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Amazon’s fan-fiction portal Kindle Worlds is a bust for fans, and for writers too

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It sounded like a good idea: fans of cultural figures like Kurt Vonnegut and G.I. Joe get permission to use their favorite characters to create new stories under the umbrella of Amazon, and everyone gets a cut of the profits. So how it did turn out?

So far the results of the project, known as Kindle Worlds, appear lackluster at best. Take the popular series Pretty Little Liars, which became available as an [company]Amazon[/company]-licensed fan fiction title last year.

In the month of June, authors contributed 46 Pretty Little Liars works to Kindle Worlds, which sounds like a fair number — unless you compare it to the more than 6,000 such works that appeared during this time on two other fan fiction sites.

More broadly, on one of those sites,, fans posted 100 new stories every hour across all categories. And Amazon? Its entire output for all 24 “Worlds” of content, which also includes franchises like Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries, was just 538 stories over the course of more than a year.

These figures are cited by law professor Rebecca Tushnet in a new paper that explores why licensed fan content, which seems like such a promising opportunity in the eyes of copyright owners, turns out to be such a bust in practice.

According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap. Characters in other works can’t use drugs or employ profane language. And gay, bisexual or deviant sexual behavior might be off-limits too.

Amazon also bars writers under 18, who are some of the most prolific creators of fan fiction, from contributing to Kindle Worlds (likely because the law makes it difficult to enforce a contract against a minor.)

Add it all up, and the fields of imagination and community in Kindle Worlds feel barren next to the rollicking, ribald world of the purely fan universes. The sanctioned space, it turns out, is just not as much fun as the unofficial ones. One fan fiction enthusiast cited by the paper likens Kindle Worlds to a playground of “five quiet, clean, polite children carefully playing together while helicopter parents hovered overhead … Whatever Amazon has created there is no life in it.”

For Amazon and its partners, it will be difficult to overcome such perceptions since the underlying problem is not just about licensing terms, but something more fundamental: the impossibility of having it both ways, of fostering maximum creativity while wielding maximum legal control. As Tushnet notes, Kindle Worlds is hardly the first time that a licensed model of creativity has come up short: the music industry’s imposition of sampling licenses smothered hip-hop in the 1990’s, while commercial controls eroded the popularity of the early fan fiction universe, Darkover.

Finally, for both fans and authors, the Kindle “Worlds” may be less enticing because of their borders. Stories created in these worlds can go can only go as far as a Kindle account while, in the unlicensed fan realms, stories travel across the whole internet. In this respect, the dynamics of literary communities share much in common with software, where open platforms are routinely more successful than closed ones.

All this doesn’t mean that Amazon was wrong to launch a fan-fiction environment in the first place. The Worlds are providing a new revenue stream for established authors and their fans, though likely not a big one. For its part, Amazon appears eager to press ahead with the experiment.

“Early response from licensors, writers and readers has been very positive,” Jeff Belle, Vice President of Amazon Publishing, said by email. “We’re particularly pleased with the quality of the stories; one of our most important metrics is customer reviews, and the 600+ titles we’ve published to date have an average customer rating of more than 4 out of 5 stars.”

Belle did not disclose any revenue figures, but did state that Amazon intends to keep expanding the program and adding more Worlds.

Overall, though, readers and writers’ lop-sided preference for the unlicensed realms of fan fiction means it’s unlikely that Kindle Worlds will ever be a commercial success, or a cultural one either.

Tushnet presented her paper, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again: innovation in copyright licensing,” at the IP Scholars Conference, held at Berkeley on August 7-8.

This story was updated on 8/20 to reflect that Worlds stories are restricted to Kindle accounts, not a “Kindle device”

18 Responses to “Amazon’s fan-fiction portal Kindle Worlds is a bust for fans, and for writers too”

  1. Oak Finder

    The biggest problem with Kindle Worlds and why they won’t get enough submissions to really take off? Narrow eligibility. From the KW FAQ:

    “Who can write for Kindle Worlds?
    Anyone who is 18 or older with a valid U.S. bank account and social security number or tax identification number. ”

    Unless you live in US, you can’t participate.

  2. telperion1

    It seems a lot of people are keen to compare Amazon Worlds to fanfic, but that seems like a tough sell to me because the purposes of the activity are completely different. Amazon Worlds is much more analogous to the tie-in novels that have long been published in the Star Trek and Star Wars fandom, for instance, and perhaps the commercially published Sherlock Holmes pastiches. And that seems the fairer comparison to my mind.

    Fandom on the other hand is about community and relating to a cultural experience as a group. Fanworks are a part of that, but speaking as a fanfic writer who’s also published original fiction, the experience of writing fanfic and what I hope to get out of it is completely different. I wouldn’t trade the rich communities and the feedback and the reacting to other people in exchange for a situation where I was paid some small amount but in exchange had a much more distant relationship to my readers and other authors. That doesn’t make Worlds bad, it just means it’s not functioning as a replacement for the world of AO3 and Tumblr.

  3. Why would people want to play within boundaries when they’re already quite happy playing outside them? The whole experiment betrays a complete ignorance of human nature.

  4. Scott Mollon

    The sole basis of the argument that Kindle Worlds is a bust is that there are far fewer Kindle Worlds works than there are FanFic works in the wilds of the internet. I fail to see how this makes it a bust. Seems there would be other critical measures like number of purchases, quality of work, and other that determine if it is bust. Seems this bust argument was construed in order to have a headline to get you to read about the authors views on the licensing terms.

    • Thanks for your comment Scott. While “Bust” might be a bit strong, I don’t it’s inappropriate. I think the huge disparity in the numbers reflects Kindle World’s lack of appeal to fans and readers — and Pretty Little Liars is an apples-to-apples comparison.

      True, all this does not equal commercial failure, but I think the level of interest among fan communities is at least a partial proxy. And it’s hard to find anyone besides Amazon calling it a success.

  5. Anonymous

    It’s no surprise at all that KW is failing. The biggest draws of fanfic are:

    1. It’s free.
    2. You get to explore things that can’t happen in canon.

    KW takes away both of those. In their attempt to police content, they’re really only allowing stories that are only slightly shifted from the canon’s status quo. This isn’t interesting. We get that fulfillment from the canon itself. That’s why so much of fanfic is ‘ship-fic or darker explicit fic… because we find it fun to explore that which canon CAN’T. Meaning, the creators can’t have an explicit love scene between John and Jane Doe, or John Doe can’t ever go gay for Dan. The medium it’s being delivered in is limiting. Fanfic takes away those limits. By placing those limits on fanfic, you’ve removed almost all of the appeal.

    Amazon clearly wanted to capitalize upon the success of published fanfics such as Fifty Shades of Grey and The Office, and to offer the license-holders a way to grab a piece of the pie, but in doing so failed to note just what made those books so successful. Sex. Lots of sex.

  6. Don Tepper

    Maybe Amazon failed because it had some standards? Or because its business model relies on selling quality merchandise for a low price? There are two aspects of fan fiction that simply don’t align with Amazon or most other sellers.

    The first is quality. Have you actually tried reading fan fiction? 99% is garbage. I’ve actually downloaded some Kindle books by aspiring authors and they’re terrible. Maybe “authors” (and the quotes are deliberate) like to say that they’re published authors. Or they like to share their efforts with their friends. But most of the stuff is just unreadable.

    The second problem is quantity. Let’s assume, for a moment, that the bulk of fan fiction is readable and reasonably well done. Roberts cites the figure of 100 submission PER HOUR on Who could possibly read 1% of that? (That’d be 1 submission an hour, 24 hours a day.) Or the Amazon failure: 46 Pretty Little Liars works in one month. That’s 1.5 a day.

    People read the real works not just for the characters, but for the plotting, the writing, and the storytelling. What incentive is there for someone to read some work of fiction that lacks all of those elements, and whose characters as well are altered? Roberts writes: “According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap.” Skilled writers–real writers, writers who are at least readable–operate within creative limits all the time. So, would Tushnet argue that forbidding someone from writing that the villain is wearing a Yankees’ cap is such a handicap that their creativity will be stifled? Oh, come on now!

  7. SpringfieldMH

    So, I read the article and skimmed the heavily footnoted academic(?) paper the article references. Lots of opinion and anecdotes, including a heavy leaning to advocating an extreme interpretation of “fair use”… and no substantive numbers… to back up the claim of Kindle Worlds being a commercial failure.

  8. SpringfieldMH

    “can only go as far as a Kindle device”…

    You do realize that Amazon/Kindle e-books are readable on any device for which a Kindle Reader app or decent web browser is available?

  9. I’m one who is in the process of writing a fic that I HOPE to publish for Kindle Worlds. BUT the constraints that have been put in place for the ‘world’ I’m working with limit my creative abilities so much that it’s a serious struggle to actually get anything written. I have huge doubts in the back of my mind as to whether or not what I’m writing will “pass muster” once I submit it, particularly in regards to language/profanity. What I don’t understand in that regard is how they can impose such limits when talking about the written word when those limits were far less stringent in the actual series.

  10. Sean Sweeney

    “According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap.”

    I’m wondering why any author worth their salt, fan fic or not, would put a Yankees cap on any GI Joe villain. I don’t really think that Cobra Commander, Destro, the Baroness, or Storm Shadow truly cared for baseball; they cared more about world domination. Caring about sports would be out of character for them.

  11. wilder125

    Figures most of what I typed after that disappeared. oh well.

    boil down. I go by the rules I found at one point for kindle worlds, and have decided not to play in Kindle Worlds from them.

    I don’t remember where to get them now. Anyone who discounts my opinion because I don’t have a link to back it up, I don’t care. My opinion is set.

  12. wilder125

    Part of it is that most of the potential future writers in Kindle Worlds, and the readers.. read the fine print in the articles and Faq’s that came out.

  13. Dan Meadows

    The restrictions, as well as some fishy stuff in the license where the world’s owners controls the writers output and anything they create; worlds, characters, storylines, what have you; and are free to use them without additional compensation, are symptoms of the flaw in this model. Which is, the copyright holders were never going to relinquish enough control or power to exploit anything that takes off to make this all that worthwhile of an effort. Now, lift the restrictions and require negotiated compensation for any concepts a writer creates that the copyright holder wants to use in other avenues, and they may be on to something. And getting some folks on board to add a few more world’s people have actually heard of wouldn’t hurt either.

    • “the world’s owners controls the writers output and anything they create; worlds, characters, storylines, what have you; and are free to use them without additional compensation” –

      That’s what stopped me from participating (as a writer). Wouldn’t want derivatives of my work to be able to be produced without a share.