No, Writing For IP Is Not Soulless

So, I take it someone on Twitter said something about IP books being soulless.

Or maybe they said it about the writers of those books?

I dunno. Whatever.

Now, as someone who has written at least a little bit of IP, I take exception to that — while also recognizing that the person wasn’t likely trying to make a problematic point, and was not expecting the internet to fall on their head, but that’s Twitter for you. It is a wasteland where nuance goes to die. As I am increasingly wont to say, Twitter is the place where somebody was wrong on the internet. Then someone was mad on the internet. Then you were mad on the internet. Then you were wrong on the internet. And that cycle just kinda goes and goes. It’s like a dunk tank where you’re dunking people and then getting dunked for dunking on people and then as you’re being dunked you still find other people down in the deep to dunk on, until everyone is drowning down in Dunktown.

It’s why I’m making this point here on The Blog, where I can more (exhaustively, wordily, eye-rollingly) make my point instead of having to condense it into an amuse-bouche course of fine points that will somehow go viral and end up being wadded up into a ball of broken glass and fired at my house.

Anyway.

So, while fully recognizing the person may have very well been trying to champion original work instead of “IP” work, I do think it’s worth talking a little bit about IP work.

To clarify, for those not in the know, IP work means Intellectual Property, which is already a bit of a misnomer because all work is intellectual property — it’s just here, the locus of who owns that work is different. When I write my own book, I am the Intellectual Property Owner. When I write for, say, A Big Brand About Spaceship Wizards, I am for sure not the property owner.

Right?

Right.

So, is writing for IP soulless?

Well, first, and obviously, no.

And here is why that is:

Because our souls and our hearts are probably why we’re doing IP work in the first place.

Let’s unpack that.

Is it for the money? Probably not. Sometimes the money is fine but it’s usually in the low-to-middle end of the pool, and it’s also money you can’t capitalize on much — most don’t give you royalties at all, and if they do, they’re more like the ghost of royalties, some fading phantasm, some monetary specter rattling its chains-made-of-coins around your authorial piggy bank. Further, because you are (as discussed) decidedly not the owner, you cannot continue to monetize the work — you can’t sell foreign rights, or game rights, or TV/film, or comics, or whatever other ancillary rights are available to the owner of that property. I mean, that property owner will! But you won’t get a piece of it. Even if something you wrote trickles into those other rights and license extensions, like a game or a film. Some contracts do offer mechanisms for that trickle, but it’s increasingly few-and-far-between, and I’d argue is a bit abusive. In fact, the contracts for such work are often considerably onerous, punishing for the author and heavily favoring The Brand. One contract I signed for a Big Science-Fiction Brand had boilerplate stipulations in there that said they could take your work, chisel your name off of it, not pay you, and still publish that shit anyway. And they don’t negotiate away from that boilerplate. It’s often carved into stone.

Is it for the glory? You might think so, but the glory doesn’t last — that golden glow is quick to fade. Some people even look down on IP authors, as evidenced by the need to defend the work as “not soulless” in the first damn place. (This has changed a lot in the last decade or so, where writing for a Big Brand has come with a little more cachet than it used to.) The Brand doesn’t love you, and most fandoms are diffuse and hard to parse, especially online — they are fans (or “””fans,””” depending) of The Brand, but that doesn’t make them fans of you. And further, it’s quite likely they won’t become fans of you, either. And if the fandom is, ahh, let’s go with vigorous, you might end up at the bottom of a pig chute funneling a great deal of toxic effluence your way just for daring to write in the world in the first place.

Is it for the fun? It can be. But it ain’t a picnic, either. You’re likely going to have to race to meet unreasonable deadlines while simultaneously having to have “meetings” (like the kind you have in an office, ew) about the work, and this can be doubly so if you’re both trying to please a publisher and please a Brand who aren’t in agreement already, and it can be triply confusing when The Brand has a lot of cooks already crammed in its kitchen so now you’re fielding notes from twelve different people, none of whom agree with one another. And again, all on a very tight timeline. (I famously had to write the first draft of my book in my Spaceship Wizard book in 30 days. Say what you will about that book, but I did my damnedest to produce something of love and value in that timeframe.) And the fun also goes back to the former point about being in the crosshairs of the various schisms and sects within fandom — and because it’s your name on the book, they assume you somehow literally overtook the brand and used its as your own personal sandbox. (Or, in their view, litter box.) All while failing to see that nothing goes in those pages without tacit approval from The Gods of The Brand.

Is it for the opportunity? It can be, but that opportunity is dubious. Sure, it might lead to more work, but it also might just lead to more IP work, because sometimes in the creative industries a thing you do too many times can become Your Brand. And that means writing for Brands can become Your Brand. Will you hit list? Maybe, but with most IP, probably not — only a select few really seem to juggle their way up there.

Here you might be saying, well, it’s all downside, but my point is that it’s really not all downside — because the one upside is, you get to write in a space you love. You get to put your heart into a storyworld that has influenced you in some way — you’re giving back to it, you’re owning a little postage-stamp-sized piece of creative real estate in a narrative that fed you. And that’s the reward, which is…

Well, sorta the opposite of soulless.

Is there an argument to be made that the Corporations that own the Big Brands are soulless? I guess, sure. Is there an argument that they’re exploiting writers? Sure, there’s that, too. Publishers can be exploitative all on their own, and then the Big Brands can be exploitative of the publishers (because the publishers don’t own the Brands, remember), which means it’s a trickle down effect of pissing on the writer’s head. But even here it’s worth noting that for all claims of soullessness, most of the people working on these books outside the author are also there for love — they’re fans as much as any of the readers. They care. They give it their all. They put their hearts and certainly their souls into the work, too.

Is there an argument that Your Original Work is better than IP Work? There is an argument for that, though I won’t always necessarily make it it or even agree with it. It’s probably better for you if you own the work in the long-run, but IP work can be a smart, calculated choice. Is there more cultural value to Original Work than IP Work? Maybe in a broad sense, but I certainly don’t think so at the individual book level — I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me to tell me they read my Big Starforce Battle books and it either got them reading again or it was the first book their teenager really got into or it moved them in some fundamental way. (Hell, one couple named their baby after one of the characters. And yes, I did indeed autograph that baby.) So I don’t think there’s much value in a pissing match between Branded Work and Original Work. We put our backs into it either way, and hope to write something of merit regardless.

Is there an argument that you shouldn’t write for a Big Brand if you’re offered the chance? That’s up to you, obviously, and my experiences are mine and mine alone, though I am of a mind that writers in these cases are usually the ones with all the pressure and all the work and too little of the reward — but even that is again an argument not to bag on the writers or their books, because honestly, they’re just doing their best with what they have, and often under really weird circumstances going on behind the scenes. I know some hilarious tales and also horror stories from behind the IP walls where writers have gone through mad bureaucratic dances that would give you spinny whirly puke-up-your-shoes vertigo. You’d hear some of these stories and say, “That shouldn’t be legal,” and haha, it is, because they signed the contract. It isn’t okay, but it’s definitely fine. But if it’s a thing you wanna do, and there’s a chance to do it, go for it.

Is this me saying I’d never write IP again? I’ll never say never, but it’s not on my menu of hopes or dreams, because I really like writing my own stuff, owning my own stuff, and living off it — and it offers a long gravy train of opportunity long after even one book lands on shelves, a gravy train that belongs to someone else if it’s work for a big IP. But maybe if it were from a storyworld I loved, like A:tLA, or Gremlins, or Cabin Boy (aka the Chris Elliotverse).

But again, all this is to say our books are not at all soulless. We put in the work and the love, and we do it because the most tangible reward is the joy of getting to play in the storyworlds we adore. And I’ll say too that despite what you may get online, often going to a convention or comic-con and meeting the readers and fans in person is a truly wondrous thing — they bring love to the table, matching yours with their own, and that’s also why we do it. We do it for the love. Our hearts and our souls are very much present.