WriteTip: Unauthorized Tie-Ins: If It Ain’t Yours, Don’t Write It

This tip isn’t about fanfic of the free kind fans write and post on various online forums for such. This post is about something related but troublesome. This post is about unauthorized novels and fiction written in existing universes owned by others people are planning to profit from and promote.

As a freelance editor, I get all kinds of submissions. But lately I have had to field several of this type, and it was deeply concerning. Here were people who were huge fans who actually had the audacity to think their ideas were so good they had the right to publish material based on a major franchise without permission or coordination with those who own and manage that intellectual property. Folks, if you want legal trouble, this is a great way to go after it. But it’s a lot of effort and wasted at that, for you to go about it this way.

Let’s talk about how tie-ins actually work. Someone, usually a publisher, buys print prose rights for doing tie-in works for a particular property (Predator, Alien, Star Wars, whatever). They then hire writers to pitch stories that they pass on to the licensor who decides which to green light and which get a pass. The next phase are extensive outlines and approval by the publisher and licensor before the person goes off to write. Then, when all that is settled, they write the novel or story, then yet another round of editing and approval takes place, then the book goes to copy editing, layout, proofing, and so on. All this before it gets published. Almost never does it happen from someone writing a novel or story on spec and selling it to a licensor. You don’t know the inside scoop on what else they are developing, the secret rules of either where they want the universe to go or where they want to avoid, and so on. So anything you write on spec will most likely be seen as an intrusion because it was not approved properly first and did not go through the various steps.

Seriously. I can probably count on one hand the number of times anyone successfully sold a prewritten novel in an existing world on spec to a licensor.

So why write it? Seriously. If it ain’t your world, don’t write it. Not without permission.

It takes a long time and a lot of effort to write good fiction. Especially novels. And tie-in novels require extra work—attention to detail, long research and reading everything in the universe you can find, and so on. Additionally, since many fans have different ideas what is best about the IP and where they want it to go, you are very unlikely to write something that the licensor will totally agree with from the start, and once you commit it to a full manuscript, chances are it will feel very final to them in a way that seems past the point of input and revision, at least to the degree they think it needs. So to them it’s easier to just pass than actually try to negotiate and discuss with you how to fix it or have you write it over from scratch. Additionally, many writers are resistant to changes anyway, so that could also be problematic and why risk the aggravation when they have their own ideas and plans and they are the only ones with the right to pursue them anyway?

I get that you are enthusiastic. But there is a difference between enthusiasm and presumption. Presumption is misplaced. Enthusiasm is not. And writing a novel in someone else’s IP without permission is the height of presumption.

It just makes way more sense, if you’re going to put out that kind of effort, to expend it into developing your own intellectual property—characters, world and story—that you can do whatever you want with. That’s something you control and you alone have final say on. Sure, you will want editors and publishers to sign off and help you make it better. And believe me, they will do their best to do that. But in the end you are working for yourself. And all the rewards—credit and financial and inner satisfaction, the most important of all—will be yours.

And speaking of money, here’s the thing. When you do tie-ins in someone else’s IP, it is work for hire. You may get an advance, and sometimes you get royalties (sometimes you don’t), but the bulk of profit is theirs. And usually the royalty amount is much smaller than for an original novel because the licensor will take more than the publisher and force them to accept less so they pass it on to you. Now, if you have not been hired, it’s pretty arrogant to undertaking working for hire on your own. You are assuming a lot. And that’s not necessarily a trait people admire or respect. But more than that, you are risking a lot. Months or years of effort could be a total waste, with a manuscript stuck in a drawer for life with no output for you to share it.

I know you’re thinking: I’ll just post it as fanfic. But what if the licensor hates it and, in fact, hires lawyers because you violated their copyright by writing it without permission and in order to avoid a lawsuit, forced you to turn over all copies to them and promise to destroy all files and never speak of or share it again? What if they force you to sign an NDA or something that you will never publish it or risk a lawsuit? Where will all the time and effort get you then?

Okay, these are worst case scenarios. They are likely rare too. Not worth the effort. But they are possible. And there are assholes out there who might just do it to make a point. It’s happened. So why risk that if you’re going to work so hard on something?

The point is there are way more reasons why it makes better sense to concentrate and dedicate your effort on doing something that is yours and totally benefits you rather than expending it and risking it on someone else’s intellectual property that might not only go nowhere but not benefit or hardly benefit you at all.

So that’s why If it ain’t yours, don’t write it is a good rule to live by, and it’s why when people bring me such projects, I usually decline to work on them. And that’s not even mentioning the liability I could be sued as a coconspirator or something if the licensor gets mad. Those legal matters are a whole separate post.

So just don’t do it, please. If you want to write fan fic, post it on the forums, but don’t dedicate serious effort to producing fan fic you hope to sell. Instead, write something so awesome, the licensor or publisher might see it then invite you to pitch and write authorized fan fic. THAT is the real prize, and having done it, I can tell you it never gets old. But only if you do it the right way.

For what it’s worth…