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Amazon, World Adult Content Police?

There’s a new sheriff in town, but I was quite happy with the land being lawless.  Because, you know, us settlers were pretty good at regulating ourselves.  From recent events, it’s clear to me, at least, that Amazon is trying to take control of the wilderness that is electronic publishing.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be that surprising.  They did make the Kindle, after all, and were pretty successful in making their name synonymous with ebooks for the general, mainstream public.  But at the time, it didn’t look like Amazon was taking anything away from the ebook-reading people, just making it more available.

Now, they’re starting to impose their order on the wider landscape of all e-publishers, both amateur and professional, and they are taking things away from us.

The Amazon Adult Dungeon

If you haven’t heard of this, the Adult Dungeon is what some erotica authors are calling it when Amazon internally labels a work as “adult.”  In itself, this is not problematic, as most erotica authors do a damn good job of laying out warnings and content labels in their descriptions.  But when a work gets put into the Adult Dungeon, it is no longer searchable.  If you search specifically for the title and author, you will not find it.

Nor will it get recommended in the “Customers who bought X also bought…”

They essentially blacklist any book thrown in their Adult Dungeon.  They don’t tell the authors they’re doing this, and they don’t tell the readers, either.  It’s done behind the backs of everyone involved.  Amazon is taking away your right, as a grownup reader, to make your own decisions about what to read.  Or, they think you can’t control your  (non-mainstream) sexual imagination, so they feel like it’s their place to do it for you.

(This is also what happened, apparently, a few years ago, when they “mistakenly” marked all LGBT related books as ADULT.  Of course, they claimed that it was a “glitch…”)

Author Selena Kitt points out — quite rightly — that erotica readers created the Kindle market.  Why does anyone want an e-reader?  For a private reading experience.

When I was describing this to a friend, she also works in PR, and she was quick to cotton on.  “Who pulls their strings?” she said.  Our best guess is that Amazon is randomly, haphazardly blacklisting “objectionable” books to please their (mainstream, hetero) shareholders.

Amazon is not the only game in town, say a lot of folks.  Just hop on over to another ebookstore and give them your money.

Well, not so fast.  Other ebookstores pull the same shenanigans — such as B&N kicking erotica off the best-selling lists because it was embarrassing.  Any while it’s easy for anyone to set up shop, they ultimately have to answer to PayPal’s obscenity clauses.

And PayPal has brought the hammer down (again, quite randomly.)  They, too, probably have to answer to the shadowy oligarchy of their shareholders.

Plus, Amazon has built up so much brand equity that their very name is now synonymous with e-publishing.  They have 80% of the ebook market.  I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it, since they worked damn hard for it.  But now, they look much less like they’re trying to bring ebooks to the masses, and more like Christian missionaries trying to convert the “heathens.”

The “Kindle Worlds” Fanfiction Deal

Their recent fanfiction deal is another attempt to bring their vanilla, PG-13 order to an unregulated wilderness.  Content holders can agree to let writers publish their own fanfiction for money, and Amazon will curate the stories.

Fanfiction seems to be dominated by:

1) Mature content

2) Non-hetero content (“slash”)

3) Both

And the mature stuff is some of the best written.  But will Amazon allow that under their guidelines?  Probably not, and the rights-holders can also set their own restrictions.

Fine and dandy, people say.  It won’t change what’s happening in the rest of the fanfiction world… except that it will.  Fanfiction’s entire purpose is for writers to express the full range of their imaginations, without the restrictions of the original works!

Perhaps this is paranoid, but Amazon seems to be trying to redefine fanfiction itself — ushering it away from this fan-ruled unregulated expression of creativity, and into the well-manicured lawns of PG-13 amateur media tie-ins.  In doing this, they take away from the very thing that interests me about fanfiction, the unbridled creativity.

“But what about the children?”

There is always that well-meaning American who approves of censorship out of desire to protect children.

First of all, only adults are allowed to shop on Amazon.  You need a credit card or PayPal account, and that means you have to be 18 (in theory.)

But even if my own offspring does get hold of my PayPal account and start buying all kinds of ebooks, I don’t fear this future.  My offspring will venture out into the wild, uncontrolled borderlands of porn — it’s why the internet was born.  But my young charges, by the time they’re interested in adult material, will know the difference between thought and deed and fantasy and reality because I taught it to them.

What do I really fear?

I fear that they will never venture out of their own safe backyards because of this nanny culture that hasn’t ever quite gone away.  It’s everywhere, from Bowdlerization of literature (de-sexing) to the USDA food pyramid, which is really not healthy but still taught in schools anyway. 

I fear that they will never even think to explore and make their own decisions in this age of blind brand trust, where there is a ready-bought solution for every woe.  (Except for awesome Japanese toilets, which Americans refuse to buy because of embarrassment about bathroom functions!)

Goodreads

Amazon also acquired Goodreads, another self-regulating community of settlers.  While GR was not perceived to have any central authority before, now Amazon’s army of data miners (and censors?) will be able to keep its ever-present eye on your book reviews.  I don’t think they’d go as low as to stop allowing reviews of “objectionable” books, but you never know.

Peer reviews still are a major force that drive sales, and Amazon clearly knows that since they bought GR.  But if their strings are being pulled by their PG-13 shareholders, they might be forced in a position of disallowing adult book reviews.

Authors also sell through GR.  Since GR is now under the Amazon umbrella, they can shut down any sales of “objectionable” books as well.  As for advertising?  Will advertising erotic romance even be allowed?  Especially if it’s not vanilla hetero?

They’re only in it for the money.

We can safely assume that these measures are all for the money.  It’s no secret that Amazon wants a bigger and bigger piece of the pie — but now, it looks like they also want to control the recipe and production of the pie itself.

Amazon is a company, and companies don’t act for the greater good.  They act for the money, which may coincide with the greater good, but it also might ride into town on a horse, make lots of fancy promises, and start stripping the land of its most valuable resources at the expense of the settlers.

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How writing fanfiction can help you become a better storyteller.

Following on the heels of my Orson Scott Card post, here is more opinionation about fanfiction… I am not that deep in the fanfiction community, but I still support it 100%. I think it’s a great way for writers to overcome some of their weaknesses in a supportive community, and have Definite Issues with some published authors’ bad faith attitudes about it.

I’m always impressed by the sheer number of fan writers there are — whole communities who love a particular work so much that they want to participate in it. Even more amazing to me is how many prolific — and good — fanfiction authors there are. These are people with day jobs, classes, and families, yet some of them find the time to write multiple novel-length works.

Good fanfiction writers have different strengths than writers of originals. When you write fanfiction, you tend to have a different way of thinking than when you write original stories. Fanfiction has its own set of storytelling challenges, but at the same time, it is often those very challenges that enable you to be completely free to express your ideas.

Though some writers don’t think writing fanfiction has any benefit, I disagree. Thoughtfully writing fanfiction can give you unique experience that you don’t usually get writing original stories. This experience can help you become a much better storyteller.

Freedom.

When you write fanfiction, you are free in many areas where pro or aspiring pro writers are not. Free from the marketplace, free from expectations, free to experiment.

Freedom from market expectations.
Fanfiction writers don’t have to worry about if their story is a sellable length or appeals to the masses. They don’t have to squeeze themselves into one genre or another. No one thinks it’s weird if a fanfiction author starts experimenting with different voices and points of view, or tells the same story over in a different universe.

Freedom from yourself.
Fanfiction also frees you from yourself. With original fiction, there’s always the question of much of yourself you are putting into your characters. Even if your characters aren’t like you at all, you still have to think about it, which can muddy up your stream of ideas.

This goes double if you’re writing anything adult. You have to keep checking to make sure your original characters are really themselves, and not just transparent tools for acting out your own fantasies.

With fanfiction, there is little danger of confusing you and the characters you use. Yes, you resonate with certain characters and issues, which are reflections of you in some way, but you usually don’t have to worry if your implementation of Harry Potter or Willow is an obvious avatar for yourself.

Experience with “sex in character” and believable relationships.
Even better, you get to write sex that is truly in character. Fanfiction makes you really think about a character’s unique sexual expression — the question isn’t only, “do they have sex”, but “how do they have sex, and how do they express their reactions?” Situations inherent in the original works, such as hatred between two characters, really forces you to think about the believable development of a romance or friendship.

Well-written romantic and erotic fanfiction between unlikely characters is always much more engaging, to me, than standard romantic and erotica because of the focus on deep characterization and believable character behavior. Too often, romance characters don’t go beyond the Male and Female archetypes (masculine / feminine are not personalities in themselves!), and the attraction between characters often has no other basis other than the characters’ being ideal specimens!

Trust in the reader.

This is probably the best aspect of good fanfiction — the trust in the reader. When you write thoughtful fanfiction, you get experience at not having to explain anything. The readers already know! You can focus on supplying the relevant detail to your story, but you don’t have to go back and tell their entire backstory. This is so refreshing to me as a reader! So many writers slow their original stories with excessive flashbacks, recounting of history, or explanation.

The success of fanfiction stories isn’t just because the reader already likes the parent work. I have read good stories in fandoms I know nothing about! Even though I was unfamiliar with the original characters and world, I wasn’t lost or confused. The author still provided plenty of detail but trusted me to get it, making for a good story experience.

Intimacy with characters.

During critiques, I sometimes find myself giving the advice of, “Pretend you’re writing fanfiction of your own characters.” Many authors don’t know their characters well enough, so they try to get to know them by working it all out on the page during the story.

But good fanfiction writers really know their characters, including their histories. They’ve thought about them at length, bonded with them, lived with them, and so the writers don’t feel the urge to explain everything as much. When you’re inspired to write fanfiction because you really know and love a character, you’ll have a high standard for your own original fiction.

This is the degree of intimacy you need to make an original character come alive, not just come across like an action figure you’re moving around to suit your story.

Community and courage.

Fanfiction communities are the most supportive environment I’ve ever encountered for writers, especially new writers. So many people get into fanfiction even though they’ve never written anything before. Support is so important for writers — people who really understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it — especially if you’re in a creativity-killing environment most of the time.

This goes double if you write adult fiction. The people around you in real life may not understand your desire to write erotic, horrific, or morally uncomfortable stories, but there are many people in fanfiction who get it. Having this community will give you the courage to release your work.

This situation isn’t unique to adult fanfiction. Even if you write original stories about puppies and kittens eating candy, there will always be people waiting to cut you down. If you have experience in the fanfiction world, it can give you the mental toughness you need to release your original stories, which usually make you feel more vulnerable.

Creativity because of limitations.

I’m an amateur electronic musician, and electronic music is all about working with limitations. Some of my best work was done because of limited choices or bad technology, not in spite of them. If I’d had unlimited access to money, time, or technology, I would have been either paralyzed by the infinite choices, or drowned in an ocean of minutae. I certainly wouldn’t have been as clever, decisive, or thoughtful in my choices.

Fanfiction is like doing a cover or remix. It gives you boundaries and limitations to work with, not work against. Those restrictions are what generate ideas. There are always gray areas left unexplained by the original work, things to wonder about, bits of tension never resolved. These restrictions ask story questions that you wouldn’t have thought of in your own original work, and you can really stretch your storytelling skills to answer them.

Challenges can really make you work.
For this reason, I love to read challenges. Fanfiction writers are willing to leap out of their comfort zones for even strange and bizarre scenarios, and the results are often surprisingly good. Perhaps the best challenges are those that make writers consider material that is uncomfortable for them, such as morally abhorrent situations. In art, discomfort is growth!

Of course, not everyone is serious about good writing in the fanfiction community. Some people use the characters as a way of expressing themselves and their fantasies. They do not worry about good storytelling or good writing — just like a guy who has played guitar covers for twenty years but hasn’t gotten any better.

But thoughtfully created, fanfiction offers some unique challenges and benefits that can help you get to the next level. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but what say you? Leave your comments below.


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Plagiarism, fan fiction, and intellectual property

Oct 14: Read the Jordan Castillo Price’s post on this blog.

Angela James sent this link on Twitter. Basically, someone took an Jordan Castillo Price’s original, published novel, posted it as an original fan fiction work, and was found out.  She defended herself by saying, “Plagiarism is a social construct, which has little meaning outside of specific contexts.”

Ridiculous.  I could make that social construct argument for many things, including possibly even money, but not plagiarism.

If there’s one thing people want, it’s credit for their ideas.

In a utopian society where none of us needed to work for our survival, most of us would still fight to the death for recognition of our ideas.  We create art to communicate with other people, but also to express our unique selves.  To validate our unique selves.  To create something that comes from within us — something we are proud of — and have someone essentially steal our identity… this is not about money, and not even about getting praised.  It’s about wanting to control what (we feel) is uniquely, intimately ours.

Some people (I had a note on Open Source people here, but it was in error) would argue that “ideas belong to everybody, no matter who creates them,” but I don’t believe that human nature will allow that.  At least, every time *I* have heard that expressed, something in me rebels.  After all, even before something gets made in the physical form, it’s an idea in someone’s mind.  Maybe I’m just a capitalist beyond reform and used to the commercialization of ideas, but there is just something right about a patent/copyright system to me (even with its many problems.)

Is idea monopolization right/good?

I don’t know if this “it’s mine!” impulse is beneficial or not.  I’m certainly not against fan fiction, but aren’t characters ideas?  If I were to write professionally, I wouldn’t mind if people wrote their own stories with my characters, even if people wrote horror-porn.  I don’t think I would even mind if they made money from it, as long as I got credit for the original work.

When I read authors’ “it’s mine” reactions to people using their world and characters, I think it’s pretty stupid.  “Characters exist in the minds of the readers,” I said to my friend Debbie.  “Trying to stamp out fan fiction is like trying to keep people from committing thought crimes.  It can’t be done.”

The difference between plagiarism and fan fiction?

Creating an original work with someone else’s characters is different from plagiarism.  It took me a little while, and a discussion with my philosophy major brother, to figure out what it was.  Speaking only for myself, the difference is this:

Plagiarism is 90-100% the ideas of the original creator.  Fanfiction (or sampling, remixing, etc) uses source material from someone else’s work, but is mostly the idea of the remixer. If I do a retelling of, say, Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the source material comes from HCA, but most of the ideas are mine, and I will feel like the story is mostly mine.  It is the same with fanfiction; in my own opinion, the fanfiction works are 90% the original ideas of the fanfiction author, not the original.