Fan fiction on Amazon: exploited or exploitative?

First aired on Q (29/05/13)

E.L James is probably the most famous author whose most popular work started out as fan fiction. 50 Shades of Grey began life as something called "Master of the Universe," a piece of Twilight fan fiction. James eventually reworked it (meaning she dropped any Twilight references) into the ubiquitous best-selling trilogy, and the rest is history. But now, authors of fan fiction might not have to change their stories about Bella and Edward or Harry Potter in order to get them published. In a move that's causing a stir in the book world, Amazon announced that it will begin publishing fan fiction titles as e-books -- all with the blessing of the original creators.

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To date, Amazon has licensed fan fiction use for The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars with -- presumably -- more titles to come.

But not everyone is happy with this move, including some fan fiction writers and fans themselves. Q guest host Gill Deacon spoke to Naomi Novik, an author of both fan fiction and original fiction, about why this opportunity is unfair to writers of fan fiction.

Novik describes fan fiction as "stories written about characters and settings that were invented by someone else, within a community of other fans of that particular work." These communities tend to be very large, as fan fiction has a massive following of writers and readers.

Although Novik is a very successful author of her own original science fiction series (the Temeraire series), she continues to write fan fiction as well. Why? "For me, fan fiction is very much a place of creativity, of play. I would never have written my own original novels if I hadn't been writing fan fiction for years beforehand," she said. She considers fan fiction a safe space to experiment, and explains that many inexperienced writers find their way into storytelling through writing fan fiction.

So why is she so concerned about Amazon's move to publish virtual fan fiction? "As a writer, I would love the idea, myself, of being able to licence the Temeraire series and be able to invite fans to come and write their own stories within the Temeraire universe and share profits with them," she said. "So the core concept of it I find quite appealing."

Unfortunately, she thinks that Amazon's terms are unfair. "The terms to me are quite exploitative and problematic," she said. "They require you to publish with them exclusively, which means that you can't publish them anywhere can't share it online with other fans. And that's really part of the fan fic writing community."

Under Amazon's rules, the only way to share your story would be for someone to purchase it. "And obviously that diminishes access to it," said Novik. "The other part of it is, if you create an original character [or plot or scenes], Amazon is saying that they get an exclusive licence to those scenes and they're going to give them back to the original rights holder."

For example, if you write a fan fiction story using the characters from The Vampire Diaries, and it's so good that the producers of The Vampire Diaries want to use your plot in an episode of the show, they can do so without paying you anything.

But before this Amazon move, fan fiction writers weren't able to make any money from their fan fiction anyway, since the copyright to the characters they use belongs to the original author. E.L. James, for example, wasn't able to make money off her wildly popular Twilight fan fiction until she changed the names. And many serious, professional authors would consider that more than fair.

What do you think of Amazon's fan fiction move? 

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