The Not-So-Secret Backdoor to Publishing



Besides the fact that they’re some of the most successful YA books, the titles shown above have one very big thing in common: They are the products of a practice known as book packaging, wherein a person or company creates marketable ideas, develops outlines or synopses, then hires writers to write them. The packager—whether it is Alloy (Gossip Girl, The Clique, The Probability of Miracles, the Private series), Full Fathom Five (I am Number Four), or Paper Lantern Lit (Venom, Fury).

In most cases, a writer is paid a flat fee, along with a share of royalties and subsidiary rights sales. Most often, the packager’s share of the advance and royalties are much larger than the writer’s share. The packager retains the copyright, meaning they control the intellectual property even though someone else wrote the book.

My client, Lee “Lainey” Bross, works with Paper Lantern Lit. Here, she details her experience:

Okay, so it was really weird how this all played out. I’d been reading a lot of hype about this new packaging company, Paper Lantern Lit, and it sounded really interesting. I thought about emailing Mandy to ask what is was and how it all worked. The weird part was that before I could, SHE emailed me about this new packaging company called Paper Lantern Lit., and would I be interested in “auditioning” for them.

We talked over the pros and cons, and I decided to go for it. Mandy sent them a short sample from one of my projects, and they liked my voice. Next, PLL sent me a “spark” page for a book idea they had. Basically they chose 2 chapters from the middle of the book that I had to write. There wasn’t a lot of back story available, because they wanted to see what I was able to do with what they gave me.

I submitted the chapters, they sent them back with comments and I revised them. But the thing was, I didn’t really fall in love with the idea and didn’t think I could do the book justice if chosen. So I withdrew from consideration. Fast forward a couple of months alter, and PLL contacted Mandy with another “spark.”

I LOVED it. I wanted to write that book. I did the sample chapters, and after a couple of back and forths, they contracted with me to write it!

The process of writing for a packager—at least in my experience—is different, in that you are given a complete outline of the book to be written. The plot is already there, which I found freeing. I could just write, and refer to the outline to be sure I was on track. It wasn’t so constricting that I felt like I couldn’t use my own voice, and if anything, my ideas and comments were always met with enthusiasm and respect. No thought was too dumb.

There were challenges at times as well. When you are used to writing for yourself, by yourself, it can be hard to collaborate! The deadlines were tight and there was a lot of back and forth between me and my editor before the book was good enough to be sent out on submission. It sold not long after and my debut, Fates, comes out from Random House in the summer of 2013!

I learned more about writing in that 4 months than I did in the entire previous 4 years, and it has only strengthened my own writing. My writing was always good, but now, it’s at the level it needs to be to benefit my career going forward . That was what sealed the decision for me back when Mandy and I talked about it, working one-on-one with an editor during the entire process.

It’s not a typical way to break into publishing, but for me, having this opportunity gave me invaluable insight and experience that I will profit from for years to come, and it’s a decision that I’m glad I made.

So, as Lee said, we discussed the pros and cons right up front, and I wanted to detail them here, too. It’s important that the writer is fully aware of both sides before they decide whether writing for a packager is right for them.

The Pros:

  1. Writers who have felt like they are “on the verge” of breaking in, but haven’t quite landed that book deal, this can be the moment that tips the scales. By partnering with a known company with a successful track record, you’ve substantially upped your chances of finally breaking in.
  2. Getting paid while getting an education! Working directly with editors on the development of a book can be like an MFA program, except they are paying you.
  3. Earning a steady income. I know several authors who write/publish an original book every year, but they make their real income from churning out packager or write for hire jobs.
  4. Making connections with industry insiders. Once you’ve worked with a publisher doing packaged stuff, you’ve worked with editors, publicity, agents, etc, who are all familiar with your work, which can only help you down the road.

The cons:

  1. You may, at some point, be forced to relinquish control of your characters and world. Say you write a smash success, and your packager wants to turn your book into a series. There is no requirement that you write later books. Or maybe you want to focus on your original fiction, and don’t have time for more packaged books. Most packagers, of course, would like the same author to write them for continuity purposes, but it’s not required. L.J. Smith was famously “fired” from writing further Vampire Diaries books. Alloy can continue to release Vampire Diaries books without her involvement.
  2. You might be a ghost. Meaning…you could be writing books as Kate Brian, or L. J. Smith, and no one will know who the real person is behind that name. The packager may not allow you to publically take credit for it, as readers generally prefer to think the books are penned by the same person.
  3. You may not feel that you got your “fair share” of the money. This one is oft debated by readers, writers, and various industry folks, because  it’s not usually the writer who gets the majority of the funds, it’s the packager. Is that fair?  The book could sell for $100,000, and your flat fee may have been $10,000. This is one of the things I always talk to my clients about up front. I don’t want them to be surprised and feel taken advantage of.

Packaging is not for everyone, and you can see there are pros and cons. I think it’s very important for folks to know exactly what they’re getting into before jumping in.  I, myself, wrote a NASCAR novella for Harlequin that was arranged as a write-for-hire. I didn’t get rich off it, but I enjoyed dipping into an adult romance and learning from a romance editor.

So, I hope all this helps you decide whether packaging work is right for you!


12 Responses to The Not-So-Secret Backdoor to Publishing

  1. Marc Vun Kannon May 29 2012 at 7:12 am #

    Sounds like an interesting way to do it. How does one go about finding a packager for a specific genre? I write fantasy and paranormal/SF.

    • Mandy Hubbard May 31 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      You know, I am so immersed in the YA/MG side– as an author and agent– I’m not sure. I know a lot of the licensed stuff, like say star trek, does write for hire. You’ll have to dig around to see how those work. With book packagers in YA, the information can often be found on their websites– alloy entertainment, paper lantern lit, etc, all have information for how to audition. Sorry if that’s not super helpful!

  2. Sara Bennett Wealer May 29 2012 at 9:38 am #

    I’ve always wondered what happens if the book becomes a huge smash, with the property making tons of money from TV, etc. I assume the author doesn’t make any of that? Or can the agent negotiate a percentage of future income generated by the book/brand? I imagine it’d be tough to watch other people make bank on something you worked so hard to make successful…

    • Mandy Hubbard May 31 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      Usually, they get a small percentage, like 10% of translation or film sales. It’s not huge, but at least you get a teeny piece of the pie.

  3. Kacey May 29 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Wow, this is really interesting. I guess I knew something of the type went on with books like these, but I love learning all the cool behind-the-scenes-y stuff. I don’t know if I’d every be interesting in doing it (I don’t think I could handle giving up so much control), but it’s certainly cool and seems like a great learning experience.

    One question, is 13 Little Blue Envelopes really one of these? It’s one of my favorites and I never knew that.

    • Mandy Hubbard May 31 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      Well, 13 Little Blue Envelopes is an alloy book– it’s right on their website– so it has to have been a packaged book. I don’t know Maureen personally or know the backstory of the project, but I would assume that it was an idea created by alloy and written by Maureen. But again I am not privy to the insider information on that one. Her other books all appear to be original fiction created/written by Maureen, without alloy.

  4. Rowenna May 29 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    Really informative–thanks for this great post, Mandy!

  5. Mandy Hubbard May 31 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Thanks for reading! 🙂

  6. Renate Jun 1 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Huh. Super interesting post – it appears to be a great deal for the packagers, and not a bad deal for the authors.

  7. Leigh-Ann Nov 12 2014 at 10:37 am #

    I’m a little late to the game on this post, but I’m glad I stumbled upon it. I am in the process of auditioning for a book packager and I wondered if it’s recommended to mention that you have either been asked to audition for a packager or have written for a packager when you query agents for your own work. From this post, it sounds like agents would look favorably on this, but I’ve seen other sites that say not to mention it until you’ve gotten an offer from an agent. Thoughts?

  8. Kent Oct 13 2016 at 9:05 am #

    This was one of the most helpful articles I’ve read on the subject; I love the inclusion of Lee’s story as a real life illustration of the experience.

    The pros and cons are something to think about. I think that, by and large, most fiction is disposable. We’re not all Faulkners. If someone is developing the story, the series and the characters then I have no problem with them making the lion’s share while I learn from them while getting paid.

    Like everyone else reading this I’m hoping to break in this way as well. Even my own series (book 1 completed pre-editor and book 2 begun) I’d sell outright if I could write the next half dozen to a dozen.

    Thanks for writing this.

  9. Robert Ded Dec 27 2018 at 12:49 pm #

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