What Fans Should Know About Amazon’s Kindle Worlds Program

There’s been a lot of talk about Kindle Worlds lately, and the OTW has received some questions about its legal implications. The OTW has long maintained that noncommercial fan fiction is fair use, and Amazon’s new program does not change that in any way. It also doesn’t change anything about the AO3’s continued mission to provide a permanent platform for noncommercial fan fiction. (And don’t forget, works on the AO3 are readable on the Kindle and other handheld platforms.)

So should fan writers put their works on Kindle Worlds? That is, of course, up to you. We believe that every author should make up their own mind about whether they want to publish their work on a particular platform. However, we also believe that every person should have a full understanding of the terms they are agreeing to by doing so. We’ve reviewed the information Amazon has made available to date, and have tried to explain the practical implications in this post.

In the professional publishing world, the terms of the contracts (agreements) between authors and publishers are heavily negotiated by the authors’ agents. It appears that Amazon expects to use a “one size fits all” contract for Kindle Worlds. They haven’t yet made that full contract available for potential submitters to read. But here are some terms of the Kindle Worlds contract that are mentioned on their page of which you should be aware:

  • “Amazon Publishing will pay royalties to the rights holder for the World (we call them World Licensors) and to you.”

    This means that whoever holds the copyright to the underlying work will be making money off your stories, as well. How much? We don’t know.

  • “Your standard royalty rate for works of at least 10,000 words will be 35% of net revenue.”

    The key phrase to be aware of here is “net revenue.” This means that your royalty will not be calculated on the price of the book (so, for a $1 book, 35 cents a copy), but rather on whatever’s left after all of Amazon’s costs, which are undefined, are accounted for. Depending on how aggressively Amazon defines its costs—and Hollywood, for example, is famous for calculating them very aggressively—that could mean you get little to nothing.

  • “Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”

    This appears to be intended to be an exclusive license on all forms of the story.

    What does “exclusive license” mean in this context? It means that no one else can make any other use of the story—including, quite possibly, you yourself. For that reason, it likely means that Amazon wouldn’t let you include your story in both Kindle Worlds and a fandom site.

    Why does “all rights” matter? Well, what if Amazon likes the story and wants to commission a graphic novel adaptation of it? This language implies that they can do so…without any additional payments to you.

    Also, “for the term of copyright” means that Amazon claims the right to your work until many years after you’ve died–so for all practical purposes, forever. (Although you may, because of U.S. copyright law, be able to terminate this agreement after 35 years, but even that is a long time.) If, in the end, you decide you don’t like the deal you’re getting from Amazon, you may well not be able to withdraw your stories from Kindle Worlds, even if you are willing to give up any further royalty payments.

  • “When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. […] 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.”

    So, not just Amazon, but the copyright holder to the underlying work, as well, has rights to what you create. Write the story that the underlying copyright holder wants to use as the basis for the summer blockbuster version of the story? You’ve donated it.

    Also, “your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World” implies that, if you happen to create a popular OC or other idea, you can’t use it in other stories not published with Kindle Worlds.

Finally, there are a number of contract terms that are important in publishing but not yet discussed on the Kindle Worlds page. For instance, editorial control—Amazon has provided “Content Guidelines” for works, but there’s a lot about them that’s unclear. They include prohibitions on crossovers, on “offensive content,” and on “offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” It’s hard to know exactly what these mean, and whose standards will apply. We cannot predict how consistently these restrictions will be enforced or how fan-friendly the enforcement process will be. It’s also not clear whether Amazon will claim the right to do anything more than reject a work for failing to meet those guidelines (like edit it against your will). And the terms may change depending on what happens next and whether the program expands. There is also mention of a Cover Creator, but no mention of whether it will cost you anything to use it, or whether you will have permission to use images from the show in question. Presumably, more of these will become clear when Amazon publishes the actual contract.

As we said at the beginning, whether you want to participate in Kindle Worlds is up to you. If it meets your needs, great! We hope this post has helped you make up your mind in an informed fashion. Regardless, the OTW will continue to provide a platform and advocacy for noncommercial fanfiction.

Announcement, Legal Advocacy
  1. John C. Bunnell commented:

    As yet this is entirely speculative, but one other thing that’s been mostly not mentioned to this point:

    The infrastructure of Kindle Worlds is built along very similar lines to that of some of Amazon’s other ebook self-publishing programs. That being the case, it is possible — not certain, but possible — that Amazon will charge fees associated with some aspects of the uploading process. (For example, it’s likely that any work offered for sale via Amazon will need to have an ISBN associated with it…and the entity that issues ISBNs charges for them. Traditional publishers pay for these as a cost of doing business; operators of self-publishing services frequently pass that expense on to the author.)

    So fans should be prepared for the possibility that Kindle Worlds will — unlike non-commercial fanfiction archives — charge both its contributors and its readers for access.

    • BlueFairy commented:

      FYI, so long as we’re strictly talking e-publishing, there are currently no costs paid to Amazon to e-publish for the Kindle. (People who self-publish will sometimes pay a third party to edit, or design a cover, or help with formatting, but there’s no reason to pay those costs to Amazon.) Kindle works only require an ASIN, which is provided by Amazon for free, so far anyway. You only need an ISBN for wider distribution, to catalogs and libraries and such, which in this case Amazon is probably limiting anyway.

      • Mari commented:

        “which in this case Amazon is probably limiting anyway”

        That’s something I’ve been curious about, also. Does anyone know if there’s anyway to find out?

  2. Stewardess commented:

    John, I think you are correct about fees. Since each story submitted will have to be reviewed by someone to see if it meets the (as of yet) unknown guidelines, I expect there will be a submission fee (probably based on length) at the very least. Based on Amazon’s other self-publishing ventures, I also expect authors will be pushed to spend more (“up-sold”) for cover design, editing, hard copies, and for promotion (such as a fee to Amazon in return for “featuring” the book on their site).

    Excellent article, but I think it should be mentioned that the number of fandoms/rights holders who are participating in Kindle Worlds is tiny (there are two, right?). I doubt the rights holders for fandoms with complex ownership (anything Marvel, for instance) could ever participate, even if they wished to.

  3. campylobacter commented:

    Excellent article! You’ve clearly explained what disturbed me about the vague terms & conditions of Amazon’s attempt to monetize fanfic. As a content creator, I find the waiving of attribution rights far worse than receiving a mere pittance of any potential profit. At least with stories published at AO3/FFN/etc. copyright holders are liable to plagiarism charges if they borrow from fanfic.

    (Also, as a reader, the idea of paying for fanfic just doesn’t appeal to me — especially if “graphic sexual acts” are prohibited. haha)

  4. Alicia Dean commented:

    I am one of the Kindle Worlds launch authors, so I have some inside knowledge of some of the details, although I am certain we were handled a little differently than future authors who submit will be. I can’t imagine there being any fees to authors for publishing through this platform. Although this is not self-publishing, Amazon does not charge fees for any aspect of self-publishing other than extra advertising (and I’m not sure how that works.) Your article stated that authors would be paid royalties of ‘net revenue.’ The below is taken directly from their website, which clearly states that royalties are based on net revenue of ‘customer price.’ So for all copies purchased directly from Amazon, authors should receive the entire 35% of the selling price since that is the amount Amazon will make off the sale.

    •As with all titles from Amazon Publishing, Kindle Worlds will base net revenue off of customer sales price—rather than the lower industry standard of wholesale price—and royalties will be paid monthly.

    One of the comments above stated that there are two Worlds who have signed up so far. Actually, they have announced three; Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl. It is my understanding that more will be announced soon.

    I am excited about this venture. I don’t know exactly how things will work going forward, but Amazon was MORE than fair with the launch authors. I didn’t find anything about the agreement that gave me pause. I would never introduce a character into these worlds that I wanted to use in another story. The characters I created for these stories belong in ‘these’ worlds.

    I honestly don’t believe that Amazon is out to cheat authors. I think they would love for this to be successful, and would love for authors to make money, as well as for Amazon to make money.

    I completely understand that it’s not for everyone.

    It also doesn’t seem all that much like fanfiction to me, so I’m surprised that’s how Amazon . I feel it’s more like the tie-in novels that have been around for years.

    • Stewardess commented:

      Thanks, Alicia, for the additional details. I’m surprised there was no publishing fee for authors; is that typical for all Kindle-only self-publishing? When I approached Amazon about print-on-demand self-publishing in 2010, the fees ranged from $200-$800. I agree that “fanfiction” is a misnomer for the Kindle Worlds program. Perhaps Amazon has attached “fanfiction” to Kindle Worlds for a very simple reason: to grab web surfers using search engines to look for “vampire diaries fanfiction.”

      • Mari commented:

        “Perhaps Amazon has attached “fanfiction” to Kindle Worlds for a very simple reason: to grab web surfers using search engines to look for “vampire diaries fanfiction.””

        I’ve wondered, too. Because this really is more like works for hire than it is fanfiction.

    • barb commented:

      Alicia, you said: I would never introduce a character into these worlds that I wanted to use in another story. The characters I created for these stories belong in ‘these’ worlds.
      But how would you know that? There are series of novels that started out as a single one-shot story. Nobody can predict that this particular story or a character would stay as it is. So I personally find granting exclusive rights being quite a trick.

      • Mari commented:

        If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my “writing elders” it’s that you *never* grant anyone exclusive rights to *anything*. Period. There’s no way I’d do that. None at all.

    • Mari commented:

      “authors should receive the entire 35%”

      It’s that “should” that bothers me about this statement. Yes, should. But do we know this for certain. And if we don’t know, how can we find out?

      I also don’t like how we don’t know what percentage the originating creators of the current Worlds are going to be paid.

      I’d be very wary of signing any contract at this point.

    • JPlash commented:

      Thanks for the extra info!

      A brief note on your point regarding ‘net revenue’ – I don’t think the text you’ve quoted actually disagrees with the analysis in the article. Net revenue still means that we’re getting the 35% after Amazon’s (undefined) costs are taken out. The reassurance you’ve noted is that it’ll be:

      [customer price – publisher costs] x 35%

      rather than:

      [wholesale price – publisher costs] x 35%

      Does that make sense?

      So the author won’t receive 35% of the full sale price, it’ll be 35% of that price once Amazon takes out, say, hosting costs, server costs, content screening costs, advertising costs, etc. Which is still more than if you were taking those costs out of a lower wholesale price! But it’s something to be aware of.