Friday, May 24, 2013

On Amazon's Self-Published Fanfiction

'Writing' photo (c) 2008, Tony Hall - license:
Amazon is launching a new idea - self-published fanfic.

I can’t say I’m an expert in how it works, but it seems that certain people who control the rights to certain stories (and they’ve already got several, including The Vampire Diaries), give Amazon permission to license any author to write stories based on that original fiction and sell it for royalties.

In other words, you write your, for example, Vampire Diaries fanfic, self-pub it through Amazon and you get money as well as whoever owns the rights to Vampire Diaries (and, we assume, Amazon gets a big stash of cash as well).

This has caused rather a lot of kerfuffle, as you can imagine.

In fandom, there is a lot of concern about this changing the very culture and point of fandom itself I can understand some concern in fandom that the fanfics they now enjoy could actually just be a practice run for being published. I can see that, and I can see the sense of how the community is being exploited that way - as some kind of collective beta-readers or testing the waters. Except isn’t that already a risk? Look at 50 Shades of Grey - we’re in a world now where it’s apparently acceptable to re-name your fanfic characters and present it as an original work. Sure, 50 Shades is an AU (Alternate Universe) so more easily adapted - but the point remains, authors can already tweak their worlds and characters to present their fanfic as AU - or at least life huge chunks, like characterisation, from their fanfics to an original story. Or Stories.

I can certainly understand the idea of a changing culture - since fanfiction may be moved behind a paywall - and anything that you do for sheer joy does change when you do it for profit and gain. If it becomes prevalent, there will be a shift in fandom culture, in the culture of just doing this for fun, in the culture of just doing it for love. There will be people who look not for the fandoms they love, but for the fandoms that are the most popular, the fandoms they can be sure they will be able to make money out of. Once one goes from extreme love to calculated exploitation - even among a relative minority of writers - it’s going to change the culture.

But is it really going to be that widespread? After all, there are vast archives of fanfiction out there; are people going to buy what is so readily available for free? Again, I point to 50 Shades. There is a limit due to Amazon’s “no adult sexy times!” rule which is probably going to limit a... fair amount of Fandom. But I think we can’t think of it in just those terms - this is the first step and it’s possible Amazon will remove that restriction in the future - or another company may come along and decide on their own unrestricted version. Again, pointing to 50 Shades, there’s money to be made here which means this Amazon project may just be the first of many attempts to monetise fanfiction into published works.

Yet, at the same time is it sensible - or infantilising - to decide that fandom should be denied the choice of publishing in the name of protecting their own culture? Fanwriters can’t be trusted to have this choice because they will break their own toys if we do so?

And on that note of choice. I am concerned with who has the rights to license an author’s work - surely, depending on the contract, that could be the publisher as much as it could be the author? Do they license a particular fan-fic writer with a particular idea? Or if they agree to this, is that it, any drek that comes along gets the right to self-pub in their world? And many of those contracts will have been signed long before this particular possibility arose on anyone’s radar. I think many an author who is ok with fanfic is going to be more discomforted by paid-for, published fanfic and not just because someone’s making money off it. Paid for, published and endorsed by their publisher fanfic has an air of... well, canon to it.

This is something that concerns me - changing the nature of long running series as licensed tie-ins get confused for - or accepted as - canon. Especially if authors feel more fandom pressure to incorporate X or Y into their official worlds (gods know some fandoms are already rather... intense about getting their preferred elements into the story). Are authors going to be left fighting to keep their story their own? (Especially when you consider contracts like that signed by L.J. Smith) Are published fanfic authors going to feel they have a level of ownership or legitimacy within that world? Since they have been licensed (by the publisher even if not the author) do they not have a RIGHT to feel they have a sense of legitimacy in that world?

The flip side is, if the fanfiction is going to be written anyway and we’re already in a world where authors are filing off the names of Fanfiction characters and marketing it as Original Fiction (hey there E.L. James) then at least this method of doing so allows the original creator some income from the use - even exploitation - of their creation.

From the point of view of a reader - it is far easier for me to see the split between canon and fanon when going out to a fanfiction source than it is from another published book. After all, there are already books, licensed tie-ins - and certainly comics - out there written by multiple authors that have every expectation of being considered canon. This is especially true of the original author and the fanfic writer are both published by the same publisher.

Also from the point of view of the reader, I want to know how well labelled this fanfic will be. How easily will I be able to tell the difference between an original authored story, a collaboration between 2 authors, an officially authorised licensed tie-in the author has read and agreed to and fanfiction? Could I end up reading - buying - fanfiction and not knowing? Could I end up buying fanfiction for a series I haven’t read/watched and assume this book is original work? Could I end up in a situation where I have to google to find out whose world, this actually is, who created these actual characters?

That matters to me. I know fanfic can be every bit as well crafted as original fiction and there is, indeed, skill in accurately imitating another’s style and characterisation - but fun and skillful as it may be, it is still a story built on someone else’s imagination and creation and I want to be very sure whether I am reading the original or a derivative; and to decide how much I pay based on that. Similarly I have concerns about canon. We like long series - anyone looking at our reading list will see there’s a few on there that have been going on for an age. Sparky in particular has an almost obsessive need to finish any series he starts (which, in some cases, is like a special kind of literary torture that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. Well, except the people behind Stop the Goodreads Bullies anyway). These long stories with enormous casts of characters and huge worlds are more likely to attract fanfic - and more vulnerable to being mudied by their already huge number of books having extras added that are maybe-sorta-could-be-arguably-canon.

There’s a whole load to unpack here. I’m watching, but I’m wary and I think a whole lot of badness may come from it.