these stories.
Second, there doesn't seem to be any easy way for a reader who does want to provide feedback to get back in touch with the author. Historically online, authors are able to be contacted through the very same location a reader obtained their fanfic. That doesn't seem to be the case here. The author may well include their email or website addresses in the work, but readers will be seeing it on a Kindle, only some versions of which have an email app available.
It's an interesting development in fandom, to be sure, and it's hard to see how the public will react at this point. The optimist in me says it's a great way for budding writers to make a little extra income (only 20¢ per story sold) on what they were doing for free anyway, but the cynic in me says that this is mostly just a way for Alloy to exploit their fans for monetary gain.