Kindle Worlds' Strange New Terrain - Pacific Standard

Kindle Worlds' Strange New Terrain

Silo Saga and Peace in Amber author Hugh Howey talks about Amazon's revolutionary new imprint, and fan fiction's rapidly shifting landscape.
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(Photo: Hugh Howey)

(Photo: Hugh Howey)

We exist in arguably the most collaborative era in human history. Social media has created a thicket of culture where the concept of owning an idea isn't nearly as important as the concept of an idea being out there, leaving it open to sharing, improvement, mockery, or mutilation.

“Let's Play” YouTubers generate cash and views by documenting their experiences playing video games created by unaffiliated companies. GIFs are spliced out of visual media by people who aren't the media's original creators. The print version of Encyclopaedia Britannica—once a definitive source cultivated by a handful of people—was snuffed out in 2012 by Wikipedia, an endless river of information anyone can add to (or dilute). Opinion posts, comment sections, articles, memes, mash-ups, covers, remixes, parodies, Photoshops, etc. are all products of this ecosystem—and they, too, are ripe for analysis and transformation.

It's not as if history wasn't already long littered with spin-offs—the number of works inspired by Shakespeare alone is staggering—but global Internet culture encourages this Ouroboros of consumption in a remarkably open way.

Kindle Worlds is another notable result of this digital transformation. In May 2013, Amazon launched it as a platform dedicated to publishing fan fiction based on a small group of licenses, including Warner Bros.-owned book series Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars; Valiant Entertainment's comics properties Shadowman and X-O Manowar; and author-specific properties such as Neal Stephenson's Foreworld series and Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines saga.

Fan fiction has existed for ages—as have online outlets to publish material, such as FanFiction and Wattpad—but Kindle Worlds adds something new to the equation: money. After choosing one of the licenses (“Worlds”) Amazon has brokered a deal with, anyone can read that World's content guidelines, pen and upload a story, make a cover, accept a publishing agreement, and then soon be in business for themselves, earning royalties. Fan-fiction's history is fraught with legal conflicts and questions, but now, a publishing juggernaut is aiming to smooth some of the wrinkles out.

"I'm not too young—I'm getting ready to turn 40—but I grew up in a generation of open-source projects and Wikipedia and collaborative programming and the blogosphere. The idea of collaborations seems very natural to me."

“Part of our mission at Amazon Publishing is to act as a laboratory to develop new ways for writers to be creative, connect to readers, and earn money. We hope that Kindle Worlds is a prime example of what we like to build. ... We think it’s a win for everyone involved—the World rights holder, the writer, and ultimately the reader,” writes Philip Patrick, director of business development and publisher of Kindle Worlds, in an email interview. “There is and always will be a world of fan fiction that is available for free. Kindle Worlds is simply a new option for authors and we think new options are a good thing.”

Last August, Amazon announced that it had secured the license to publish Kurt Vonnegut-inspired works—a huge coup considering the enormity of Vonnegut's influence and reputation. One of the writers making use of the Vonnegut license is Hugh Howey, whose 41-page, Slaughterhouse-Five-inspired short story Peace in Amber went up on Kindle Worlds last month for $1.99. But that's far from Howey's only role in the Worlds program. The Jupiter, Florida-based author is the creator of Silo Saga, a multi-part, Kindle Direct-published sci-fi series that has made him a millionaire and poster child for the extraordinary possibilities of contemporary self-publishing. Kindle Worlds has also licensed Silo Saga, putting Howey on both ends of this program. We spoke to Howey—a vocal proponent of these cultural shifts—about the pluses, problems, and politics of this new era in fan fiction.

You have a past with Amazon through Kindle Direct, but how did you get involved with Kindle Worlds?

[My involvement with Silo Saga fan fiction came when] the first people emailed me and said, “Hey, I'd like to write a story in your world. Do you mind?” [To] the very first person who did this, I said: “That'd be great. Why don't you self-publish it and just charge a dollar for it or something?”

I was just encouraging people to be audacious enough to ask for remuneration for their art, and so people started doing that. I think it caught Amazon's attention because they approached me and said: “Hey, we see you're cool with fan fiction. We've got something we'd like to tell you about.” So I was in the first wave of people to sign on with my work. That's been a lot of fun. It's allowed some established authors to write in my world and bring some of my readers over to their material, which is really cool.

[Concerning] what's interesting about the idea [of Kindle Worlds], I spoke with a reporter in Italy a month ago. He was really clued in on the whole fan-fiction culture, and we talked about how this gets back to the roots of writing. It's not really something that new. Most of Shakespeare's works were [the products of] patrons who said, “Hey, write me a version of Romeo and Juliet,” and Shakespeare would do that. He was basically paid to write a version of a story that already existed, and almost all of his works are either historical or based on existing material.

The entire Bible is really a collection of fan fiction. It's people putting down stories that have been passed around orally for a long time, and someone said, “Ah, I really like your version of this.” If you look at the Four Gospels, it's like the same story told four different ways with the same characters and really important details are changed.

On your blog, you wrote about David Adams, a Silo Saga fan-fiction writer you really respect in terms of what he's done with your world. How does it feel to have fan fiction written about your work?

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Well, it's strange in that I'm shocked that my stuff has gotten popular enough. It's amazing to me still that people read my works and enjoy them, but for someone to read them enough to say, “I'd love to write something in this world,” that's a heck of a compliment and it's quite humbling.

I'm not too young—I'm getting ready to turn 40—but I grew up in a generation of open-source projects and Wikipedia and collaborative programming and the blogosphere. The idea of collaborations seems very natural to me. I also grew up reading comics, where every comic book author is writing fan fiction. They're all fans of the books that they get tasked to write on. They take characters that someone else invented, and they write their own stories going forward based on the lore. They change things. They might write a new origin story for a really well-known comic book character. Marvel now has an entire [series] of comics called the Ultimate [Universe]. DC just rebooted all of their comics in the last two years. I grew up in this culture where fan fiction feels more normal than regular fiction.

I even argue that the novel is novel. It's a modern invention because storytelling began as an oral tradition, sitting around campfires and telling stories, and you'd hear someone else's story and you would tell your own version later, just like we share jokes with each other, so this is ancient. This is the heart of storytelling, which is why it's so popular. We've just never had the ability to distribute stories [this way] until the Internet came along. We're now in a copy-and-paste culture. I think it's beautiful that we're getting back to the heart of storytelling.

It's interesting that the people who consider themselves purists are really quite modern in their thinking, to think that the novel is an uneditable, uncollaborative work. That's a very modern and very new way of thinking. They have it a bit backward: they consider themselves purists and fan-fiction authors some new wave. It's the other way around.

These are beliefs you're obviously very committed to. Can you remember the earliest moment in your life where you felt this empathy for remix/open-source culture?

Whether you're conservative or open-minded about that is maybe just a personality trait 'cause I know people younger than me who vehemently disagree with my opinion. I think it's [about] how much you embed yourself in that culture and find like-minded people.

From a very young age, I was always a voracious reader, but I also loved film. I really respected that these two mediums were completely different. When I go to see an adaptation of a novel, I don't want to see a perfect retelling of the story I already know. I want to see someone take the characters I'm familiar with and tell the story that fits that medium.

I remember falling in love with the Star Wars universe and then discovering all the books and all the comics and all the storytelling that took place outside of Lucas' [view]. A lot of it had to be signed off by Lucasfilm, but seeing that a world could grow like that with involvement from fans [was important]. For me, it was Star Wars. For a lot of people a little older than me, it was Star Trek where fans started writing scripts and sending them in, and some of them got produced. Some of those writers became series writers. A lot of the guys who worked on The Next Generation came from the original show.

Whether or not you're open to the idea of letting people play in a setting together and bounce ideas off each other, or whether you say, “This is my story and it can't be touched,” I don't know that one is right and one is wrong. I just know one, to me, jives more with my view of the world, which is the more, the merrier—the more we get people thinking.

One of the criticisms against fan fiction is that it encourages remake culture too much. How would you respond to that?

What you're describing goes to how expensive it is and what a risk film and TV and books have become. I saw a stat recently: 70 percent of all films were either remakes, reboots, sequels, [or] adaptations. Very little original content, but I can think of a lot of original stuff that I saw [in 2013] because I seek it out. I think if you want to find it, there's plenty of it out there. Look at indie filmmakers. Look at indie authors. Look at the people taking risks. Don't go to Warner Bros. expecting something that's never been done before. Most people want to see something familiar. They've got plenty to choose from. For those of us who want originality, we're going to have to seek it out.

E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the most famous example of fan fiction in modern culture, and it shares nothing in common with the Twilight stories that it was based on. It's bondage and sex, and there's not a love triangle. It's a completely different story. It just takes characters that people are familiar with and, for me, tells something new. I think whether or not the fan fiction is original depends on the creator, not on the fact that it's fan fiction itself.

Right now, Kindle Worlds has steam and is backed by a huge name, but it doesn't have mass-market penetration yet. Let's say it keeps rolling. Do you think it's going to affect fan-fiction communities since it's introducing money?

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I don't know. I think Fifty Shades of Grey is going to have a much more powerful effect than anything that will come from Kindle Worlds. Every fan-fiction writer knows what happened with that, so when they're writing, even though they're publishing for free on FanFiction.net, how many of them are thinking, “Oh my gosh, I would love for a publisher to see this and we could change the names?”

In 2012, I want to say one out of five books sold was a Fifty Shades of Grey book. That's incredible. She blew Harry Potter out of the water as far as books sold in a year. That's the stuff of lore, and that's going to create expectations and tensions within the fan-fiction community that never existed before. She's not the only example. Now, there are several books that started as fan fiction that have been published by major publishers. One guy who was writing a thread on Reddit that started getting a lot of views got a major motion picture.

How about the possibility of outsiders muddying the waters—people coming in just to make a buck?

I'm sure it's possible. There are griefers everywhere you look. There are people that will log into video games and not even play the game but just do what they can to upset other people. There are always people looking to make a quick buck. I don't think that is endemic to fan fiction or Kindle Worlds. A lot of people are doing that with self-publishing, where they just take Wikipedia articles and reformat them and throw 'em up as e-books. They publish thousands of these a year just [to] sucker a handful of people into buying them. I'm sure you'll have that. Those people will be drowned out by the sheer number of people who will be doing it for the passion of it.

I think there's a misconception out there that fan fiction is easy to write, that you're basically borrowing someone else's story and it just writes itself. That's so far from the truth. The idea is the easy part of writing. I've got a million ideas for books. [Aside from] fan fiction, what about writing historical fiction—Napoleon's life in a novel? That's still difficult, even though you're borrowing characters that are already in people's imagination and you have this entire world there for you. It's still difficult to come up with a plot and dialogue and write a convincing story arc. I think people who don't take fan fiction seriously make the mistake of thinking that it's somehow cheating or borrowing when it's really more about adaptation.

Let's say someone wrote fan fiction based on something you wrote and then you wrote fiction based on that thing they wrote. Your name is attached to the series, but say you're stealing their idea. Do you ever see situations like this arising?

Not with Kindle Worlds. They were really clever in how they structured their contracts. The reason that no one has monetized fan fiction before is no one figured out how to get around that problem of lawsuits going back and forth.

In the contract, it says that Kindle Worlds' entity owns any material created in the fan fiction. There's no part of them that wants to own that material. They don't want to write their own books, they don't want to sell the movies. What Kindle Worlds does by owning the material is they become a third party. Basically, Kindle Worlds becomes this cloud that no one can sue. You've agreed to this ahead of time, and now, there's no tension between the fan-fiction author and the original author. It's brilliant.

What I find fascinating about a fan-fiction writer who would sue because their idea was borrowed—think about how ludicrous that is. We're talking about fan fiction where the whole idea is you borrow other people's ideas and write stories. I won't name any in particular, but there are authors out there who are so opposed to this. For them to turn around and use the arguments of their most heavy detractors as their own arguments, to become the same people who are possessive about what they create, is really strange. It doesn't make sense to me.

Tell me about working on Peace in Amber. Did you do anything Vonnegut-style to get inspired, like smoke Pall Malls?

That would have been great.

How do you get into the headspace to write in his voice?

It's difficult. I probably should have had a notebook and written longform and done sketches in the margins. Reading someone's work, if you allow yourself, you can really let their voice kind of echo through your own writing.

I avoid reading fiction while I'm writing. I read non-fiction because it doesn't cross over to what I'm writing, but with Vonnegut, it's such a unique style, it's like putting on a British accent. Anyone can kind of do a British accent. We've heard so much of it. There are phrases that he uses over and over again, and there's a type of dry wit and deep insight into human nature followed by pretty absurd statements. You pick up on these things and you make them part of your work.

I still kind of write with my own style. What I did is I used his framework in Slaughterhouse-Five of writing about a stressful, traumatic personal experience and writing about a character who has a dissociative disorder. The way he went about that freed him up to write about Dresden in an even more real way than he could have if he was writing pure biography. I admire that as someone who didn't know how to write about a traumatic experience from my past.

On the whole, where do you see fan fiction going in the future?

I hate to belabor this, but I really think the cool thing here is that we're returning to the roots of storytelling. It's like making your own mixtapes. The future I see is where content consumers become more and more content creators, and everyone learns to express themselves through the arts. We foster a culture of writing and sharing and storytelling that we haven't seen for thousands of years. That really is where I think all of this—e-books and self-publishing and fan fiction—is going, to really unleashing the storyteller in all of us.

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