Business Musings: The Story (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Three)
(Rethinking The Writing Business Part Three)
I want you to keep that in mind, because, frankly, as I delve into this licensing topic, I have trouble hanging onto that myself.
In fact, I have put off writing this post for a few days now, partly, I told myself, because I needed to wrap my brain around this complicated topic. But that’s not all of it. I’m overwhelmed by the workload facing me—with my backlist.
Once I figured that out, and set up a system (with Dean) on how to handle that gigantic herd of elephants, I calmed down. I was a bit angry about the workload facing me, because I really hate thinking about projects I have already finished. My creative brain doesn’t like to deal with them; they’re done.
Only now, because we’re implementing a change in how we do business, they’ve been revived in a way I hadn’t contemplated before.
In some ways, those of you who are just starting out with one or two books will make this change more quickly than the rest of us. You can do the work we’re going to lay out over the summer with much less effort than those of us with backlists that number in the thousands.
I know some of you worried after the first post that you wouldn’t be able to do any of this until you were famous, or until your project is as big as Game of Thrones. That’s incorrect. You can do it as a relative unknown with a brand-new project, if you go about it correctly.
What’s correctly? We’ll figure some of that out together, but mostly, it’s approaching this entire world of licensing with confidence in yourself and your projects.
Before I go further, let me say a few things. First, this entire series is coming out of the way my thinking over the past decade has collided with the things I learned at the Las Vegas Licensing Expo in June. I wrote about that collision in Part One of this series, and I urge you to read it and Part Two before you get to this blog. You also might want to look at my branding posts which are free on this site (you’ll have to search because I’m not as organized as I used to be) or read them together in a much better order in my book, Creating Your Author Brand.
Second, remember that we are writers first, and we write. I’m not doing this blog for people in other parts of the entertainment profession (although this might benefit some of them). I’m doing this primarily for people who consider themselves writers who want/have a long-term fulltime career writing down stories.
What we discuss in this blog, in the comments as well as in the posts, is the business side of making up stories—how to make a good living at this career.
That’s really important, because the topic of this blog is story.
Not storytelling, which is what we do.
In last week’s post, I postulated a writer who had a great story with five fantastic characters. Let’s name that story Super Dooper Adventure Tale just for the sake of clarity, and give the author a name as well, Suzy Q. Writer.
If this were twenty years ago, Suzy Q would write down Super Dooper Adventure Tale and try to market that manuscript to a traditional publisher, who would turn Super Dooper Adventure Tale into a paper book.
That’s changed. Now Suzy Q can publish Super Dooper Adventure Tale herself, in paper, ebook, and audio. There’s no need to go to a traditional publisher any longer, although many writers do.
But let’s back up here to the days before Super Dooper Adventure Tale was written down.
When Suzy Q came up with the urge to tell Super Dooper Adventure Tale, she made some choices. Some of those choices may have been subconscious. But here are some of the options she had:
She could tell the tale verbally to friends and family. Parents do this sometimes, make up serial stories as bedtime tales for the kids. Some parents eventually publish those tales, but they may not be as fresh as the tales the kids heard on those sequential nights.
Raconteurs do this as well. They have their party stories, and they’ve become something people want to hear. (Ask Dean about skydiving some time.)
Stand-up comedians get their start usually by being that raconteur, maybe even as a small child. Being a stand-up is an art form in and of itself, akin to music in my mind, because it must be practiced before a live audience. And, early on, the stand-up fails more than she succeeds.
It’s not for the faint of heart, and it doesn’t always work, even for the most seasoned performer.
But, if Suzie Q liked telling stories aloud in front of a live audience, she might have made the choice to modify Super Dooper Adventure Tale into something with laugh lines, so she could tell the tale in some smoky nightclub.
She would have to learn how to tell those stories aloud to hold onto the audience. It’s not easy, but it is—according to my performing friends—enjoyable.
Suzy Q, like so many book writers, decides against stand-up or theatrical monologues or anything that requires performance from her.
She has many other choices for the ways she can tell Super Dooper Adventure Tale.
She could write Super Dooper Adventure Tale as something for someone else to perform. The nature of the story itself would determine this format. Does she want it to become a theatrical play? If so, how would she make it seem like a non-stop thriller inside the confines of a theater?
She might want to write a screenplay, but will Super Dooper Adventure Tale be a standalone movie or something that goes on for more than two hours? Should it be a TV series? A limited six-episode drama? Something streamed? Something on one of the video channels like the ones YouTube hosts?
Does she direct it, to make sure her vision is pure? Or does she let go of that screenplay after Super Dooper Adventure Tale leaves her fingers and lets someone else determine all the details of telling the Tale, from who will star in it to what the sets look like?
Once again, Suzy Q faces a learning curve. Writing effective screenplays isn’t easy. Nor is video production. Or casting. Or working with actors.
One of the things that has always stopped me about writing for a visual/performance medium is that you spend so very much time on one project. With my hummingbird brain, I would go nuts spending two and three years on the same project. I go crazy when I edit a Kickstarter video, because it takes hours to get one useable minute—and I’m not even a very good video producer/editor. Imagine if I were actually good at the job. It might take longer to get the take/image/cut that I want. (Although other parts of the job would go faster.)
Suzy Q is not a fan of live theater. She doesn’t want to spend the time to learn video production, and she’s not that good at working collaboratively. But…she wants to be the person in control of that story. She could direct, but even then, she worries that she would lose the vision of the tale.
She decides against theater, movies, streaming, and YouTube as a method for her to tell her story.
Suzy Q is visual, and she can see the world of Super Dooper Adventure Tale in her mind very clearly. She considers doing the art, creating a comic book series or a graphic novel.
She would need to learn how to tell a story visually. And she’s not very good at drawing, although she could improve. Some web comic artists aren’t as good as others, but they tell good stories, and she could emulate them.
Or she could hire an artist to realize her vision, and they would collaborate on the storytelling.
Suzy Q. isn’t big on collaboration, though, so she decides to write Super Dooper Adventure Tale as a novel. The marriage between idea and execution isn’t perfect. She can picture everything in her mind’s eye, and she would love to see Super Dooper Adventure Tale in an illustrated edition like the beautiful volume of Treasure Island that someone had given her as a child.
But she figures she can describe the adventure well enough that everyone will be able to imagine it.
And, to make things better for her, she’s a reader. She loves novels. She understands the form. She knows the best writers create entire worlds with words, and the reader will get lost in those worlds.
She wants to be one of those writers. So, she jumps into the learning curve with excitement. She becomes a novelist—a storyteller on paper—sharing her vision with people around the world whom she’s never met.
She learns how to be the best novelist she can, and as she does, she realizes she has a lot more stories in her than Super Dooper Adventure Tale. She has hundreds of stories, and she now knows how to tell them.
Let’s set those hundreds of stories aside for the moment, and realize what Suzy Q. has done.
She’s already been thinking like a licensor.
She has a story, an idea, a property, and she has decided how she can best market that story so that it gets to the most people, in a way that she is comfortable with.
She wants to control her work, so she picks the medium that allows her complete control over the story itself. She learns how to tell it, she writes it, she finishes that manuscript, and then she publishes it herself in paper and ebook. Yes, she has to design the interior and she needs a cover, which she can’t do, but she hires those out, just like she hires a copy editor.
That’s the extent of involvement of other people in the work.
Otherwise, Suzy Q does all of it, hanging onto her vision, and getting her story published as a novel.
Most writers stop there, without thinking about any further licensing. Because a novel is a license. The story exists without the paper (or e)book. The story exists in Suzy Q’s head. But she has to figure out how to get it to readers, and that requires the aforementioned cover designer, the copy editor, and licensing the work to retail outlets like Amazon, who need just a bit of permission to sell the individual books on their site.
Suzy Q has become a licensor without realizing it, and, in addition, she has become a licensee with that cover designer. She has hired someone else to do art for her (or she licenses art from one of the online places like Dreamstime).
Hang onto the methods of telling that story she rejected, just for a moment. We’ll get back to them.
Before we do, I want to take you even farther back in a story’s evolution.
Every writer—hell, everyone who mentions at a party that they are a writer whether they’ve written a word or not—has had someone come up to them and say, I have a great idea for a book, and I want you to write it.
Usually those someones want the writer to do the writing for free, and then they’d share in the profits. Writers usually laugh at these folks, maybe not to their faces, but behind their backs. Getting the idea is the easy part, after all. It’s the execution that takes work.
However, there are many, many circumstances in which someone comes up with the idea and someone else writes that idea. Dean and I wrote someone else’s idea twenty-one years ago off a one-page outline for a three-book series called The Tenth Planet. That series was supposed to launch an entire franchise of movies, games, and other products. That one-page outline came from Rand Marlis and Christopher Weaver, who were the brains behind the entire franchise. They had some clout in Hollywood at the time, or at least, they convinced Del Rey books that they had clout. (I just looked them both up on IMDb, because I didn’t want to trust my memory after 21 years, and I couldn’t find the movie on which that clout was based. They both have IMDb credits though, Weaver’s in gaming in the 1990s, and Marlis has only one credit from the 1980s.)
Anyway, they didn’t care what Dean and I came up with as long as we used what was in that one-page outline. Which we did. We made three books out of it.
The books were supposed to be a template for everything else, but the everything else died before the last book appeared.
That happens sometimes.
This really wasn’t unusual. It’s a non-publishing way of doing things. It’s a licensing way of doing things.
Someone comes up with the story, and licenses part of that story. Movies make fun of that process all the time, as the producer or director spitballs something and the harried screenwriter has to turn that spitball into something coherent.
The same spitballing also occurs in the gaming world. Lots and lots of novels, licensed novels, have come out of existing games. The last work-for-hire short story I ever wrote was for a friend who was editing for a gaming company. She needed short stories to go with a new game module. I had to view the existing characters, the city that part of the game was set in, learn about the aliens and threats, and write a coherent short story that would “get gamers excited to play the game.” Dunno if the excited part worked, but I had fun writing the story, even if it was a one-off.
Many businesses operate on this method—one person has the idea, if you will, and others execute it.
If you scroll back to the opening, where Suzy Q considers the things she can do to put her story into a form, then you have the beginning of a licensing project. She can’t do all of that herself, but she found the one project she could do herself.
However, if she thinks of that story as an entity in and of itself, from which other products grow, then she knows she will have to work with others eventually. She can license out those products, or she can help make them. (Such as writing the first-draft screenplay for a film.)
It’s overwhelming to think about that, though, unless you spitball. Have fun with it. Let your imagination soar. What kind of licenses can your story generate?
In a comment on the first post, a writer asked if his mystery series could generate any licensing. I was stunned at the question. Every year, Mystery Scene Magazine puts out an issue filled with gifts for the mystery fan. They include things like dead body coasters and all sorts of other mystery related items.
But if you really want mystery/crime licensing overload, look up Sherlock Holmes. You’ll have to look at the Holmes official website for their memorabilia they license, but then there’s licensed items for the BBC show including (of course) a deerstalker hat, as well as sites for the 1970s Sherlock movie memorabilia and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock memorabilia, the Elementary TV show materials, and on and on and on.
When Dean and I started discussing how to think about licensing and being a licensor, he was searching for an analogy like the Magic Bakery for copyright. Dean’s image of the Magic Bakery, where a pie can be sliced an infinite number of times, limited only by the writers’ and the licensees’ imaginations, works very well when you’re teaching someone to hold onto all the various permutations of a copyright.
But we tried to come up with something that showed writers the potential of licensing, writers who won’t ever make it to a licensing expo.
I hit upon the idea of a theme park. Or rather, Walt Disney did. The official story is twofold: Disney had gotten an idea to do a themed amusement park when he took his kids to amusement parks in the 1930s and 1940s, but he didn’t do anything right away. Then he got a bunch of letters from fans who wanted to visit the Disney studios.
He felt that a studio wouldn’t be interesting to fans (a rare miss for merchandising Walt), so he brought the theme park idea back, and decided to place it near the studio. In the initial mock-ups the park was named the Mickey Mouse Park. But the idea grew, and struggled, and grew some more. At first, Disney couldn’t get the funding, so he rented out places on Main Street U.S.A., before everything in the park became All Disney All The Time (about 1960 or so).
If you’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World, then you know: you can get more Disney branded stuff than you could imagine. From pens to milkshakes, from shirts to blankets to jewelry, from guitars to harmonicas to whatever else you can imagine.
If you haven’t, then let’s do this: let’s look at a theme park based on a novel series, and work backwards. Head to this site, which shows you all you can do and see and eat and buy at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and use that to spark your imagination.
If you built a theme park based on your current story, what would be in that theme park?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re all saying. You’re never going to get a theme park. Your work isn’t even finished yet.
Right-o. But you might be able to get some of the licensed properties. And you might be able to license part of your world before the book is out.
Going back to Harry Potter. For example, all of the food sold at Honeydukes might be marketable ahead of time, particularly Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. I keep looking at those beans and think that a jelly bean company would have jumped on those as a marketing trick long before the books came out, because that idea appeals to kids. Beans that taste like earwax! Beans that taste like marshmallow! Sample and eat if you dare!
If you think that you can’t write a book from your story after you’ve licensed the magic beans, you would be wrong. M&M’s has been marketing books for years using their cute little cannibals…I mean characters…for years now.
You are limited only by your imagination…and what you want to work on first.
And yes, this means that some story creators will never become writers. Or it will also mean that some product will be tied to a truly poorly written book because the author never learned craft. I almost didn’t write about licensing other products ahead of time for that very reason.
But that’s a sad something that already exists. I know a number of “writers” now in the new era of publishing who don’t write a word. They hire writers to ghost their books, while the “writers” monitor and manipulate the Amazon algorithms. So, the non-writer storyteller already exists in this new world. Maybe they can just move over to licensing their products instead.
This blog, though, is for the actual writer. The person who creates stories with words. And those people need to realize that they can license their stories as well. (After all, the published book is a license. Remember that.)
I can see a new writer getting lost in all the possibilities before her. I can see established writers being crushed with the weight of all the things she can do.
Which is why you need to keep your focus on the writing.
Yes, you can spitball. Once you’ve spitballed your project, and written out what licensed products will be in your theme park, then you figure out what to work on first, just like Suzy Q did when she decided to write the novel of Super Dooper Adventure Tale first.
I would suggest this as a method: when you finish your novel, spitball. Think of all the things that would be in a theme park based on that novel. (Don’t forget to include a TV area and a movie area.) Figure out if any of that material is worth attempting to license.
How do you go about doing that?
Well, we’re learning some of that together. If you’re a long-term writer, and you’ve handled your own business, you’ve already done this with foreign rights in translation and other bookish things like audio books. I have. The rest of it we will learn together as this year goes on.
The summer of licensing continues. I’m going about this slower than I had planned. I am writing up the Licensing Expo on my Patreon page, with some other added material. These blogs show up there first.
I will be spending most of the summer on this, but I will deal with big publishing news of the day if it catches my fancy. So check in every week to see how this goes.
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“Business Musings: The Story (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Three)copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Artisticco.