Amazon.com has just launched a new program to officially publish and sell "fan fiction," that possibly lucrative stream of literature that produces new stories using the characters and settings of popular books.
Kindle Worlds will license chosen writers who create stories based on a few existing fictional worlds. They will publish their stories as e-books, branded as part of a series. The royalties from sales will be shared between the creator of the "world" and the new author. (The new author is promised 35 per cent of sales for longer pieces.) The texts will be mostly quite short – some will be short stories, some novellas. They will sell for 99 cents to $3.99 a story.
Why is this new system for licensing characters and sharing royalties so unusual? Fan fiction as we now know it originated with science fiction, specifically with Star Trek, in the 1970s, when fans produced their own stories in handmade magazines using Star Trek worlds and characters. They did it purely for fun; there was no possibility of financial reward, as the means of distribution were limited and the copyright issues too dangerous. Furthermore, fanzines enabled writers to take the Star Trek stories into political or risqué territory, as television writers never could have. This led to the surprising eruption of pornographic Star Trek fiction in the 1970s and 80s, mostly with gay male themes (usually by and for a female audience). This homoerotic tendency became known as slash fiction.
From its beginning, fan fiction has been written mostly by women. Originally, this was because of a dearth of interesting female characters in conventional sci-fi. But the most popular fan fiction is now inspired by the most girly of original stories. Kindle Worlds does not plan to upset this paradigm: It is starting its series with three franchises, all Warner Brothers television series based on young-adult book series: Gossip Girl, by Cecily von Ziegesar; Pretty Little Liars, by Sara Shepard; and The Vampire Diaries, by L.J. Smith. They are all aimed squarely at girls and women.
Make no mistake: This is still a form of self-publishing. Would-be authors are still responsible for formatting and uploading their new books, as well as creating their own cover designs. But they will be stripped of any of the freedoms of self-publishing. They must adhere to Amazon's strict rules for participation in the program, which forbid: "offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts," and other "offensive content," including violence and swearing.
So: no slash fiction, and no S&M variations, which means that 50 Shades of Grey, the most successful novel trilogy of the past 10 years – and the one book that made the entire industry wake up to the commercial potential of fan fiction – would not be eligible for Kindle Worlds. This is a significant restriction, since part of the appeal of rewriting classics or mainstream successes has always been to open them up to forbidden storylines. The non-commercial aspect of the genre has enabled it to take these risks.
The oddest limitation of all is the most old-fashioned: "No crossovers from other Worlds are permitted, meaning your work may not include elements of any copyright-protected book, movie, or other property outside of the elements of this World." This means no mash-ups, no truly imaginative or surreal combinations of fictitious worlds: no Mormon vampires working for big-city fashion magazines, no marriageable Wookies. No Sherlock Holmes in King Arthur's court. (Actually, that one might be legally possible, since the copyrights may have lapsed. But it might appeal to boys, so no one would dream of suggesting it.) Isn't it odd that this most contemporary of literary ventures expressly renounces postmodernism?
But the Amazon regulations are insistent on this point:
"… your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World." That's a strangely contradictory idea: If there are "new elements," then how can they be from the original world?
The phrase academics like to use to describe fictions that take elements from other texts is not fan fiction, it's parallel fiction. Many works of so-called literary fiction are parallel fictions: The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, a prequel to Jane Eyre; Gertrude and Claudius, by John Updike, a novel about Hamlet's mother; The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, about Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. These are all extremely imaginative works, though – too imaginative, probably, to be eligible for Kindle Worlds.
Kindle Worlds is a clever way to monetize a formerly underground trend, and to enable its participants to be remunerated. But it will be of no interest to writers with any literary ambition, as its constraints are designed to stymie even the most rudimentary impulses – even the first flickering of a dangerous originality.