Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Hired Guns

May asked me to blog about how being a writer-for-hire works and a general rundown of how you go about getting the job. Here's what I know:

A publisher, packager or franchise that wants a book or books written to their specifications solicits and hires a novelist to write them. The writer is contracted, usually for a flat fee. The assignment can be anything from a vague idea to a complete package including specific plots, characters, settings, maps, themes and so forth. Wordcounts, page counts and certain creative restrictions (like sexual content) are also generally spelled out.

To break into writer-for-hire work, you usually have to audition, which is a lot like pitching one of your own novels, or the publisher may seek you out based on your published work or a recommendation from someone who knows you and your work (I've recommended a few writers to publishers for projects that weren't right for me.)

My first audition came via a request to my agent, and I was asked to write a sample chapter based on a fairly detailed outline of a series package. On another job, my agent sent a couple of my books to an interested party. I didn't have to do anything for that one. Another job came from the subsequent success of my first writer-for-hire work, and I was asked to submit one-page synopses outlining five books.

When you pitch writer-for-hire jobs, you have to be ready to put together almost anything the publisher wants to see.

One way to find work like this is to make yourself available. If you have an agent, let him/her know you're interested in working for hire and ask that he/she put out the word. Be sure to detail what you'd like to write. You can do the same with your editor. Unpublished writers have a tougher time getting writer-for-hire work because a) they don't have the agent/editor connections and b) they don't have books in print to demonstrate the level they're writing at and/or their range as a writer.

Drawbacks are plentiful, too. Publishers can contract-gag you so that you aren't permitted to publicize the fact that you've written the book(s) without their permission. If this doesn't sound awful, imagine your writer-for-hire book hitting the New York Times BSL and your publisher deciding that you can't tell anyone. Ever. The publisher usually specifies in the contract that they own the copyright, not you.

The editorial process involved in writer-for-hire work is much more intense, particularly on books that have a lot of predetermined factors. Because you're hired to write what they tell you to write, you have to actually do that. Another writer or writers may share the same pseudonym or work on the same series with you, and you have to keep track of each other's work.

The rewards? A source of income, publishing credits which you can list when submitting your own work to other publishers, a chance to test your range. It challenges you to write your best on demand, and that can be fun.

14 comments:

  1. 'Writers for Hire' -- also known as Ghost-Writers.
    - One of my most influential mentors was a professional ghost-writer with 10 years of books to her nam. Books she could never admit to writing because she wrote books for some of the top names in the Romance Industry.

    And that woman had some Seriously scary stories!
    - Trap-door contracts, piss-poor barely educated editors, head-hunting agents that ripped off whole books from their writers, writers that ended up in the hospital from stress and over-work, writers that ended up in lawsuits when they tried to take their 'famous' pseudonym elsewhere...

    I DREAD dealing with NY publishers.

    Morgan Hawke

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  2. zornhau5:00 AM

    Thanks for sharing, PBW.

    Is it as bad for media tie-in novels?

    I was thinking these might be a good alternative to cubicle heck once I've sold my 1st novel.

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  3. Very informative. Thanks for sharing. :)

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  4. Morgan wrote: I DREAD dealing with NY publishers.

    It can be intimidating, not to mention frustrating, but once you dust off the gilt and related bullshit it's just like any other job. You figure out what you want, fight for what you can get, make concessions when you have to, etc. Get everything you want in writing, and don't agree to anything you can't handle.

    I don't see you having a problem with that, Morgan. You're too smart to let them step on you.

    Zornhau wrote: Is it as bad for media tie-in novels?

    Depends on the franchise. Huge moneymakers like Star Trek and Star Wars are hard to break into, and I know the writing restrictions and editiorial involvement are moderately to heavily severe (I have auditioned for a Star Wars novel but didn't get the job.) In comparison television series tie-ins are less restricted; you still can't kill off or radically alter central characters, but you have a bit more room for creativity. In some cases it's easier for less-established writers to land these jobs, versus the big movie tie-ins where you almost have to be a name to get the novelization (this is not to imply that writing TV novelizations means you're a lousy or unknown writer.)

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  5. zornhau10:25 AM

    Thanks!
    I was thinking I would initially target computer games and Warhammer tie-ins, depending on the state of the market when/if I have credentials.

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  6. Zornhau, given your knowledge and expertise, I'd also check into RPG novelizations, weapons-related anthos and graphic novels. I'm not real familiar with the RPG side of the industry, but I was contacted by one franchise looking for novelists to evolve a card game into book form (and would have written for them if they'd ever found a publisher.)

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  7. zornhau11:17 AM

    PBW - an excellent plan! (Though I haven't roleplayed for years). I'd need credentials first, though...

    Any idea what these things pay?

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  8. Zornhau wrote: Any idea what these things pay?

    Flat fees, usually, and what I've seen offered ranges from $5K to $20K per book (the bigger the franchise, the more money you can expect to make.) A small or relatively new RPG entity may not have the upfront money to pay a huge fee, in which case I'd negotiate for a chunk of royalties.

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  9. Thanks PBW! :)

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  10. Thanks, Sheila!

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  11. Awesome. My company is tentatively interested in me writing a book for our forthcoming game. Now I know what to negotiate with. ;)

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  12. I'm writing tie-in novels for Games Workshop's Black Library and for Wizards of the Coast. Such books typically start out with a $4-6k advance with royalties ranging from 4-7%. They do tend to go up as you prove yourself.

    Besides GW or Wizards, the only other major novel publisher in the RPG industry is White Wolf. All three should have query guidelines on their respective websites. If you go with a smaller publisher, you may find that part or all of your advance comes on or within 90 days of publication and that you never come close to earning out the advance.

    I got into writing game tie-ins because I'd been designing games for years. The game division editors were happy to recommend me to their novel division counterparts.

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  13. Thanks Matt. Did you have any fiction writing credits?

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  14. I'd written a dozen or so short stories, maybe more, but all for RPG companies of varying sizes. The big sticking point with the editors was proving I could write a work of fiction the length of a novel. Then Reaper Miniatures commissioned a 40k-word "novel" from me for their CAV game (mecha at war). I used that as an example of my work with Wizards and Games Workshop, and I landed contracts shortly after.

    As soon as I cracked through with the first novel for Wizards, I found my plate loaded with books. My first novel came out last summer, but--barring disasters--I'll have written my ninth by the end of the year. It's all work-for-hire, but it pays all right, especially if (as PBW recommends) you treat it like a nine-to-five job and keep punching those keys.

    The downside is that I don't own any of it, but the upside is it's all commissioned work. I don't have to worry about trying to sell it after I write it, and the media tie-in means there's already a built-in market for the books. I'm also learning a lot about writing novels as I go, which gives me hope for selling original work in the future too.

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