Work for Hire: Another Way Books Are Made

In my last post, I mentioned I'd auditioned for a Work for Hire project. I ended up not getting the project which was both a bummer (because I really liked the idea and would have enjoyed writing it) and not (because my kids are out of school in a week and a half which left me about 20 writing days before deadline). I've found that sometimes I have preschool-appropriate magical thinking when it comes to writing projects (write a novel in a week? sure, I can do that), but even I recognized this was a reach.   

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Work for Hire is an interesting facet of publishing that, a year ago, I didn't even know existed. If you didn't either, here's what I learned about how it works (in the YA book world and for the authors I know, at least)...

Most traditionally published novels go through the following steps (boiled down to the extreme basics, all drama and hand-wringing removed):

1) Author comes up with an idea, writes and polishes a complete 200+ page manuscript

2) Author's agent submits the manuscript to editors at publishing houses in the hopes one of them will offer to buy it for publication

3) If they do, terms are negotiated - including advance, royalties, translation, film/TV rights - and the manuscript becomes a published novel a year or so later

In the above scenario, the author writes the whole book with no guarantee it will sell. 

Sometimes when a book sells, the publisher offers a multi-book deal for the already-written novel along with additional books in the series or for a future, unrelated and unwritten novel. And sometimes, established authors sell books on proposal (with an outline and sample chapters only).

But most of the time, an author writes the whole book and then their agent tries to sell it. And sometimes they can't.

All of my books have been done this traditional way.

These days, it takes me about six weeks to draft a novel and another month or two of editing before its ready for anyone to read (and then there are plenty more revisions after that). That's work I do without ever knowing whether I'll be paid. In fact, I have two fully-written books - hours and weeks and months of work - in my drawer that will probably never sell and never earn a dime. I don't consider them a waste because I enjoy the writing itself and I learned a ton working on them. But with any novel, it's a crapshoot whether your hard work will pay off financially and, if it does, for how much.

Of course, that's also part of the allure. Everything you write could be a winning lottery ticket. The one that hits big.

You just never know.

In that context, a Work for Hire book is a US Treasury Bond or maybe a good old savings account. 

Work for Hire (or IP, Intellectual Property) novels originate not with an author, but with a publisher or book packager who comes up with an idea and then hires an author to write that novel. 

Many well known series, like the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, were written this way. Which might be why Carolyn Keane never answered the letter I wrote her when I was ten...because she doesn't exist.  More current franchises including Pretty Little Liars and Vampire Diaries also started as WFH books.

Those last two - PLL & VD - were projects from one of the most well known book packagers, Alloy EntertainmentPaper Lantern Lit, run by Lauren Oliver and Lexa Hillyer is another packager as is James Frey's Full Fathom Five which produced the Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four series among other things.

Packagers develop ideas/characters/plots and then audition and hire authors to write them. Once they're written, the packager sells them to a publisher.  

Publishers also do their own IP work in-house, auditioning and hiring authors directly (and cutting out the middleman packager).

A Work for Hire book might be published under the author's name, but often isn't. The writer may be given the barest bones info about the project - we want a YA novel about a football player who wants to become a fashion designer...go!  Or the author might be given a detailed outline, including every character and plot twist and even key lines of dialogue. Or it might be something in-between, the character and plot development a collaborative back-and-forth between the writer and packager/publisher before the writing starts.

Whatever the case, the consistent factor is that there's no guessing or uncertainty about the paycheck. If you're hired and write the book, you get paid. 

What you get paid and the other terms of a WFH deal seem to vary widely and, as you'd expect, are generally less than with author-originated ideas. And there are other pros/cons to consider.

But all of that is for another post, I think...