Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

Amazon to Build a Market for Fan Fiction

eBooks are finally changing how we write, as well as how we read

05.22.13 4:15 PM ET

Don't get me wrong--I love ebooks.  These days, I rarely read paper unless I have to.  But while ebooks are certainly more convenient, until recently, they haven't exactly been revolutionary.  It was a book on a screen.  You pressed a button to turn pages.  It was great for the consumer, but it was still basically the same old book.  

That's starting to change.  The last few years have seen the rise of the Kindle Single, which has actually started to change the economics of the book market.  Or rather, it's reviving old formats which died out when books started needing massive marketing budgets:  the pamphlet, and the novella.  (We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to urge you to buy two terrific ebooks I just read: Jonathan Rauch's Denial, a courageous and beautifully written memoir about the 25 years he spent trying to convince himself he was not gay, and Brink Lindsey's Human Capitalism, about the ways that economic growth exacerbates economic inequality.  Gay or straight, liberal or conservative, you will be very glad that you read both of them.)

The interesting thing about the Kindle Single is that it isn't just changing how long people write, but how people write.  The books can be written much faster--you say as much as you have to say, and then you stop.  Then if they do well, they get turned into a hardcover, which can be revised and extended based on the commentary the ebook received.  It's a strange combination of crowdsourcing and dead tree, and the people I know who have written them love it.

We've also seen the rise of self-publishing phenoms like 50 Shades of Grey.  Most of the stuff that gets published this way is not very good, but word of mouth and the power of the internet lets writers tap into markets that the traditional gatekeepers don't even understand exist.

Well Amazon is the new gatekeeper.  And they are, so to speak, aware of all internet traditions.  Which they want to monetize in any way possible.  

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes reports that they're looking for a way to tap into one of the richest untapped veins of prose in cyberspace: fan fiction.  Up until now, most fan fiction has been in a sort of legal limbo--regular publishers won't touch it because of copyright infringement.  Amazon proposes a way to get around that problem: cut the rights holders in on the deal.  Kindle Worlds will pay authors a lower royalty than writers get for normal ebooks, with some of that profit diverted to the person who create the world.  

It's a brilliant and even fair solution.  Some writers are better world-builders than others; why not let them profit off of their imaginations, while also compensating the folks who can do interesting things within that world?  Of course, some fan fiction purists may be disappointed in the control that this will give the world-builders over what is done with their work.  Amazon will not, for example, publish pornographic or highly explicit fiction.  Under those rules, 50 Shades of Grey would never have been published; it started out as slash fiction set in the Twilight universe.  

Still, as a writer I'm always glad to see more ways to compensate writers.  And as a business writer, I'm excited to see how much innovation is taking place in this new market.