Guest writer Greg Hatcher has been a professional magazine writer and editor for 21 years and currently writes the weekly Fridays With Hatcher feature, now in its eighth year at Comics Should Be Good. In addition to that, he teaches writing for high school and middle school students as part of the Young Authors program in South Seattle.
It’s only been a few hours since the press release went up and already the internet is catching fire over the new Amazon ebook program, Kindle Worlds. The new program essentially grants an open license from Warner Brothers’s Alloy Entertainment division for writers to self-publish their own fan fiction for certain properties. So far, the eligible ones are Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries. (Although the fine print says the company won’t publish any crossovers, nor will pornography be tolerated. So really, if there are no crossovers or slash allowed, what’s the fun of doing it?)
Understand, Alloy isn’t paying writers for their fanfic. Instead, the company has offered to not sue anyone who wants to write it, and it has even generously partnered with Amazon to supply a platform for those writers to market their work as ebooks for the Kindle.
“So what,” I hear you asking. These folks are going to be writing their fan fiction stuff anyway. Why not let them have their fun and maybe make a couple of bucks on the side? What’s the harm?
Well, lots of harm, since you ask. First of all, it hurts professional writers who’ve spent years learning their craft. Now, I don’t have any problem with fan fiction or even licensed fiction — one of the finest science fiction novels ever written is Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, a novelization of the film with the same name that surpasses that film in every way. I can think of all sorts of great licensed books written for Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Leverage, Dark Angel, Batman, Dick Tracy and so on and so on. Hell, I can even think of some great fan fiction — Chuck Miller’s Gotham X, the story of FBI agents Mulder and Scully from The X-Files traveling to Gotham City to investigate an urban legend called “the Batman” is brilliant. (Google it. You’ll thank me later.) So, that’s not the problem.
The problem is that the Kindle Worlds program isn’t going to draw any kind of meaningful distinction between the unedited fan-written stuff and the carefully crafted and edited professional work. It devalues the entire concept of professional. Giving self-published fanfic authors the official stamp of approval, even though the odds are those books won’t have anywhere near the skill and polish pros bring to the job, devalues the work of the professionals, it devalues the property being licensed, and it even devalues the fanfic writers themselves. In fact, that last one is probably the ugliest part of the whole thing.
As far as I’m concerned, this is just part-and-parcel of the ongoing predatory efforts to pick the pockets of aspiring writers. Kindle Worlds comes off as the same thing as reading fee agents or vanity publishers, except updated for the age of the internet. The success of 50 Shades of Grey (which began as fan fiction of the Twilight series) is a fluke, and it doesn’t really apply because those books were rewritten and — allegedly — edited. Whatever you may think of its merits, 50 Shades at least is a real book and went through a process. This new thing isn’t even that.
In this case, 50 Shades is a red herring as it’s not what this Kindle Worlds business is at all. Even the author of 50 Shades, E.L. James, had the wit to hang on to her book for herself. She didn’t rush slobberingly to embrace her own swindling by being promised acknowledgement as part of the official Twilight canon.
When you’re a writer just starting out, the hunger to succeed, to see the stuff in print, can be overpowering. And there are lots of dishonest operators that count on that. There’s an entire predatory industry built on the idea of raising false hopes in aspiring writers. Agents who charge a reading fee to evaluate your manuscript. Subsidy publishers that partner with you to print hundreds of copies of your book that end up boxed in your garage gathering dust a couple of thousand dollars later. How-to-write seminars. How-to-market-your-book-from-home seminars. Pounds of self-help books. And on and on.
None of those underhanded options do much to get a beginning writer any closer to genuine success. No, that only comes from putting in the practice time to hone your skills, and then learning how to submit your work to an editor. You can manage that with a library card or an internet connection. What you don’t need to do is pay for it. But thousands of gullible hopefuls do every year.
The Kindle Worlds program is catering to that same hunger to publish that unscrupulous “agents” and “subsidy publishers” use to sucker a beginner. The dangling bait is the idea that if people could just see your genius Vampire Diaries idea, it’s a short step from there to appletinis in the greenroom at the MTV Video Awards. No need to bother with all those years of rejection slips and all that work. Just post it to Amazon and presto, you’re one of the beautiful people.
Sorry, no. Read the fine print. The Alloy Entertainment contract stipulates that it doesn’t have to pay you a cent beyond whatever royalty percentage your book might bring in. But the company can use any ideas you create anywhere it wants. Alloy can also reprint your story whenever it feels like it, without paying you, the writer, a dime.
That deal is so incredibly bad that it doesn’t even rise to the level of the work-made-for-hire crap contracts pulp writers put up with in the 1940s. At least those guys got a penny a word up front.
Kindle Worlds doesn’t even do that. It gives you nothing up front except the so-called legitimacy of being published. It’s attempting to buy off writing hopefuls with an unearned official stamp of approval so the Alloy Entertainment Corporation can data-mine their work for ideas. It’s on the same moral level as the pimps who hang around the Greyhound station in Los Angeles, telling runaway teenage girls, “Sure, baby, I can get you into show business.”
Writers — fan and professional both — deserve better than that. Certainly, readers do.