On Amazon Worlds, Packaging, Work-For-Hire, and Fanfiction

So the publishing world was abuzz yesterday at an announcement of a partnership between Amazon and Alloy Entertainment (packager of YA novels like Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants) to publish and promote fanfiction.

I skimmed the press release about the subject, as one is wont to do when one has a toddler, parents coming for a visit this evening, a house to clean, and a deadline to manage, and so somehow managed to miss the fact that this “fanfiction” trove was actually going to only include “approved” stories in particular properties owned by Alloy entertainment (Pretty Little Liars, Vampire Diaries, etc.).

Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Scalzi called it a way to “crowdsource tie-in writing” with “a lowered bar.” I’d take it one step further — my thought is the people at Aloy saw a whole heap of fanfiction being written and read and enjoyed by fans and they weren’t making any money off it, so they thought to themselves “How can we monetize this for ourselves?” without, you know, suing and earning the wrath of their fanbase.

So they struck on what seems to be the very attractive idea of offering fanfic writers actual monetary compensation if they’d post their stuff to Amazon instead of the usual fanfic haunts. If I were a very popular fanfic writer working in those worlds, I may be attracted by that idea. (Hey, when I wrote fanfic I was a poor college kid who needed beer pizza money.)

Of course, they have to have limits. It has to be a particular type of fanfic, that fits into their “vision” — which just means that the people out there writing crossovers or slash or whatever else will just keep on writing their “unofficial” fanfic elsewhere. And, I imagine, so will some fanfiction purists, who don’t like the idea of the creators looking over their shoulders.

Speaking as someone who once wrote fanfic, fanfic writers, as a group, are very upset when a creator hones in on their “harmless fun”. The trade off for geting no pay or acknowledgement for anything we were doing was that we got to do whatever the heck we wanted.  (Chuck Wendig and Malinda Lo have a lot of thoughts on this. Check them out.)

And sometimes what we wanted is not at all commercially viable. I’ve read plenty of fanfic that was so meta or stylized or written like a sonnet or what have you that it’s nothing like the “kissing scenes” that are probably going to flood Amazon Worlds as soon as it’s up and running.

I do wonder if these restrictions mean they may miss out on the real moneymakers in the slush. As I said on Twitter this morning, I doubt Stephenie Meyer would have been down with “authorizing” a fanfic of Edward as a BDSM-loving billionaire, but obviously, there was a bit of cash in that.

It’s interesting to see how fanfic has changed in the last decade or two. Back in the 20th century, the idea of making money off fanfiction was not only anathema to the folks I used to do it with, but the pro writers I know who wrote fanfic (either before being published or on the side) kept their activities a state secret. In the last decade or so, with a bunch of uber-popular fanfic writers like Cassie Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan going pro and being public about it, that dynamic seemed to have changed, and in the last year or so, with the rise of scrubbed fanfic actually being sold as original novels (Fifty Shades of Gray, a former Twilight fanfic, is the most famous of these, but there are lots). Now it seems like a lot of fanfic writers are openly in it to go pro.

(And don’t get me started on what folks in the fanfiction community feel about these scrubbers. The opinions are varied and volcanic.)

Gwenda Bond has an excellent post up about how the properties involved are packaged works, and the long history of packaging and work for hire in the YA scene. If you aren’t quite clear on what “packaging” is, go there and read up on the subject.

A lot of my friends have done YA work-for-hire, and I know even more that got their start writing for packagers or work for packagers now. And the interesting thing is, the only thing you know about a book when you find out it’s packaged or WFH is that the author doesn’t control the copyright. You have no idea how much creative input the author had, what they were or were not allowed to do, if they are really the person writing the words inside, or even if it was their idea in the first place.

And sometimes, they aren’t allowed to tell you. 

So maybe that movie star whose book you bought did write the book, or maybe they read it over once. Maybe the idea came from the publisher and packager, but the author did all the characters and writing herself. Maybe the author came up with the concept, the characters, the plotline, the writing, and even the art for the book, and the only thing they don’t control is the copyright. It happens.

One thing I was disturbed to see on Twitter this morning were those claiming they hate packaged books on principle or they always check the copyright page to make sure they aren’t reading packaged books — because it’s not a sign of quality. Do you watch TV? That’s written by several writers in a room, or a different writer on every episode. Novels are not a sacrosanct medium.

I’ve done a work for hire: Morning Glory, which is a novelization of a movie script. I was sent a script and wrote a book based on that, and then went back and forth with the production company as they filmed to make changes based on what actually got shot (or edited) into the movie. I didn’t go to the set or talk to anyone involved in the project, and if I wanted to see what characters were wearing in particular scenes (or what color Rachel McAdams’s hair was this time around), I had to scour the internet for production stills.

In my case, the production company was very interested in making sure the book was exactly like the movie. Not every novelization project is like that, though. There are some novelizations where the author is allowed to speculate wildly on side characters or things that don’t make it into the film or stuff that happens when the film is over. (The GOONIES novelization for example, talks about how Chunk’s family adopts Sloth and even give him a Bar Mitzvah. Which: COOL.)*

Packaged books are similar animals. I know some authors who have entered packaging deals where they actually did have total creative control and some who have zero. It varies. I would certainly consider doing another work for hire if the right opportunity presented itself.

(And, yes, I do see Scalzi’s point that writers of tie-in work better watch their backs, because a plethora of cheap labor from the fans is poised to destroy your market if this becomes the new normal.)

So yeah, there are a lot of thorny issues to deal with here: issues of what is fanfiction and what treatment do licensing writers deserve and what can readers expect from licensed works and packaged works and works-for-hire (answer: about the same that they can expect from any other kind of book, namely, some good stuff and some crap). I’m curious to see how this new venture works out, and what effect it has on the fanfiction scene and on licensing work.

I’m coming up on a decade in this biz, and things are changing so fast I’m getting whiplash.

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* Yes, I’ve read the Goonies novelization. Good stuff. It’s by James Kahn, who has written quite a few licensed books as well as been a television writer and producer.

Posted in writing industry, writing life, YA

2 Responses to On Amazon Worlds, Packaging, Work-For-Hire, and Fanfiction

  1. Amy W (librarianamy) says:

    Re your * – one of my favorite books as a teen was the novelization of the Ferris Bueller movie. There was suddenly a whole mini sub plot about the Charlie Sheen character that pops up in the police station in the end with Jeannie, and she’s much more likable. No shame. 🙂

  2. Alexa Y. says:

    I was, and still kind of am, a fan fiction writer first. I enjoyed using these characters or even celebrities that already seemed to have such strong personalities as characters in my stories, and it’s still fun to re-read the old stuff I’ve written (though I chuckle my way through most of it). This development with Amazon is… interesting. I’m not against or for it, but my personal opinion is that I wouldn’t be interested in it even with the money. I used to write fan fiction for my own joy, and to make things in these worlds go MY way as opposed to the way that would work for the actual story. It’s the fun of speculation, of what if Character X ended up with Character A instead of Character Y – and I think I’d lose that joy if I were paid to write, since I’d feel more self-conscious about it. Just my two cents.

    As for packaged books, they’ve never particularly bothered me. In fact, I rather enjoy most of them! I don’t think it necessarily means that it’s going to be bad if something’s packaged, just saying.