If you stumble into the fantasy and science-fiction section of any well-stocked bookstore these days, you’ll notice right away that there’s a section devoted entirely to tie-in novels, most of which are based on games. As I mentioned the last time around, there’s a long-standing confluence of games and fiction that goes all the way back to H. G. Wells’s publication of Little Wars back in 1913. That tradition is stronger than ever today.
In most bookstores, the tie-in fiction has a section of its own appended to the end of the creator-owned books in the same genre. This is both physically and metaphorically a ghetto for these novels.
The ostensible reason for keeping tie-ins apart from the others books is that it makes it easier for readers to find them, and there’s some truth to that. Most people who read tie-in fiction care less about the name of the author on the spine than they do about the trademark that appears above it. If you want to read Warhammer novels, for example, it’s convenient to have them all in one place. That way you don’t have to go hunting for William King and Dan Abnett among all the other books, and you have a better chance of stumbling across the works of Mike Lee or Nathan Long, since they’re all right there in a single spot.
Of course, the other reason is that many fans of science-fiction and fantasy don’t want the tie-in books in their way when they’re looking for something to read. They want to grab the latest original creations from Karen Traviss or Tobias Buckell, and they don’t want to trip over Dragonlance or World of Warcraft books as they browse. They forget, of course, that Karen has written numerous Star Wars and Gears of War novels and that Tobias has an excellent Halo novel under his belt too.
The fact is that tie-in genre novels generally sell better than original genre novels. There’s a reason why Locus magazine separates out the tie-ins from the originals for its bestseller lists. Otherwise, the tie-ins would often nudge all but of a few of the originals right off the list.
Some hardcore fans of genre fiction wrinkle their noses at tie-in novels. To them, the stench of commercialism about tie-in books prevents them from consideration as art. They prefer books that spring entirely from the brow of their authors, and some of them even think of people who write books set in a corporate-owned universe as cheaters. After all, tie-in writers don’t have to do all the work of original authors, right? When someone supplies you all the characters, plots, settings, and backstory, a tie-in novel is just a step or two above hanging a paint-by-numbers bit of art on the wall.
(I’ll bet you see this coming.) Wrong.
With many tie-in novels, the writer has a great deal of latitude. I’ve written over a dozen tie-in novels for four different publishers, and every time it’s been different.
For my first series, I created the “Knights of the Silver Dragon” series for Wizards of the Coast. Steve Winter asked me to pitch him ideas for a young-adult fantasy series, the only stipulation of which was that it had to be set in an original world based on Dungeons & Dragons. I created everything for the series except for the rules behind how magic worked. The only way I could have had more freedom with the books would have been if I’d come up with them without prompting and sold them to a different publisher.
On the other end of the spectrum, I wrote a novelization of the Mutant Chronicles film, which was based on a tabletop roleplaying game I used to write and edit for back in the early 1990s. With that, I received a script with much of the work already done for me. However, because I knew the property so well, the people who owned it encouraged me to expand upon the storyline and tie it as strongly as I could back to the original setting that had inspired what was seen in the movie. Something like half of the material in the book didn’t show up in the film at all.
On beyond that, you can find Max Collins‘s work on the novelization of the Road to Perdition film, which was in turn based on his own graphic novel. Due to contractual terms, Max wasn’t allowed to add a single line of dialogue to the film’s story, even though he’d come up with the whole thing in the first place.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Max later established the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW.org) with Lee Goldberg. The intent of the organization is to talk openly about the creation of tie-in novels and promote their acceptance. To that end, Max and Lee established an active e-mail list filled with tie-in writers and set up the Scribe Awards for tie-in books. Since most awards refuse to even consider tie-in books of any kind, this was a big step forward.
Despite horror stories like Max’s, working in an established world is usually fun. It’s like being told you can go take the shiniest toys down from the shelf and do whatever you like with them. You just have to take care you don’t do anything to damage them and be sure to put them back when you’re done, which seems fair.
The tradeoff with tie-ins is that the writer doesn’t own those stories and doesn’t get to control what happens to them after they leave his hands. Those toys belong to someone else, after all. In exchange for giving all that up, the writer receives a decent paycheck and – this is important – has a guaranteed sale before he starts writing.
Except with well-established professionals, most writers have to take a flying leap of faith on themselves and their stories when they sit down to write a novel. They must invest hundreds of hours into developing the tale, setting, characters, and plot, writing it all down, and then polishing it to a glossy shine. Then they set out on the disheartening job of finding someone willing to back that leap of faith with tens of thousands of dollars worth of investment in editing, art, promotion, printing, shipping, and distribution. To top that off, they usually have to find an agent, too, who must also have faith in the book too and be willing to stake her (or his) own reputation on finding the right publisher to put up all that cash.
Most original novelists collect rejection slips like kids collect Pokémon cards (or whatever they do these days). Even bestsellers like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling gathered stacks of them. It’s enough to make many hopefuls give up and stick their manuscripts safely in a drawer rather than subject themselves and their words to the cold brutality of that process any longer.
When you write a tie-in novel, though, you get a deal and an advance check before you do much more than deliver an outline and maybe a sample chapter or two. Sometimes the first thing you write for the book is when you sign your name at the bottom of that contract.
As you might imagine, this takes a great deal of the stress out of writing the book. Rather than wondering if the book is salable, you instead get to concentrate on coming up with the best possible story you can with the materials you’ve been handed. Best of all, you already have a prebuilt audience ready and eager to read your work.
That doesn’t mean a tie-in author can just phone in the job and rely on the brand to sell poor work for him. Good tie-in authors are fans of the world in which they’re writing. If they weren’t one before they started, they’d better be by the time they’re done.
Especially when you’re talking about ongoing series of books written by several authors – like the Star Wars or Star Trek series – the writer cannot slack. The fans expect a certain level of quality in their stories, and if they don’t get that they aren’t inclined to be shy about pointing it out. When that happens, there are other authors ready to step up and take a shot at the next novel in the series instead.
Next time around, I’ll get into the details about how a gaming tie-in novel goes from concept to bookshelf. It’s a process fraught with both peril and fun.
Matt Forbeck has been designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years and has also written over a dozen tie-in novels. His next novel – Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon, co-written with Jeff Grubb – hits shelves this summer. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.