I assume many of you have heard about Amazon Worlds by now. A new venture by Amazon to allow fanfiction in “worlds” licenced by them to be sold on the site. Only three TV shows are signed up so far, but we are promised that more is on the way.
I wouldn’t be a writer without having been a fan fiction writer too. Being shy about sharing work kept me from writing for a couple of decades. But then along came the internet and fan fiction, which was a relatively safe way for someone like me to get into the waters slowly, instead of diving in. And it led me to crit groups and then a small group of betas. We all worked together to improve and I made really good friends. So it was a great way to develop fast as a writer.
I started writing original stuff too after a couple of years (thanks to NaNoWriMo!) But I probably wouldn’t have done that without the confidence boost of having my fanfic being generally well received. But would I have wanted to become an “official” fanfic writer? I don’t think so. And I have a few reasons why.
The Powers That Be have control over the content, which means that it’s never likely to be any more daring than what you’d get in a tie-in book and those tend to be a bit…safe. (aside from the very early Star Trek tie-ins maybe. Anyone read The Price the of Phoenix?) Some tie-ins are good of course, if you’re after what Sheenagh Pugh in The Democratic Genre calls a “more of” type of story about the characters. That is seeing them doing more of what we see then doing in the canon material. But many great fanfics are of the “more from” type, exploring places they would never have gone in the source. They’d never get accepted.
So you might say, well, okay then, no big deal, readers have a choice. They can read the official, but “safe”, stories, or they can read the stories on unofficial fanfic sites. But it might be a big deal if the licence holders, who had usually left fanfic alone because it’s not worth pursuing and spending money on to look like bullies and alienate fans, decide they will go after the unlicenced fics and the sites that host them. It seems like a likely possibility to me that they will. Fanfics don’t compete directly with the original source. But they would certainly be competing with the Amazon Worlds fan fiction.
Which would certainly then make for some deep divisions in the fic writing community. Fanfic writers who’ve gone for the Amazon option might well be seen as sell-outs who’ve gone over the The Man and are raking in the money while the other fic writers who used to be their friends are being hounded off the Internet. The writers who’ve gone “official” now find themselves on the side of the licence holders and Amazon against their former friends. Suddenly they are not simply sell-outs, they are traitors. (I exaggerate, but from the kerfuffles I’ve been involved in I know how overwrought it all gets.)
I also think it will hold back some writers from developing. Now some people only want to write fanfic. They want to do it really well, but they don’t want to be pro writers. On the other hand there are some (like me) who start as fanfic writers and decide they want to go pro. Which means in the end they have to start writing original fiction, because you can’t sell fan fiction – until now. Now those in the licenced “worlds” can sell it. They don’t need to move into original stories. But, it gets worse. IF the rights holders crack down on unofficial fanfic sites, those writers lose the current pathway to development of their writing, that many take, getting feedback, finding beta readers, improving their craft. Whether they are people who would have stuck with fanfic or gone pro eventually, this potentially could make their journey that bit harder.
I think I’m generally uncomfortable with something as corporate as Amazon getting involved with fandom and fanfic so directly. When anyone drags fandom blinking and snarling into the light it doesn’t end well. Fanfic is not, and perhaps should not be, “respectable”. Many people writing it neither seek nor desire the approval of the people who created the source. Maybe they want to comment on the source and things they view as problematic in it through their stories. Many people in fandom like flying under the radar. They don’t want to be in the light. Fandom is a safe place for them when its dark and anonymous. They don’t want to be subject to the scrutiny of people who don’t get fandom. And they especially don’t want to be written about by journalists who don’t get fandom.
So, I don’t know how this will turn out for those who decide to take part in Amazon’s program. But I know I’m worried for those who stay outside it.