Amazon’s fan-fiction portal Kindle Worlds is a bust for fans, and for writers too

It sounded like a good idea: fans of cultural figures like Kurt Vonnegut and G.I. Joe get permission to use their favorite characters to create new stories under the umbrella of Amazon, and everyone gets a cut of the profits. So how it did turn out?

So far the results of the project, known as Kindle Worlds, appear lackluster at best. Take the popular series Pretty Little Liars, which became available as an [company]Amazon[/company]-licensed fan fiction title last year.

In the month of June, authors contributed 46 Pretty Little Liars works to Kindle Worlds, which sounds like a fair number — unless you compare it to the more than 6,000 such works that appeared during this time on two other fan fiction sites.

More broadly, on one of those sites,, fans posted 100 new stories every hour across all categories. And Amazon? Its entire output for all 24 “Worlds” of content, which also includes franchises like Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries, was just 538 stories over the course of more than a year.

These figures are cited by law professor Rebecca Tushnet in a new paper that explores why licensed fan content, which seems like such a promising opportunity in the eyes of copyright owners, turns out to be such a bust in practice.

According to Tushnet, a big part of the problem is the creative limits that brand owners impose on the use of their work. In the case of G.I. Joe, for instance, the villain can’t wear a Yankees cap. Characters in other works can’t use drugs or employ profane language. And gay, bisexual or deviant sexual behavior might be off-limits too.

Amazon also bars writers under 18, who are some of the most prolific creators of fan fiction, from contributing to Kindle Worlds (likely because the law makes it difficult to enforce a contract against a minor.)

Add it all up, and the fields of imagination and community in Kindle Worlds feel barren next to the rollicking, ribald world of the purely fan universes. The sanctioned space, it turns out, is just not as much fun as the unofficial ones. One fan fiction enthusiast cited by the paper likens Kindle Worlds to a playground of “five quiet, clean, polite children carefully playing together while helicopter parents hovered overhead … Whatever Amazon has created there is no life in it.”

For Amazon and its partners, it will be difficult to overcome such perceptions since the underlying problem is not just about licensing terms, but something more fundamental: the impossibility of having it both ways, of fostering maximum creativity while wielding maximum legal control. As Tushnet notes, Kindle Worlds is hardly the first time that a licensed model of creativity has come up short: the music industry’s imposition of sampling licenses smothered hip-hop in the 1990’s, while commercial controls eroded the popularity of the early fan fiction universe, Darkover.

Finally, for both fans and authors, the Kindle “Worlds” may be less enticing because of their borders. Stories created in these worlds can go can only go as far as a Kindle account while, in the unlicensed fan realms, stories travel across the whole internet. In this respect, the dynamics of literary communities share much in common with software, where open platforms are routinely more successful than closed ones.

All this doesn’t mean that Amazon was wrong to launch a fan-fiction environment in the first place. The Worlds are providing a new revenue stream for established authors and their fans, though likely not a big one. For its part, Amazon appears eager to press ahead with the experiment.

“Early response from licensors, writers and readers has been very positive,” Jeff Belle, Vice President of Amazon Publishing, said by email. “We’re particularly pleased with the quality of the stories; one of our most important metrics is customer reviews, and the 600+ titles we’ve published to date have an average customer rating of more than 4 out of 5 stars.”

Belle did not disclose any revenue figures, but did state that Amazon intends to keep expanding the program and adding more Worlds.

Overall, though, readers and writers’ lop-sided preference for the unlicensed realms of fan fiction means it’s unlikely that Kindle Worlds will ever be a commercial success, or a cultural one either.

Tushnet presented her paper, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again: innovation in copyright licensing,” at the IP Scholars Conference, held at Berkeley on August 7-8.

This story was updated on 8/20 to reflect that Worlds stories are restricted to Kindle accounts, not a “Kindle device”