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Here's proof Amazon's fanfic venture is working

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Author Neal Pollack has had a pretty diverse career so far. He’s published literary satire, crime fiction, and a popular parenting memoir called Alternadad. On top of that, he’s recorded spoken-word poetry and gotten into the Jeopardy! hall of fame. And as of this year, he’s started publishing fanfic on Amazon’s Kindle Worlds.

In partnership with various authors and media franchises, Kindle Worlds allows writers to publish and profit from fanfiction without facing copyright lawsuits. When it launched in May 2013, only a few media properties were available (Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, all teen TV series owned by Warner Bros.), and the service seemed to be aimed at “amateur” writers who wanted to try their hand at making some money off their fanfic.

Now, Amazon is actively courting professional authors to participate in the various “worlds” of its for-profit fanfic service. 

Neal Pollack’s latest work is a 50-page ebook called The Abnorm Chronicles: Escape from the Academy, which is currently hovering around No. 4 on Kindle Worlds’ Young Adult bestseller list. It was inspired by Brilliance, a sci-fi novel by Marcus Sakey, but it isn’t strictly what you’d call fanfic. “Transformative work” would be a more accurate term, since Pollack isn’t an active participant in Abnorms fandom. In fact, he first heard of it when Amazon asked if he’d like to take on what he describes as a “commissioned assignment” to launch the Abnorms fanfic universe on Kindle Worlds.

Photo via Amazon

In an email to the Daily Dot, Pollack explained: “Amazon Publishing is trying an experiment with some of its authors, basically having us write in one another's worlds. My editor there asked me if I was interested, and it seemed like a fun genre lark. And it was! They've created a situation where a bestselling writer like Hugh Howey is writing Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction. But then people are also writing fanfic in Howey's 'Silo Saga' world. One of the most popular Silo writers, Jason Gurley, designed the covers for my two Kindle Worlds pieces. I love the collaborative nature of the process.”

When Kindle Worlds first launched, it was pretty controversial in the pre-existing fanfic community, due both to its for-profit nature and the fact that Kindle Worlds content has to adhere to various guidelines such as a ban on pornographic content.

While some fans were overjoyed at the possibility of making some money from their hobby, others were apprehensive about fine print that said any original work in Kindle Worlds publications would be licensed to the owner of the original source text. One of the other main concerns was that making fanfic into a commercial product would damage the gift economy of fanfic culture, turning a collaborative community into a money-making exercise.

But speaking to Neal Pollack, it’s clear that the spirit of collaboration is still very much alive in Kindle Worlds—just in a slightly different format than that of the traditional fanfic community.

In the past few months, Kindle Worlds has developed a lot. It’s branched out to include a wider range of media (including some unlikely non-fandom sources like the “the world of Kurt Vonnegut”), and has produced some surprising success stories. The most high-profile example is the original author of the Vampire Diaries, L.J. Smith.

Smith wrote the Vampire Diaries series on a work-for-hire contract, meaning that her publishers owned the intellectual property and were able to fire her when they decided to revamp the series. While someone else took over as the official author of the Vampire Diaries, Smith turned to Kindle Worlds to start publishing bestselling fanfic about her own characters.

Neal Pollack’s description of his relationship with Kindle Worlds actually sounds a little like a more benign version of work-for-hire. “I get commissioned assignments,” he told the Daily Dot. “But they're very loose and I have ultimate creative freedom.”

“For my first piece, my Amazon editor presented list of worlds that he thought I'd jibe with. The John Rain series seemed like a gimme, not too many leagues away from what I'd done before.” (The John Rain series are espionage thrillers about an ex-CIA assassin.) “Then the Kindle Worlds people emailed me to say they were going to open up Marcus Sakey's "Abnorms" world. They wanted to know if I'd be interested in helping launch its fanfic line. I read the book, which is written for adult readers, and this eight-year-old character registered with me most strongly, so I decided to go the YA route and write a novella from her point of view.”

The resulting ebook is now near the top of a bestseller list that is currently dominated by L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries stories, and where everything retails for an affordable $3 or less.

Pollack may kid around on Twitter about the potential stigma of writing fanfic, but he says that in reality, it’s been a very positive experience.

“No one has been disparaging about it at all. I do know that it's a great way to learn how to write. My son writes fan fiction. So do all his friends. So did I when I was his age. This certainly feels 'legitimate' to me; Amazon has monetized it in an ingenious way.  I'm splitting royalties from my pieces more or less three ways among myself, Amazon, and the 'World Creator.' 

"I wouldn't want to do Kindle Worlds stuff exclusively—I have my own fictional worlds I want to create—but it's a lot of fun to do on the side, and I plan to keep going.”

In many ways, Neal Pollack’s description of being a commissioned author actually dispels many of fandom’s original concerns about the commercial nature of Kindle Worlds.

Yes, Amazon has successfully managed to (some might say cynically) profit from fanfic. They’ve even found a way to entice authors into making their own works available as a Kindle “world,” meaning that both the author and Amazon get a share of any fanfic profits. However, there’s no evidence that this is going to affect the pre-existing fanfic community at all. 

When you look at the Kindle Worlds bestseller list, there’s virtually no overlap in topic, content, or source material between the type of writing people want to pay for on Kindle Worlds, and the type of writing that leads more than a million people to flock to Archive of Our Own (AO3) each day.

Part of this is probably due to the fact that Kindle Worlds doesn’t have the rights to any of the major fanfic fandoms, such as Teen Wolf, Doctor Who, or Harry Potter, so Kindle Worlds success stories are automatically playing to a different audience than the average fanfic writer who logs on to Tumblr to post a 300-word snippet about Captain America.

There’s also the fact that Kindle Worlds isn’t really responding to a traditional fanfic audience in the first place. If it was, then the bestseller list would be full of male/male slash romance, short stories based around tropes like bodyswap or time travel, and multi-chapter adventure stories with lots of unresolved sexual tension.

Instead, the top sellers on Kindle Worlds far more closely resemble the real-world bestseller list: crime fiction, thrillers, and YA supernatural fiction in the form of L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries ebooks. Also, aside from Smith, the majority of successful Kindle Worlds authors appear to be men (or at least using male pseudonyms), which is a far cry from the typically female fanfic fandom.

Kindle Worlds is clearly doing very well so far, but traditional fanfic fans shouldn’t be too worried that it might encroach upon the territory of Tumblr, Fanfiction.net, or AO3. In creating a for-profit fanfic service, Amazon appears to have inspired not just a new breed of fanfiction, but an entirely new consumer market to support it. 

Photo via i_heart_him/Flickr