Four Keys to Success in Licensed Publishing

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This article was contributed by YPG member Kjersti Egerdahl. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Tara Powers at tpowers@wwnorton.com.

Source: Abrams

Licensed publishing is a lucrative but complex corner of the publishing world. A publisher usually approaches the licensor (this could be the owner of an entertainment property such as Star Wars, or the family of an icon like Audrey Hepburn) seeking official permission to create a book with the licensor’s blessing, using their photographs or other intellectual property (illustrations, audio, etc.). Working directly with a licensor can be tricky and involves a lot of personalities and legal issues, but the potential payoffs are huge: a franchise like Star Trek or an icon like Jimi Hendrix has a built-in audience of rabid fans. Licensors know how valuable their properties are, though, and have their own ideas of how these books should be made. Drawing on my own experience editing licensed books, as well as the experiences of my colleagues at various houses, I’ve pulled together four key tips to keep in mind when working on a licensed title.

1. Study

Read the books, watch the movies, play the games. Familiarize yourself with the “universe” in which you’re operating, whether it’s an actual universe, as with Transformers, or just the head space of the Grateful Dead. The authors should be immersed in the worlds they’re moving through, but you’ll need a solid knowledge base to be of any help to them.

Nancy Holder has authored fiction and nonfiction on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (Pocket), plus novels for many, many other properties including Smallville (Orbit), and Teen Wolf (MTV Books). She does her homework: “I read the script(s) over and over; at the very least, I watch the episodes so many times I can practically repeat them verbatim. Then I watch them several times without the sound because TV and film are visual media. I try to internalize the style of the show so much that when I write, the show’s cadence is second nature to me.”

You don’t have to do all that, but if you dive into the material, you’ll do your job better—and you’ll get excited about the work ahead.

2. Communicate

Never make assumptions. When starting a new project, be prepared to explain the entire process if the licensor is unfamiliar with publishing, and ask about the licensor’s process as well. You need to understand the brand. What are their goals for this book? In the case of Transformers Vault (Abrams), a nonfiction publication, Hasbro wanted to bring greater continuity to the Transformers universe and look toward the future of the brand. This meant they had specific ideas about the cover, the outline, and the amount of time we should spend discussing different product lines and storylines that had been released through the years.

Ryder Windham, who has authored more than fifty books on Star Wars and Indiana Jones for such publishers as Del Rey, Random House, DK Publishing, and Scholastic, says, “You can’t second-guess licensors on what they might want or permit in stories, if there’s some subject matter that’s off limits, or if they have a preference for a cover artist.” You have to ask—you can offer help and ideas, but they may already have a plan.

Licensors always get to approve the author and see an outline or synopsis very early on, which helps avoid time being spent on extensive revisions. Erich Schoeneweiss, an editor at Random House/Del Rey, has licenses under his belt that include ESPN, the New Yorker, Marvel and DC Comics, Star Wars, G. I. Joe, and several video games. His take? “You need to be respectful of their license, know their property, and understand what will and won’t work within the parameters of their property. And open communication with the representatives of the license is the best way to accomplish this.”

Client relationships aren’t just about asking what the other side wants, though. You need to be able to offer intelligent suggestions so you aren’t pushing all the work onto the licensor. Sometimes the client just needs something to turn down in order to decide what it is they do want. It’s your job to keep the project moving forward.

3. Mediate

As in any area of business—in publishing or any other industry—conflict is practically a given. You’re adding the needs of a licensor to the needs of a publisher, and a licensed undertaking is going to take more time than a typical project. Licensors may require minimum review times for designs and manuscripts. You or your author may need to travel far and wide to sift through archives (or cardboard boxes) for rare photographs. Cover designs and interior page designs will almost always take more time and more rounds of revisions.

Authors and licenses can clash over the manuscript, even if an outline has been approved first. Do push for whatever is going to make the book better, but don’t push the license out of their comfort zone—even if the author claims you’re cramping their style. As writer Matthew Manning says after working with DC Comics, Marvel, and Disney, “There’s no sense in writing an established character if you’re just going to make him or her sound exactly like you.” Your knowledge of the subject (remember #1?), and your writer’s, should minimize this type of conflict.

Licensors also usually handle fact-checking and can be sticklers for detail, requiring changes until the last minute. Leland Chee, the keeper of Lucasfilm’s Holocron database, is probably the only legendary fact-checker in history. If a licensor doesn’t have an established process for fact-checking (as the family or estate of an individual icon often do not) it’s that much more important for an author to cite sources. Questions are always going to come up.

4. Contribute

Give the reader something new. The people who buy licensed books are fans, and they probably already know a lot about the subject. You owe it to them to find ways to add to their experience, whether that’s in the form of new interviews, rare or unpublished images, or new layers in a fictional story. Pablo Hidalgo, who has written several books on Star Wars as well as Transformers Vault and G. I. Joe vs. Cobra: The Essential Guide (Del Rey), says, “This is my way of continuing to engage with the characters and situations I’ve loved since I was a kid, and I know there are kids out there who will connect to it as deeply as I did. Doing a school book fair and talking to kids about The Clone Wars works I had done was a great reminder.”

Don’t be afraid to think big. For Book of Sith (Amazon), a deluxe motorized package containing a book all about the dark side of the Force, one of the editors, Ben Grossblatt, actually created a written and spoken language for the Sith. Licensors can be flexible and collaborative about adding new material if you build a good relationship with them.

Creating a licensed book lets you reach out to a group of enthusiastic readers and fans, which is always rewarding. You may encounter pitfalls along the way, but if you come to the project eager to learn all you can about the subject and the way the licensor works, it’ll make everyone’s work go more smoothly. It all comes down to geeking out together.

Kjersti Egerdahl, an editor at becker&mayer! Book Producers in Seattle, has worked on nonfiction books with Lucasfilm, Fox, Mattel, Hasbro, CBS/Star Trek, Grateful Dead Productions, the estate of Jimi Hendrix, and the family of Babe Ruth. Her publishing clients include HarperCollins, STC, Chronicle, Running Press, Del Rey, Abrams, and Amazon Publishing. She has worked with best-selling authors including former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres and celebrated Star Wars authors Stephen J. Sansweet and J. W. Rinzler.

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