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Tie-ins and Work For Hire

Today, shelving books at the store, I picked up the CATWOMAN movie novelization, and realized it had been written by Elizabeth Hand. She's done at least three tie-ins that I know of (and possibly more -- listen to the sound of me being too lazy to go to amazon.com and look it up), but I always feel a little shock when I see her name on one. Why? Perception, I think. Her novels have always been treated seriously (and they should be), and her writing has always garnered critical praise in the genre (and sometimes outside of it). Which doesn't mean she doesn't need to eat.

There are many reasons to write a tie-in novel. If you love love love the series (Jennifer Roberson's Highlander novel comes instantly to mind), it's not a bad bet; it's like writing the professional variant of fanfic. If you need the money and you can write to deadline, some of the tie-ins have, in past, been lucrative (very, as in 75K lucrative; the Trek novels, at one time, had a base 25K payment, although that was years ago and I think it's gone down since) to writers who otherwise make small midlist advances for their books.

Most tie-ins will not net you anywhere near that much, however, and it's classified as Work For Hire. It occurs to me that I haven't really gotten into that yet, so I'm doing that now, as a semi-digression. Work for hire is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; you don't own or maintain any rights to what you've created in the world. The Weis & Hickman Dragonlance world is a prime example of what this means: You create the characters, the universe, the plot-line, etc. -- but the company can then feel free to do whatever they want with them, up to and including hiring other writers to write books using the same characters, and perhaps not in a way that would make you happy.

In the ideal world, your best bet is to work on creating your own world, as it were. When you have sole ownership, any sales or any acclaim garnered is attributed to you. I'm not actually going to talk about artistic integrity at this point, because that's a hot button, and if Elizabeth Hand and Pat Cadigan can write tie-ins, anyone can. Greg Bear has done them. John Ford has done them. Pamela Sargent has done them. Barbara Hambly. Are they thought of as tie-in writers? No.

Here's the deal. An agent of my acquaintance once said, in years past, that he had a strong preference that his writers not do this for the most part. He felt that it took time away from their writing, and from building their own careers; the work they did for hire did nothing positive for them except bring in money. He also acknowledged that for writers, money is an issue, and never more so than when starting out.

Okay, I lied. There are two digressions in this one.

Writing full-time, like any freelance work, is tricky at best. Writing novels full-time is more so in many ways. It's easier to assign a per word value for a lead column in a national magazine based on the prominence of the column & the magazine itself; it's harder to do that with fiction. Especially novels, when everything is always a gamble. Remember the part about no one caring how long the first book took to write? Well, if it gets a 5K advance, which is common, and it took you ten years to write it, you can do the math. That's not a living wage. Thus the adage Don't Quit The Day Job. If, however, you could sell a novel a month at 5K, which would mean that you could write a novel a month, that's 60K a year, and that's decent middle class. You'd still have to sell a novel a month, and the money doesn't come in instantly. Tie-ins are published at a book a month, roughly speaking. There are a lot of tie-in properties -- comic based, TV based, movie-based, etc.

There is no one who is going to buy original fiction for adults at one book a month -- at least not that I can think of. So… at that point, you could do tie-ins and it wouldn't hurt you; financially it would even be helpful. One book a month and yes, even the agent in question would probably shrug and accept it, as he still gets his cut.

But for others, it's often a choice between writing their own work and the Work For Hire work. I've seen people who, having sold a second or third novel, are bursting with optimism and the intent to go full-time. I would never have done it had I not had children, because I could work full-time and write, and the steady paycheck soothes financial anxiety. I have tactfully asked them how they mean to make ends meet, and -- did I mention optimism? -- the writing! Is the answer. People in this position can often be pushed into media work, because they need to eat, and pay bills. It's for this reason that cautiously cutting out of the day job, rather than leaping off the cliff, makes more sense to me. To Me. As in, IMHO. If you're determined to go freelance, it's a really good idea to try to have 6 months worth of living wages tucked away in the bank. This will also help when your roof starts leaking, your car departs the earth, your appliances die, your children need braces, etc.

Some agents will actively push some of their client roster into doing tie ins. And why do some agents do this, when others don't? (This involves pushing, as opposed to finding work when their clients ask them for it because of money concerns -- and there's a huge difference.) I think it's lack of confidence on the part of the agent. If the agent can get more money for the tie-in than they can for the original novels, and they don't think this is going to change, from a purely business perspective, the tie-ins make far more sense to the agency. They're much less difficult to sell, and the money often comes in more frequently. Okay, end of digression.

However… if you haven't established a name for yourself outside of that, there's an attitude that exists on the part of some publishers, editors and readers that makes it much more difficult to do so after the fact. I don't know why. Yes, there are counter examples to this that I can think of -- but not so many that this isn't true in the majority of cases, and the examples I can think of often involve people like Weis and Hickman, or Ed Greenwood -- people who've shown that they can create their own universes, albeit for someone else.

Perception is tricky. Always has been. Is it fair? Hardly. But I remember when Iain Banks did an interview in which he essentially said he writes for a couple of months each year, because that's how long it takes to write a book; a number of his long time readers were both surprised and disgusted. Why? Because the perception is that time=quality. This is silly. Sadly, though, it doesn't matter if it's silly, because it's almost impossible to combat. If you have one book a year, no one cares how long you took to write it; if you wrote it in four weeks and you take the rest of the year off, no one is going to notice. Tell someone that you can write a book at that speed, and many people will suddenly append the word "hack" to your name.

If, on the other hand, you've established bona fide credentials -- if not stellar numbers -- the attitude is different. Thus, someone like Elizabeth Hand can write a tie-in, and there's no ripple in the attitude of her readers (or at least none that I've heard in the store) when an original novel, like MORTAL LOVE, comes out.

This doesn't mean, if you've done tie-in work, that you're doomed. But the more you're known for it, the more you're likely to be thought of as a production house of your own, rather than a writer in your own right.

I've seen five distinctly different writer reactions to this. One writer I know took on a tie-in assignment, and before he'd finished the first book (it was for three), had sunk into a deep depression. The money was decent, but it wasn't something the writer felt any attachment for -- and on some level, they felt that they were selling themselves short; that they were, in fact, selling out. If this is how you feel, run for the hills. In the end, the author extricated themselves from that contract because they weren't writing much at all. And they didn't do it again, and they're doing really, really well now.

The next example is a writer who is both fast and good. This one had started a couple of series, but they hadn't done stellar numbers. I've seen a number of writers start out in a similar position and in my opinion, given the audience this author was slowly building, I think they could have been Tanya Huff or Charles de Lint. But they were frustrated by the financial fact that the publisher was not willing to pay them more for continuing their own work, when the tie-ins paid so much better, and in the end, they chose not to continue doing the series I thought would eventually take off. They're making a living, and they're writing. But I think they would have been in a better position overall had they stuck it out, or at least continued to do both.

The third example I can think of did a very high paying tie-in, and was astonished at the sheer numbers those books sold. They did a number of them. But after that? Not much of anything. I'm not sure why, either -- except perhaps that in this case, the perception that can accompany (but doesn't necessarily have to, see above) such work was also a self-perception.

The fourth example -- or example(s), because I can think of a number -- have done very, very well writing tie-ins. They've hit the high end, and their books have sold. But trying to establish themselves as their own brand, their own name, seemed hideously difficult by comparison. They're writing less tie-in and more of their own stuff, now.

And the fifth? Look at the list above. They wrote their tie-ins, for whatever reasons they had to do so. They also continued to write their own books, and those books do sell to publishers for decent midlist advances, and they do sell in stores.

At some point, almost every author I know hits the financial blues rut, in which they question their choice of living. They look at everyone else -- lawyers, doctors, programmers (less those, these days <wry g>), Norah Roberts -- and they wonder what the point is . The feeling of being the financial deadweight in a household is pretty darn hideous. When money is tight, it's easy to feel that you're not contributing much; that you're clinging stubbornly to something that has no essential value.

Do not do this. If you feel that you need to -- and are in the position to do so -- seek other work which provides financial relief. If you are capable of writing Work for Hire novels without taking a self-respect hit, that's perfectly valid "other work", but it's not the only option.

And you know what? If my family needed the money and we were in a state of financial crisis, yes, I would do everything I could to sell something that I could write. Period.

That said, is anyone in need of a gmail account?


(Deleted comment)
Aug. 30th, 2004 09:07 am (UTC)
The other thing about writing tie-ins is that they do take time and energy from writing original things, and I think you can end up, if you do a lot of them, by coarsening the way you write, the things you think it's possible to do.

I've wondered about this. I've only read two tie-ins, but the one thing they had in common was that story was Told to a very great extent, with minimal dialogue and description. It was as though I read a letter from someone describing the events. Very distant feel. I don't know if all tie-ins are written that way, but I could see how a writer with a penchant for description or getting inside their characters' heads might have a devil of a time switching back and forth.
Sep. 1st, 2004 05:29 am (UTC)
It varies from author to author. I thought the (don't laugh) Phantom Menace tie-in was well done, but I believe that's due to the fact that Terry Brooks wrote it and there were explanations and mini-events included in the book that were not in the movie. The tie-in to Buffy Season Six "Chosen" was horribly written and was like reading a script for each episode. No depth to characters or even to the desciptions of the action. Very bland.

Hm, now I hope I'm using "tie-in" correctly :P
Aug. 30th, 2004 09:55 am (UTC)
But however good a first novel Everway tie-in I'd have written, I'd never have been nominated for the Campbell.

Interesting. I hadn't thought about that in relation to my own work.

Aug. 30th, 2004 09:36 pm (UTC)
But however good a first novel Everway tie-in I'd have written, I'd never have been nominated for the Campbell.

This is almost certainly true. I can only think of one exception: It did not stop Julia Ecklar from being nominated for (and winning, I believe) the Campbell for her Trek work (she may have had other short work out there, but the only thing I can remember from that time period is the Star Trek book, of which she was one of, I think, three writers).

The other thing about writing tie-ins is that they do take time and energy from writing original things, and I think you can end up, if you do a lot of them, by coarsening the way you write, the things you think it's possible to do. I don't think it's just pride you can lose, I think it's horizons.

I could see how this could happen, depending on the writer. I think I've read about half of the Diane Duane tie-ins, and I liked most of them; whatever it was she invested in the story, it was all there. I liked her Trek books, although they're of an older vintage -- the books written when the license owner had almost given up on the franchise, and was willing to let writers play with the universe to a much great extent. John Ford's two trek novels were great, and I would have liked them had he managed to file the serial numbers off them and publish them as something else.

But with the advent of NEXT GEN, that changed, and the guidelines became more onerous, or so I've been told; it was less like play and more like work (as in for hire <g>).

I think tie-ins are our genre's "category" books (in Romance, there are novels and category novels; the former published in the normal way as standalone novels, the latter as part of a line, with restrictions on content, tone, etc.). Some people can think of inventive things to do within category, and they have some enthusiasm for them -- but some can't.

If Elizabeth Hand were to write fifteen more tie-ins before being able to afford to get to her next original novel, I think it might well not be as good as it would have been. I've seen a couple of writers I used to think were very good come back to original fiction after writing a pile of WFH tie ins where I felt their work had really suffered from it.

I wonder, though, how true that is in general. Err, let me try that again. I can think of authors whose early works I adored, and while they've never ever done work for hire, their later books didn't speak to me; they had some technical merit, and perhaps they spoke to other people -- but they seemed to lose some intrinsic heart.