Business Musings: The Decision Tree (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Eight)
At a dinner a few nights ago, Dean said that he was having trouble figuring out how to talk about some of the steps we make in licensing. Dean’s the one who is the face of our workshops, and we’re doing one that chronicles the transition we’re making at WMG Publishing from a publishing business to a licensing business. (You can join it that transition class at Teachable.com.)
He understood the principle and knew what the steps after the first one was. But he was stymied on how to describe that very first one.
I didn’t make things better. At first, I figured he didn’t know what the step was. So I suggested that we go over a few of our properties—the ones we were going to concentrate on licensing. We have to do that anyway, so I figured why not?
We aren’t going to discuss those properties in depth in the transition class; we’re going to talk about methods and ways of thinking, maybe using those properties as an example or maybe not. Sometimes there’s “in the weeds” and sometimes there’s so deep in the weeds that no one else gives a crap.
Anyway, he shook his head at me, and asked what the decision tree would be for any property. Well, I said, it’s pretty much anything you want. And he said, with great frustration, I know. But how do I teach that? If I tell people they can do whatever they want, they’ll just put out a book and quit after that.
Great point. What I flashed on in that moment were the countless articles I’d seen about the way that too much choice overwhelms a person. (There really are countless articles, which is ironic, since I have too much choice…about too much choice. I settled on this one from Psychology Today, so you can see what I mean.) Dean’s statement made sense. When faced with infinite possibilities, we’re constantly second-guessing ourselves. In fact, the Psychology Today article says this:
Choice overload can leave you frustrated with the decision process, dissatisfied with the outcome, and disappointed with yourself.
A lot of people dodge “choice overload” altogether, as Dean noted, and default to what is familiar. What’s familiar for writers, when it comes to transferring a story into something people can enjoy, is the book.
There are other ways (besides yoga [yeah, that article is a bit whackdoodle]) to enable choice. One is to put your choices into categories. Dean asked for a decision tree of overall topics.
Let’s back up for a second. I wrote an early post all about the difference between your “story” and your book. The story is the story you want to tell, but you can choose how you want to tell it—and which parts of it you want to license. A book is just one license. If you don’t remember this or you haven’t read it yet, go back and read it now. [link]
From here on, I’ll be discussing the “story” as “the property” to get rid of confusion about storytelling and stories themselves.
Okay, done? Good. I’m assuming we’re on the same page now.
You’ve finished developing the property, know what it’s component parts are, and now you need to answer this question: How can people best enjoy your property? Last blog, I mentioned Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars. I assume (I don’t know) that he figured it would be best to enjoy the property as a TV show, serialized, rather than a series of YA novels. The movie that came later turned out to be the wrong format, and frankly, the later novels were okay, but not the best way to enjoy the series. For whatever reason, choosing to make a TV show was the best way to deliver on his property.
I have no idea how he followed that decision tree. It might have been an organic decision. He might have simply “known.” If you push me on a lot of my decisions, I can’t go deeper than “well, it seems the way to do it.” My decision tree is subconscious, often, not conscious. Which is why Dean and I are a good team.
He’s the face of our teaching because he can boil down complex information into understandable content, and he can push me, when I’m the one who has the idea or the handle on the topic, into being able to express that idea or handle in a concrete way.
Which was what he was doing that night. I understand decision trees. They make sense to me in a diagram-that-sentence kinda way. For me, though, I have to back engineer them.
But Dean wanted the tree to exist to winnow down choice. And first, he said, we needed the overall categories of license that a property can have.
We came up with a list of various categories that are not, in any way, every single category that could exist. This is the tip of the iceberg, the beginnings of choice, not the be-all and end-all of choice.
Oh, and just for the sake of clarity, I’m not drawing your decision tree for you. That takes a computer skill I don’t have, and time and inclination that I really don’t have.
So, the categories for the decision tree are (in no particular order):
Books. Hardcover, trade paper, mass market, ebooks, books in translation, limited edition books, illustrated books…and on and on.
Audio: audio books, podcasts, serialized podcasts, audio plays, enhanced audio, audio in various languages, podcasts in other languages…and on and on.
Film: Big Hollywood blockbuster, tiny indie film, make-your-own YouTube movie, films made in other countries, films made for TV, for streaming, direct to consumer, in theaters…and on and on.
TV: Network TV, cable TV, streaming TV, TV in other countries, TV series on the web, serialized shows, two-hour shows, forty-five minute shows, 10-episode shows, 22-episode, 6-episode, shows in different languages, shows about one character only…and on and on.
Games: board games, video games, big blockbuster video games, online games, games for the phone, card games…and on and on.
Apparel: pajamas, t-shirts, dresses based on your character’s clothing, couture, cosplay costumes…and on and on.
Toys: bobbleheads, collectibles, cars, toys for babies, action figures, dolls, novelty toys …and on and on.
Plush: based on your characters, from animals to Beanie Babies to collectible bears…and on and on.
Jewelry: pins with a slogan from your series, jewelry worn by characters, specially designed jewelry, mass market jewelry, everything from rings to necklaces to barrettes…and on and on.
Live performance: one-act plays, two-act plays, musicals, improv, monologues, live readings…and on and on.
Experience: Escape rooms, karaoke, mystery dinners, specialty cruises, conventions, walking tours…and on and on.
Paper products: stationary, notepads, calligraphed sayings, calendars…and on and on.
Electronics: games, calendars, accessories for phones and tablets, wall paper…and on and on.
Furniture/home décor: actual wallpaper, furniture based on your series, elaborate tables, blankets, bedding, curtains, specialty design…and on and on.
Food & beverage: and all that goes with from mugs to dishes. Special recipes, prepackaged food based on yours or something big, like co-marketing with Pepsi with a special Pepsi edition of your licensed product…and on and on.
Sports: (and this includes esports), again, co-marketing with a team, collaborating on an action figure, sponsoring a game that will have both brands, maybe a special version of a game…and on and on.
Holiday: from products for a made-up holiday to products associated with your series for an established holiday and all of the products that entails…and on and on.
Education: books specifically for the classroom, teaching modules for various age levels, incorporating much of the above into a specific time of study…and on and on.
Art: limited edition art based on your characters, based on the book cover, based on your series, oils, watercolors, computer art, comic art (oh, heavens! We forgot comic books above), sculpture, …and on and on.
Music: songs based on your series, on your characters, music written specifically for your other licensed products (like movie music), rock songs, pop songs, classical music, symphonies, operas (or does that fit into live performance?), …and on and on.
Okay…I’m quitting here. Because everything crosses with everything else.
The categories, as you see, are huge, and the various things that can be created from them are also huge. The possibilities truly are endless.
So now what? You have categories, you have possibilities. How do you winnow them down?
You ask yourself, How do I want customers to consume this property?
Most people will go for the movie/tv show option once they move away from books. But most people want that option for the exposure or for the money, not because it’s the best way to consume the product.
Let’s assume, though, that a serialized TV show is the best way. But you don’t have access to anyone in big TV. Is it worth doing a YouTube series? Or would you be better off writing a book that you can publish yourself?
You figure this all out on your own.
The other thing that you need to ask is: How much of this can I do myself? You can self-publish a book in all the various forms in your language. You can make a YouTube series or you can do live performances, reading your work.
Are any of those worth your while or do you want to chase the big video game, the big movie, the big TV show?
That all becomes your choice.
But you have to know what those choices are first.
And then you have to figure out your time and capabilities. I know a lot of writers who are artists as well. They can illustrate their own books. They can create and sell standalone art based on the property. They can put together an animated film, if they want to do the work, based on the property.
Quite quickly, the decision tree becomes extremely personal. It becomes what you can do combined with what you want to do, and what you consider the best way to present the property.
Realize that some of your licensing choices will take time. I’ve been working with a licensee on a movie project for almost ten years now. He has other projects that he’s working on, just like I have other projects that I’m working on, but we’re also pushing this particular movie, and giving it some of our attention. We both think this will pay off down the road (more than it already has for me), but we don’t know.
A friend of mine who runs a gaming company says he has a number of projects like that, things that will be cool “someday.” But that doesn’t stop him from doing projects that are cool now.
And just because one form is the “best” way to present the property doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for other forms at the same time.
I’m writing this in a bookstore (cliché, I know), and in my line of sight, I see a magazine with its logo, a cloth bag with the magazine’s logo, mugs with the bookstore’s name on it, t-shirts with the bookstores name on it, sunglasses with the bookstore’s name on it, and a whole bunch of other licensed products associated with some of the books on the shelves in the store.
And that’s without moving from my chair at all. I can’t imagine what I’ll find if I wandered through the shelves.
The key is to figure out your own formula. That formula will be some variation on:
What Interests Me + What’s Best For The Project + How Much Time Will It Take + Can I Do It Or Do I Need Help=Do It! (or Don’t Do It!)
Notice what I left out of that formula. Money. I left out the financial cost and the financial gain.
Here’s my rule of thumb on that: You will never make as much money upfront as you think you will. You will always spend more money in preparation than you think you will.
I do projects for the love of it, although I make sure my partners pay me when I’m doing licensing. If the licensee doesn’t have financial skin in the game, then I won’t do business with them. It’s that simple.
But back to the decision tree. Draw your own. Draw some that pertain to your property or your properties. Figure out what you want to do, how much time you have, and what would please you the most.
Then start working toward it.
I wish I had an easy roadmap that you could follow, but I don’t. Because there is too much choice, and your projects are different from mine, and what you think is cool might be something I absolutely loathe (and vice versa).
So the best I can do—because of Dean’s question—is to encourage you to make your own decision tree, and then work through it.
It’ll simplify all of those choices that you have ahead of you.
Once you make the decision, I’d let it sit for a few days. That way, if you have waves of remorse, like the Psychology Today article mentioned, you can change paths…or stifle those negative voices. Your choice.
The key, though, is to move forward, and do your best. The projects you’ll be working on are your projects, so there’s no right or wrong. There’s only right or wrong for you.
Enjoy the wealth of opportunity. And have fun!
As I mentioned in the body of the post, we’re doing a lot of work on licensing and revamping our own business. Dean is chronicling it in a course we call Licensing Transition: A Year-Long Journey From IP To License, which you can join on Teachable.com.
I, of course, will continue to deal with licensing on this site and on my Patreon page. I’m more in-depth on Patreon, because I do smaller blogs along the way. I will occasionally pause to look at the news or to see if there’s something else I should be examining. Or to take a wider view as I did here.
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“Business Musings: The Decision Tree (Rethinking The Writing Business Part Eight),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / leszekglasner.