Kindle Words screenshot

You might say the massive commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey has “whipped” the markets to attention about the financial potential fan fiction. Amazon’s “Kindle Worlds” may have the tiger by the tail — and untold potential. Thus a new chapter of publishing begins…

The story of Fifty Shades’ path to commercial success is both remarkable and mundane. Remarkable, because of its ever-growing commercial success: The book began as fan fiction erotica loosely based on the popular television series “Twilight.” Its meteoric sales attracted the attention of a traditional publishing house deal. Repackaged as a three-book series, it has enjoyed placement on The New York Times bestseller list this spring and has now morphed into a major studio movie in production. Mundane, because the path this book took to this unlikely success is paved with the online distribution tools many of us take for granted.

Technological advances from blogging to print-on-demand to mobile devices and more are changing every aspect of traditional publishing. Along with these changes are perceptions about value and author compensation, too.

Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy

Make no mistake; fan fiction is a gigantic, untapped market. A Harry Potter fan fiction site boasts over 80,000 stories and podcasts associated with that blockbuster in its archives. There is even a universe of apps, like this app, to help you track the latest “fanfic” releases.

Of course, this doesn’t come without controversy. As James Altucher writes:

I’ve seen about five blog posts already this morning that have cried out that ‘great literature’ is now officially dead because of EL James (born ‘Erika Leonard’) reaching heights of either marketing or recognition that they can never hope for.

Fifty Shades of Grey has succeeded in changing the publishing world’s perception of fan fiction, which was once viewed as the literary equivalent of a socially inept adult living in his parent’s basement. The writing couldn’t possibly be any good and, besides, who would pay to read it? This book proved the exception, and it did so using today’s technological tools for distribution, promotion, and sales.

As Caitlyn Van Horn writes, “Fanfiction is having a moment. What used to be a source of embarrassment and Internet browser history-clearing has slowly — inch by inch — been rising in public consciousness.”

The largest “gray” area of this new reality involves issues of copyright, royalties, and payment. Until now these issues have remain largely untested and unresolved, with most fan fiction residing on the edges of legality on specialty sites, message boards, and underground distribution to avoid copyright infringement charges. This meant the original copyright holder didn’t benefit from the fans’ continued enjoyment of their storylines and the authors of this black market writing didn’t profit from their efforts, either.

Enter Amazon’s self-publishing arm, Kindle Direct, which has introduced “Kindle Worlds.” The premise is as simple as the magnificent shift it represents: New authors are able to write for, and “use” existing fictional worlds. Both fan fiction authors and the original copyright holder both get a cut of all sales. Copyright holders benefit from their original intellectual property and capture revenues once lost underground. Fan fiction authors who prove their writing abilities and audience-building capacity can be “discovered” and aptly rewarded — not to mention open distribution on the world’s largest bookseller site. Most of all, the fans enjoy a continuation of any fictional world that appeals to them.

It will be interesting to watch and see which fictional worlds — and, specifically, the people and corporations who own them — embrace this new publishing paradigm.

Image by Kindle Worlds.

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