Genre fiction and Tie-in Fiction – a conversation between Mark Charan Newton and Dan Abnett.

Mark Charan Newton was born in 1981, and has worked as an editor for imprints covering film and media tie-in fiction, and later SF and Fantasy. His first novel, Nights of Villjamur, is published by Pan Macmillan (Tor UK), and will be released in June 2010 from Random House (Bantam Spectra).

In a previous life, I worked as an editor of tie-in fiction for properties of 2000AD and New Line Cinema – further adventures, not merely novelisations of screenplays. It was an immense amount of fun. The books were entertaining, the stories possessed many facets, and the authors were great to work with. They handled the job as seriously as any other writers I’ve met, and took immense pride in their work. For many, it was a stepping stone to getting their own work published. For others, they developed their craft in worlds belonging to others, exploring aspects that couldn’t be covered on the screen.

I’m now a writer of original fantasy fiction, and I’ve been hugely lucky in the reception to my work, and this difference in attitude between original and tie-in fiction has interested me, and even shocked me.

So, meet Dan Abnett. You might have heard of him. He’s sold over 1.2 million books – a staggering number. One of his Warhammer 40,000 novels was the 8th bestselling SF and Fantasy title in the UK in 2008 – overall for the year. He writes popular comic strips for Marvel. He writes further adventures for Dr Who. He writes audio adventures. As well as recently releasing Triumff, an original novel, he’s the undisputed king of tie-in fiction. But, I can sense from some of you out there that by mentioning the phrase tie-in, you’ve automatically lost a little enthusiasm.

Why? That’s what I want to explore with Dan. We had a conversation about tie-in fiction, work for hire, and original fiction, the stigmas associated, and why such snobbery only seems to exist in genre fiction. I really hope that we can change people’s opinions about what seems to be the black sheep of the literature family.

Mark Charan Newton: You see it frequently these days – a literary fiction star such as Jonathan Lethem wanting to write a comic strip for Omega the Unknown, or Jodi Piccoult writing a Wonder Woman series. There’s a sense of reverence and pedigree involved. It has cool factor. But those authors are writing for a franchise that is not creator-owned. It’s not their world; the characters are often not their own. But let’s go the other way. For an author to write tie-in fiction – that is, fiction connected to a franchise or character, that isn’t technically owned by the author – it is still treated as a gaucherie by the majority of genre fans. The books suffer by not getting proper review coverage, and sometimes they are not even considered as ‘real’ works. Why do you think tie-in fiction is treated as the second-class citizen of the genre world? I mean, the same could often be said about the treatment of genre fiction and the literary world. The situation reminds me of this sketch on class, with John Cleese and the Two Ronnies.

Dan Abnett: There are any number of contributing factors, and many of them are inevitably contradictory. Let’s start with a basic assumption: if you write as a hired gun, you must be in it for the dosh. You don’t really care what you’re writing. Therefore (obviously), you’re just crapping it out, words per square inch. In other words, tie-in fiction MUST by the very nature of its manufacture, be poor, disposable and second-rate.
It’s possible that an awful lot of people think this. They may not even mean to think it. There’s also a possibility (actually, a very high probability) that an awful lot of people in what I’m happy to refer to as “my line of work” believe that’s what other people think.

I think it’s worth getting this out of the way right at the start: writers of tie-in fiction may, sometimes, involuntarily, feel slightly guilty. They may be, involuntarily defensive. They know what the perception can be, and it contaminates them slightly. Tie-in writers can be their own worst enemies.

Having made that admission, we should reflect that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.

Mark: It’s interesting you mention the money as a perceived incentive, and you’re quite right. But I suppose without naming names, there have been writers who have been strapped for cash and wanted to do tie-in fiction because they thought it was easy money. Hang around at a convention bar and you’ll hear those stories. So, as an aside – you’ve written both original fiction and tie-in fiction, so which do you find is easier?

Dan: I actually think it’s harder to write for franchises in many ways, as you’re constantly checking (or you damn well should be!) that you’re remaining true to the source, in terms of detail, fluff, character and style. It’s quite demanding to be so engaged, so ‘on’, permanently policing your actions within the boundaries of someone else’s property. In your own work, you only have to check with yourself about where the edges are. This labour is OF COURSE counter-balanced by the creative efforts involved in original invention – let me just say that before anyone has an indignant spasm. It is, however, worth pointing out that in many franchises (and Warhammer 40K is one of them) there is an immense amount of creative elbow-room for a hired gun, despite the quantity of IP already generated. I know I’ve generated as much new stuff, concepts and other fallout in my 40K books as I would have in an original piece of combat SF. Naturally, the same isn’t true of a very ‘tight’ franchise like Who or Trek. Maybe that creative variation is something we can come back to.

Anyway! What I’m basically saying is that if a hired gun’s doing his or her job properly and responsibly, it should be hard graft. You’re obliged to understand and work within an established universe, and create something that is both completely appropriate and sympathetic, while also being creative and innovative, without breaking the furniture or staining the carpet.

So people do that for money. It’s nice to be paid to write a Doctor Who story, but for many of us, it’s also nice to write a Doctor Who story. That’s a big part of the appeal, and perhaps one of the reasons that ‘named’ authors such as you mentioned at the start are drawn to this work. It’s fun. It’s cool. There’s a considerable geek thrill to be had from legitimately working on a franchise that you might have admired or even loved for years. You want to do a good job no matter what the level of remuneration (and, let’s be fair, the likes of Jodi and Jon probably got paid a better than scale rate for their work. Probably. I don’t know, I’m just guessing).

Isn’t it interesting how the top end is swinging around just now? In the last year, we’ve had a ‘new’ James Bond, a ‘new’ Hitchhiker’, a ‘new’ Pooh, and a ‘new’ Wild Things, all by writers who were hardly unheard of beforehand. What was it that appealed to them, do you think? Did they get that electric geek thrill of legitimate participation that said you’ve got to be part of this because you love it SO much, or were they hired guns in the bad old sense of the phrase? To paraphrase the classic Mrs Merton interview question, “What was it that first attracted you to the multi-gazillion selling franchise of Douglas Adams?”

Mark: That’s one of the things many folk forget – that you can create as much in a franchise as you can in any SF novel. And how prescriptive are some SF novels these days? You have very similar check-in points: the singularity, or FTL travel – an unspoken set of rules to which a writer might adhere. It could be argued then, that in many respects, there’s little difference between original SF and franchise fiction, except for the brand or the built-in fanbase. There are rules for each. There is originality in both. There is room, in both, for talented prose and show-off art, and there’s plenty of scope for thought-provoking stories.

Excellent point about the new Bond and Hitchhiker novels. Perhaps they were very rare opportunities – one-offs – and authors thought, “I MUST write that book, I simply must.” But those are major properties, and bring with them a rise in author profile, certainly – not that Sebastian Faulks needed it. Bringing a prestigious author to a franchise certainly makes the industry take notice. The cynic in me thinks there were clever marketing types behind the scenes. But you’re right, there is a sea change.

I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as those examples: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.
Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about. Some reviewers might suggest that tie-in fiction doesn’t need the coverage since lots of people buy it anyway, but that could be said of, for example, the new Wheel of Time novel. Have you personally noticed much difference between coverage of your tie-in work, and that of your original fiction?

Dan: Yes. I have. Triumff is my thirty-sixth published novel, and my first original work. Creatively, it was a different experience in many ways, but as basic labour, it was largely the same in terms of man-hours, effort, necessary inspiration etc. I have had the experience of ‘writing a novel‘ on thirty-five previous occasions, and this felt like a close enough match. Already, however, it’s being mentioned and reviewed all over the place. That’s brilliant, of course it’s brilliant, but it’s startling to see how readily acceptable a book without the franchise tag is. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some good review coverage for my 40K books over the last few years, but the breadth of that coverage has been restricted. I’ve also written several best-sellers. The first one was Border Princes, the Torchwood novel. That was in the national top ten for something like six weeks, depending on which chart you read. Several major newspapers made no mention of it (or its two wingmen – the first three Torchwoods hit the charts together like sailors on shore leave). The top tens of these papers, week in, week out, omitted all tie-in and franchise titles. I also remember, when I was starting out and I’d written my first two or three novels, I taught myself to cherish the (genuinely intended) compliment “it was much better than I thought it was going to be.”

I don’t mean to sound bitter in the slightest. Do I sound bitter? I’m really not. I’m just pointing up the differences. I’ve been a freelance writer for two decades, and I started out in comics. Writing comics – for Marvel, for 2000AD – still represents about fifty percent of my working life. In comics, and let’s use an American publisher like Marvel or DC as an example, the goal is to write an established character. I’m talking about the mainstream. There is fierce competition and honour involved in becoming the regular writer on, say, Captain America or Batman, in securing an X-book project or a Justice League mini-series, essentially in achieving tenure on a well-established character or team and making your contribution. The Dark Knight Returns is considered to be one of the best mainstream comic works in the medium. It’s simply Frank Miller giving us his version of Batman (yeah, I know, “simply”… you know what I mean). In comics, being a ‘franchise’ writer (or artist) is the gold standard. It’s not simply that there’s no stigma attached to being a hired gun in the wonderful world of comics, it’s positively encouraged. There is no pejorative association whatsoever.

Mark: Well you’re a better man than me – I think I could certainly be bitter with such a situation! But those last sentences really hit home – work for hire for comics has no stigma attached, work for hire in franchise fiction does. It’s as simple as that.

What do you think about the world of short fiction, or even serial fiction throughout history? Writing stories in a pay-per-word environment could, potentially, (and I really am playing devil’s advocate here, because this isn’t the case for the vast majority of writers), encourage purple prose, waffle and a tangential approach to narrative, yet because it’s original work, it will always be assumed it’s of a higher calibre than, for example, a tightly edited, quality piece of franchise fiction.

Do you think there are many similarities between the incentive to write short-stories, and the incentive to write tie-in fiction? (Properties aside.)

Dan: I think if someone is genuinely writing prose by the yard just to fill up a word count quota and get a pay-cheque, then more fool him, and more fool any readership that tolerates it. Or, come to that, any commissioning editor who accepts it. Despite the odd and inevitable case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, surely readers can tell if something’s good or not by their gut response? They can tell if someone’s just banging it out and their heart’s not in it? Can’t they? Please tell me they can!

There are writers from time to time, (and this goes for artists in other fields like movies and music), who seem to have a bulletproof aura about them. No matter what they do, they are regarded as touched by the genius stick. Sometimes it’s baffling. Despite all evidence to the contrary, a piece of work can be hailed as the Best Thing Ever, simply because Someone’s name is attached to it and it’s cool to say you like that Someone. Does that last? Do people see through it eventually when their love affair with [name of cool author here] fades in the light of repeated disappointment with their ACTUAL PRODUCT?

There’s something refreshingly no-nonsense about tie-in fiction by comparison. It keeps your feet on the ground. It is, I suppose, easier to judge whether a tie-in author has done a good job. For example, a Star Trek fan will generally be able to tell if an author has written a good Star Trek novel. Does it get Star Trek IP ‘right’? Has it hit the marks? Have fluff and character and continuity been respected? Tick all the boxes that make a good Star Trek novel a good Star Trek novel AND been able to successfully carry the book to a new level and do something fresh and exciting and unexpected that is STILL Star Trek? I’m thinking, just for example, of Peter David’s Next Gen books, where he gave the readers everything they could want of a Next Gen book, plus his trademark zinging dialogue. The dialogue and repartee was often streets ahead of the show, but it was entirely in character and never threatened the IP. They were books that Next Gen fans wanted to read because they were great Next Gen books AND great books.

I suppose what I’m saying is it’s hard to fool a tie-in reader with smoke and mirrors. If you do a particularly good job, they’ll tell you so, and your book will sell. If you do a bad job they will let you know by not buying it. They will never pretend to enjoy your book and/or understand, it just because you’re the writer it’s cool to say you like at the moment. They keep you honest. Shockingly, slap-in-the kisser and down-to-Earth-with-a-crunch honest. Which is good, right? ;)

Mark: Yes, that’s an accurate point about writers’ reputations. Perhaps that’s inevitable, and an ironic, benefit of tie-in work – that the fiction is noticed (when it is at all) more than the author. It also strikes me as that’s when criticism and reviewing is at its most honest, too.

But the fan reaction – now that’s something else isn’t it? Fans for tie-in fiction are a lively bunch, to say the least. They’ll argue over the finest details. They’ll be in awe at certain scenes and references. How cool is that for a writer, to get a huge spectrum of responses from passionate, caring readers? In an age where the death of literature is declared with predictable regularity, seeing so many fans react so vigorously is something else. Is that some consolation to the lack of review coverage in “established” venues?

Dan: It’s a great shot in the arm. I think the reason they can be so passionate is the very ‘shared universe’ aspect of tie-in fiction. An author of original fiction, no matter how beloved, can present him or herself to the readership as an aloof and unassailable master of his world, but a good tie-in writer is considered more like a trusted guide or an enlightened devotee. The universe in Triumff is mine: it comes out of my head and I’m god there, but the universe of Warhammer 40K is a thing separate to me, it’s something both I and the 40K readers have a creative communion with, which means there’s greater equality between me and my readers. It is assumed, rightly most of the time, that tie-on writers are electrified by the worlds they have been given the keys to. We are as subject to the rules and laws of the world as the regular fan or reader; we cannot, through whimsy, mistake or simple disaffection, overwrite or overthrow the IP of the universe we’re writing about. We may have been granted greater powers and greater access than the average reader, but we are still standing on the readers’ side of things, sharing their enthusiasms and considering their speculations. We are sharing their experience, and they to want to talk to us about it.

Mark: So hopefully by now we’ve persuaded people to consider tie-in fiction as an equal of original fiction. In addition to this, I guess what a lot of readers don’t know is that high-profile authors of original fiction have written tie-in work in the past. Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote a tie-in novel to accompany the David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ. World Fantasy Award winner Robert Holdstock has written tie-in fiction. James Blish novelised Star Trek. Jack Yeovil was a pseudonym of Kim Newman, who wrote many well-received Warhammer books. The list goes on…

There are some good books out there. So to finish off, which would you recommend to those who may still frown upon tie-in fiction?

Dan: Well, me for a start ;)

We could, between us, produce a long, long list: I’ve already mentioned Peter David on Trek, you’ve just added Blish’s Star Trek, and Kim Newman, then there’s Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars and Trek books (he allegedly ghost-wrote the original Star Wars novelisation). In fact, Foster should have been mentioned before. A good case could be made for the fact that, with Star Wars, Alien and others, he set the bar for modern tie-in writing. It’s easy to underestimate what a good writer he is: he’s incredibly readable and always brought extra meat to the bare bones of whatever IP he was working on. If there’s a general failure of tie-in writing, it’s most commonly that “bare minimum syndrome”, usually brought about by over-harsh IP control. Anyway, in the seventies Foster thoroughly embraced the commercial prospects of the tie-in novel, cocked a snook at the associated stigmas, and did very well for himself, thank you. I have many literary heroes, but it’s fair to say that Foster is one of my real professional heroes.

Where was I? You know what, I think if you’re going to savour the works of the world’s hired guns, it ought to be done in the spirit of tie-in. Don’t choose by author, not to begin with. Chose by property. Pick an IP you like. You enjoy Doctor Who? Go choose a Doctor Who novel that appeals. You like Dune? Etc etc. I think you’ll soon figure out who you like reading. It’ll be the ones who get it like you do.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post guys. Personally if I tend to read authors rather than franchises, but if I pick up a book and like the writing I will follow the author around through different worlds, genres, publishers or formats quite cheerfully. I am much more likely to do that than to follow a new franchise because of one author within it. I have had some interesting conversations though with people who follow series and who happily compare different authors takes on them (and in the sudden improvement in the artwork like with Dan’s latest Gaunts Ghosts novel). I think the whole issue of tie ins is an interesting one so thanks for this. :)

  2. says

    It isn’t helped by the fact that much of the “licensed” fantasy fiction (D&D, etc) IS second-rate and mediocre. Good for Dan for having principles and caring about what he writes.

  3. says

    Nice interview! As a veteran tie-in writer myself, I’ve run into some of these attitudes before. The one that tends to get my goat is the “he’s just in it for the money” argument. As though getting paid and taking pride in your work is somehow mutually exclusive. Yes, I want to get paid for my time and effort (who doesn’t?), but I’m also a lifelong fanboy who still thrills at chance to write STAR TREK or BUFFY or THE GREEN HORNET or whatever. I know dozens of tie-in writers and editors and all of them want to produce the best books and stories possible.

  4. Nathan Long says

    A very interesting conversation, gentlemen, and one that, as a tie-in writer myself, I have some stake in. You raise some interesting points.

    1 – The self-consciousness of tie-in writers. I just returned from the World Fantasy COnvention, and though I have nine successful books to my name, I still had a sense of not yet being in the club – even with younger writers who had only sold one book. The question is, was that my perception because I know I haven’t published a ‘real’ book yet? Or were there an actual class distinctions being made? I don’t know. I do know that I came away from the con like the guy from the “They laughed when I sat down at the piano” adverts. I was full of “I’ll show them,” and “Just wait ’til next year.” Which is probably as good a motivation as any.

    2 – There is an argument to be wary of here. I have heard a lot of the tie-in mob say they should be given respect because the job is hard – more difficult in fact than writing original fiction. But that really shouldn’t be a consideration, should it? Process is and should be invisible to the punters. The only thing that matters is the end product, and the only reason we should be given respect is because we have written a good book. Of course, that’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re not given respect (or at least reviews) when we HAVE written a good book. Nobody knows except the fans of the franchise.

    Hmm. Now that I think of it, that might just be the key. It isn’t really important to get readers to respect us. Those that read us do already (at least if we’re good.) The people we need to reach are the reviewers, because it is the reviewers who tell the greater reading public that it is okay to read a particular book. Now we just have to figure out why reviewers are allergic to tie-ins.

    3 – In regards to living with those “It’s better than I thought it would be,” sort of comments, I have noticed a similar thing in fan reviews I get, whether on Amazon or fan forums or blogs. Many of the reviews start with some variation of “It’s not Shakespeare, but…” And then go on to say how much they liked it. The qualifier seems to be a way get over the reader’s embarrassment for having liked a tie-in – like they’re distancing themselves at the same time they’re praising it.

    Or maybe I’m really not Shakespeare. Who knows?

  5. says

    This might be heresy to say, but I found tie-in fiction easier than original fiction because I had a structure and world already built-in that I had to follow. I don’t think the ease or difficulty of creating a work of fiction determines its worth, I should add.

  6. says

    Great stuff, guys. As the author of over 70 tie-in novels from movies to Trek to Men in Black, I agree with just about everything you said. I’ve been writing original books for the last five years, mostly under pen names because of some of the problems you talked about, actually. One publisher wants me to keep my original books name silent for the moment because, as they put it, they didn’t want reviews for the mystery novels starting “Star Trek writer Dean Wesley Smith, writing as….”

    And I agree that we get in our own way more than anything when it comes to the attitude. But I do think the stigma is slowly fading. We all just have to keep writing the best damn books we can write, no matter what world they are in. Then we eventually win this fight.

  7. says

    Preach it, brothers, and I’ll go ahead and ignore the jab from “Gadget Sleuth.” (kinda)

    I think we’re all ill-served by sweeping proclamations of the sort: All tie-in fiction is bad, when indeed there is good and bad in anything, including tie-in fiction. I’ve written two I was not at all proud of, and eight I’m very proud of, and every day work my butt off to make sure that Gadget Sleuth is wrong (and he is, by the way).

    Used to be I figured, okay, stigmatize me. I’ll be stigmatized all the way to the bank. But 14 years on, it does smart when you work as hard as we do and someone shortcuts through actually reading or thinking and just dismisses you.

  8. mastadge says

    Jeff,

    That might be because of the world in which you were working. PREDATOR fits, more or less, into our world, and has a relatively small set of characters, rules and so forth to work with (and around). And you’re working with all new characters every time. I imagine the Predator “series bible” isn’t terribly intimidating. Working within, on the other hand, Star Trek or Star Wars or Warhammer or D&D or the Marvel or DC universe, with thousands of characters spread over decades of continuity in various media might add a bit to the challenge, especially to a writer who may have seen the films or been exposed to a couple books but hasn’t been immersed in the fantasy world in the way all the fans who will be screaming over the slightest off detail in the book have been.

    One of the big reasons I don’t read more tie-in fiction is that I don’t have time in my life for a new addiction. These days I’ll follow a writer I like through worlds with which I’m familiar — Star Wars, for instance — but usually won’t pick up novels based on video games I haven’t played or rpgs I’m not familiar with unless I really love the author’s work. It’s a matter of time and accessibility as much as taste.

  9. says

    I’m of two minds on this subject… I feel the same fondness for theDoctor Who novels published by Virgin and BBC Books during the period no TV series was in production that other people feel for the Sherlock Holmes stories, orThe Lord of the Rings. (And I’ve written perhaps overanalytical reviews of many of them on my blog.) On the other hand, I have to admit that the tie-in genre tests Sturgeons Law by including a higher than usual share of crap–not so much ninety percent as ninety-nine.

    The first problem is when authors think like the fan in Dan Abnett’s example (“Does it get Star Trek IP ‘right’? Has it hit the marks? Have fluff and character and continuity been respected?”) and don’t bother, or don’t realize they need to bother, to go on to the second half of Abnett’s prescription and write something “fresh and exciting and unexpected,” as they would with their own original work.

    I think Abnett’s right that “over-harsh IP control” plays a role, too. TheDoctor Who books stopped being interesting once the new series broke and the BBC started paying attention to them. The same thing happened to theStar Trek tie-ins during the 1980s; one minute Diane Duane and John M. Ford were writingThe Romulan Way andHow Much For Just the Planet?, the next minute they collapsed into boredom. Tie-in novels are healthiest when the people who own the property barely notice they exist.

  10. says

    Gentlemen, great post (I’m writing a linking post to it on my blog as we speak) and I agree it comes down to what you put in is what you get out of it. As a former SFBC editor, I’ve read more tie-in fiction than most (and am a big fan of many of the commenters: Greg, Dean & Philip to name a few!) and it can go either way with this work but ultimately its for the fans.

    Certainly tie-in fiction has many detractors but I think this mentality is changing also. And maybe I’m just one of those people not embarassed to be reading a Wolverine mmpb on the subway (of which I’ve read 5 or 6 fantastic Wolvie tie-ins, and one really bad one, by the way, for example).

    I fully realize there can be pluses or minuses to this type of writing process, but I wanted to chime in as one champion and supporter of the form (and someone who’ll be working with tie-in fiction in a new way). It’s great to see people in the field talking about it, and let’s keep the dialogue going.

  11. says

    I’d love to see a follow-up interview with Dan that dug a little more into the question of tie-in fiction’s ability to meet, say, Michael Moorcock’s challenges in his Fantastic Metropolis ‘Christmas Editorial’. Can it be subversive? Can it be *as* subversive, say, as a Jeff Vandermeer novel? Should it even be trying?

    The best stuff to come out of the WH40k universe (well, that I’ve read anyway) was Ian Watson’s Inquisitor trilogy back in the day–a plausible preemptor of several of the ‘New Weird’s’ tenets, in place well before those were codified into a genre movement and batted around, but generally dismissed, I’ve always assumed, because of its tie-in label.

  12. says

    Never been into franchise novels apart from a few Dr Who ones such as Just War that I borrowed as a teen – it always seems either like glorified fanfiction or just a moneyspinner.

    I’d love to read Mieville’s Hellboy story one day though, because it has that air of “guest writer” rather than knocking out a bit of cheap fiction for fans who’ll buy anything with the brand name on it.

    Except for in videogame adaptation terms I haven’t really got much time for extended, multi-format franchises full stop – I’ll watch a movie or a TV series but I don’t feel a great need to read books written in the same universe, for instance. There’s just too much else out there to occupy myself with.

  13. says

    Great interview. As a tie-in writer myself (for ‘Doctor Who’ and its spin-offs) there are numerous points here I could add to, agree or disagree with. I’ll just focus on a couple for the sake of everyone’s attention span and sanity.

    Firstly, like it or not tie-ins have an ambiguous status somewhere between books and branded merchandise. In the case of a massive brand that shifts millions of t-shirts, tote bags and whatever, this means that the tricky bit of the book – those 300 typed bits between the covers with the all-important logo – can be the least important bit in terms of getting good sales. Good, diligent writers and editors working with helpful and responsive licensing people can work wonders within these confines. However the editorial priority can easily focus on fitting the contents of the book within branding guidelines at the expense of the book itself being interesting as a read in it’s own right (no pun intended).

    This situation can be exacerbated by deadlines, especially for time-sensitive material that needs to be written for a specific release or air date. Deadlines for tie-ins can be brutal, and with a tick-list of branding and continuity issues to fit into, it’s a lot of work to get 100,000 functional words in place, words that will be signed-off by everyone else and are professional enough to print, never mind worrying about whether the book has unique qualities. This is not to knock the end result – the writer has done a professional job, and should be applauded for getting it done. But the finished product is unlikely to challenge a standalone work that has been slaved over for years in terms of sheer craft.

    Which is not to say it can’t be done, shouldn’t be done and isn’t done – but these are the pressures a lot of the time. (I’ve been lucky, by the way, to not have too many of these strictures in the past.)

    Finally – reviews of tie-ins. I have to wonder whether most tie-ins actually need them, and whether the publishers therefore throw that much effort into getting reviews. It takes a degree of manpower to cajole the press with review copies, press releases and follow-up calls to get reviews, and if a book is likely to sell a certain amount on brand power alone, is it worth it? Also, from the perspective of reviews editors, there are lots and lots of books published, and tie-ins make a large section of those – even a specialised magazine like SFX or Deathray has limits on the page count it can devote to book reviews, and have tended to do round-ups and capsule reviews for the more prolific ranges.

    Anyway, interesting discussion. I could say more, but I think I’ve already said quite enough for now…

  14. says

    Mark: You have a point about the publicity efforts. From a publishing standpoint, one of the advantages of tie-in novels is that, in theory, they sell themselves. Or rather you’re piggybacking on the studio’s hype and publicity to sell your books, instead of having to generate all the interest yourself.

    Still, a few more reviews would be nice, especially in magazines that cater to media fans anyway. (It always drove me nuts that STARLOG never reviewed media tie-in novels–despite running cover stories on the latest new movies and tv shows every issue!)

  15. says

    Greg: Yeah, the great advantage of writing tie-in books is the built in, almost guaranteed audience. As was mentioned in the interview, you’re pretty much guaranteed far more feedback than you’d get for the average standalone novel. That feedback and enthusiasm is one of the things that makes writing for an established series so much fun – and it is fun, and worthwhile, just in case I sounded too negative above.

    One site that reviews a lot of TV tie-in books and audios is Unreality SF: http://unreality-sf.net/.

  16. Nathan Long says

    Some interesting points, Mark, and I agree with you that most tie-ins are unlikely to challenge a standalone work that has been slaved over for years. But what about all those stand-alones that come out one or two a year – all the mid-list cat mysteries, urban vampire romances, and fantasy-lite books? I would argue that a lot of tie-in fiction is on a par with those in terms of quality, and is often quite a bit above, and yet those books, because they are not associated with another property, get reviewed and listed, while tie-ins do not.

    It’s like I said in my earlier comment. I know it’s not Shakespeare, and I know I can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare. What I want, I guess, is to be mentioned in the same breath as Carrie Vaughn and Raymond Feist.

  17. says

    Nathan – very good points. There’s plenty of ‘original’ fiction that does a similar job to tie-ins – targeting a very specific market, turned around relatively quickly, distinct cover motifs and designs so fans can grab them easily – but which get a bit more respect than books tied to other media do.

    That seems particularly unfair to authors working within big, open worlds like Warhammer, who arguably have a *wider* creative canvas to work with than someone who is knocking a vampire romance out to a template cribbed from previous successes.

  18. says

    “I’d love to see a follow-up interview with Dan that dug a little more into the question of tie-in fiction’s ability to meet, say, Michael Moorcock’s challenges in his Fantastic Metropolis ‘Christmas Editorial’. Can it be subversive? Can it be *as* subversive, say, as a Jeff Vandermeer novel? Should it even be trying?”

    I certainly would argue so. The best STAR WARS novel by a light-year is Matt Stover’s ‘Traitor’, which is somewhat subversive, undercuts and challenges some of the basic assumptions of the reader and generally throws the reader a series of curveball questions which need to pondered and examined rather than given a black or white answer. Some STAR WARS fans lapped it up and thought it was awesome, some wondered why there weren’t more space battles. I’m guessing that’s why we don’t see more of that kind of thing. When it does happen, it is quite impressive.

    It’d also be interesting trying to map the differences between different forms of ‘borrowed setting’ fiction. Are tie-ins, spin-offs and shared world books all cut from the same tree or to be judged with different standards? A new DOCTOR WHO novel versus SANDMAN (a spin-off from the DC Universe) versus WILD CARDS. Following that line of thought, why do comic/graphic novel spin-offs/tie-ins/reboots seem to have a much easier time of things critically compared to others? WATCHMEN, after all, started as a rebooting of a bunch of half-forgotten comics from fifty years earlier until they were (fairly cosmetically) altered to something less copyright-challenging, and Moore doesn’t exactly get lambasted for not creating 100% new characters, nor is Gaiman criticised for using the DC Universe’s versions of Lucifer and Destiny as characters in SANDMAN.

    What about books which are unimportant spin-offs which don’t affect the main series versus those that are (the STAR TREK and DOCTOR WHO novels are not canon, for example, whilst the BABYLON 5 ones are and the STAR WARS books are canon until George Lucas says they’re not)? Does that affect how well-written the book can be? Does the necessity of returning to the status quo at the end of the book adversely affect its quality?

    Lots to think about from this debate.

  19. says

    +++Star Trek or Star Wars or Warhammer or D&D or the Marvel or DC universe, with thousands of characters spread over decades of continuity+++

    Although I think that the game-universes (Warhammer and WH40K, D&D, World of Darkness) have an advantage over the story-universes (Star Wars and so on) because the game universes have been designed as frameworks for the players’ own stories and events. I work in the 40Kverse, and if I want to make up a character, a whole cast, a new planet, a war that’s been going for centuries, an alien race, a master villain, I can do all that, and have it play out how I like – kill the hero, blow up the planet, end the war or leave it to run another generation.

    Dan’s work is a great example of this: he’s created the Sabbat Worlds Crusade as the overarching narrative for the “Gaunt’s Ghosts” novels. It’s a decades-long war across dozens of star systems, with troop movements routinely numbering in the billions and entire worlds being laid waste or physically obliterated. And he’s been able to create the Crusade out of whole cloth because that’s specifically the sort of thing the 40Kverse was built to let people do.

    My impression is that it’s different when you’re writing for an IP that’s defined by a pre-existing story like the rebellion against Emperor Palpatine or the career of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to which the new work has to have definite points of connection. All I have to go on is my impression, though, and I’d be interested to hear the comments of writers who’ve worked in those sorts of IPs.

  20. says

    “the STAR TREK and DOCTOR WHO novels are not canon”

    Can open, worms everywhere.

    Actually, though the Star Trek people were very clear that their books aren’t canon, the BBC have specifically stated that it’s up to fans to sort out, and indeed some concepts and ideas from the books have seeped into the new tv series.

    I’d refer you to Paul Cornell’s essay in which he essentially says there can’t be a canon where Doctor Who is concerned: http://www.paulcornell.com/2007/02/canonicity-in-doctor-who.html

    And the Wikipedia article on the Whoniverse which covers the topic in some detail:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whoniverse

    As far as I’m concerned the tv show is no more of less important than anything else, they’re just glimpses of the same story running over decades in our time, centuries in his, and it’s just that sometimes those glimpses are through the prism of tv, books, comics and audios.

  21. says

    On the main point, mainstream media does a massive disservice to tie-in fiction, especially when you consider who it often venerates its original text. So pages and pages will be written about the television Doctor Who but little on the books or even audio books and on the rare occasions they do warrant a mention it’s with the same distanced disdain the tv version did in the late 80s. Something other, unusual, uninteresting. When in fact some of the work is more literate that the series of origin.

  22. says

    As a tie-in writer (5 Stargate novels and a short story, and currently working on an SGU novel) I’ve had a literary writer publicly snub me with such venom that I burst out laughing. His companion (an impoverished writer) later came to me and whispered, with one eye on the crowds to ensure none of his literary pals caught him sucking up to the tie-in dregs, how I managed to get this gig and how he could get on board.

    It’s not the first time, nor the last, that I’ve had that experience. I was a published writer for more than 20 years, with three original novels under my belt (and several hundred articles and short stories) before writing Stargate tie-ins. The snobbery was as amusing and surprising to me as the existence of fans who are utterly convinced the world we write is real (at a convention, one fan actually asked me what was it like to go the through the Stargate. Mind you, I was sitting with Gary Lockwood at the time, and the same fan asked him what it was like to attend the academy with James Kirk…)

    But I digress. Intrigued by all of this, I ultimately wrote a Masters thesis on the subject of tie-ins titled ‘The Attraction of Sloppy Nonsense’. While researching it, I encountered an interesting phenomena: the more a genre or sub-genre is snubbed by other writers, the better it sells. Just go have a look at what dominates the bookshelves.

    I’m not saying that tie-ins are better of worse in terms of quality and difficulty of writing (I personally think all Chapter Ones should be banned as they consume 99% of a writer’s time). I am saying that, as with all professions, snobbery is exacerbated by envy.

    Something else to think about: when writers of original works of fiction fail to please readers, the worst that happens to them is their books fail to sell. If tie-in writers fail to please fans, we’re burned at the stake. Tie-in writers are serious professionals. I’m proud to be called a serious professional who happens to love the craft of writing – in all genres.

  23. Cora says

    Nathan and Mark, when demanding respect for tie-in fiction (which is fully justified IMO) than crapping on other genres isn’t really the best way to go about it. Vampire romances, cat mysteries, category romances, standard quest fantasies may not be your personal cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that the authors writing in those genres are just cobbling together something from the template of previous successes. Not that there aren’t lazy authors in those genres, there are lazy authors everywhere, though most of them don’t last long. But the vast majority of paranormal romance, cozy mystery, etc… authors are working as hard on their books as any other writer, whether of tie-in or original fiction.

    Nor do these authors necessarily work on a smaller canvas. Vampires, for example, have been around for centuries, but they did not sparkle until Stephenie Meyer came along and they did not behave like nice suburban boys pretending to be rappers until J.R. Ward came along. Even authors writing category romances for Harlequin paint on as wide a canvas as they choose.

    More respect for tie-in fiction: I totally agree. But not by trampling on other genres.

  24. Nathan Long says

    Forgive me, Cora, if I seemed to put down any particular genre. That was not my intent. The point I had hoped to make was that tie-ins are often on a par with mid-list genre books – sometimes better written, sometimes worse, sometimes the same – and I was wishing that tie-ins would get the opportunity to be reviewed along side them as equals.

  25. says

    Ditto – I’m sure there are perfectly good vampire romance books, cat mysteries, etc. But there’s definitely a format there in a lot of cases, a template as rigid as any that tie-in authors have to work within. My point wasn’t so much that tie-ins are better or worse than these sub-genres, just that they work within similar levels of restriction and audience demands, yet the ones without a logo on the cover get a bit more respect.

  26. says

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8362658.stm

    Speaking of meeting the Moorcock challenges…

    I think it speaks volumes that he says, “I’ll be doing a new Doctor Who novel (not a tie-in) for appearance, I understand, by next Christmas.” Clearly Mr Moorcock sees a difference between writing a novel in a universe created by someone else and a ‘tie-in’. I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, but here’s a thought – is there a difference between a direct novelisation of story told another medium (such as Alan Dean Foster’s alien) and new stories and characters created within an existing universe? As an example, I have the graphic novelisation of the Time Burton Batman movie. Is this just another Batman graphic novel like Arkham Asylum or The Killing Joke, or has it crossed over into ‘tie-in’ fiction?

  27. says

    Great conversation including the comments. I’ve read quite a bit of tie-in or franchise fiction, especially Alan Dean Foster’s stuff in the 70s and 80s and I always loved that he would make the stories work, even if it meant changing something from the film.

    I have almost bought Abnett’s books many times, but always worry that a tie-in for a franchise I’m not familiar with will be harder to access than a ‘traditional’ novel because the franchise has a huge set of things that are known to the fans that might not be established for those not familiar. How do the writers of those “shared world” novels handle that?

  28. says

    What I’ve disliked about the (admittedly few) tie-in novels I’ve read has been the sense that they’re written too much for a hardcore fan-base that has no imagination of their own, which undersells it. I haven’t played Warhammer 40k for more than ten years, for example, but I don’t need every detail of a space marine’s weaponry and physiology spelled out to the detriment of the story being told. I have a decent level of background knowledge already and knew nothing about the Malazan world when I started reading them, but I didn’t find that a problem. While accuracy is important, it always looked as though they almost had instructions from the copyright holder to hit certain bullet points. Whether it was a lack of a creative freedom or a fear of alienating the core market, the books came across as creatively limited, which for me means there’s no point reading them however accomplished the prose actually is. I guess when you’ve got a brand to protect it’s hard to give a world to some writer and say ‘go nuts’, but for me that’s the only way tie-in novels are going to get respect from the market.

  29. Nathan Long says

    Pete and Tom, you guys have unwittingly (unless you know each other and did this on purpose – in which case, well done!) illustrated one of the tie-in writer’s dilemmas. There is a spectrum of readers, some who need to be brought up to speed on the background, some who just want to cut to the chase. How does a writer entertain both without turning off one or the other, while at the same time hitting the bullet points (and yes, the IP owners sometimes ask you to do that) that make the property what it is. The answer is probably, one can’t, but one can certainly try.

    My way of doing it – and I can’t speak for anyone else – is to make sure that the novel I’m writing is a self-contained story. That is, it has a beginning, middle, and end, and all the characters are properly introduced, so that whether the reader fully understands the background or not, they will at least understand what is happening to the heroes and why they care. I tend to just let the background take care of itself, doing as much description of places and people as I would in a regular novel. If my bosses have asked that something particular be mentioned or used in the novel, I try to make it new to my characters too, so that they and the reader discover it together and it seems as natural as possible.

    As far as I’m concerned, no book should require the previous reading of other books to be enjoyable. Of course, this is not a problem that is unique to tie-in writers. Any writer who writes a series has to worry about the reader who picks it up at book seven and doesn’t know a thing about the universe or the story so far. And as far as being creatively limited by the rules of the property, any world, whether invented by the author, or by a game company, toy company, or movie, is going to establish rules about what can happen within the world and what can’t. Do you feel the same way about writers who are writing episodes for a series you like? They are bound just as we are, sometimes even tighter. Every TV show has a ‘bible’ that tells you what you can and can’t do when you write for them. I couldn’t go nuts and kill the lead characters on CSI for instance, or let the characters on Lost get off the island.

    In my view, creativity comes in finding ways to do something different and exciting within the confines of the rules – kind of like writing haiku.

  30. says

    I have to say that I’ve devoured all the above with great interest. It was a link from Dan Abnett’s blog that brought me here in the first place which tells you where my interests lie. It never really occured to me that there might be snobbery over tie-in fiction set in the Warhammer worlds though I have had that reaction myself to computer game tie-ins. For me, and the point has already been eloquently made, the issue with tie-in fiction has always been its exclusivity. Unless you have a good understanding of the world/s in which the stories take place you are going to miss out on some the fundamental details of the tale.

    Inspired by a blog post of Wil Wheaton I very recently put pen to paper, or more accurately hand to keyboard after many years of procrastinating. For me the choice of which world to write in was already made by my abiding love of the 40K universe and yet I also realised that though I would be posting the story to my blog in parts it would likely be largely inaccessable to most of the people who stumbled upon it. I attempted to overcome this issue by linking key words to websites that explained them in more detail but I suspect that this strategy will be largely ineffective and will disturb the flow of the story.

    I don’t think a book should be judged because it is a tie-in. I think it should stand on its own merits but for reviewers with limited time and many books to read they will likely focus their attention on easily accessable fiction that doesn’t require reams background information to enjoy. Many, well written, reviews often appear on fan blogs and it is to them that I turn for opinion as to whether the latest release is worth my time. It has long been my feeling that mainstream reviewers are unlikely to really understand the worlds I’m reading in, unless they themselves are fans, which limits the usefulness of their opinion.

    I do agree that really well written work will appeal to those outside of the fold but for me the devil is the details that they will miss out on because I haven’t the skills to get it all in there.

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