Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Discussion: Commercial Fanfiction

You've all probably already heard, but Amazon announced several days ago that they were preparing to start publishing fanfiction for the Kindle.  Although the current plans include only fanfics for Gossip Girls, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, and although it seems unlikely in the extreme that this is a bandwagon Hasbro would want to jump on (Amazon needs to make arrangements with the rights holders to publish fanfics commercially), this is pretty big news in the fanfic world.  I've been sitting on it for a few days myself, trying to decide what I wanted to say about the whole thing.

Only... I'm not really sure what to think.  Is this good for fanfiction?  Is this bad?  What are the legal ramifications of the boundary between commercial fiction and explicitly "for-fun" writing being (even further) blurred?  How would the ponyfiction community be different if there were a pay-to-read alternative through which authors could attempt to go?

Having opinions about things is something I'm pretty good at, but I just don't think I know enough to... well, to know how I feel about this.  So I'd like to open up the comments: what do you think about commercial fanfiction in principal?  What do you think about Amazon's plan specifically?  And, if this were (for the sake of argument) ever to spread to the ponyfiction world, how would that alter the landscape, for better or for worse?

Drop your thoughts in the comments section; I'd love to hear from some folks who do have strong opinions about this.  Or at least, from people with a better idea of what the implications of this are than I have.


  1. Hopefully this means some of you good writers can make some money for all your hard work! Unfortunately, I think we'll see a repeat of what happened with d20 compatible products in the early 2000s: with little to no means of separating the wheat the massive glut of chaff, people will be reluctant to buy any future material after so many bad purchases

    Yes, fanfiction's already a bit like that, which is why Chris' blog is so valuable, but it's not that big a deal when fanfiction's free. If IP holders decide to crack down on any works not being sold through this channel, a lack of quality control could have a large negative impact on how much fanfiction gets read

  2. I have rather terrible, ungrounded opinions, but I like them too much to throw them away. I'm going to go with: this will be good for literature as a whole, as the fad market is flooded with cheap-but-crap alternatives. More readers will realize that there is no literary merit in the junk food equivalent of the written word. Less authors of flimsy writing will get the chance to "shine" as the market becomes flooded. Fad writing on the whole is weakened.

  3. I have to think that it'll have a minor effect on readership. Why go to Amazon when you can get the same thing for free on FiMFiction? And regardless of what goes up on Amazon, there will still be stuff that's just as good on FiMFiction, if you can find it. Authors who decide to publish on Amazon exclusively will soon find out they're not reaching any greater an audience (who wants to read MLP fanfiction that doesn't already know where to find it?) and not making an appreciable amount of money off it. Have you seen some of the royalty checks that hardcopy published authors get? It's paltry. I'd rather give 1,000 readers a moment of fun than make a small fraction of those pay for it and maybe net $1 in the process.

  4. Part of me is trembling and excited about this.

    Part of me doesn't care because Hasbro.

    The rest of me realizes I would never pay to read fanfiction, sanctioned or otherwise. And I have to wonder who would. Surely, it would be the giggliest of young fans, the ones with the least taste, which then leads me to wonder what sorts of quality control will come with this. Because lemme tell ya, those guys will just eat anything up if it has their favorite ship.


    1. Ah, but if Hasbro went for this:

      No shipping would be allowed. Only all-ages, "episode-style" fics would make it through the approval process, I'm fairly certain.


    2. Oh, good point.


    3. "The rest of me realizes I would never pay to read fanfiction, sanctioned or otherwise. And I have to wonder who would."

      Yeah who would ever do that? It's preposterous.

      (Even though A Study in Emerald is available for free, it's flippin' amazing and in case it ever DOES go off the web, I need my hard copy. srsly, if a Cthulhu mythos and Sherlock Holmes crossover written by NEIL GAIMAN doesn't at least make you want to peek at it, then you are uncool and I don't want to talk to you. Go read it if you haven't already!)

    4. Just to add to that, the only real difference I see between fanfiction and stuff that people are willing to take seriously is that for the latter, the intellectual property holders have no claim over or are unable/unwilling to make a claim over what would otherwise be their characters or setting.

      Since it's existed, fanfiction has ALWAYS been commercial, but it's traditionally done via commission as franchise tie-ins, rather than by having fans try to sell the shit they've already made.

      I think the biggest issue here is what kind of metric we're going to judge these stories against and what kinds of bars, if any, there are for entry. Will Amazon employees be going through these stories to make sure there is no child pornography in them? Will they be making sure there is basic punctuation and spelling in them? That kinda stuff.

  5. I might be overreacting, but this worries me. The thing about fanfiction is that anyone can write it, and are people still going to feel that way if "real" fanfiction goes through this publication rigamarole? I mean, plenty of people are going to keep writing no matter what you do, but lots of people get the guts to start writing fanfics, or to start writing at all via fanfiction, because it's such a low-stakes thing. I'm afraid that those people are going to see published fanfics and think that they aren't good enough, that they shouldn't even bother trying.

  6. Well to state the obvious (and by looking over the content guidelines), crossovers are not allowed (I'm not sure how that would work if it was; I'm not complaining, it breaks my....ummm....that beating thing in your chest everytime I see one in the feature box). Having said that, I really don't trust Amazon at what passes their guidelines when it comes to certain things ("We don't accept books that provide a poor customer experience" ~ translation: if we don't think it will make a good amount of money, we are not going to accept). I'm concerned that their lawyers or the like might get uppity as well about what counts as violation of proprietary rights and laws and product placement. I could see writers as a result playing things safe in that regard (and pushing for over ten thousand words given that 35% is a much better deal than 20% if they do do this), which could mean blander stories, and I could defintely see many rushing over to this (with the same illusions of grandeur that spurred a number to write) to the point that Amazon says to hell with and just accepts whatever that doesn't break their other guidelines. To be honest, what bothers me the most is the fact that Amazon owns the text and any ideas from it that are published. I smell a scam and I'm probably not alone in that. I've lost track at the number of animation contests I've seen that were incredibly exploitive is this manner (actually many were worse then this because there was no compensation).

    But there's also this one important thing, amateur fanficts aren't something we pay for to begin with, and I'm not sure many are willing to do so now. I certainly would have avoided a lot of fanficts (even some I ended up liking) if I had to spend even a buck on them. We don't spend money on the episodes when they come out or to look at fanart. I can see a situation from this where no one (Amazon, the writers, the readers) ends up winning. Not everyone also owns a Kindle.

    This of course assumes Amazon and Hasbro make a deal (and to be honest, I'm not sure Hasbro really wants to risk it, there are quite few fanficts that are... not exactly things parents want their children to read and Hasbro doesn't strike as something that wants to get complaints from soccer-moms).

  7. John Scalzi:

    The current president of the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, put up a blog post on this topic the other day, and one of the things he points out is a clause in the contract Amazon is offering that says: "We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you." So any OCs in your fanfic would become the property of Hasbro....

    Still, I'd maybe try pitching Half the Day is Night or An Infinite Number of Pinkies to them if Amazon announced they'd made a deal with Hasbro. What the heck, says I!


  8. I wouldn't worry about this happening to Ponies. I mean, could you honestly see It's a Dangerous Business Going Out Your Door being sold as Juvenile Fiction?

    As for how I feel about it, I'm torn. On the one hand, I'm for anything that'll make fanfic into a legitimate art form. But on the other, the only reason I read as much fanfic as I do is because it's free and I can't afford to buy a new $9 ebook every week.

  9. I'd not have a problem with it, as long as two conditions are kept. One, the fics being published there were still allowed to be available for free elsewhere, and two, they dropped this "elements become property of World Licensor" thing.

    My problem with the latter should be obvious. For the former, I just think that as many have said, I wouldn't pay for something I don't know is going to be good.

    It's a bit like music. I've purchased over three hundred songs on iTunes since I first got an iPod several months ago, but they're ALL songs I've listened to before and know that I love already, and more often than not I got them on iTunes because I wanted to support the artist. If I just saw the title of a song, even if it's by someone I like, I probably wouldn't pay for it. It's things like VEVO channels or just random people posting the songs on YouTube for me to listen to for free that makes me decide to pay for it later, because then I actually know I like the song.

    Likewise, I might be inclined to pay for a fic to support a writer if it's really good, but unless it's still available on Fimfiction for me to read for free first, I won't know that it is. Ya know?

  10. I guess readers would have to be incented to purchases these stories, and that would have to come with significant changes to the current system. In order to generate sales, authors would have to at least partially take content down from free sites. I mean, why would anyone pay a buck a chapter (just throwing a random number out there) for a story on Amazon when it is in FIMFiction for free? This would lead to either teaser chapters on FIMFiction and other sites or it would lead authors to list maybe one A level story and then tell others that if they want any other good stories then they should head on over to Amazon and pony up. Heh.

    I don't see anything necessarily wrong with that, but it does leave the community with a lot less quality stories to read unless we have a lot more counter-culture, screw-the-man types than I think we do. Personally, I would love to get paid for my stories, but I would have hesitant to take them off FIMFiction. Those upvotes and comments are really the only lasting advertisements I have, so if Amazon didn't work out, they would head back to complete obscurity, down from the marginal obscurity they live in now.

    With the sheer volume of MLP fan stories, I'm not sure you could get the community into buying content. There is always going to be a new, good author with no name putting stuff out for free to try and garner an audience.

    Now, that is aside from Hasbro taking your story ideas and OCs. On one hand, I'm taking theirs, so I can't throw stones. On the other hand, something tells me they would really be getting the better of that deal. I MIGHT net a few hundred dollars from my stories if I became wildly popular. If they took one of my stories or, say, my characterization of Pinkie's Dad, they stand to make quite a lot more. I probably wouldn't even begrudge them that, so long as I was at least credited in some way, but I don't see that happening. It would be nice to see a deal worked out with Hasbro where they would need to compensate for idea, but once again, I'm not compensating them if I'm making money from selling fanfiction, so it's the pot calling the kettle black.

  11. Well Chris, You're much better at having opinions than I am, so if you're stumped, I'm stumped. Upon reading these comments though, I suppose my feelings fall somewhere in between Sessalisk's and Pascoite's.

  12. “Sanctioned” fanfic isn't a new thing. Work-for-hire stuff has been around a long time. (Star Wars, Dragonlance, etc.) The deal Amazon is offering is nearly identical to what the authors of those sorts of books get. The only difference is that now the door is open to anyone who wants to write “on spec” for the targeted properties. No need to have an agent to get the job for you. I don't think this will have any more effect on fanfic in general than “official” Star Wars novels had on Star Wars fanfic.

    At worst, if you like to think of things in those terms, this is Amazon trying to make a few bucks from the legions of fanfic readers out there. They do have a selection process to weed out inferior and “inappropriate”* works, so customers will be guaranteed a certain level of quality.

    Downsides? If you think fanfic authors rage against EQD pre-readers is bad, wait until you hear the wailing when Amazon turns them down!

    Publishing is rapidly changing and this is an experiment. Speculation is great, but you don't know for sure what is going to work and what isn't until you actually try it. Amazon is testing out all sorts of other schemes, most of which are invisible to the general public, so kudos to them! (Disclosure: I'm actually a beneficiary by way their new publishing imprint, (White Glove) so I may be a bit biased.)

    -Eric Elliott

    * Manglish, cross-overs, porn, etc. (Am I too Twilightish for wondering if the asterisk indicating this footnote should go inside or outside the Quotation marks?)

  13. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall seeing two of /mlp/'s fics being sold on Amazon before. They don't seem to be there anymore, which is unfortunate because the comments were hilarious!

    1. I remember that. One was Daring Do porn. I'm glad neither one exists anymore, if that's the case.

    2. Yep, Daring Do and the Jungle of Terror. You have no sense of humor :P

  14. Tl;dr, not going to kill fanfiction, not going to change what I read.

    Reasons I read fanfiction more than mainstream fiction:

    1. Intrinsic motivation gives better creative results than extrinsic motivation (cit).

    2. Commentary on the original work: “Moody had once seen an addicted Dark Wizard go to ridiculous lengths to get a victim to lay hands on a certain exact portkey, instead of just having someone toss the target a trapped Knut on their next visit to town; and after going to all that work, the addict had gone to the further effort to lay a second Portus,on the same portkey, which had, on a second touch, transported the victim back to safety.” (source)

    3. Sometimes I want to read stuff that nobody would ever be able to publish. Sometimes I pick the most ridiculous ship I can think of just to see how plausibly it could be written. I’m never going to pay for this. There's also My Immortal, which, when approached properly, is one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, but would never get published.

    4. Catering to niche audiences. I suspect there’s a large enough audience that would make a Harry/Luna ship feasible in a commercial setting, if Rowling would allow such a thing. I rather suspect there isn’t a sufficiently large audience for, say, a Snape/Sirius ship. (This isn’t my niche, but I did come across it going through what my sister read looking for recommendations)

    5. I hate drm (tl;dr). To quote Wil Wheaton, “As soon as the entertainment industry provides an alternative to bitTorrent, or an alternative to piracy that makes it just as easy for honest people to get access to the programming, then piracy dries up.” What’s happening is that a portion of the market would like to buy content, but the pirated equivalent has better customer service. If I have a kindle, I can’t read anything I bought at Barne’s and Noble on it, but content I stole, or downloaded from fimfiction, I can. There’s a book I bought from Barne’s and Noble that they, for whatever reason, won’t let me read online, and since I use linux (which, last I checked, their downloadable reader doesn’t work on), I can’t read it without a nook. Fanfiction is much less of a hassle to read, which is a not insignificant reason why I choose to read more fanfiction than commercial fiction. I also have feelings about paying into a system that is far worse than a free system; I’m much happier paying for books published outside of the system, that just come plain PDF’s. Yes, they’re easier to steal, but they don’t make me want to steal them. Until amazon makes it just as easy for me to read something that is free (or I stole), I’m going to avoid buying from them, as a matter of principle and convenience. (that being said, I still tend to buy nonfiction, since free nonfiction alternatives are very limited, but I also exhaust the free ones first).

    1. I’m an amateur musician. I play a classical instrument, so I have the privilege of sinking thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of practice into my hobby before I begin sounding a little bit good. I head up a heavy metal quartet, and I’ve spent at least another 100 hours writing music and organizing things for us. For all of this, I have been paid, in my entire life, precisely $0 (people threw money into a violin case at a fundraiser I’ve played). I don’t do it for the money; I do it because I get flow states off of it. Also, once you get past a fairly low threshold of competency, playing music is more enjoyable than just listening to music, no matter how well the music you’re listening to is played (reason for this is, again, probably flow states). For the same reason I play music, and try to sound as good as a professional, we’re always going to have free fanfiction that’s good, even if some fanfic authors can start selling their work.

      Personally, the stuff I tend to read isn’t going to get commercialized, and if it does, then I’m going to find other stuff to read. I may miss out on a few great stories, but there’s enough good stuff out there that the opportunity cost for reading them was another bunch of great stories, which, according to points 1-3, were probably better anyway.

      I'd support fimfiction implementing a tip jar.

    2. "I'd support fimfiction implementing a tip jar."


  15. Chris:
    An answer to something you asked in in your next post: "...does that mean that if you write a story with an OC and then later try to write a sequel to said story, you could be sued for copyright infringement for using your own character?

    If the original was authorized and sequel is an unauthorized one, then the answer is yes.* Anything you create in a work-for-hire situation** becomes the property of the original copyright holder.

    This doesn't apply to writing, but it will serve to illustrate how draconian copyright and trademark laws can be: In film and video game development,*** characters and settings created in the concept stage, but never actually used in the movie or game, are owned by the production company, and you can get sued for using them elsewhere without contractual permission.

    -Eric Elliott

    * But it's no more likely than getting sued for writing fanfic in the first place.

    ** And, as far as I can tell, that's what Amazon's contract is.

    *** And possibly other industries, but I know about these two examples firsthand.

  16. Professor WhoovesMay 31, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    I can't see Hasbro signing off on shipfics, so there go half of their potential readers.

    And I suspect that very few authors and/or publishing companies would be okay with romance, dark, and crossover fics.

    The only stories that might end up commercially published are heavily AU ones like "Whom the Princesses Would Destroy..." and maybe "Starlight Over Detrot" (but probably not).

    This changes little.