Kindle Worlds and the Death of Fan Fiction?
Last week Amazon announced the introduction of Kindle Worlds, a new publishing model as part of their push into digital publishing. The press release states that Kindle Worlds is “the first commercial publishing platform that will enable any writer to create fan fiction based on a range of original stories and characters and earn royalties for doing so.”
Amazon claims that they have secured licenses from Warner Bros. Television Group’s Alloy Entertainment, which holds the rights to Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and the Vampire Diaries franchises. Through the deal, writers will be able to publish their own stories based on these ‘worlds’, making them available to purchase in the Kindle Store. The authors will receive a royalty rate of 35% net revenue, with the rest being distributed between Amazon and the license holders.
The commodification of fan fiction is not surprising, especially following the release and popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, which went on to win “Book of the Year” at the UK National Book Awards. 50 Shades originated as a fan fiction based upon the Twilight novels. After its rise in popularity, author E.L. James decided to re-write the work as an original trilogy. Similarly, fan fiction has seen a rise in popularity, with increased forums, social media, and blogs allowing easy access to a multitude of different worlds. However, one distinguishing feature of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds is the exclusion of sexual content.
Until the boom of the Internet, fan fiction was a difficult to obtain; most fan work and fiction was an underground activity. Geographical limitations meant that fan conventions were not always easily accessible. The fanzine was a perfect way for fans to communicate from great distances. Fans themselves created these zines, with production operating on a print-to-order basis.
Star Trek, one of the major fandoms still active today, has been termed “the granddaddy of media sources’” for fan work. Fan fiction, and one of its derivatives slash fiction, seemed to arise spontaneously in various places, with a story entitled “A Fragment Out of Time”, found in 1974, cited as one of first example of published slash fiction. The story, a homoerotic encounter between two unnamed characters, appeared with an image of Kirk and Spock. The author, utilizing the homosocial relationship depicted on screen, decoded this relationship, drawing on upon ambiguous elements, such as glances and gestures, found within the show.
Within fandom, slash fiction has had a difficult ride, with some fans rejecting its pornographic content, and the questioned masculinity of the characters. However, fandom theorists have stipulated that this is exactly the kind of thing that slash fiction was reacting against; a rejection of hype-masculinity constructed by male sexuality on television. Instead slash writers created a subversion of gender roles, whilst questioning traditional masculinity with its homoerotic content.
Interestingly, Camille Bacon-Smith, a feminist fandom expert, suggests that women are at the heart of fandom. Slash fiction could be seen as an act of rebellion against heterosexual norms, especially those found in romance narratives. Women are often seen as subordinate within these relationships, with fan, and slash fiction, supplying a mode outside male oppression. The writing about Spock and Kirk places them in an androgynous zone, allowing the characters, and through them the authors, to escape the gender confines of society. Within slash fiction, the use of an explicit homoerotic subject matter reconstructs men, creating a utopia where male and females can coexist comfortably.
Obviously not all fan fiction stems from a rejection of societal norms; for some it is a pure love for a television show, book, movie, and in some cases real people. The Internet has allowed fan communities greater communication, creating online forums for discussion, and broadening fandoms outreach. Recent franchises, such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and Doctor Who have increased fan fiction’s popularity. The feminine sensibilities of fan fiction have been overturned by increased authorship. Still, fan communities are places where a combined love for something can be expressed.
Fan communities, with the exclusion of a few, have not been subjected to difficulties concerning license holders. Whilst some authors, G.R.R. Martin amongst them, despise their intellectual property being used against their wishes, others welcome the creation. Movie and television studios, publishers, and authors tend to turn a blind eye, mainly due to fan fictions non-for-profit status. There have been cases where cease and desist letters have been served, but this mainly occurs when minors are accessing pornographic content – something that is still prominent within fan communities. Fan fiction remains a free medium, despite its basis on licensed material, allowing for freedom of expression outside societal constraints.
Here lies the difficulty with Amazon’s Kindle Worlds venture. Having secured the licenses to popular franchises from major corporations, this freedom could be tightened, with Amazon enforcing rules about what can, and cannot be included.
Pornographic content is strictly prohibited. While this move is understandable, especially given the target audiences of the franchises that have been licensed so far, it is surprising given 50 Shades’ popularity. Nevertheless, the inclusion of slash fiction is not permitted. American movie and television studios are not known for their acceptance of homosexual narratives, and by placing the control in the hands of the license holders and Amazon, the rebellion against heteronormative ideals and patriarchal dominance becomes null and void. Fans wanting to take part in Amazon’s scheme will no longer be able to poach and interact with the source material as they previously could.
It is also important to consider the monetary gain for the license holders. It may seem a bit hysterical, but what is to stop these big corporations forcing free fan fiction communities to stop using their licensed property? If they can make money through Amazon by forcing people to purchase the work, will authors still be able to create free fan fiction? It seems extreme, but it is not unimaginable.
Fan fiction’s often unknowingly political significance in terms of women’s writing, gender and sexuality, and queer representation created a dialogue between fringe communities and mainstream society. For this dialogue to become censored, monitored and commodified completely would be a travesty. Let us hope that fan communities keep their wits about them and withstand the draw of monetary gain, choosing freedom of expression, socio-political discourse, and a love of their fandom over a measly 35%.