Pack(ag)ing It Up

Let me first start this post by saying I know a little about book packaging, but purely from the outside in–through knowing authors who've done it as work-for-hire and people who worked at packaging houses and as a general "watcher of the industry" and articles that get written about it. None of that makes me an expert.


The most interesting thing about watching heads explode this morning on twitter over the new announcement that Amazon has reached licensing agreements with Alloy/WBs (with more in the works) to allow writers to sell fanfic set in the Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars worlds through its new Kindle Worlds program was how few people immediately recognized these are all packaged properties. I have seen a lot of worry about the authors who created these characters getting money, and how the rights worked, and etc. etc. and I am reminded once again that lots of people–even savvy industry types–don't realize how prevalent packaging is in YA (and probably elsewhere too–I am most familiar with YA and so that's what I'm talking about here). People on twitter thought a post on the subject was a good idea, and so here one is. (Experts feel free to jump in the comments or send me an email if I've gotten something wrong or you feel there's something I missed that's important.)

How packaging works:

– Sometimes a writer might be asked to pitch the packaging company (or publisher) ideas; one or more get selected and that writer (or another writer or writers, possibly) works with the company to "develop" it; in this scenario, the IP (or Intellectual Property) and related rights almost certainly still end up belonging to the packager (though there are cases of people being able to purchase rights back later on, it's fairly rare, I believe).

-Sometimes the packaging company comes up with its own ideas and then hires a writer (or writers) to write the project; rights situation as above, although it's even less likely the writer ends up with much of a stake in any rights or royalties or has that much say in anything related to it.

What do these contracts look like?

I'm sure there's a wide range. Generally speaking, there is usually decent up-front money, which is one reason why authors sign on to them. Depending on how decent that money is, the writer will give up or have reduced royalty rates, and will have zero control over what happens with the rights related to this IP. (I'm sure there are variances, again, but speaking generally.) You also probably won't get much–if any–of the money from any further rights sales, though there are also probably exceptions to that. New writers would almost certainly not be the exceptions.

(Edited to add: I am seeing a lot of commentary on the contract terms for Kindle Worlds, and how it's a bad deal, the kind no one should ever sign. This is certainly true in terms of giving up IP and rights–but it's worth noting, as discussed here, that many writers who sign on to work on packaged properties give up rights in a similar blanket fashion for whatever payment is promised.)

There are plenty of stories of authors being "kicked off" properties they have become well-known as the author of (including Vampire Diaries, actually).

Will I know what books are packaged and what aren't?

If you follow all this stuff closely enough, which most people don't, you'll find evidence in rights announcements or on the copyright page of books, or in acknowledgements, or sometimes in public disputes, etc. But in YA many (most?) packaged books are sold to big publishers. They are even, yes, lead titles with big marketing budgets behind them at times. Obviously, if they do well, the publisher gets to keep more of the money. There are also books that are essentially packaged "in-house" not by a packaging company; the publisher has an idea and hires a writer for it. The writer agrees because they want to pay the bills or keep publishing or get their name out there or because the project excites them. Lots of reasons, really, and none anyone should be judged for. More on that later.

Are packagers evil?

Not really. But it definitely disturbs people to talk and think about them, in my experience. Writers and non-writers alike. Because we do all have this vision of the author as solitary creator of worlds who maybe has crit partners and a support team at their editor and publisher, but without who none of the lush book worlds could exist. This is, instead, a process much more like how the entertainment industry, aka Hollywood, develops a "property" and it's often a labor of enterprise, more than of love born from one person's vision. That said, it's also something with lonnnnng roots in children's and YA (and all) publishing. Look at Nancy Drew.

But it does seem like there have been many new players coming into the game in recent years, as evidenced by pieces like these on Paper Lantern Lit and James Frey's Full Fathom Five (definitely read this one if this stuff interests you). I doubt it's going anywhere either; while some packaged books with big expectations attached to them flop (just like ALL books), others continue to do quite well and build empires. Examples are the very same ones being used to roll out Kindle Worlds. 

Why do writers do packaged books? Isn't it a terrible deal?

Again, lots of reasons, and definitely not ones that should bring judgment. We all have our bills to pay. While you may be trading off IP/rights/potential long-term money, as I said earlier a number of these books do get a hefty push, and the author hired is "attached" career and publicity-wise in name usually. It can be a way to pay the bills, to develop skills, to break in. It can be a way to build a name perceived as profitable, and sometimes quickly.

But is it fair? No one I know who's done this kind of work has any illusions about the downsides going into it. Though I have heard horror stories about people it has worked out pretty awfully for or who were made to expect things that didn't materialize. But I will also say that not everything I've heard is a horror story. I have a good friend who worked at a packager and has told me about working on books where it was a really symbiotic process between her and the writer and that they came up with something they were both proud of both from a literary standpoint and a commercial one. As always, the decision to do work-for-hire of any kind is one for the writer to make with full awareness of the risks and benefits–just like going into any contract for original work is.

Do you have an opinion on Kindle Worlds?

I think it's very, very interesting. That's about all I've got right now.

Amazon is an innovator. No matter whether you think that they are good or bad, or something in between, that's undeniable.* And this is an industry that is made very nervous by change. But it's not hard to figure out why Alloy (and others like them) would sign on for this–currently, they make no money on the fanfic associated with properties they created to make money. This is a way to change that, at least in part, in a sanctioned and controlled way that I, for one, seriously doubt will degrade the currency of the books they publish in the world themselves.

I can't help thinking it may also bring new readers and writers into the fan fiction world. The questions of why buy it when you can get it for free are kind of beside the point to me; many people either don't know fanfic exists or don't want to sift through a bunch to find what they like. Those people might well be open to trying it and buying it on their e-readers. I also think about the teenagers I meet at signings whose parents are so proud that they write fanfic (as they should be), and how this might replace their summer jobs cash-wise.

I do not know whether this might ultimately siphon off readers who would otherwise be buying original work. Or erode the rights of us doing original work down the road or create new contract clauses or be the apocalypse. Doubtful, but we shall see. I also do not know what it might mean for traditional tie-in work down the road. I do think there are some real issues around the rise of developing IP independent of artist creators (again, read that Frey piece)–because it's hard to draw a line in the sand, especially for high concept ideas–and what that could mean long-term for the market and us artist creators aka authors. 

Other people (and pals) with posts you should read that are way more about the Kindle Worlds thing than this one:

Chuck Wendig


Matt Forbeck

Malinda Lo

Toby Buckell

Diana Peterfreund

(*Full disclosure: Of course, I am working with Amazon's traditional publishing arm on a book and happy to be doing so. But my opinion on all this really has nothing to do with that.)

2 thoughts on “Pack(ag)ing It Up”

  1. I would say my experience mirrors pretty much everything you’ve said here. One thing to add is that the actual writing process of working with a packager can vary greatly. Some writers are given a general idea and then required to turn in an outline. Once that outline is complete they’re given just a few weeks to produce a draft which is then edited by the packager. Other writers are given detailed outlines and required to turn in chapters as they write so that the packager can maintain more control of the unfolding storyline. Both processes have their pros and cons.

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