The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, which was published in 2011, came about in a circuitous way. The year before, I had left the The A.V. Club to freelance full-time and focus on finishing my first book. One day, a magazine editor of mine said he was taking a job at Quirk Books, the publisher infamous for its mashup novels, notably Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The editor asked, almost offhandedly, if I’d be interested in pitching him some book ideas.
I was. I threw everything I could against his wall; none of it stuck, but it seemed only a matter of time before we worked out a deal. Early on, I realized how lucky I was. Aspiring authors usually have to complete an entire novel draft or a lengthy nonfiction book proposal before approaching an editor—usually through an agent, which is another laborious step. Yet here I was, riffing with an editor who was helping me sculpt my crazy concepts into something suitable for his publisher.
Then, the editor sent me a proposal that changed my life: Would I want to write a tie-in book for On Stranger Tides, the upcoming fourth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? The catch: The book had to be done in five weeks. Rather than adapting the film, I’d produce a tongue-in-cheek guide to piracy, a mix of real-life lore and the magical mythos of the movies.
I was a fan of pirates, of fantasy, and of the films themselves. The deadline would be brutal, but I was trying to make a leap into book-writing, and this was a book, period. I said yes. The fact that I was a near-starving writer, and the paycheck was several thousand dollars, didn’t hurt. So I signed the contract, pulled out my pirate-history books, cued up the first three Pirates of the Caribbean DVDs, and dove in.
Because The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook was written in the first person, I had to master the character’s salty, anachronistic turns of phase. Through them, I came to more deeply appreciate Jack. He may not be one of fiction’s most profound antiheroes, but he’s every inch the Jungian archetype of the trickster: the mischievous imp who disrupts social norms and often reason itself. I snuck that into the Handbook. I even went a little meta: “Nothing is less dignified,” I wrote, “than an otherwise lusty pirate with his or her nose stuck in a book. Needless to say, never brag about having read this one.” For my own amusement, I was also toying with the perception—sadly widespread—that writing media tie-ins is beneath the dignity of a respectable author.
Tie-in books are a huge and largely unheralded part of the publishing industry, sold everywhere from Barnes & Noble and Amazon to drugstores and theme-park gift shops. Before I wrote a media tie-in, I had no idea of the scale of the business. The Star Wars novel series began in 1976—the novelization of the first movie actually predated the 1977 cinematic release—and today boasts more than 125 millions copies in print. It’s been estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the audience of any given film, TV show, or game will buy a tie-in book related to that media property. If that audience is, say, 10 million strong, a tie-in book might sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies.