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A Regular Gig
On Ghostwriting and IP
We had a GREAT time last week on the Surprise Open Thread. Go check it out if you haven’t already. People asked great questions and other shared great resources. What I’m saying is it was great.
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One reader asked about IP—intellectual property—and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that subject. I talked about it briefly here but let’s dive back in again.
What is IP?
IP stands for intellectual property, but I know that doesn’t tell you very much. You know when you see a Star Wars1 novel, or a Minions picture book, or say, graphic novels based on Sweet Valley Twins? Those books, and many others you might not even realize, because it is not limited to recognizable brands or characters, are someone else’s intellectual property, i.e. Lucasfilms or Universal Studios or Francine Pascal. Those who own the IP work with book publishers to hire writers and artists to create books out of their characters and brands. Sometimes this is called work for hire (but not ghostwriting, because that’s different), but most often we call it IP for short.
What kinds of things are IP?
Lots of things! Here, we’re talking about book-shaped things, because that’s the kind of IP I sell, and uh, this is a newsletter for writers and publishing people. I’ve done IP deals for: novels, comics (scripts and art), coloring books, biographies, cookbooks, craft kits, gift books, non-fiction, short stories, journals, picture books. I haven’t done these, but it could also be: calendars, puzzles, activity books, illustrated books, most any book-shaped thing that a person might want to buy and read.
Ok, great! I would like one IP please!
Yes, I know. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just call up George Lucas (or whoever, lol) and be like can I write a Star War? I’m a big fan!! and he would say I can see by your tweets that you are a pure hearted and enlightened fan and have great ideas so yes, here is a Star War. Lol. I course you can’t do this and you know that’s not how it works. So, how do you get to work on IP projects? It depends.
It’s who you are and who you know, sorry.
I hate the stereotype that you can only get published if you know the right people. In general, I do not think that is true. I have signed up SO many clients from the slush pile. But in IP, this is true or at least more true the more valuable/visible/beloved the brand is. Want to write for Star Wars? Well, you’re probably going to need some connections at the very least and at most be a well-known author or otherwise notable. Yes, please feel free to leave in the comments every piece of SW content you know that was written by someone who is relatively unknown. That’s fine. But on the whole, editors are looking for well-known writers and talking to agents about writers who would be a good fit. They do not, as far as I have seen, make open calls for pure-hearted fans. I’m sorry. I know it’s not fair.
For smaller brands, it’s possible to be, well, less famous. I’ve done dozens of IP deals with authors who would never call themselves famous, but they’ve always been working writers. It’s almost never their first book. Sometimes editors look for potential authors online, basically anywhere you might post things. It isn’t, and never has been, if you post it, they will come. So, while being out and about online can get you seen by editors staffing these kinds of things, you still likely need another connection to get your foot in the door.
I don’t want to be all won’t someone think of the capitalists???? but if you’re Big Company in charge of Big Money Making Brand, answering to a whole host of Bosses and their Bosses and shareholders and god knows who, OR if you’re the an Author of a Big Deal Book that’s spinning off into other products/books/etc, and your name is still on the cover, wouldn’t you be highly concerned with who’s doing the actual work of said spinoffs? I mean, if you were Big Author, would you pick someone who has never written/drawn a book before but says they really, really, really love the IP and they promise they’ll do a good job? Maybe! But probably not, when someone with a proven track record is also on the list. Do new writers get a chance sometimes? YES. But it’s rare.
What if I want to quit my job and just write these things?
If you’re getting the occasional (or more!) IP gig, and/or if you have an agent who does these kinds of things and you have expertise in specific areas that align with properties wherein both the licensors want to make books and the fans want to buy them, then it’s possible you can make a career of this. I have a few authors who do!
But, it can be hit or miss. The advances are not particularly high for these projects, on average (yes, even for the big guns), so while Star Wars grosses billions or whatever, that is not trickling down to you at the same level. And it’s inconsistent. You might have two years of more work than you can handle and then the licensor (i.e. Star Wars) doesn’t see the return they wanted to and poof! the rest of the books are cancelled and you don’t have a paycheck coming. Maybe the property gets sold or the publisher who is doing these deals gets sold and all of a sudden all your contacts don’t work there anymore. (This has happened to me several times!) Your agent might be able to scrounge something else up for you, but we, I, don’t have control over that. All I can do is send emails. Sometimes that leads to a deal. But I can’t guarantee a check will come in before your rent is due.
Gee, Kate. This is super depressing!
I’m sorry! I know. But I consider it my job to tell my clients, and with this newsletter, you, the worst case scenarios so you can be the most prepared. I would be a horrible agent if I said this work is super easy to get and it will make you millions of dollars! Lol, of course not. It’s very easy to look at books on the shelf and say I can do that! and I’m sure you can! But the doing of it and the getting the deal are two different things. I could write A LOT about Star Trek: TNG, but no one would give me a deal to write a novelization about it, and I know all the people to call and ask. It would just never happen. Who am I except some agent who likes Picard and Data and has written some (unpublished!) books?
Weren’t you going to write something about Ghostwriting?
Right, yes. Ghostwriting is working with a specific author, sometimes unpublished and not always famous, or possibly a brand/institute/etc, to write a book. It is usually the Main Author’s story or idea or brand or talking points or whatever, and the ghostwriter is someone who is either knowledgeable about said area or a seasoned writer. The same thing applies to IP as it does to ghostwriting, in terms of who gets hired to do what. If you’re Political Hopeful Whoever Guy, are you going to hire Some Person to write you bio, the one you hope will get you on the NYT best seller list bolster your chances at the polls? Or are you going to hire The Acclaimed Ghostwriter who’s done X and Y and Z?
There are plenty of non-famous, or not-famous-yet, people looking for talented ghostwriters, but they, too, will be looking for credentials when hiring someone. Have you ever written a book? How did it do? What was it about? Sometimes the not-yet-famous will work with a friend on their book, and that is sometimes how people get their foot in the door. How fortuitous! Sometimes the more famous will work with their managers/agents/team/etc to find someone who’s the right fit, and there are agents who work almost exclusively with ghostwriters. Those agents, however, aren’t necessarily accepting cold emails saying hey, I’m a great writer. You should put me in your stable of authors and get me a ghostwriting job. That’s not how it works. (You also can’t email agents who do a lot of IP, if you can’t tell that from their website or clients or whatever, this kind of thing. It doesn’t work.)
Writing these kinds of books is a job.
Do you have the right experience? Resume? Portfolio? When you remember publishing is a business, rooted in art (yes even this IP stuff can be art), and you treat it like a job you want to get, then you just might get it. No, you can’t apply for it like you can a job listed on LinkedIn or whatever (I don’t know where people look for jobs. I have had the same job for 17 years!) and yes, that is not fair. I don’t know how to change that part of the biz. On my end, when a publisher comes to me asking for a writer/artist for a project, I put forward as many clients as are qualified/meet the brief/can be considered, and not just my biggest names. I try! But I don’t make the final decision, unfortunately. If you want these kinds of jobs, talk to your agent and let them know your particular areas of interest/expertise. Be prepared for an honest assessment of what’s reasonable and what you can expect. If you don’t have an agent, get to work on your own stuff and get your name out there! It’s a tough road, but you’ll never get a gig like this just waiting for the phone to ring. Go build up your resume anyway you can.
For the record, I’m just using Star Wars here because I know you’ll get it. I’m not talking about actual Star Wars books or deals here.