The Unnecessary Elevation of Fanfiction: The Announcement of Kindle Worlds

So Amazon has stooped to a new level of illiterate thuggery, and is now looting the corpses in a way both blatantly ruthless and pathetic. With the introduction of Kindle Worlds, Amazon is now allowing people to write and sell fanfiction for three different, equally vapid series (Gossip Girls, Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars). 

Some people would say (and they would be wrong) that fanfiction authors should have the right to earn money off their work, and they might also (wrongly) suggest that the fanfiction will only bolster the licenced properties in question and therefore generate more money for everyone. Everyone goes home happy and the Internet is better off for it, etc. Except that this is probably one of the worst (and most meta) examples of a poor author-publisher relationship ever. People more studious than I have taken a magnifying glass to the terms offered by Amazon to fanfiction authors, and have found the contracts fairly restrictive, and in some cases outright exploitative. The most excellent John Scalzi has scoured through the terms, and found this little nugget:

As a writer, there are a number of things about the deal Amazon/Alloy are offering that raise red flags for me. Number one among these is this bit: “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.” i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of moneyeven, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.

And as he goes on to explain further:

“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.

Again, we are seeing Amazon trying to create not only a new publishing playing field, but eroding the rights of writers that have been so hard-won over the years. So many authors are already getting scammed out of their money by vanity presses or traditional publishers with watertight, author-unfriendly contracts – it doesn’t help that the behemoth that is Amazon is further contributing to this increasingly unfair market. Sure, the fanficcers may be earning money they wouldn’t have before, but at what cost in the long term? Like Scalzi mentions,

If you are a corporate rights holder, for example, would you bother with seeking out pro writers any more, and paying them advances and royalties and all of that business? Or would you just open up the gates to paid fan fiction, which you don’t have to pay anything for and yet still have total control over the commercial exploitation thereof? Again, this is interesting stuff to consider, and if I were a pro writer who primarily worked in media tie-in markets, I would have some real concerns.

How many other big licences are going to take advantage of this? I am curious to see how many of them do. Clever authors have made sure to maintain all their rights, and I doubt that any of the really big author-created franchises (Game of Thrones, The Avengers) will follow in this path.

Secondly, how successful can this really be? Does anyone really want to pay for fanfiction? It isn’t clear if there will be a stringent editorial process – as far as I can tell there isn’t much of one on Kindle Direct Publishing and it is unlikely that they would have the people required to proofread the mountains of drivel about to descend on Kindle Worlds. And sure, the fanfiction will probably only cost $5 or so (like most self-published drek) but nonetheless people are accustomed to paying sweet fuck-all for fanfiction. And not only that, but they have been able to get it in a variety of communities, ranging from the infamous fanfiction.net to livejournal,  tumblr to AO3. Many of these websites have become sophisticated platforms, throwing in gifs and deviantart.com-sourced jackets, fan-mix soundtracks and more, all for free. So why pay for it, and be forced to read it on a Kindle anyway? Most Kindle users don’t have the ridiculously priced Kindle Fire, so off it is to dreary e-ink land and no more pretty gifs or fun formatting.

And even worse: who is going to want to buy fanfiction that isn’t allowed to have sex scenes in it? Isn’t that the point, after all? To slash that which has not been slashed before? To have characters bonk boldly where none have bonked before?

And the third (and the worst): why are we even legitmising fanfiction in the first place? I’m sure some people are celebrating this, thinking that now fanficcers can ply their craft in public, like real authors do. And while fanfiction has its place, that place is not on the level of original work. I may not be a fan of his books, but I am a big fan of what George RR Martin has to say about fanfiction:

 I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again.

His blog post is a fascinating look at what fanfiction/plagiarism has cost authors in the past, and the importance of defending their copyright. It has cost authors entire novels, caused lawsuits and even affected their livelihoods. Now I know that the Kindle Worlds have been authorised, and I know the authors have ceded (in part) their control, but nonetheless it is an attempt to monetize and legitimize fanfiction and I am really, really uncomfortable with that. If I published Savant (hahaha, NO) and I came across a fanfiction of it, I would probably be more than a bit pissed off that my years of work had been used by someone else to for whatever strange reason. It is teamwork, but the person who does the most work is still getting screwed and is expected to be grateful for the attention during the unasked-for screwing. And after all the work an author has done, it seems grossly unfair that anyone should dare to profit off their efforts and imagination. Like Martin says “No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me“.

More tasty links:

What Famous Authors Have to Say About Fanfiction (Flavorwire)

How Kindle Worlds Aims to Colonise Fanfiction (The Guardian)

‘Kindle Worlds’ Lets Authors Publish Fan Fiction — At Dubious Cost (Wired)

Fan Fiction Is Finally Legitimized With Kindle Worlds (Forbes)

Amazon launches Kindle Worlds allowing authors to publish fan fiction

The Life and Death of the Book Store

I don’t mean to wax lyrical and mewl like an old lady on her stoep with a blanket on her knees and a cat on her lap, but I remember drive-ins. The slap chips, the giant radios that threatened to crack the window, my parents smoking freely while we ran down to the playground just under the screen until the next movie. We could watch in our pajamas and fall asleep where we watched, and maybe the sound wasn’t great but it was better than the movie house because at least no one could throw popcorn at us.

Now, the drive-ins are nearly dead. One remains in Joburg, and for how much longer I’m not entirely sure. (Their offerings are outstandingly paltry.) They died for a number of reasons: muggings, poor quality food and film and the brutal Joburg winter that makes any outdoor activity impossible. With movies becoming more accessible, portable and affordable, the drive-in has become a sepia relic. Like so many other things, we absently miss them but didn’t really do much to support them and stop them from going under.

Which brings me to the constant cry of ‘the bookstore is dying’! The Mail and Guardian posted this article about the death of the bookstore. Interviewing several bookstore owners as well as my boss Ben Williams, the article attempts to offer a multi-faceted view of the book industry. I appreciate the efforts and the statistics are nice to have. Let’s have a look at some of them:

On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.

That article, ‘The Amazon Effect’ can be found in its entirety here. (It is lengthy, but definitely worth the read.) That article goes on to state:

 Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos’ deeply irritating personality aside, the picture is a little grim for bookstores. Alongside the purported death of the publishing houses (we’ll still waiting for that), this year alone has seen the closure of several notable bookstores in South Africa: the Boekehuis, for example. The Wordsworth in V&A Waterfront. EB in Irene and Balito. And as the Mail and Guardian noted, Kalk Bay Books very nearly went under as well. Never mind the independents and second-hand stores that quietly drowned in debt and silence without anyone noticing.

However, it doesn’t mean that all bookstores will become a thing of the past. In the panicking about ereaders, a great number of people forget that 3 million Kindles and 15 million iPads in a sea of 7 billion people is pittance. (I guess because only white readers matter? But I digress.) And while global literacy rates and access to books is not as high as I would like (especially in Africa), there are millions out there who don’t have Kindles and who will still buy paper books. After all, it is sheer idiocy to assume that people who don’t have Kindles/iPads/Nooks don’t matter. What matters, as it always has, is marketing and accessibility. I have discussed before why paper books are so expensive in stores, and those problems need to be addressed. One of the bookstore owners in the M&G article put it quite succinctly:

‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”

Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”

There has to be something better than wailing and whining about how we should all roll over and die, sacrifices on the altar of Amazon. What we should be doing is going back to books as art, as objects of joy and a celebration of the delicious, febrile nature of human imagination and endeavor.

It’s not over yet. Publishers are still bringing the world magnificent books, and bookstores are still lovingly curating them. Not everyone loves Kindle, and while Amazon is a giant, it is also unwieldy, unfeeling and unethical. The Amazon self-publishing ponzi scheme will collapse under the weight of its inherent mediocrity and the world will always value content, even if they have to pay a little more for it.  We should be focusing on accessibility, making books more affordable by dropping the customs tax or giving printers subsidies. In Japan, daily manga collections are published cheaply in disposable bundles. This makes a national art form accessible to all, and nicer colour versions are available for those who want them.

There’s always a better way of doing things, and while the solutions aren’t always easy, they are there. Publishers could treat authors better than they currently do. Bookstores can provide a personal and caring service that Amazon can’t ever hope for. How about some of the money spent on sport in South Africa being put to making printing books cheaper? Translating them into more languages? I refuse to accept that it is okay to bow under the pressure. The most important thing to start with is to abide by Douglas Adams’ advice:

Amazon.com is eating up the book world

As someone who works between the publisher, author and reader, articles like this bode poorly for my industry. The article discusses how Amazon is directly snapping up authors instead of sourcing their books from the publishers, and how this might affect the publishing industry.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.

So what does this mean for booksellers? For authors? For publishers? It means a hundred things, but the most important thing is that the book industry is going to fundamentally change, and soon. Once upon a time, eBooks and eReaders were slated to be the biggest white elephants in technology. Now their sales are booming (Kindle sales are estimated at 3 million units) and last year it was estimated that Americans alone spent $440 million dollars on eBooks. This sounds like great news for publishers and authors, and it is. People are reading more than ever before and across more genres. Once upon a time fantasy and science fiction were the red-headed stepchildren of the publishing industry, and now we’re seeing massive interest thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, miniseries like Colour of Magic and movies like I, Robot. Young adults are reading like crackmonkeys and the word in the industry is that there’s money to be made in writing for them. Readers enjoy instant and sexy novels and there’s always online shopping for those who don’t want or have an eReader.

Rosy thus far, but the last year has seen the closure of entire book chains, such as the 400 Borders stores that closed this year. 22 independent books stores are on sale in the UK, including the famous store in the Notting Hill movie. And as many of my friends delight in telling me, why wait for a book when they can get it immediately on a Kindle? There’s always the complaint that new books are expensive, but if one considers that the price of printing books has doubled, that the books have to be shipped here, the publishers paid and the rent of the store settled, its no surprise that bookstores are feeling the weight of import duties and exchange rates. We buy books in dollars and pounds, and you can imagine how hard it is on the booksellers when the Rand is down. With theft being endemic and many stores losing money through endless shoplifting and book piracy, it is a damned hard industry to stay afloat. I think one of the saving graces for us is that people over 30 tend to buy proper hardcopies. I know I prefer a real, delicious book but I know not everyone doesn’t.

And now with Amazon taking on authors directly, there are two things that I think will happen. Publishers, in an effort to recoup losses caused by defecting authors, are going to increase the price of books. This will directly affect the booksellers and make it even harder to sell books. So more people will turn to Amazon, who can buy in absolutely ridiculous bulk and command the best prices.

I do believe that Amazon has a phenomenal business model, and one has to admire them for it. They see a hole in the market and they fill it with melted Kindle goodness. And for authors, this may be the best news in the world. With publishers too scared to take on any title that may be a little controversial or too highbrow to do well, Amazon might be the best bet for a fledgling author. If they don’t require agent representation, then that’s another foot in the door. Sure, they’ll probably have slush pile ten feet high, but at least they have the kind of money to hire a fleet of editors and agents. Publishers don’t have that option anymore.

I can’t pretend to know what will happen in a year or five’s time, but I do have this awful feeling that Amazon is chewing up and spitting out all of its competitors in the Western world. With South Africa being a little behind in terms of bandwidth and wireless availability, the bookstores have managed to keep ahead. But with incomes shrinking there will definitely be less money for shiny new books. And if there’s a massive company that will send a cheaper eBook to you immediately, then why go to a bookstore?

The future might lie in bespoke bookstores, or in appealing to the idea of personal interaction with books and booksellers. But for now, all we can do is watch, and like the executives say at Amazon, to not be so hyped on demise.

Amazon executives, interviewed at the company’s headquarters here, declined to say how many editors the company employed, or how many books it had under contract. But they played down Amazon’s power and said publishers were in love with their own demise.

“It’s always the end of the world,” said Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives. “You could set your watch on it arriving.

EDIT: Today The Daily Maverick released this fascinating article that further explores the price structure Amazon is offering authors and more specifically where they will beat out publishers.  In essence, I think Kevin Bloom has nailed the potential upshots and downfalls of this situation quite nicely:

The contract was cancelled and Davenport was forced to pay back the $20,000 advance. She took it philosophically, stating that Cannibal Nights was some of her best writing, and that she had Amazon to thank for finally presenting it to the world. “Sleeping with the enemy?” she wondered. “Perhaps. But now I know who the enemy is.” It was a line read by thousands, as evidenced by the 159 comments under the blog, many from writers railing against the well-known bully tactics of the Big Six.

Which is where the upside to the current turmoil can possibly be found. If Amazon can act as a ballast to the dominant publishers without putting them out of business, if it can break the oligopoly and force better terms for writers as an industry standard, the good guys win.

If, on the other hand, Amazon guts traditional publishing until it’s the last player standing, only Jeff Bezos wins.

For further reading, please visit The Publisher’s Weekly article All Eyes on Amazon Publishing and the Davenport Dialogue blogpost directly dealing with her experience with Penguin.

For the love of the (e)Book

An interesting article on the potential change that eBooks will bring to reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/14/kindle-books

I truly enjoy digital reading. If one is to be fussy about the format of the book, then that is to be selective about reading altogether. I am currently working my way through all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which there are 48 short stories and four novels. I am about two-thirds through, and dreading running out until House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz’s authorised contribution to the canon.

I am reading it my iPad 1, and I love that I can read it in any light, under the covers and on my side without having to hold the pages open. I can annotate passages, highlight them and call up a dictionary on the odd occassion. While it is an occasionally distracting medium with the errant hand movement flicking the page, the pages move as quickly as they would if they were paper.

But at the end of the day, I am still reading. There are the hundreds of thousands of Gutenberg press titles, as well as the hundreds of thousands of books that will not be converted or published as eBooks. What many publishers see in eBooks is less money on printing and more for marketing. Yes they can be pirated, but haven’t we all got a loaned book that the owner has forgotten to reclaim? With eBooks there is far less risk in publishing new authors, and a little more of the profit can go to the author. A new author currently earns about 3% on the book price, depending on the publishing house. Of course there are titles like The Language of Flowers, which the subject of a nine-publisher bid. But most authors have to have day jobs, and it is only the super stars that can live off their writing.

eBooks may also be the best chance we have of mass-distributing academic texts that are expensive and often hard on student and school budgets. One day eReaders will be cheap, and children will have access to thousands more books, both fiction and non-fiction. Isn’t this a wonderful thing?

Of course I love paper books; that much will not change. And many places in the world don’t even have stable electricity or food, never mind eReaders. For them, a paper book will still be precious. Perhaps, when the rich West gets tired of paper books, we should give them all away to anyone who wants them. Language barriers aside, it would be a fine use for all those books that have been replaced by their coded friends.

Bring on the eBook, I say, but let’s never forget the joy of a fresh book or the comfort of our most dog-eared friends.