The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #21: Work For Hire

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 161, Spring, 2004.

MIKE: There’s a practice that seems to be getting more and more popular with publishers, and certainly more lucrative for writers though it’s hardly new, and that’s the work-for-hire.

Now, it comes in many forms — movie novelizations, shared worlds, “collaborations” when the lesser-known writer writes a novel based on the outline of a much-better-known writer, franchised worlds and universes, the whole bag of wax. What they all have in common, unless I’m missing something, is that the writer is not the copyright holder. Sometimes, in fact quite often these days, if he’s writing a novel or novelization, he gets a royalty, but it’s never a full royalty — usually it’s more like a quarter of the full rate (2% on an 8% rate and so forth).

There are reasons for writing works for hire, and reasons for not writing them. I have, in my time, done many if not most of the variations, and I have rather strong opinions about each. But since I know what they are, and I have no idea what yours are, I think I’ll let you expound first. I think it’ll work best if we consider each type separately, as there is a considerable artistic and financial difference among them.

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BARRY: Well, let’s begin by discussing that aspect of the Work for Hire with which I have the most (in fact the only) direct experience: the movie novelization. Decades ago I wrote a number of these, only two of which — Phase IV based on the l974 Saul Bass film and The Sign of the Tiger, The Way of the Dragon, a novelization of the pilot script for the l973 David Cassady Kung Fu Series — were published. Advances were respectively $3,000 US and $2,000 US, the movie novelization provided for a small royalty (two percent, I think), the television pilot novelization was for a flat fee. Pocket Books in fact did pay me a few hundred dollars of royalty money over the years; Warner Paperback Library having no obligation to pay me anything never did. (The latter novel was the basis of my only involvement with anyone’s bestseller list . . . #7 for a couple of weeks on the Publisher’s Weekly list and it sold, I learned, over half a million copies.)

(The novelizations which I wrote and for which I was paid but were never published are, in fact, a more interesting group than the brace of published novelizations. I novelized l972’s A Touch Of Class for which Glenda Jackson won a Best Actress Oscar; I novelized Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, something of a cult success by the (now forgotten but at the time acclaimed) director of If. The producers of A Touch of Class did not have enough faith in their film pre-release to subsidize the Berkley printing, which would have been the only terms under which Berkley would have released it. Lindsay Anderson, as I wrote in Engines of the Night, wanted to have his own trade paperback of the film script with clips from the film and stated that he would sue to block a novelization. I was pretty sullen about both at the time. I was also paid $l,500 US for a novelization of the pilot episode of a British series, The Protectors, which was supposed to be re-released on USA television but neither that nor the book itself ever happened.)

The two published novelizations—for that matter all of the novelizations—were extremely easy work. I was writing with great rapidity at that time but even by those standards they went quickly. Phase IV was done in four or five days, the Kung Fu novelization in perhaps a week. I ran into external trouble on the latter — turned out that the pilot script which I had novelized was an earlier draft, not the actual film pilot, and I was asked for substantial rewriting. Since I felt that I had fully met the terms of the Work For Hire, I refused and a quick patching job was done in-office by the senior editor, Robert Abel. Neither, however, was at all difficult.

Not at all difficult! I said as much in a symposium on novelizations which George Zebrowski edited for this Bulletin about a decade and a half ago. “Novelizations are as close to a legal method of stealing I know,” I wrote rather uncharitably, thereby opening the secret of every writer who had done these. “Not testing work. Open the script, start at the top of the first page and just crank it out,” was Robert Hoskins’ advice. “Just run the dialogue and fill in the space between the dialogue with description.” That — after my first fumbling attempt to reconstruct the film as a true narrative and wasting five pages on internal monologue — was brilliant and needed advice and off to the races I went.

It was easy or relatively easy or relatively pleasant work, somewhere between the exigencies of a “real” novel and a typing exercise, and I regretted the adventure not at all and wish there had been a good deal more. On the other hand, the Kung Fu novel had been published under a house pseudonym (“Howard Lee”) and once the series was sunk it sunk and certainly its half million copy sale was not transferable anywhere; editors didn’t care. Phase IV had been published under my own name but was always treated as a kind of public faux pas — the Duchess taking violently ill at a seaside restaurant and raining dinner upon the cutlery, the kind of thing everyone simply looks past and gently ignores.

I went into all of these projects with no expectation whatsoever and am happy to say that my lack of expectation was met completely and satisfyingly in a way that was never afforded me otherwise. That is the signal benefit of Work for Hire (particularly pseudononymous Work for Hire), like Kevin Spacey’s guy in American Beauty there is no goddamned responsibility. It is high wire work above a soft and utterly enveloping net.

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MIKE: I loathed my first few work-for-hire novel experiences. The first three were in the sex field, back in the late 1960s. My job was to novelize a nudie movie of the Russ Meyer type (but infinitely worse) that hadn’t yet been released. There was nothing rash like a videotape or a script that I could work from. They would send me the dummies of a 4-page publicity brochure, which contained perhaps a 200-word synopsis of such plot as existed, and a cast list so I could learn the names of the characters, and that was all I had to go on. You really have to love writing to stick with it after jobs like that.

My next experience wasn’t any more enjoyable. I did a Battlestar: Galactica novelization back in 1980. To this day I have never seen an episode of the show, I hope to go to my grave without ever learning what a Cylon is, and based on the script I was given I can’t imagine why the show lasted all the way to the first commercial break of the first episode without being cancelled. There were more science errors, English errors, and plot errors than you would think anyone could possibly put into a 65-page teleplay. I tried Bob Hoskins’ method: just transfer the dialog (after you convert it into something resembling conversational English), put in the descriptions, fix what laughably passes for logic, and presto, the book is done. But it didn’t work that way; when I hit page 25 of a 275-page manuscript I was already on page 33 of a 65-page script. I wrote the book in 4 days, on the reasonable assumption that if I took any longer my brain would turn to porridge and run out my ears. A week later I had so thoroughly put the whole thing out of my mind that I couldn’t have told you a single incident that was in the book. I knew the readers would hate it as much as I did, and that would be the end of my career as a science fiction writer. *sigh* Of course it became my bestselling book.

That’s when I began hating the notion of work-for-hire novels, both for what they force the writer to do and for some unpleasant truths that are revealed about the readers. I turned down more than half a dozen over the next 23 years, including a Star Wars trilogy . . . and it wasn’t just because of my own experiences. I remember the late George Alec Effinger, who desperately needed the money, backing out of a Star Trek contract and crying on my shoulder because he couldn’t put up with a bunch of non-writers telling him that Spock couldn’t say this and Kirk couldn’t do that and that a ship traveling at light speeds could make a right turn as easily as a car and so on. I was not encouraged.

I figured — falsely, as it turned out — that every writer who committed works for hire did them solely for the money and had a certain contempt for the subject matter. Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and a number of others put me straight. Some of our very best writers choose to write these books simply because they love the characters and the universes every bit as much as the fans do. It was a revelation to me, and I began to reconsider my hard-and- fast position.

After a 23-year absence, I tried another work for hire in 2003. It was the first Lara Croft book to be based on the game rather than the movies. The reason I chose that one — I’ve never played a computer game, and despite Angelina Jolie’s bustline I fell asleep during the first movie and didn’t go to the second — was that rather than novelizing a movie or a game, my task was to get Lara, who’s kind of a female Indiana Jones, from the end of one game, in which she is buried under a tomb in Egypt, to the beginning of the next game, where she shows up, alone and embittered, in Paris 10 months later. I didn’t have to use any other characters from the games, I didn’t have to use any locations (and the manuscript was jokingly referred to as “the mildly-fictionalized Resnick travel diaries”), I was able to put her in countries and hostelries and restaurants and game parks that I myself have visited, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Okay, it was no Kirinyaga or even a Santiago, but I enjoyed writing it and I’m proud to have my name on the book.

I still don’t think I’d want to novelize other people’s work, or have a bunch of copyright holders tell me what I must or cannot do with their characters, but I have now had a pleasant experience with a work for hire novel, and I expect I’ll do more from time to time. They pay a lot more than they did in your day. I know a couple have actually earned the authors 7-count-them-7 digits when the dust cleared, and one of the offers I turned down about a decade ago was a lot closer to 6 digits than to 4, so there are sound financial reasons to consider writing such books. Now, I had more than 40 science fiction novels in print before I wrote the Lara Croft book. Your reputation was established before you wrote the books you referred to.

I suppose before we get on to discussing other forms of work for hire, we really ought to address the obvious question, which is: if you are not yet an established writer in the field and you start writing works for hire, do they accrue to your benefit or your detriment? Are you known as a writer who makes deadlines, does what is required, and is thoroughly professional—or are you known as someone who isn’t good enough to sell his own original works and is best utilized as a work-for-hire writer?

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BARRY: What I neglected to note about the Phase IV novelization is that there was so little to Mayo Simon’s wretched script (this was by the way the first and last film the noted titlist Saul Bass directed and it is easy to know why) that I faced your problem; running out of story on page 23. So what I did was to improvise a diary for the protagonist; interpolated chapters in which he commented on The Horror Of It All. (And of course, this being the author of Beyond Apollo, his sexual frustration, overall angst, cosmological paradox, etc. Phase IV, a downrent l974 version of Them, was about giant alien ants in the Southwestern desert eating everything. And everybody. And eventually themselves.) That diary seemed to work pretty well or at least it enabled me to lurch on to page l50 and so the manuscript was delivered.

The film — which had been completed and for which a release date had been announced — went subsequently into an inexplicable limbo, finally being premiered (it lasted three days in theaters) l0 months later. At the screening in the Gulf & Western Building, the Pocket Books editors and I noticed that my diary had become a voice-over; every five minutes or so the action froze while the disembodied voice of the actor playing the lead commented on his sexual frustration and the angst and The Horror of It All. “They ought to give you a screenwriting credit and a lot more money,” Bob Gleason, my editor, giggled. “Now we know why they postponed the release.” No screenwriting credit and no more money — but the film still plays on early-morning television and my younger daughter said a classmate at Rutgers had pronounced it his favorite film of all time, had taped it so that he could see it several times a year, and was flabbergasted that her father had written the film. “No,” she corrected, “He didn’t write the film, he wrote a book based on the film.” He insisted upon remaining impressed. Ah, the vault of memory!

Your question of course is a good one, although it might have had more relevance twenty years ago than today . . . today many writers at the top of this field, including several award winners, have done franchise and novelization work and have suffered no loss of prestige, nor presumably have these people felt they were slumming. But then again writers in early career face a different and more ominous situation. Yes, one can become identified with franchising or novelizations (identified that is by the publishing community; I don’t think that most readers even note the authors of franchises, buying on the basis of the title and the originating author which are always far more prominently billed on the cover) and this can affect the chances of one’s own work being taken seriously or perhaps of one’s work even selling. Certainly there is no carryover — the otherwise unknown author of a very successful franchise or novelization will find that her name is not only not known to the public but it is barely known to editors at other houses. To approach an editor with a proposal or completed novel by saying, “My franchise novel for the Boomer’s World series sold 500,000 copies so you know I am a big success” is more likely to get you negative feedback . . . the editor will feel that if readers recognize your name at all it will be only for the purpose of another Boomer’s World. Still there is limited choice in the market as it has evolved or devolved and many writers struggling for publication may find that their only credible chance at publication is through this kind of sublicensing.

Another story: in l967 the late Michael Avallone (l924-l997) was contracted by Ace to write the first novelization of the pilot script for The Man From UNCLE television series. $l,000 US. The series was top of the charts in its first season (David McCallum, anyone?) and Avallone’s novel sold well over a million copies. Avallone was approached for another novel but said instead, “I wrote you people a bestseller. I want a bonus and I want a lot more money. It’s a bestseller!”

Donald Wollheim told me that he had transmitted this request to A. A. Wyn, the publisher. Wyn’s response had been prefaced with and ended by two different obscenities; in the middle he said, “Any hack could have written that book and sold a million copies. I’m not giving him a dime. Get me another hack.”

With suitable adjustments for inflation and the passage of time, the same dialogue is likely to occur today. This is one reason why an ambitious young writer might want to consider her options carefully before plunging into the Work for Hire racket. Then again, this is the reason why there is such turnover and more opportunity than available elsewhere. “I like science fiction writers just fine,” Damon Knight once wrote, “But they do have a way of rolling over at the first sign of a check.”

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Yes, it’s true that some very popular award-winners have done media books. Joe Haldeman did a Trekbook, Kris Rusch has done media books, Tim Zahn won his Hugo before writing the first bestselling Star Wars trilogy. Hell, even Isaac Asimov novelized a movie — Fantastic Voyage. None of them, I hasten to note, did it very often.

I would take issue with the fact that no writer has ever found a way to carry his media audience over to his own novels. I think Alan Dean Foster was probably the first to show it could be done, Kevin Anderson is the most recent, and I suspect there have been one or two others in between (though if pressed I couldn’t name them).

But on the flip side, I can name more than two writers, more than half a dozen actually, who got labeled as media/sharecrop specialists and simply cannot sell their own books for love or money. Well, not for money, anyway.

And ah!, the days when you could hand in a 150-page book manuscript. These days there are chapters than go more than 150 manuscript pages. Lots of them.

Well, media books are just one side of a many-sided work for hire coin. Another would be franchised worlds. These can range from “tribute volumes” like Foundation’s Friends and The Williamson Effect, where a long-established superstar invites a number of professional friends to write in his universe, to more traditional franchise work.

And the franchise work can vary, from stuff that was clearly designed to be bestsellers, such as the Foundation novels by David Brin, Greg Benford and Greg Bear, to what I would call the “absent collaborator” book, where a major author writes a 2-page outline, a beginner turns it into a novel, and when the dust clears they share a byline equally and an advance very unequally. There’s other stuff between the extremes, but I’d be interested in your opinions of these first.

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BARRY: Well, there are the big-deal franchise books (I’d add to your examples the Silverberg-Asimov expansion to novel length of “Nightfall” and two other famous Asimov novelettes published in the l980’s) and there are the small-deal franchise books, Isaac Asimov’s Robots and the financial distance between the two is certainly extreme, but for the authors there is a commonality: Just as James J. Walker noted famously that “No girl was ever ruined by a book” no writer’s career was ever improved by a franchise.

None of the writers of the big-deal books, the Foundation extensions and so on, raised their advances, audience or prestige through those novels. They were paid a considerable advance, probably equivalent to what they were receiving for their own work and they may well have enjoyed writing the novels but they did so to no increase of reputation. And at the bottom end the writers who scrambled for the franchised universe improved their bank accounts, some of them considerably, but none of them could have been said to have increased their stature in the field. (Or lowered their stature. It was just work.) It’s easy to infer from that kind of information that franchising—or novelizations—are not the way to build a career of anything other than franchising and novelizations. Such work can and usually does lead to more assignments of this kind, but none of it has anything to do with building a career. And of course there is close to no critical recognition. If franchise novels are reviewed at all the reviewers will say things like “Good of its type” or “Really doesn’t seem to have gotten the spirit of the original books.” Reviewers (and editors) don’t say, “This is really great and the author should be signed for a novel of her own at the earliest opportunity”. It’s product, pure American product, that’s all it is and there’s that famous William Carlos line about what happens to the pure products of America. (John Kessel published a well- known story about what happens.)

So — as a writer with at least minimal credits, the beginning of some kind of market presence and that’s stipulated because you can’t get the work without such — should you do it? Putting aside the question of money which is for this kind of assignment work the central motivation most of the time and we know that this is central, will the non-effect or even possibly deleterious effect that franchise work will have upon a career mean that one shouldn’t do it?

As with almost every other aspect of this business, that’s an individual’s decision. This kind of work can be fun (or as much fun as writing gets to be), it can pay adequately, not derisorily, it enables the writer to shape, exploit, expand skills through their practice. Hard to turn it down. But be advised: if you’re going to get heavily into this kind of work you’re likely to be in the same position ten years from now that you are today: your proposals for your own novels are likely to have languished, and you are facing a professional future which will look very much like the past. It’s not really a decision I had to make. There were no franchise novels in the l970’s and I pursued no film or television novelizations after Kung Fu #1 because the whole experience had been so repellent. I couldn’t have done any more of this. If the huge franchising/sharecropping market of the l990s had been available to me then I can say that it is clear I would have had a great deal of difficulty refusing. I am glad that I was never given that choice.

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MIKE: I would argue that there is at least one major exception to the notion that you can’t capitalize on novelizations and franchise work. Kevin Anderson was not a major seller when I first met him, though he was a very talented writer. But then he started writing Star Wars books, and an L. Ron Hubbard book, and then the Dune books with Brian Herbert, and suddenly he was living on the New York Times bestseller list — and he just got a bestseller-type contract for his new series, a series that had he written it before he wrote all the above I am certain would have gotten him a modest advance, modest handling by a publisher, and not much more. And where there is one exception, there can and will be others. (For all I know, there already are and they’ve simply slipped my mind, which can get pretty slippery at 4:00 in the morning, which is when I’m writing this.)

Whoops! Before I forget, I ought to mention that there is one kind of novelization that I am so opposed to that I never sign a contract unless it is expressly forbidden — and that is a novelization of a screenplay based on one of my novels.

Over the years I’ve optioned a number of properties to Hollywood, even sold them a couple of screenplays, and, who knows, maybe someday they’ll even keep their promises and make a movie. But when they do, the only book bearing the title of that movie and carrying the keyline art (i.e., “movie poster” art) will be my original novel. I’ve seen it happen, not often, but a few times, where a popular movie that didn’t have all that much to do with the source has been novelized—usually the movie changed the book’s title, and the novelization of course uses the movie title and the keyline art—and the novel that formed the basis of it all gets re-released and sells maybe 15,000 extra paperbacks, and the novelization, however dreadful, sells 450,000 in its first month of release.

For that reason, I have never signed an option contract without a clause forbidding novelizations. (Well, let me amend that. No one in Hollywood will sign a contract forbidding anything. What they will sign is a contract stating that there can be no novelization without the author’s approval, and I guarantee it’ll be a frigid day in hell before they get it.)

That doesn’t apply to short stories, of course. I may reserve the right to expand the story into a novel (and I do), but it wouldn’t serve any purpose forbidding a novel or novelization when it’s clear that no publisher is going to publish a 23-page story as a stand-alone book.

I was going to shut this down at this point, and attack shared worlds and the rest in a future dialogue, but it occurs to me that we haven’t discussed one other aspect of this, and that is the franchise novel from the originator’s point of view. Now obviously the originator has to be a huge name and have a huge following for the franchise to be worth the powder to blow it to hell. He’s got to have written something the stature of a Foundation or a Dune or a Pern or an Amber. Some of these eventually get do franchised, some don’t. We won’t count the ones where the franchise occurs after the author’s death, as in the Foundation or Dune books—but what about the others? Obviously by the time an author achieves the stature and sales that make him and his universe a franchisable commodity, he doesn’t need the money . . . and the assumption is that even if the books are written by a better writer than the original, as when L. Sprague de Camp continued Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the readers will still prefer the author that first attracted them.

So other than feeding some serious egomania, can you see any benefit that accrues to the franchiser, as opposed to the franchisee?

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BARRY: The benefit that accrues to the franchiser is money. Lots of money. Probably fifty percent of the total advance (this is an informed guess, I know nobody’s secrets) as the Asimov Estate share for those three Foundation novels. Probably the same for the old Thieves World novelizations. And it is the best kind of money, money-without-having-to-lift-a-finger cash. The temptation for the franchisee would seem to be overwhelming and it is surprising that even more famous properties (Lazarus Long goes By His Bootstraps to The Stranger Land!) have not been exploited. Of course some famous properties are franchised within the family . . . the Dune novels, for instance.

As far as novelizations of screenplays on films based on the author’s own property . . . Phil Dick was offered $40,000 in the last year of his life to novelize Blade Runner. “I already have,” he explained, in refusal, “And it is called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” Norman Spinrad said to me that Phil had simply suffered from misguided integrity and a temporary lack of smarts . . . “What you should do, Phil,” he said he had told the author, “is to retype Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and turn it into the film company and say “‘Hi, here’s my novelization.'”

Maybe he would have gotten around to that if he had lived through to the release of Total Recall. In his unobstructive absence, however, the novelization to that film, based on Phil’s short story, was done by Piers Anthony.

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MIKE: There’s no question that there’s money for the creator of the franchise . . . but if he’s got a viable franchise, he probably has a little less need of money than most of us. (I don’t know about you, but my creditors have expensive tastes.)

I would be thrilled and flattered to someday be the object of a tribute volume, where my friends each contributed a story using my characters or backgrounds. But as for farming those same characters and backgrounds out to a beginning or low-level writer, and putting my name on a novel I didn’t write for the sole purpose of attracting readers who will be misled into thinking I did write half of it . . . well, I’m on Phil Dick’s side. Integrity (and I don’t think it’s ever misguided, although it can be economically counter-productive) has to count for a little something every now and then, even for writers, for whom that particular commodity is not always coin of the realm.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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