Spoiler Alert! Licensed Movie and TV tie-in publishing

As an editor of licensed properties, I have worked on publishing programs for films, television shows, and video games. I’m often asked about the process of creating those publishing programs and how writers can break into that market.

What is the process of working on the publishing process for a licensed property?

There is a constant back and forth between the publishing house and the studio/creator of the film/tv series/video game. When I’m assigned a new license, I immerse myself in the property. If it’s a movie, I read every draft of the script sent to me by the studio. If it’s a tv show, I watch as many episodes as possible. If it’s a game, I learn how to play the game. The time spent learning the license from the inside out, allows me to present fully formed ideas and concepts to the licensor for the books my team plans to put into the publishing program.

After I’ve studied the license, I send along concepts and format ideas for the books. At this point I also let the licensor know who I would like to write the book or if it will be written in-house by me or another editor. Once the concept and format are approved, we move to the manuscript stage and begin the approval process again. This continues through every step of the process. The licensor sees everything. Sketches, layouts, covers, etc.

Films present an interesting process, because there is a strict publication deadline. Editors are usually sent multiple drafts of the script and every time a new script arrives, they need to check it to the books and make sure to make any necessary changes. Sometimes editors don’t even have the final draft of the script before the book goes to print!

Most movie tie-ins programs are on-sale six weeks leading up to the release date of the film. This leads to interesting issues regarding spoilers.

When Catherine Hardwick’s Red Riding Hood film was released in early 2011, an online firestorm erupted over the novelization of the film. The issue? The book had NO ending. In an attempt to remove spoilers, the studio asked that the ending not appear in the book and that the book include a website at the end for readers to access once the film was released. This incensed readers who felt rip-offed by the book.

Earlier this summer, fans of the upcoming Dark Knight Rises were upset by the spoilers presented in the children’s publishing program, complaining that the 32 page books spoiled parts of the movie.

What are some of the typical formats for licensed publishing program?

8x8s: The 8×8 is exactly what it sounds like. It describes the trim size of the book. (Think The Berenstain Bears or Clifford). Between 24 and 32 pages long, 8x8s can be original stories, episode retellings, or scenes from a film.

Easy Readers: Easy Readers are 6×9 books that fit into the publisher’s leveled or guided reading program. Like 8x8s, they tend to be smaller stories that are either episode based or a short scene from a film.

Sticker/Activity Books: These books tend to have very little story, but lots of room for kids to decorate the pages with stickers. Sometimes there will be mazes and word games, as well.

Novelizations: The novelization literally takes the script from a film and turns it into a novel length story. Often times, it will include an insert of stills from the film.

Original Novels:  Some licenses give the publishing house more creative freedom and the publisher will hire a writer to create an original story based in the world and continuity of the film/tv show/game.

How do I break into licensed publishing?

It is a somewhat of a Catch-22 to become a licensed writer. Many licensors have approval over the writers and only want writers with experience writing licensed books. A lot of it comes down to who you know and WHAT you know. If you are agented and hear about a property that you want to work on, they can get let the editor know that you are interested and available. If you meet an editor at a conference and know that they work on licensed properties, let them know your interest. We have a folder of resumes from interested licensed writers.

It’s not an easy market to break into, but if you present great work and are consistently on time and fun to work with, you’ll become a go-to writer. Some of our licensed writers make their entire living from writing multiple books a year, but they’ve been working in the industry for years and have earned a reputation as a consistent, solid writer.

One thing to keep in mind is that most licensed work is work-for-hire, meaning the writer is paid a one time fee to write the book. It’s not unheard of for licensed writers to earn royalties, but it’s rare and usually the writer is creating a lot of original content, not just telling the story from the script.

The world of media tie-in publishing is a big part of the industry, and getting bigger all the time. If there is one movie, TV show, or video game you would like to see get its own publishing program, what would it be?


7 Responses to Spoiler Alert! Licensed Movie and TV tie-in publishing

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 4 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Interesting post. I got interested in this area when some of my favorite TV shows went off the air prematurely. I was hoping there was some way to continue the stories in novel form, only to be told much of what you said here. When my latest favorite show ended, I got rather heavily involved in fanfictions as an outlet, both reading and writing. Has there ever been a crossover from the realm of fanfictions into this area?

    • Jordan Hamessley Jul 4 2012 at 11:07 am #

      That’s a great question. I do know that there have been television shows that have let licensed publishing continue after the show goes off air. A great example of that would be the Buffy the Vampire Slayer graphic novels.

      I didn’t even get into the expanded universe market of Star Wars, Star Trek, and many gaming properties (Halo, World of Warcraft, etc). Those are completely original stories that fit into the canon.

      I can’t speak to the crossover with fan fiction circles, but plenty of writers got their feet wet writing fan fiction before writing and publishing their original works.

  2. Sooz Jul 4 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Wow, this was a FASCINATING post!! I had no idea about the RED RIDING HOOD. I too read the book (not realizing it was a movie! Ha!) and was enraged by the total lack of an ending. I had no idea it was done on purpose or that the movie actually had an ending.

    It sounds like a really fascinating way to write…Something I might even be interested in one day. Thanks for telling us all about it!

    • Jordan Hamessley Jul 4 2012 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks, Sooz! It’s a big part of the publishing world. I was hoping to hear from people who had read the Red Riding Hood book. good to hear your reaction!

  3. Erin Bowman Jul 4 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    This is a super interesting post, Jordan. (And the whole fiasco with RRH is so intriguing.) Thanks for covering this topic!

  4. Chihuahua Zero Jul 4 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    Licensed books are a topic I have little knowledge of. Thanks for the insight!

    One question: What do you think of the moral/ethical implications around making a children’s book for a PG-13 movie that’s not intended for kids. Also, had you seen the picture book a Pixar employee made with pictures drawn from R-rated films?

  5. cindy Apr 15 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    i just recently became interested in writing media tie ins, i have been writing short stories and original stories and just keeping them in folders for awhile, i have been looking into getting started breaking into the business but didn’t know how. Miami vice is the main one that i have written most of the stories on and saving grace is another favorite. I had been thinking about submitting to some fan fic sites to see how they would be received but not sure how fan fic is viewed by publishers. i had even thought about presenting to the kindle words but because of licensing
    was not sure how that would work.

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