James L. Sutter returns to Inkpunks today with a guest post on writing media tie-ins. Feel free to ask James any questions in the comments. Thanks for your contribution, James!
Literary Mercenaries: Is Media Tie-In Writing Right For You?
by James L. Sutter
As writers of fiction, most of us follow a time-honored pattern with our work: we write a thing, send it out, get rejected for a while, and finally get it accepted and published somewhere. Yet as familiar as this routine is to most of us, it seems positively insane and masochistic to many other folks who write for a living–the staff journalists, speechwriters, tech writers, and other folks who write on contract rather than on speculation. For them, it would be absurd to start a writing project without the guarantee of payment and publication if the work is good. Imagine: no rejections, no market research, no waiting for years to hear back from a publisher. Just a simple exchange of words for money. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? If only fiction worked that way.
So what if I were to tell you that sometimes it does?
There are a number of fields where work-for-hire is common, but I want to talk here specifically about media tie-in fiction. These are books where authors are contracted to write something specific for a publisher, using an already established brand or intellectual property, such as Forgotten Realms, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan, or Halo. You’ve seen this section in the bookstore a thousand times, usually at the back of the SF section with the books organized by brand rather than by author.
It’s no secret that many folks get into fantasy and science fiction literature by way of media tie-in work. There are sometimes hundreds of titles for a single brand, and by their very nature they appeal to new readers. Maybe that’s a Dungeons & Dragons book, which someone buys because they’ve played (or at least heard of) the game. Maybe it’s a Star Wars novel that they pick up because three movies (and yes, in my mind there are only three movies) just aren’t enough. Maybe they buy a novelization of a favorite film, or the further exploits of a comic book or TV character. I know that I read my share of Dragonlance, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones tie-ins growing up.
As we get more experience with the genre, however, a funny thing often happens. We–especially those of us who fancy ourselves authors–often turn up our nose at tie-in work, seeing it as blatantly commercial and therefore somehow beneath us. We figure that any book branded with logos like a NASCAR driver must inherently be of lower quality than a book conjured solely from a single author’s imagination. And yet, whether you like them or not, there can be no question that tie-in books are a major force in the fiction market. There’s a reason folks who’ve never heard of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard know who Drizzt and Raistlin are, and why your favorite author has a few books on a bottom shelf while Halo novels are sold at the grocery store counter. Which should leave every writer wondering: should I try to get in on that action?
Before you answer, there are some important factors you should consider. As someone who’s dealt with tie-in fiction from both sides of the editorial desk, as both an author and the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Tales line, I’ve done my best to sum up the pleasures and pitfalls below.
To me, this is by far the single biggest reason to write tie-in fiction. Being a professional author is all about marketing, and we all know how hard it is to get our names out there. By writing in a shared world, you immediately have access to all of the existing fans of that world. For beginning writers, this also means you’re likely to reach many times more people (and sell many times more books) as you would on your own. The reason bookstores have huge tie-in fiction sections is that it sells–often far, far better than independent titles. A good brand is familiar, it’s got momentum, it’s got non-literary marketing (in the form of films, TV, or games), and it’s got die-hard fans willing to buy and evangelize it. Doesn’t that sound nice?
I’ll use Pathfinder Tales as an example. If I were to take a talented but relatively unknown author–maybe one with some solid short story sales in the indie press market–and publish her first novel, sending it out into the abyss of the SF world, how many copies can she expect to sell right away? A few hundred? After all, most people don’t go to the bookstore and randomly take a chance on an author they’ve never heard of. After friends and family, selling books is a long, hard road of trying to build buzz through reviews, interviews, etc. And more likely than not, the publisher doesn’t have staff or money to throw at advertising and marketing.
Now give that same author a Pathfinder Tales novel. Thanks to the success of the brand, I can know–know–that her book will sell thousands of copies right out of the gate as fans of the game world buy her novel sight unseen.
Seems pretty nice, doesn’t it? But wipe your chin, because this kind of boost has some serious strings attached.
Playing with Other People’s Toys
This is at the heart of what media tie-in writing means. When you write in a shared world, you’re beholden to the rules of that world and the people who inhabit it. Your creativity is inherently limited–sometimes simply by the setting, other times (as in the case of folks writing novelizations of films) to specific characters or plot lines.
For some authors, this is a deal-breaker. After all, we got into this profession to create, right? For these folks, having someone tell you what you can and can’t imagine takes all the joy out of it. Yet for others, these restrictions are liberating. When you don’t have to build the world from scratch, you can focus on the characters and the story. When you’re given a character or plot outline, you can put that saved effort into making the prose in every scene the best it can be. I know that one of the reasons I love themed anthologies is that they remove the paralysis of the empty page and give me direction which sparks my creativity rather than limiting it. Shared world work is much the same. Granted, the more background and continuity a world has, the more research required to make sure you’re not violating existing canon. Yet even this is no more effort than is required from writers of historical fiction or alternate histories.
And of course, we shouldn’t ignore the thrill of playing with a property you’re already excited about. It’s the same urge that drives people to write fanfic. When Greg Bear writes Star Wars or Neil Gaiman writes an episode of Dr. Who, they’re getting to live the dream of every nerd who grew up with those characters–a group in which the authors themselves are undoubtedly included.
Payment and Ownership
Fan love and exposure aren’t the only reasons to write tie-in, however. While I’m sure Mr. Bear and Mr. Gaiman made their decisions for purely fan and artistic reasons, many other famous authors chose to do media tie-in because they’re getting paid–and this is a technical publishing term–a metric buttload.
Not always, of course–the size of the property and its owner makes all the difference, and writing for a tabletop RPG company like Wizards of the Coast or Paizo is going to be very different than writing for a cultural behemoth like Star Wars, Halo, or World of Warcraft. But most companies with legitimately popular properties and brands are going to be big enough to pay their tie-in authors professional rates in a timely fashion. When you’ve sat for years on a novel that keeps getting rejected, the idea of writing a book that is accepted, paid, and published in a timely manner has its own unique appeal.
Case in point: One of my talented author friends sold his first novel (co-written with another well-known author) to a respectable publisher before I started working on my novel Death’s Heretic. Many moons later, Death’s Heretic is on its way to stores across the continent for a November release, and my friend’s book is just now beginning the editorial process.
There’s a flip side to that solid money and prompt payment, however. While most of the tie-in contracts I’ve seen offer at least decent advances and royalties, that money is all you get. You’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, and that means that, for legitimate legal reasons, they must retain all rights to your creation. (After all, if you’ve done it right, your creation is based completely on their creation.) That means your characters don’t belong to you. If they get popular enough to warrant a sequel, that’s great–but you can’t take them to some other publisher who’ll pay you more. In fact, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to write that sequel at all, or that someone else won’t get to write it instead of you. You may get royalties on the book–and, if the publisher’s above board, that includes ebooks, foreign translations, etc.–but if your creations get optioned for film, or show up on t-shirts or in a Happy Meal, that money goes to the publisher, not you. You reap the fame, but you can’t build a J. K. Rowling-esque empire out of it. Worse, but far more likely–if the publisher decides to let your book fall out of print, you can’t shop it around or publish it yourself. It’s dead.
This all may sound terribly unfair–after all, that’s your book that’s making all that money–but think of it this way: A construction worker is hired to build a house. He does the job, gets paid, and goes home. He can point to that house with pride–I built that!–but once the check clears, it’s no longer his. The owner can rent it out, flip it and make an enormous profit, remodel it, paint it a hideous color, or burn it down for fun. The construction worker no longer has any claim on it, nor do any of us really think he ought to. When you enter into a work-for-hire relationship, you’re a literary construction worker. You get bragging rights and royalties–and that’s it.
Editing, Conflict, and Author Rights
Authors are artists, and we’re often very particular about our work. That’s not a jab–since our reputation is all we have to trade on, it’s imperative that our work be the best we can make it, and that we consistently put our best faces forward. As such, it’s extremely important for tie-in authors to understand their rights. Fortunately, the list is easy to memorize.
When it comes to tie-in work, you have no rights.
Sure, that’s a bit of an overstatement–there are rights of payment and accreditation and such things stipulated in the contract. But when it comes to creative rights, the tie-in author is totally stuck. He’s no longer an artist negotiating with a publisher for the right to sell his work. He’s an employee, and the IP owner is The Boss. If the publisher requires an onerous change to a work, such as cutting whole sections or revising a plot point or changing the protagonist, the author doesn’t have the option of packing up his toys and going home. He has to make that change. If he refuses, the editors may just make that change themselves without his consent–as is potentially their right in the contract–or else thank him for his time and leave him holding an unpurchased book that he cannot, by law, sell to anyone else.
Again, this sounds horrible, but it comes from a very logical place. The editors or publishers aren’t monsters–they’re just equally bound by their duties to the almighty Brand. The whole reason they’re hiring tie-in writers in the first place is because they’ve somehow created or acquired a piece of intellectual property that has an enthusiastic audience. In publishing, a reliable IP is the goose that lays golden eggs, and the single biggest concern of its owner is not accidentally screwing up and killing the goose.
Go on the internet for thirty seconds, and you’ll see that SF fans–regardless of what they’re fans of–are fickle creatures. As deeply as they may love a given character or series, it doesn’t take much to get them up in arms. If a publisher allows an author to take too many liberties with a character or a setting, it’s entirely possible that they’ll be engulfed in a firestorm of electronic vitriol that will toast their sales and injure both the publisher and the author. (Ask R. A. Salvatore sometime about being “the man who killed Chewbacca”–a decision he didn’t even make.)
As the editor for Pathfinder Tales, my main job isn’t so much tweaking grammar or critiquing plot arcs as it is finding potential continuity bombs. It’s exhausting to scrutinize and cross-reference every detail, but I know that if the author and I don’t, there’s someone out there who’s deeply invested in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting and who will find inconsistencies and feel not just irate, but betrayed. Among gamers especially, there’s a certain subset that wants to see a favorite setting or character as something real and independent of its creators. Playing fast and loose with canon destroys the illusion. By saying no to an author’s choices, I’m actually shielding all three of us–the author, the fan, and me–from blowback.
Of course, not all editorial changes are made for such altruistic reasons. Sometimes a key developer just doesn’t like a thing, or new material comes out that preemptively contradicts part of a novel’s plot, or space constraints require us to reduce wordcount. I’ve been on the receiving end of all of this as many times as I’ve had to dish it out–for instance, the rules for a key magic item in Death’s Heretic changed after the novel was written but before it was published, thus necessitating revision, and I’ve chopped down more of my own game articles than I care to think about. (Such Old Yeller moments are surprisingly common when you’re dealing with magazines or other formats with set amounts of space–I’ve had to chop articles literally in half before.) With all of these changes, the author may not even know about them until after the piece sees print–in the gaming industry, at least, galley proofs for the authors are a luxury, and the idea of running changes by an author before making them seems as ludicrous to some publishers as the homeowner from the last example asking the builder’s permission to redecorate.
These are all worst-case scenarios. At Paizo, I strive to give as much creative control as possible to the authors, and to work with them rather than handling down commands. Thanks to a great deal of work at the outline stage, most of my authors never have to make substantial or egregious changes to their final manuscripts. But the point remains that if the idea of someone messing with your precious words bothers you, stay the hell away from tie-in fiction (and perhaps publishing in general).
One of the biggest differences between writing on spec and on contract is the deadline. When you’re writing for yourself, you can afford to take as long as you need to on a story, even shelving it for months while you work on something else. With work-for-hire, there’s always a deadline–and often an aggressive one. If you’re the sort of author who likes to jot bits of story down as the idea strikes you, and follow your muse only as she arrives and makes herself known, this probably isn’t the right choice for you. If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of author who writes at a steady and predictable rate–and better yet, if you’re the budding pro who needs all the assignments she can get to make writing a career rather than a hobby–then tie-in is a perfect place to get as much work as you can handle.
Last but not least, I want to get back to that attitude I mentioned right in the beginning, the idea many folks have that tie-in work is by definition mediocre–the literary equivalent to a fast-food franchise.
Once upon a time, this stigma was a very real problem. Tie-in as a ghetto was just one step above self-publishing, and folks who wrote tie-in were in danger of being trapped there permanently, never to write anything independent. (Or at least, that was the fear–not that it stopped folks like Fritz Leiber, or Nicola Griffith, or any of the million other professional authors who worked a little tie-in to help get experience and pay the rent.) Some old-timers still believe that writing tie-in will make you an untouchable for the big publishers, and it remains true that most literary awards judges will wave away tie-in books without reading page one. So will dabbling in work-for-hire end up hurting your career?
Personally, I don’t think so. Even more than the myriad folks who continue to work happily both within and without the tie-in field–folks like R. A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, and Michael Stackpole–I believe that the reason is technology. Back in the day, publishers decided what to publish based on the opinions of their editors–they were the tastemakers, and decided what people read. Nowadays, thanks to Bookscan, publishers are more likely to be taste-chasers: they want the sure thing, the authors that are already selling well. In this regard, all that matters is the number of digits next to your book titles when a publisher pulls up sales reports. And as we already discussed, tie-in novels almost always sell better. Rather than hamstringing your career, I believe that tie-in writing can boost it. Certainly, I know a few “New York Times bestsellers” who ended up there on the strength of their tie-in brands, and whose independent works have never come close.
Ultimately, the decision over whether or not to write tie-in fiction is a personal one. Do you dare exchange elements of creative control for wider exposure and notoriety? Are you willing to trade your high-art sensibilities for the chance to get paid and build up your portfolio? Personally, I believe that you should never let tie-in work completely eclipse your own material–if you’re so busy working for someone else that you never get a chance to write stories that are completely your own, you may eventually find that you’ve missed some valuable opportunities, and you’ll never have the personal superstar power of a Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. But as a reliable gig to help you increase your fan base, your experience, and your bank account–not to mention let you play with some awesome preexisting worlds–media tie-in is a tool that every professional author should consider.
James L. Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, creators of the Pathfinder Roleplyaying Game, and the author of the forthcoming novel Death’s Heretic as well more than twenty-five short stories for such publications as Apex Magazine, Black Gate, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His first anthology, Before They Were Giants, pairs the first published stories of such SF luminaries as Larry Niven, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and China Mieville with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements. He lives in the Ministry of Awesome, a house in Seattle with 4 other roommates and a fully functional death ray. For more information, visit jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.