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What is a Book Packager?
Do they put books....into...packages?
A question came through Q&A Thursdays about Book Packagers and I thought I’d devote a whole newsletter to it. I’m actually surprised I haven’t talked much about this yet.
What is a book packager? It’s a publishing company that creates book content themselves, with the help of freelancers and their in-house editors. Many times these projects are branded and/or highly illustrated or come in non-book shaped containers, like craft kits or kid’s books that’re all lenticular images of dinosaurs or other things that are expensive to produce. They say we think a book that does this/is about this will sell and then they just do it themselves. Agents do not typically send ideas to book packagers.
So how does it really work? In my experience, a book packager has an idea for a book or a brand wants a book created and they need someone to write it. Let’s say whoever owns the best kid’s cartoon in the world, Bluey, wants to do a line of chapter books. (Call me, Bandit.) So whoever owns Bluey calls a packager. The packager handles all the rights and permissions on the Bluey side, conceptualized the book with the brand owner, and then hires a writer to do the work as a Work For Hire agreement. That is a contract term that basically means you, the author, agree to do this job for this money and that’s it. You don’t own any of it. Lots of things are made this way, and everyone knows what’s up going into the project. I’ve done many deals this way, and it’s worked out pretty great for everyone. It is, as they say, nice work if you can get it.
If you’re reading this newsletter and you’re a writer, you’re probably thinking you’ve heard of other packagers who do this a little differently. Places like Alloy Entertainment, Cake Creative and Electric Postcard (these are both under the same umbrella) and others often work in fiction, notably but not exclusively YA, and are related to production (i.e. movie) companies, too. Didn’t James Frey have one called Full Fathom Five? I can’t find it on the internets anymore. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I am sure there are others out there so share the wealth in the comments if you want to spread the word.
These ones that do fiction basically the same way as the other packagers. They come up with concepts in house or are approached by a brand, even writing up synopses and outlines, and then try to find a writer for it. They often contact agents to see if one of their clients would like to try out for the project, or they may go to their slush pile of writers who submit samples for consideration. Cake Creative has a slush pile like this, but I don’t think Alloy does.
If you’re asked to try out for the project, it’s really a tryout. You will write some number of pages (a chapter or so, depending), likely for free, and if you’re selected, you might write more and maybe paid for that proposal work. Then, the company goes out and tries to sell the project to traditional publishers based on the material you wrote according to their outline, submitting it to editors just like I do. If they sell it, the book packager likely owns all the rights and the writer is hired under a Work for Hire arrangement, and I’m guessing all that is worked out when you, the writer, sign on with the book packager. You might get a pre-agreed upon fee or you might get a percentage of the advance or something else. I haven’t done one of those deals, so I’m not sure, but I have a feeling it can work a few different ways. One way it won’t work is the writer owning the copyright, especially if they did not come up with the idea. Places like Cake Creative specifically say they don’t take pitches but instead are looking for writing samples, so don’t pitch your ideas to a packager. Keep them for yourself and try to get an agent (yes, even if that means you have to write the whole thing).
Are these deals good? They can be! They can be a way to get paid to write, which is a great thing for all involved. Many of the books are very good, so packagers are not just content farms churning out dreck. It’s not like doing a packaged book is JV and doing your own is Varsity. As a writer, I’d do a packaged book in a heartbeat if the deal was right.
I know what you’re thinking—I just need to do a bunch of packaged books and I’ll have a whole writing career! And, yes, sometimes it can work that way! I have a very small handful of clients who make their livelihood this way. But it’s not like six figures a year or anything, so don’t let those sugar plums dance too vigorously in your head.
When I am approached by packagers to see if I have an author right for a book, they are looking for one of two things (both if they’re lucky!): 1) an author with a specific knowledge base, like a specific fandom or entertainment property or skill set (baking, knitting, archery, whatever), and/or 2) for an already well-known author. The packager often knows about the type 1 author because that person is on the internet talking or doing their thing and it was easy to google them. It’s pretty clear how they know about type 2. Sometimes a packager will email me and be like do you have anyone who knows anything about X1? Especially since when they know I have a bunch of clients doing adjacent things. I take that opportunity to put forth my possibly less well-known clients to give them a shot! But sometimes I only have one client who knows about X, so that’s it.
I haven’t had any clients submit samples to places like Cake Creative, afaik. Maybe they have and I don’t know and that’s ok. I probably wouldn’t suggest they do it, because I don’t know what their deals look like and I’d want to do some more homework first. I wouldn’t be worried if they already had, but I always play cautious about that stuff.
I love book packagers and have had many more good experiences with them than bad ones. And any bad ones have just been more annoying than oh my god my client just got screwed. You can build your career doing packaged books, but it’s not easy and it’s certainly not a shortcut. They aren’t always the highest paying gigs and most times you do not get royalties. You have little control over the content after you’re done, and you don’t always get your name on the cover. It’ll feel like the projects will never stop coming and then one day, poof, they will. That part of all of publishing and writing sucks and I’m sorry. This is me telling you the worst of it so that you know that going in. It’s not me saying this will definitely happen so stay away. Like everything in publishing, it varies and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
So, that’s book packagers, more or less! Questions? Ask me in the comments!
HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY PUB DAY TO MATTIE LUBCHANSKY FOR THEIR DEBUT GRAPHIC NOVEL BOYS WEEKEND!
Mattie is the current record holder of the first one of my graphic novel clients to turn their book in on time. (Love you, all my other graphic novel clients.) BOYS WEEKEND is sharp and funny and wonderful and you should read it right, right now.
No, you can’t really query an agent and be like hey I see you do a lot of packaged books. Will you keep me on the roster for books like X? We aren’t like head hunters.