Monday, June 24, 2013

Q&A With Philip Patrick, Head of Kindle Worlds

In case you didn't see the press release last week, John Rain is now part of the new Kindle Worlds program! Here's a Q&A I did with Philip Patrick about how it all works and touching on some pretty interesting related topics, too. Hope you find our discussion useful; it certainly was a lot of fun for me...

Barry: Hi Philip, congratulations to you and Amazon on yet another innovative development that’s sure to benefit readers and writers:  Kindle Worlds. I’m thrilled to be part of the program, and I thought it might be useful to anyone interested if you and I could share a few thoughts about how it works and what it’s all about.

To start with, how would you describe the program in a nutshell for anyone unfamiliar with it? I’d call it “licensed and commissioned fan fiction”—would that be accurate?

Philip:  Thanks for taking the time to talk about Kindle Worlds. 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. It’s a place for writers to create new stories inspired by popular books, shows, films, comics, music, and games. We’ve been calling them Worlds. Until now, selling stories based on somebody else’s World has been a big challenge for most writers. So we’ve worked to acquire licenses from Worlds to make it possible for writers—and yes some of them will be commissioned—to write new stories and earn royalties from every copy sold. We think it’s a win for everyone involved—the World rights holder, the writer, and ultimately the reader.

Barry:  Agreed. Not to get too political (I know, I know... it took me two whole paragraphs), but sometimes I think what the revolution in publishing really comes down to is choice—and whether you’re for or against it. I don’t care how authors choose to publish (Amazon, legacy, self, whatever); I just want them to have options. I don’t care how people read (iPad, Kindle, Nook, paper, whatever); I care that they read, and therefore that they can read in whatever way pleases them. And I don’t care how authors feel about fan fiction (Anne Rice hates it; Hugh Howey loves it); I care that they can license fan fiction if they choose. So naturally, when I first heard about Kindle Worlds, I loved the idea. Authors don’t have to participate; fans don’t have to opt in; free, unlicensed, unmonetized fan fiction can roll along as it always has. But now authors and fan fiction writers who are interested have a great new option for profiting from their Worlds and the fan-created works derived from those worlds.

Philip:  I think you’re spot-on. Giving writers and readers choices is at the heart of what we want to do. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend with the legendary publisher Ian Ballantine at his home outside New York. I remember walking into his house and seeing shelf after shelf of the mass-market paperbacks he’d published throughout his career. He looked at me and said: “It’s all about accessibility.” Fast forward a few decades and that concept of accessibility has only grown—and that is a good thing. Kindle Worlds is another avenue in this ongoing transformation.

Barry:  Yes. Other things being equal, if you make something easier to do, you’ll see an increase in the behavior in question. If you make that thing harder, you’ll see less of it. In fact, I remember reading an interview with Jeff Bezos years ago—way back when most people were still getting on the Internet with a dial-up connection. The interviewer asked Bezos something like, “What do you think is the greatest impediment to the growth of the online book-buying market?” I don’t remember the exact words, but Bezos responded along the lines of, “The amount of time it takes to get a dial-up connection.” I remember thinking, Yes, exactly! Just that one or two minutes of waiting can make all the difference. And there are countless other examples just like this one. Make something marginally easier, and rates of adoption explode. How can that be a bad thing when it comes to reading?

For me, Kindle Worlds is just a new form of subsidiary right. An author writes a manuscript and licenses, say, North American English-language publishing rights. But then there are also foreign language publication rights. No one is forcing an author to authorize, say, the French edition of her book, but if the opportunity is there, it’s nice to have. And if someone wants to option the film rights to the book, that’s great, too. No one is forcing the author to authorize a film; but not many authors would object to someone making them an offer. That’s the way I see Kindle Worlds. Another way authors can exploit the value of their underlying intellectual property rights—if they choose.

So how do interested authors and fan fiction writers learn more about Kindle Worlds and how they can participate?

Philip:  It’s all available at the Kindle Worlds website. There’s a good amount of information there as well as a sign-up for anyone who wants to be notified when the self-service submission portal goes live.

Barry:  Okay, I checked out the Kindle Worlds For Authors page, and I noticed that among your content guidelines you say you don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts. Now, obviously there’s a lot of subjectivity at work here, though Woody Allen might have offered some helpful guidelines when he suggested, “Erotica is using a feather; pornography is using the whole chicken.”

But seriously, how do you draw a line? For example, there’s an explicit lesbian scene in my recent novella London Twist that some Amazon reviewers found shocking and offensive, and a pretty graphic scene in Redemption Games that some people have characterized (mischaracterized, in my opinion) as rape. Plus my friend Montie told me that one of my love scenes cost him thousands of dollars in therapy (though in fairness that’s because he was horrified to realize, as he put it, “My God, I have become sexually stimulated by the imagination of Barry Eisler.” I’ve really always wanted to use that as a blurb).

Anyway, how can participants in the program know what’s going to offend what I’m sure will become known as the Amazon Censors? And why did you decide to include a provision that you must have known so many people, not least erotica writers, will find troublesome?  Are you not worried that, in the service of preventing offense, you might in fact be causing it?

Philip:  In general, our strong bias is to give writers as much creative freedom as is appropriate to each World. The people who understand  that appropriateness best are the original rights holders—we’re calling them World Licensors—who will know what their audience expects and wants and how far the bounds can be pushed. There are shows, for instance, where mature content is part of the storytelling. And there are other shows where that isn’t the case. That makes sense to me on a lot of levels. So we’re asking each World Licensor to outline what is appropriate for their World’s audience in Content Guidelines. We’ll review submissions to see if they are within those guidelines. Our message to writers is pretty straightforward—follow any World’s guidelines and we will publish your story. And if something falls into a gray area, there’s always room for dialogue. We’ll talk to World Licensors as we review stories and we also will communicate back and forth with a writer if we have any questions.

Barry:  I get that each World Licensor can include his or her own guidelines, and I think that’s a great idea. It makes the program more attractive to potential World Licensors because they know they can customize fan fiction based on their Worlds in whatever way they want. Of course, if they customize too rigorously, there’s a chance they’ll be dissuading fan fiction writers who would otherwise want to participate, but that’s a decision each potential World Licensor can make for herself.  I have only very loose guidelines—pretty much just no titles the same as or misleadingly similar to the ones I use for my underlying works. Other than that, I’m happy to let fan fiction writers do whatever they like. Partly because I’m just pretty laissez faire about these things; partly because I don’t want to discourage people with too many restrictions.

But that’s all about the individual World guidelines, which are always up to the World Licensor. Again, I think that’s a great approach and a critical aspect of the program. But why not leave it at that? Why have, alongside those individual guidelines, program-wide guidelines of your own? It’s the latter class that will probably cause the most concern (is this love scene going to “offend” whoever at Amazon is reviewing with an eye toward the program-wide content guidelines?) and that I expect is going to cause some pushback.

Philip:  Looking across the entire program, it’s important to have some basic guidelines in certain areas. One of the guidelines, for instance, is about originality. The work submitted has to actually belong to the writer and can’t be copied from another source. As for the mature content it really does depend on the World. If slash fic is okay with the World it is okay with us. We want people to be creative and work within what the World Licensors tells us is appropriate for their World.

Barry:  When it comes to guidelines, what it comes down to for me is brand, and what a company wants its brand to stand for. I wouldn’t expect a publisher to surrender its ability to manage its brand any more than I’d expect an author to do so. (Personally, I’d love to see a kind of imprint for edgier stuff. You could even market it as Adult, Over-18, or otherwise as material so potentially offensive that it needs to come with a warning. Nothing like a “warning” to propel sales... “The book the CIA tried to ban!”)

What’s curious about the pushback I think you’re likely to receive is that establishment publishers aren’t held to the same standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has ever complained that a publisher exclusively catering to dry literary fiction refuses to publish erotica—at least, I don’t remember ever hearing someone claim that “Hey, that publisher is censoring erotica writers!” (or that Disney is censoring splatter movies, etc). One of the many things that interests me about the revolution in publishing is the way longstanding phenomena are often treated as both startlingly new and uniquely dangerous when these phenomena manifest themselves in digital. “But discovery is so hard!” “But you’ll have to market yourself!” etc. I could go on about this; for now, suffice to say that for some reason, a new context can make ancient challenges seem fresh and newly born.

I think the principled challenge to what I just said would be something like, “But Barry, that literary imprint is just one among many, and there are many erotica imprints that publish authors who write erotica and who therefore provide a means for erotic writers to reach readers. Kindle Worlds is different—it’s not just a kind of publisher, but also a platform, and the only platform of its kind. As such, it should be as inclusive as possible.”

I think that’s a fair point and I hope you guys will be flexible in your implementation of your guidelines. Remember, if it doesn’t offend at least twenty percent of people, it isn’t great art. :)

Okay, another question: how do the rights to new content work? In other words, what if a World writer invents a new character... can other writers who are writing in that World use that character? Can the World Licensor?

Philip Patrick: That’s a great and important question. Kindle Worlds is a creative community that includes the Kindle Worlds writers and the World Licensor. Every story you publish adds to a World and becomes part of that World. This means Kindle Worlds authors can build on each other’s stories. It also means that the World Licensor can build on or incorporate elements from those stories. My mental image is a sandbox: everyone is welcome to come in and be creative, but whatever is made stays there for the next writer and for the World Licensor. Our publishing agreement is an exclusive license to the story and its original elements for the term of copyright. Because of this, we recommend writers do not incorporate a character or new element into a Kindle Worlds story unless they want them an exclusive part of that World. If a writer wants to be creative with original ideas but not have their work under this kind of license, Amazon supports them fully and has great options with much more flexibility and control at Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. Again this is all about creating new models and options for writers. The writers we have been working with so far have found it great fun and a new creative challenge to write in somebody else’s World.

Barry:  I think this approach will be part of the key to the success of the program. Whatever you want to call it—a sandbox, a pool, a cookpot—the idea is that new writers will grow a World, and the more a World grows, the more there will be for new writers to do with it. The skew is in favor of inclusiveness rather than restrictions.

Philip:  Hey, I was thrilled to include John Rain--Valiant Entertainment, Blake Crouch, Hugh Howey, and Neal Stephenson--in our recent announcement about new licenses for Kindle Worlds. Thanks for being with us. Is there anything you’d like to share with your readers about John Rain?

Barry:  Ah, thanks for that. Well, as I mention above, I don’t have any particular guidelines, so if anyone out there feels compelled to write Rain/Dox slash or whatever, it doesn’t bother me.

Which actually brings up a point I think is worth emphasizing. Different writers feel differently (and sometimes very strongly) about these things, and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer for what at root is based on a feeling. Am I comfortable with other people writing stories set in my Worlds? Offering their own interpretations of my characters, their own insights, their own flavor? Or am I not?

I’m really only concerned about one thing: that readers know if I wrote it, or if someone else did. As long as there’s no confusion in that regard, I’m comfortable trusting readers to find whatever makes them happy, and to pass on anything that doesn’t. Again, for me this isn’t so different from authorizing a French edition, or a movie, or any other derivative work. I don’t speak French, so I can’t opine about the quality of a translation. And I’m not making the movie, so I can’t do much to influence the quality of whatever gets made. And as long as people know I didn’t write the book in French, or write and direct the movie, I’m okay with these kinds of derivative projects. They’re based on, or inspired by, my works, but they’re not my works themselves.

I’m not saying all that as a logical point—again, I think it comes down to how you feel. If you feel like seeing a movie that for you doesn’t do justice to your underlying works would be unduly upsetting, then you’ll be inhibited from licensing the movie rights. If you feel like, “Hey, it wasn’t my movie anyway,” then you won’t have a problem talking to Hollywood.

As I said earlier: for me, it really comes down to choice, and to the notion, which except at the margins I find axiomatic, that more choice is good. However various authors decide to approach Kindle Worlds, there’s still always going to be fan fiction. It’s just that now, rights holders and fan fiction writers have a way of making money from it—if they want to.

Philip: I couldn’t agree with you more. The world has gotten more creative. Whether it’s a laptop or mp3 recorder or digital camera, people have the tools to respond to what they see, feel, hear, taste, and read. And they have platforms to share those responses with others. Maybe just family and friends. Maybe millions of people across the planet. The work we’re doing at Kindle Worlds is just a sliver of that possibility—to respond and share. It isn’t necessarily perfect for every rights holder or every writer out there. And that’s okay. But for the ones who gravitate toward it, it has the ability to expand a World one story at a time—and that just seems like a win for everyone involved.


Halley Suitt Tucker said...

Your point is well taken, "I don’t care how people read (iPad, Kindle, Nook, paper, whatever); I care that they read ... " My question about the whole program is, will Worlds be too corporate to inspire the weird and wild fan fiction writers. At its core, fan fiction is a very original, subversive way to write, like some obsessive love letter to a character you forgot was fictional.

Barry Eisler said...

Halley, great question. I think if Amazon enforces its guidelines too broadly or strictly, it'll just mean that the edgiest fan fiction will remain underground where it was born and currently resides. Either way, we're gonna find out...

Bridget McKenna said...

A bold decision, opening up John Rain's universe to your fans. But you're known for those. And a bold move for Amazon, for that matter. They'll take--are already taking flak as their critics decide the sky is falling (again) and ultimately they'll sell the books. Seems like a win for all to me. Along with a few million others, I'll be watching to see how Kindle Worlds develops.

Patrice said...

Great interview, Barry -- thanks for posting. I'm already writing in Hugh Howey's WOOL "sandbox," since he's one of the rare authors who has allowed... in fact, encouraged that. As a result, I am quite eager to see how the Kindle Worlds program pans out.

My only concern would be that those writing in the Worlds also be fairly compensated if their characters or specific plot elements are taken up by other fan writers or the World "creator." Whereas the initial writer gets 50% of the available royalties on an equal footing with the fan writer, when a fan writer contributes something that makes a big splash in the common pool, she won't see any further part of the profits. What if such an element or character makes it into a screenplay, or a foreign translation?

Having raised that issue, I do have to admit that as a creative person, it's best to let ideas flow freely, and recognize that there will always be more. It's not conducive to productivity to clutch your art close to your chest and live in fear...

I can't wait to see what happens. Exciting times!

Barry Eisler said...

It's an interesting idea, Patrice. I'm not against in principle, but in practice I think it might be impractical to try and keep track. I can say that one thing that was important for me as the underlying rights holder was that there be zero chance that a fan fiction writer would turn around and try to sue me for allegedly stealing his or her ideas. Hence the notion of "new toys go into the sandbox, where everyone gets to play with them." But again, I do understand your point.

Kaushik Karforma said...

Hi Barry,

One question: is it okay to write about Larison, Hort, and Treven, or only characters who've appeared in the Rain series, ie, Rain, Dox, and Delilah?

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks Kaushik. I think we could have made this clearer -- the answer is, any of the characters. Enjoy!

Kaushik Karforma said...

Thanks for the reply, Barry. Another question - as Kindle Worlds is supposed to a sandbox which grows with each contribution, what becomes of canon? For example, say in my story, Rain is injured in an op that happens a month after the events in The Detachment and can't get out of the hospital any time soon, what happens when another writer, who's no way of knowing what I've done, sets a story six weeks from the events of The Detachment? The reader will say, "Hey, the guy's in hospital now." So, are there any guidelines for continuity you'd like to share?

Also, is it required to stick to the continuity? Is it possible to write a story that's a soft reboot or has some alternate-historical settings? What I have in mind is something like Marvel Comics' Marvel Knights line which features characters outside the continuity of the main Marvel Universe.

Barry Eisler said...

More good questions, Kaushik. Speaking only for myself, I'll probably just keep writing the canon as it occurs to me without regard for what's happening in the fan fiction universe. I don't want to be constrained by what someone else is doing with my characters, though it's certainly possible I'll be inspired by it. And as long as readers know which is FF and which is the canon, I'm sure they'll have no trouble understanding how what happens in one universe isn't necessarily going to be reflected in what happens in another.

Steve said...

I was wondering if you read any of the John Rain fanfiction on KindleWorlds and what you though of it? Are there any you like?