Business Musings: The Licensing Business (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Two)

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When a writer dies, usually one of three things happens to her writing estate:

  1. It goes dormant. This is the most common thing. Most heirs have no idea how to deal with the mass of writing and published materials left over. The heirs might noodle with it for a while, but after that, they’ll accidentally or maybe even purposely forget about it.
  2. It gets subsumed into a larger entity. That larger entity might be a literary agency or even a publishing house, but that entity doesn’t look at the estate as a single item. Instead, they pull the most lucrative thing in the estate and keep it alive in whatever form it had been in when the writer died. Occasionally—and by that I mean rarely—the larger entity will put part of a writer’s backlist in print, but only if something in that backlist proved it had value. (Say, someone remakes a movie from one of the books, and a somewhat smart person at the larger entity realizes that the other books have value.)
  3. The estate becomes a licensing entity. The writer has ceased creating any new product, but the estate wants to keep the writer’s name and works alive. Some estates license out the main character, allowing others to play in that world (think James Bond), and while still others hire writers to write “as” that deceased writer (V.C. Andrews). Some estates repackage the books and the half-finished novels and other errata, continually chasing the end of the copyright and trying to stave it off.

Some of these licensing entity estates are well managed or at least have hands-on management by someone connected to the estate. They make decisions that are best for the estate, and not necessarily what’s best for the fans.

These estates often have trademarked parts of the estate—the main character of a series, for example, or the world the author created. Those trademarks are also kept fresh and reused in a variety of ways.

Active licensing estates are rare, and they usually have movie or television properties attached to them. Sometimes, what seems like a good author estate with licensing isn’t the author at all, but a studio or a gaming company or a comic book company that has a trademarked interest in the character or title (and is a different trademark than the estate, or maybe the only trademark in existence).

Because writers are bad with business, and they have this airy thought that they want their work “to live beyond” them, they let their book agent handle things or maybe give it over to their publisher. Even if they do set up their estate properly, they might not have the right managers to handle the estate after the writer dies.

Take a look at last week’s post. It’s a necessary prelude to what’s in this post. Much of it came as a series of lightbulb moments at the Licensing Expo in early June.

And here was something else that hit me in the middle of the damn classes at the Licensing Expo.

If writers look at licensing at all, they assume it will happen because someone approaches them (as in a movie studio) or it will happen after their death, and their estate can worry about it.

Which is wrong.

We writers have to create our business as a licensing business right now. (Well, as fast as we can make the change, which is to say, not fast at all.)

Writing businesses need to be built from the point of IP forward. I know that’s clear as mud. So let’s use a single novel with really cool standalone characters as our example.

Anything else will be too complicated.

The writer writes the novel. It is done, and it is a full story, with five memorable characters, some of whom have traits that might go viral or become a major part of the culture. Something interesting and slightly askew, something different.

The writer must then takes off her storytelling hat, and puts on her business hat.

She wants the novel out into the world as a book, in all of its formats—from ebook to audiobook to trade paper to hardcover.

Most writers stop there.

But this writer wants other licenses as well. She thinks the five characters would make great action figures. These characters are witty and some actually have pithy sayings that would look good on a t-shirt or a poster or a magnet or any other licensed product.

She doesn’t want to write more about these characters, but others might, so she considers hiring writers to produce more books and create a series.

She wants a movie (who doesn’t?), a comic series, a game or several based on the book, some mugs, and a playlist, and maybe even some special recipes that fit into something the characters are doing.

Before she can license any of that, though, she needs to make a decision. If the book form is the most important thing to her, then she has to decide: traditional publishing or indie? Indie allows her to do all the other licensing with a minimum of hassle.

If she goes traditional, she’s going to have to negotiate the shit out of the agreement, and she’s going to have to ask for a standard licensing agreement, not a standard publishing contract. In other words, all the traditional publisher would get would be the right to publish the book form for a limited term with a cap on returns, and with an agreement to audit regularly, and a whole bunch of other things that writers don’t do.

All traditional publishers will balk at that kind of deal from a writer (even though they wouldn’t from a football player), and so she’s faced with another dilemma. Does she forgo all that other stuff and become a traditionally published writer? Or does she handle it herself?

We’re going to assume she’s a writer with some real business sense. She sees the book as a license and nothing more. The IP is the actual story with those wonderful five characters.

She decides to indie publish the book. Before she does, she hires artists to draw the characters and to help her set up a style guide, so everything is branded properly. She might trademark parts of the story or those five characters. She’ll approach licensees as an equal, trying to get a partnership to create a brand based on that story or those five characters.

The book is only one piece of the licensing puzzle. There are many, many, many more pieces. A cozy mystery writer whose series features a baker might partner with Marie Callendar’s for frozen pies based on the series. A noir mystery writer whose vicious hero wields a nasty knife (but always does the right thing) might partner with a collectible knife manufacturer for a signature knife. A science fiction writer might partner with an escape room company to build an escape adventure set in an abandoned mine on a distant moon.

And so on and so forth.

All of these things, and more, are possible. Per story. Per series. Per character.

I know all of this sounds very pie-in-the-sky, but I realized at the Expo that it is not. The licensing business has become very complex and is constantly searching for new items to license, big and small. Sometimes licenses revive moribund properties (as in the Star Wars example last week); sometimes licensing partnerships grow both businesses; and sometimes a small license lets a licensee move into a new area of retail or entertainment that they had only dreamed about. (Moving from creating sports memorabilia, for example, into creating other types of memorabilia, even sf or fantasy.)

Coming up with a variety of licenses and marketing them (or learning to partner) with the right company requires a lot of work and creativity and thought and time, and I see exactly why writers who are reading this are either running screaming from their computers or leaning forward, wondering if they have enough time left on earth to do this stuff.

But we do have enough time, and we can figure out how to rebuild our businesses so that we’re not focused on the physical and ebook, but on stories and the brands that they can become.

After all, this is what our estates will become after our deaths. If people like our stories enough to remember them after we die, then our estates (properly set up) will work on licensing the existing works.

Rather than write a good will, and set up the proper estate so that the writing business can transition from a messy set of files and some jotted notes and several successfully published books into a licensing company, better to set up the licensing company first, and put everything inside it.  And make some great money in the process.

Oh, yes, I realize how much work this is. I also realize how hard it’s going to be. I’m just at the beginning of thinking about all of this, and how the set-up will go.

We will be doing a lot of this with our own work. Dean and I are on the same page about this. We simply aren’t sure where to start.

We’re in the position that some poor heir would be in if we hadn’t already made estate plans with an heir who knows how our business is (currently) run.

Such a different mindset. The book is part of how the story exists, not the entirety.

Obviously, this isn’t something we can do overnight—any of us existing published writers. I’m only just now beginning to think about the first steps.

Once I have some steps—and in an informed way—I’ll do a blog about that. But right now, all I want you to do is to start thinking about the structure of your writing business, what your goals are, and how you’re going to work with your stories (not your books).

Once you’ve thought about that, you might want to look at my book Creating Your Author Brand. Clearly, I wrote that before I had this epiphany about how to structure the business, but I was definitely on the road to this point. And you’re going to need to understand branding as you make your choices here.

As I said above, this isn’t something any of us can just jump into. Dean and I are already talking about redoing our business plan, changing how we look at our properties while maintaining what we’re already doing right.

On the Tuesday after the Expo, Dean said to me that he had expected to learn a lot; he hadn’t expected the Expo to change his way of thinking about the way we run our business.

Exactly. I’d had glimpses of it while writing the branding book and more as I went to the Expo. But there, I discovered a way of thinking that we simply hadn’t had in publishing ever.

And now, some of us will.

It’s going to be a ride.

Wanna come along?


We will be exploring licensing and the writing business at the Business Master Class this year. We will have some guests who can speak on this, plus there will be a lot of good conversations about it. Attendance is limited, so if you want to come, you’ll need to decide sooner rather than later.

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“Business Musings: The Licensing Business (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Two),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2019 by Dean Wesley Smith.



11 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Licensing Business (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Two)

  1. If I might suggest, NEVER set up a foundation. Over time, the weasels and vultures work together to rob it of assets (for THEIR own good), or it devolves into a mess.

    Even if family is to receive the money, put TWO people in charge – bankers, insurance types, lawyers (not a firm, a particular individual) – of the management. Family may attend meetings and learn, but they may NOT raid assets for their own use. Other than their yearly fees, the head people get nothing from selling it all off. Structured like that, it might work.

  2. Kris, have you considered using a business analyst during this process? It looks like WMG is embarking on a program that will impact how the business exploits the core commodity and I was thinking (bad habit) that a complex series of projects would benefit from someone whose sole purpose involves documenting requirements for the project, how it relates to the other ongoing projects and managing the changes (but allowing the top tier to approve those changes before implementation). I know you and Dean have great people in place, but I’m seeing more business analysts being used in software development to handle the fiddly documentation and lessons learned so the people who actually do the work can concentrate on what they do best and then be situated for the next project with smaller turnaround time. Just a thought (that you’ve probably already discussed internally)!

  3. I’m so in on this ride. I’d already started thinking of some of it as I’m also an artist. Some of my projects have a big graphical side, one that I really want to expand as time goes on. I have a new series I’m writing (that, oddly enough, have 5 main characters) that is perfect for expanded licensing.

    Yep, going to need to redo the business plan. But, that’s okay. That’s part of the excitement: thinking of what is possible!

  4. Some questions I have, just rambling here.

    – Christopher Tolkien, Brian Herbert, what did they do right and wrong for their Dad’s property.

    – King and Rowling seem to have their current stuff under control, movies, TV series, etc…, are they set up for after they die.

    – How do the long term rich keep their empires going long term.

    I used to look at the Hersey Trust as the gold standard, but then watched the trustees and the courts take apart what was once a good cause. I don’t see how to protect the IP so that it will last as long as it legally could.

    I don’t have answers, but I am paying attention to the questions.

    BTW, to paraphrase The Matrix, what level of success are you prepared for.

    I have a dear friend who started his own Engineering firm after he retired. He told me he wanted to make half-a-million by 62, then he would stop. I just laughed at him. I told him that he would make millions, and he should not let that bother him. He laughed at me. Now he’s not, and is letting the money bother him because despite my telling him, he is not prepared for the level of success he is seeing. Too much of the Red Queen’s Race for his liking.

    On my own stuff, I ran through scenarios on different levels of success with the books, from simply making the process pay for itself, up to being a billionaire funneling the money into other projects.

    When I worked for the Highway Department I saw what money would buy.

    – A billion for the Big Eye.

    – Half-a-billion for the Coors Bypass.

    – A decade ago, if you wanted traffic lights at an intersection, it cost about $100k, about as much as a house for the area.

    So money has no power over me, it’s simply a tool. The success of the books is not under my control, beyond the basics of DIY and Quality control. If the books catch fire, I’m at least prepared to take the next step and the next, without too much panic. I hope. HA!

    Too many people are not ready for success, that’s why the “Winning the Lottery” mindset is so common, and causes so many crashes. That’s why most don’t see the need to learn copyright or Licensing.

    If you cover this stuff in later essays, feel free to delete this ramble.

  5. Thanks for this. Just signed a licensing contract as a spokesperson for a product (leveraging pet expertise). Lots here to think about now with my fiction side of the business.

  6. Oh. My. Goodness.

    You just made my mind explode. There are fireworks going on, with ideas and concepts and thoughts.

    I have a new series that’s almost complete, with a new pen name. I’ve been planning covers and mulling the best way of launching it. I can see doing some of what you describe here, for that series. Investing into it, by hiring an artist. More steps. And no idea how to enter that licensing business at all yet.

    Just… wow.

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