Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Packaged Fiction

Can you talk a little about the practice of "book packaging" in YA? For example, in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, author Ann Brasheres is not listed as the "copyright" but Alloy entertainment (I think) is. Under what circumstances does a "packager" get to usurp the author for the copyright, what does this mean in terms of money lost for the author, and do you see this as a growing trend?

Packaging fiction has always been popular in the YA and middle-grade markets and I’m seeing that it’s becoming a growing trend in genres like mystery as well (to learn more about packaging, please refer to my previous blog post on the subject). Be aware that a packaged book, or one in which the copyright is in the name of someone other than the author, does not usually mean the copyright was “usurped.” What it usually means is that the idea or book’s concept was actually created by someone other than the author. Publishers, packagers, and sometimes literary agencies often come up with ideas of their own—a great YA series, a fabulous mystery idea, or even an idea for a new romance series. If they are truly passionate about it they’ll often write up what’s called a bible for the series. This includes a rough storyline, character descriptions, a title, names, and even setting. Once a bible is established all they need is an author. Someone able to write in the style they’re seeking and create the book they dreamed up.

I have a difficult time in a situation like this saying that the author actually loses money. She probably doesn’t earn as much as she would have if the idea had been hers to begin with, but it wasn’t, so there’s no guarantee she would have a book contract without this packaged deal. However, unless the offer/idea comes from the publisher directly, she will receive less than the total advance, royalties, or sub rights. What she actually receives I can’t say—that would depend on the deal she agreed to. In some cases the work is done for a flat fee only and the packager receives all royalties and sub rights. Sometimes she’s able to negotiate a small percentage of royalties, anywhere from one to three percent. Again, I’m sure there are authors who can say they’ve gotten a lot less or a lot more, it all depends on the contract signed.

While I have mixed feelings about packaged books I do feel that in many cases the contracts are negotiated fairly. The author is often approached with a contract that will guarantee payment, sometimes whether or not the book sells. Like writing an article for a magazine, the work is a writer-for-hire deal and the packager should also be paid for his part in creating and selling the book. While I think it’s certainly difficult to see a book you write become a major success and receive little to no royalties, it can be an opportunity that can launch your own career in other ways.

Making the decision to write for a packager or writer for hire is a very individual decision. I know a lot of writers do it because they are happy to be making a living at their writing, while others argue vehemently against it. Because of that I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writer for hire. If you were looking to make a living as a writer and this was a very real opportunity that would guarantee income, would you consider it? What sort of contract points would you agree to or not agree to?



Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

Would I consider it?

Right now, yes. I've actually talked to a magazine about something similar. The magazine will produce some books about horse racing. I write them, they retain the rights. I get paid a flat fee and my name gets out to a few more people.

Unfortunately, most of the people who would buy these books already know me, so it's a mixed blessing.

If someone approached me with a fiction deal, probably. I need people to recognize my ability in this realm.

If I had an established career as a fiction author, no.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I have a hard time dealing with -- "others come up with a rough storyline, some character descriptions and a setting. ALL they need after that is an author."

Um... yeah. Here's the thing -- it's easy to come up with characters, a few plot points, and a setting. The very hard part about writing YA or any other fiction is in the execution of those characters and plot points.

In YA voice is everthing. The nature and style at which the story is executed is paramount. So for a package to act as if they are doing some great service to an author is ridiculous.

Heck, people, I'll give you some characters and a few plot points for free. It's not much of a gift. You still gotta do all the work.

Mark Terry said...

As a freelance writer, work-for-hire is pretty much what I do for a living, and it's a pretty good living at that. That said, not all magazine writing is work-for-hire and there are contractual negotiations that can be made consider reprints and rights, at least at the higher end of the market.

It's not an unreasonable question either. I wrote a book-length business report and was paid $20,000. The publisher sells that report for something like $1200 (yes, apiece, welcome to the world of business) and as it turned out, this report is their best seller. In those terms, that's something like 100 or 150 copies, but do the math, it's clear the publisher is making significantly more money off this than I am. Should I get royalties?

Maybe. Do I? No. But it does give me some negotiating leverage for future reports and perhaps more importantly to my career, I can go to other publishers and say, "Hey, I wrote this, it made the publisher X number of dollars and sold this many copies, want to hire me?"

What certain work does for your reputation and how it helps deliver future work is a significant consideration if you're self-employed, as a writer or anything else.

Doing a book package deal for fiction may or may not have similar results. Would I be willing to write something like that for a relatively small amount of money and little or no royalties? It depends, but probably, yes. For a couple reasons.

1. Money. I have a mortgage, etc.

2. Wider readership. My own readership is fairly modest. If I were, say, given a chance to write a pre-sold concept (Star Wars, Star Trek, Murder She Wrote, CSI, et al) and still have my name on the cover, those books sell significantly more numbers than my own do. It's a great marketing bonus. It's also possible it will open other doors, bring you to the attention of editors and publishers at big houses, or even to producers and writers and execs in the TV and film industry. (Or video gaming industry, which is worth taking into consideration).

3. For the right book, I am SO there. My agent commented to me once that one of her clients was writing a Nancy Drew novel. She said there wasn't much money in it, but her client was thrilled to have the opportunity to do it. I can understand. I would absolutely love to write a Star Wars novel, among a few other franchises. There are some I wouldn't be interested in and so as a result, the money would have to make it worthwhile. But hey, if I had the opportunity to write about Obi Wan...

JDuncan said...

I would suppose it depends (as always) on what you are looking for as a writer. This kind of thing is done with movie scripts all the time I believe. I'm sure there a scriptwriters who have made a fine living and not once sold a script of their own creation. Understandably, there's a bigger chunk of money in movies, but still. If the money is good enough and you are really wanting to get your name out there, then more power to the writer who can. I suspect this kind of writing would be much easier for some writers than others. Anon is write though, it sounds like you get fairly underpaid for this kind of work, and seriously so if the book sells well.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:06: Ideas are easy, but bankable ideas aren't. I think in a lot of cases, the ideas for packaged fiction come from TV and movies, or another source where there's a built-in audience. They don't need a writer with exciting new ideas, or even a unique, fresh voice; they need a writer who's able to make a book that feels like an episode of Heroes. Even if the book series is not based in TV, they need a group of authors who are willing and able to write in the style established for the series--for instance, to write a Nancy Drew book that sounds like the other Nancy Drew books, or write a ...for Dummies book that sounds like the other Dummies books.

I'd certainly be willing to write a packaged book if it fit a form I could do well. I might approach it as a kind of promotion, getting writing credits that will get more readers, but I think it would be fun and challenging, moreso than some of the other stuff I do to make money as I work on the writing I truly want to do.

Keri Ford said...

I wouldn't have a problem writing somebody else's idea. My problem is execution. I don't know that I could follow somebody else's plot line and do what they wanted me to do.

For my writing, my characters rule the roost and if I don't play along with their wants, they don't play nice for me. All we do is chat in front of a brick wall until I can get my act together and write the story they want to be in. My husband finds this knack humorous, as I'm sure others do, but I imagine there's a group out there sharing my dilemma.

If I had more freedom and was approached with a, “write a story where the heroine runs a flower shop (or whatever) and the hero has allergies”, then I would be there. While the crappy pay certainly sucks, the benefit for me personally would be the publishing credits.

Anonymous said...

The numbers say it all. I've written a number of things work for hire, and the money's good. In fact, I'm writing one now, and it's going to be more profitable in one assignment than two years of being an e-press author (nonerotica, which is my problem--if I wrote erotica, the numbers would be far different). So I don't own the work. But I can get a new computer in a few months rather than a few years, which would be the case if I relied on my own, copyrighted, e-press work. And I'm still a working author.

Laura K. Curtis said...

For me, it would depend on how much input the packager had.

I've written for magazines, where I was writing what they told me to write (and then hiding my head when they edited it to the point where it embarrassed me by its sheer inaccuracy), but fiction is different. I can't even outline my own books, let alone follow someone else's outline. My characters do what they want to do, not what I want them to do. That might change if the plot the idea-person came up with seemed natural to the characters they came up with. If all the packagers said was "we think there's a market for sheep shearing mysteries," and they were willing to pay me to write one, then, sure, I'd do that.

In my opinion, if you want to make a living writing and aren't a "big name" yet, chances are you're already making some decisions along the lines of being your own "packager." So that next step isn't such a big one, really, as long as you still maintain some creative control.

Some of the questions I hear people discuss that indicate they're not writing happily away in a vacuum without outside input: What genre is still selling? What will or won't confuse readers? How many red herrings should your mystery have? How many secondary characters are too many for your romance? How much sex is enough and how much is too much? Can you kill an animal in your cozy or will that turn off readers?

So if you can consider those things, and someone says to you, "hey, we'll pay you to write a murder mystery series based on sheep shearing," and sheep shearing is something you're don't mind researching, then why not?

Spy Scribbler said...

Yes, of course I'd consider it, but I've always turned down flat fee pursuits in the past. I love my royalties. At the moment, they're the biggest investment I have going, which isn't saying much. It depends how much the flat fee is, of course.

I'd at least try to see if some tiered royalty scheme were negotiable, based on number of books sold.

Is that ever done?

Diana Peterfreund said...

In YA voice is everthing. The nature and style at which the story is executed is paramount. So for a package to act as if they are doing some great service to an author is ridiculous.

How can you make this argument when its YA where the packaged books dominate? Gossip Girls, Clique, Maximum Ride, "VC Andrews", etc. etc. (not to mention the old series like SVH, Babysitter's Club, Goosebumps, Fear Street, and even Nancy Drew) are all packaged books, most written by different writers for hire. The authors hired are told they need to write "like James Patterson" or "like RL Stine" or etc. So yes, there is voice involved, but it's one they are adopting for the purpose of the project.

I don't do writer for hire or packaged projects, and I do not have any interest in that market, but I do understand that it's a massive and successful market presence in my genre.

Anonymous said...

Can you share with us HOW to get these opportunities? Its kind of a moot point on IF we would do them if we can't FIND them.

I do have an agent who knows someone at Alloy, but aside from that major place...where else is there? Is it Kosher to send samples to other there somewhere to find out about opportuntiies?

I'd be happy to get my start doing write-for-hire, packager stuff, etc, but I can't FIND The dang things.

Spy Scribbler said...

Re: voice comment

I don't buy into the whole "each author only has one true voice" idea. I tend to believe some writers can sit down and write in the style of the series, for the most part.

Re: anon 11:51

I'd love the answer to those question. The Unit sold ... maybe seven months ago? I was so bummed! And I'd do Alias any day of the week.

But I thought the writers were already on board ... hence the packaging bit?

Anonymous said...

Diana Peterfreund --

I'm Anon 9:06.

Thanks for your comment. Please reread my post -- I'm actually agreeing with you. Yes, I understand the nature of packaged books in YA, I write and read YA. I've read the books you mentioned.

The point of my post was that a corporation flinging a few character names and some plot points for a series/packaged book is EASY compared to the work the writer has to do to create it.

Yes, voice in YA is paramount. All those packaged book authors probably have to supress their natural voice in order to write in accordance with the series of packaged books, which would make it even harder.

My point was that packagers might feel the plot points or character names are the hard part, when we all understand here that the hard part is executing those ideas effectively.

Anonymous said...


I woke up this morning ready to sell out. Yes, I'm in!

Really, though, I don't think it's "selling out" as much as it seems. I imagine it's a contracted gig, and as long as bills get paid, I'd be a happy girl.

Plus, I'd imagine it'd look decent on your resume/cover letter/tombstone.

This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzan Harden said...


Twenty years ago, DC Comics approached a young journalist/writer named Neil Gaiman about resurrecting an old, not-so-popular DC character.

Work for hire? My answer would be 'Heck, yeah!'

Liana Brooks said...

Interesting discussion... I've worked newspaper and I've done freelance one freelance article with no burning desire to do another but I'm not sure how I'd feel about work-for-hire.

I know I wouldn't be happy with a flat rate because, optimist that I am, I'd expect the book to sell well and I would want some of the profits from that...

On the other hand...

I think it might depend on how detailed the "bible" was. If someone handed me a napkin with a few names and a general log-line idea scribbled down I'd have to put a lot of work into the plot, writing, and polishing and I'd expect to be fairly compensated. IF someone approached me with a bible that was almost complete and really just needed editing to be a book I'd be able to view it as a professional editing job and just edit. Then I could see taking a flat fee.

As for the practice of packaging, I think it's interesting but I've never cared for the packaged books. I didn't like them when I was younger and I haven't seen a series I like now, including the Star Wars, Star Trek, ect. I think the closest I get to the packaged books are the Forgotten Realms series and even those lose their flavor after a time.

On the bright side it keeps a fellow author from starving and I'll always support that :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this amazing blog. I have learned so much.

However... who is Grind Guys and why are you letting him hijack your comment threads? Just me, but I'd erase him before others follow suit.

KATZ said...

I'd write for a packaged idea. For the money involved, and if it's my voice they're after, a chance to launch your name, etc.

Overall, though, I find packaging a daunting concept, as an author in competition for the market.

It seems with fewer and fewer publishing spots available -- you now have this smaller group of people with contacts and people "in-the-know" who can just sell an idea... and get it published.

As an author, I have to write a high-concept, breakout book all on my own to compete, and be able to get enough people excited about my writing, and not just the idea.

I have lots of great ideas -- but not the clout to get it done... it almost feels like Barnes&Noble putting the independent booksellers out of business -- now the big packagers are potentially putting independent authors out of business...