My first book was not what I dreamed it would be. I started writing professionally when I was in my late 20s, and while I worked my way up from a freelance music journalist to being an editor at The A.V. Club, the non-satirical wing of The Onion, I had one goal: to use all that experience as a springboard toward becoming an author. I had it all mapped out: After years of sacrifice and honing my craft, I would make my triumphant debut, with a book that might not become a bestseller but that’d be respected for its stunning originality and insight into the human condition.
Instead, my first book was The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. Yes, that Captain Jack Sparrow. As played by Johnny Depp. From The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Based not on an ancient myth or literary archetype, but on a Disney ride. Writing a media tie-in, as works officially attached to other properties are known, wasn’t the start I had in mind. But as many professional authors will attest, the path to publication is rarely the expected one. And my experience writing about the famed Disney pirate—as well as my second media tie-in, a project for the Goosebumps movie—made me think twice about my preconceptions about work-for-hire books. Not to mention those who make them.
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.
The writer Max Allan Collins did even better. His first tie-in novel, Dick Tracy—a novelization of the 1990 film—sold “a million copies or so,” he told me. Before that, he’d been a crime novelist and comic-book writer who also scripted the Dick Tracy newspaper strip. Collins was the obvious choice to write the tie-in, which sold spectacularly in the wake of film’s success.
Yet Collins realized that his novelization, despite being the biggest seller of his career by a mile, wouldn’t win him many accolades. “Because you are using someone else’s ideas, your contribution is obviously secondary,” Collins said. Since Dick Tracy, he’s novelized dozens of TV shows and movies including G.I. Joe, The X-Files, The Mummy, CSI: Miami, and Saving Private Ryan. “But the criticism comes from people who haven’t had to write one. It’s tough. Movies and novels are hugely different forms of narrative—the novel is interior, the film exterior.”
Collins co-founded the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW), for which he serves as president, to help promote the craft and its practitioners. Sometimes they’re established authors. Other times they’re newbies like me. There’s no system to scoring tie-in gigs: It’s a combination of luck, chops, and simply putting yourself out there. Some tie-in writers end up concentrating on that for their entire careers, making a name for themselves in that sphere. Many others write a couple tie-in books then move on as soon as the opportunity arises, hoping their name doesn’t become too closely associated with that line of work—like an up-and-coming actor trying to avoid being typecast as
an unsavory character.
I didn’t have that concern. When Quirk asked me if I wanted The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook to be published under a pseudonym, my answer came instantly: No way. If I poured myself into a book, no matter what it was, I wanted my name on it. I also grew up in an unstable household where every penny mattered. Turning up my nose at tie-in work, or disguising the fact that I’d done it, was a privilege I didn’t feel I had.
IAMTW’s vice-president, Lee Goldberg—himself a veteran of the trade—told me, “For decades, tie-in writers were looked upon as miserable, talentless hacks and their work just a step above porn. Which is strange, since the publishing industry aggressively seeks tie-in projects, and editors only hire writers they trust, who they know can deliver strong manuscripts under tight deadlines and often onerous creative restrictions.”
I came across a few of those restrictions while writing The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. The book was to be heavily illustrated, and I had to write with that in mind—yet I had no real idea how the art would mesh with the text. I was required to work in a few details about On Stranger Tides, but I wasn’t given a script, just a vague list of some elements that would appear. On top of it all, Disney had to sign off on my interpretation of Jack each step of the way. Still, these challenges forced me to be more adaptable and think even more quickly on my feet—skills that, coincidentally, I was ascribing to Captain Jack.
I tackled another trickster for my second media tie-in: Slappy, the devilish ventriloquist’s dummy from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. The book was titled Slappy’s Revenge: Twisted Tricks From the World’s Smartest Dummy, and it was published by Scholastic in conjunction with the big-screen adaptation of Goosebumps in 2015. I undertook the project with a lot more confidence. Not only had I earned my stripes with The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, but Quirk had also published my own original novel, the political satire Taft 2012. I had a mere three weeks to write Slappy’s Revenge, but the pay was comparable to what I’d made on both the Handbook and Taft 2012.
As with Jack, I got to slip into the persona of Slappy. This time I was given the script for the film, for which I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, as well as hundreds of stills to help me visualize the characters and creatures. Again, I wasn’t writing an adaptation; instead I had to create a bunch of Goosebumps-related riddles, parodies, and puns. As it turned out, Slappy’s favorite movie was Frying Nemo. (You may groan.) Though the assignment was fun, all these moving parts had to be linked by a narrative that resolved itself by the final page. My solution was to have Slappy smash the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader—the Sesame Street classic The Monster at the End of This Book was in the back of my mind—before handing the sharp-tongued dummy his comeuppance.
Unlike original books, tie-ins are work-for-hire gigs. That means they don’t usually pay royalties—so if the project ends up being wildly successful, the author doesn’t receive a share of each unit moved, only the money that was paid upfront. But that was fine with me. I didn’t create these megalithic properties; I was simply being allowed to play around in someone else’s world and get paid well for it. The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook and Slappy’s Revenge allowed me to dig myself out of the hole I’d gotten stuck in as a freelancer, where all my time and energy was spent on an exhausting treadmill of pitching and filing articles at a breakneck pace. They bought me the chance to breathe for a minute and finally work on my original, book-length projects.
The writer Wendy N. Wagner has had her own juggling act. Her first original novel, An Oath of Dogs, was published in July by Angry Robot, but she got her start writing media tie-ins. Skinwalkers and Starspawn were both set in the fantasy world of Pathfinder, the popular role-playing game. “I was a little worried about getting pigeonholed. Writing tie-ins is a fun challenge, but I really wanted to be able to create my own worlds and write by my own rules. I didn’t want people to think I was just this word-producing machine that spat out made-to-order adventures for the highest bidder,” she told me.
The income was worth it. “I got paid $5,000 for each of my novels,” Wagner said, “which in science fiction and fantasy is sort of a small but reasonable entry-level advance. Those books finished paying off my daughter’s braces, which was awesome. They were a good, reliable paycheck that always came on time, and I can’t say that about writing short fiction.”
She even found pride in helping to build the game’s fictional, collaborative world. “People read my books because they loved Pathfinder. They might not have even noticed who wrote those books. But there are fans out there playing their own Pathfinder games that use monsters that I helped envision,” Wagner said. “Wendy N. Wagner may not matter to those people, but what I created is a part of their weekend. It’s a part of their lives. And that’s pretty neato, you know?”
My own time in the media tie-in industry had at least one unexpected benefit: For the first time, my young niece Hazel took notice of what her Uncle Jason did for a living. She proudly showed my Pirates of the Caribbean and Goosebumps books to her friends, who were duly impressed. I even got to speak to her fourth-grade class about how to become a writer—which ended up being one of the most inspiring moments of my professional life. There’s nothing like having 9-year-olds earnestly ask, “What exactly is your self-editing process?” to reaffirm your faith in humanity.
Last year I spoke on a panel about tie-ins at the World Science Fiction Convention. One question kept popping up: How does one break into this peculiar wing of the business? The inquiry surprised me. The audience members weren’t necessarily fans of Slappy or Captain Jack Sparrow, as I’d expected. They were aspiring tie-in writers, as unglamorous as that may be in the literary world. Many of them already wrote fan-fiction; to them, tie-ins were a step up, not down.
The experience made me reconsider my own work. Yes, I started taking tie-in jobs to make a buck, to buy myself time to write my own books. But by the time I started working on my second tie-in project, I had already realized how much creativity can go into even the most commercially driven writing. I had jokingly told the readers of The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook not to brag about having read it. Finally, though, I’d learned that maybe it was okay—at least once in a while— to brag about having written it.