Kindle Worlds = Worlds Burning?

kindleworldslogo._V383881373_Amazon just announced a new program called Kindle Worlds that allows writers to sign up for no-mess licenses for established fictional worlds to self-publish stories in them. In essence, they’re letting fan-fic writers (amateurs who write such stories for fun) make money off their work. As a writer who’s made a good chunk of money writing official stories for such things, this is a brain-busting concept. So let’s break this down a bit.

So far, they only have a few worlds available — Gossip GirlPretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries, all from Warner Bros. — but let’s assume they have more in the wings. Also, if any of this takes off, we can expect a deluge of such licenses.

As a writer, I can write whatever I want in these worlds, within certain limits: no pornography (no Fifty Shades of Gossip!), no excessive violence (interesting to see vampires get around that), no crossovers (Patton Oswalt won’t get his Avengers/Star Wars/X-Men crossover this way — yet), etc. For longer works (10,000 words or more), I get 35%, half what Amazon normally pays for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99. For short stories (which will be priced under $1), I get 20%, which is more than half of the standard 35%. The licensor (owner of the original world) gets the rest of the royalty — whatever that is. Amazon doesn’t say.

As a writer, it feels like splitting the royalty on the book with the owners, which seems fair. Standard royalties on work-for-hire tie-in novels range from 8% all the way down to nada. Of course, those contracts come with an advance, which Kindle Worlds (like all self-published Kindle books) doesn’t offer.

There are some catches:

  • The books are exclusive to Amazon, which owns all publishing rights. Seems like a fair tradeoff for getting the licenses set up. When you write official tie-in books, the owners of the world get those rights anyhow, and that’s probably what Amazon is sealing up here. 
  • Royalties are based on what Amazon gets for the books, which is standard for self-publishing but not traditional books. Fine.
  • Other writers can build on your material just as much as on the original material. That’s fair.

The real kickers:

  • “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.” Which means you give up all future rights to your work. If you come up with the basis of the next film set in that world, thanks. Hope your book sells a lot more because of it. Still, this is the same arrangement as with traditional tie-in work.
  • “Amazon Publishing will set the price for Kindle Worlds stories. Most will be priced from $0.99 through $3.99.” This takes a bit of the control out of the writer’s hands. You can’t charge a premium, and you might wind up getting paid a quarter of what you’re hoping for.
  • They can also nix books for things like copyright or trademark violations, excessive use of brands (which they likely mean from outside the world in question), and “poor customer experience” (which means badly made ebooks, but could be broadly interpreted).

So what’s all that mean? To me at the moment, nothing. I don’t have any interest in writing for the worlds they’ve lined up so far. They’ve promised a lot more of them to come, but we’ll have to see who signs up for such things. At the moment, it looks like they’ve convinced Warner Bros. to dip their toe into the pool, but it may be that other creators/owners will want to wait to see what happens before they jump in too.

For the publishing industry, it could mean a lot of things.

Is it the death of tie-in novels? Maybe. For owners interested in conscientious and purposeful brand extensions (like Blizzard is with the StarCraft story I wrote), I don’t see them wanting to dive into this. Developing the official version of their universe is far too important to them for them to leave it to writers given (mostly) free reign.

However, for owners of worlds that lay fallow, this could make a lot of sense. One of the biggest reasons that companies don’t hand out licenses for fiction is that it takes too much time to hassle with approvals. Someone has to actually read the stories, make sure they fit the brand, don’t offend anyone involved, and so on. With Kindle Worlds, none of the stories would be official canon for the worlds, and Amazon will do all the heavy lifting for approvals. All the owner has to do is collect the checks and be happy that the fans are out there continuing to have fun with the world in question.

In the long run, we could see some interesting developments. What if one of the stories takes off and becomes the next (non-pornographic) Fifty Shades of Gray (which famously began its life as Twilight fan-fic)? I suspect Amazon will put out a dead-tree version of it through a new publishing imprint — or through the most appropriate of their already existing imprints. They might even have the owner give the book the official stamp of approval and enter such a bestseller into canon.

In this sense, Kindle Worlds could allow owners of popular fictional brands to crowdsource content. If the experiment succeeds, they can skim the cream off the top — as defined by the sales numbers Amazon can give them — and proclaim it as their own, which it is in every legal sense. If it fails, they’ve put enough space between themselves and the Kindle Worlds material that they can deny every bit of it as non-canon fluff.

The real winners then are:

  • Amazon (who makes money off every sale either way)
  • The owners of those worlds (who make money too, and may wind up with some real prizes)
  • Fan-fic writers (who have been writing this material anyway and may now find both money and recognition for their work)

Who loses? Potentially professional tie-in writers, who may find that no one wants to pay them to do this kind of work when others will do it for free. On the other hand, There’s nothing to stop such people from diving into Kindle Worlds hard. They give up advances, sure, but they stand to make a lot more on royalties — if their stories take off.

Honestly, the advances for most tie-in novels are lousy. It’s one reason I don’t write many of them any more. (I sometimes make exceptions for friends, properties I love, and publishers with large checks. If all three come together, it’s nerd-vana.) If writers have to forgo a $5,000 advance to gain a 3500% increase in royalties, it might well be worth it.

Movie novelizations will survive, I think, if only because they require advance access to the script and timing that allows them to come out at the same time the film’s released.

The other potential loser? Traditional publishers who bring standard tie-ins to market might have a hard time of it, especially if their books aren’t considered to be part of the world’s canon. Why should a reader care about one of those books more than a Kindle Worlds book? Sure, professional writers and editors may usually do a better job of it than gifted amateurs, but what happens when those same pros dive into the Kindle Worlds market?

I might do so myself, if and when Kindle Worlds lines up the right property. Hell, I might be able to run a Kickstarter to get the advance lined up for me, deliver the book through Amazon, and then rake in 35% royalties for my trouble. That’s a tempting deal.

So that’s the kicker right now. If Amazon can persuade enough other owners to sign on, this will be more than a bold new experiment. It’ll redefine tie-ins from square one.