The Business Behind Young Adult Novels

Many of us were SHOCKED this week to learn that Vampire Diaries author L. J. Smith has been fired from writing forthcoming books in her popular series. How can an author possibly be fired from writing her own books? Well, it turns out that Alloy Entertainment, a book packager, actually owns the rights to the Vampire Diaries as well as a few other of the hottest franchises in Young Adult literature like Gossip Girl, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Pretty Little Liars.

So what do Alloy and other book packagers do? In a nutshell: they develop ideas, hire writers, and sell the finished products to publishers. A 2009 article in The New Yorker, “The Gossip Mill,” outlined the process at Alloy, whose target audience is young women and girls. They have weekly meetings where ideas are pitched, often reworking successful adult stories for younger audiences (examples cited in the article: a reverse of the movie Taken where a teenage girl has to rescue her kidnapped parents and a suggestion for “Shaun of the Dead for tweens.”). If they decide to go forward with a pitch, an editor will flesh out the idea before asking a writer to create a sample chapter. If they like the writer’s work, s/he will be put on contract to write the first act of the book, although plotting is a collaboration between the writer and editors at Alloy. The first act and a mockup of a potential book cover are then pitched to publishers. The process is described as being similar to the way a TV show is developed and written.

It’s not a new practice; packaging books for teens goes back to the days of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and even those 80s staples, the Sweet Valley High books (fun fact: Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar wrote some of the SVH books). More recently, James Frey and his so-called “fiction factory,” Full Fathom Five, have made headlines as the creators of the YA book I Am Number Four. The movie based on the book was produced by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, and will be in theaters next week.

As L. J. Smith’s firing from the Vampire Diaries illustrates, the key thing here is that book packagers generally retain the intellectual property rights. New York Magazine summarizes the contract being offered at Full Fathom Five:

In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future.

This contract describes what is happening to Smith and the Vampire Diaries right now—her name is going to be associated with the series even though it’s now been taken over by a ghostwriter. However, it’s interesting to note that Alloy developed the original concept for the series. The New Yorker article I mentioned above explains that Leslie Morgenstein, president of Alloy, is credited with coming up with the idea for Vampire Diaries back in 1989. He pitched the series as “Teen Dracula,” and L. J. Smith was eventually contracted to write the books. Which explains why Alloy retains the rights to the Vampire Diaries and how the writer can be “fired.”

None of this is new information, but I find the inner workings of the book business very interesting. As a reader, it’s easy to forget that books don’t just magically appear at bookstores and on our ereaders. It’s a business, just like anything else.

As for my feelings on all this, I’m still on the fence. On one hand, I like to think that books originate from an author’s passion to tell a story, so it’s disillusioning to think of books being born in a conference room using market research. And it bothers me that James Frey and Alloy are targeting children in their quest to churn out the next blockbuster. I also LOVE authors and hate to see them stuck in restrictive contracts. On the other hand, no one forces an author to sign a contract with a book packager, and they do help young authors get published. Plus, I totally enjoyed reading the Vampire Diaries and I Am Number Four, so does it really matter where the book came from?

As I wrestle with these issues, I’d love to hear your take on it. Did you know that “fiction factories” created books like I Am Number Four, Gossip Girl, and Vampire Diaries? Do you think their approach to creating books is inauthentic? Or do you think, as long as the book is entertaining, who cares?

Follow me on Twitter @kristendaemons

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  • Ayna B. Gundersen

    I don’t really care as long as it is entertaining and it is true to the characters, but the way it is now it seems like the books that the ghost writer is going to write instead of LJ won’t be ’cause Elena is gonna realize she’s just sexually attracted to Damon while she only loves Stefan and that is not at all true to her character. In the last book even Stefan understood she loved Damon just as much as she loved him even more.

  • Jhoogland2010

    I don’t care you writes it as long as it still reads the same, and Elena and Damon finally have their chance. I hated the fact that the forth book had to end! Just keep the story going and keep it true to the plot. And don’t foget to play out the plot between the humans and the sexy demon(?) with the hawk and giant dog.

  • Eric

    Wow, this is quite enlightening. I feel like that this model cheapens the book series somehow. I understand why some companies decide to run things this way but it just feels wrong for some reason.

  • Sandie

    That was a fascinating article Kristen! I had no idea that book packaging existed. I thought the author was always the one who came up with ideas. This is eye opening.

    Funny enough though, I didn’t really enjoy The Vampire Diaries series that much and just stopped after the first three books. I was never interested in reading Gossip Girl either (although I love the show), but I might give I Am Number Four a chance.

    Anyway, thanks for the article!

  • Concerned

    I would not read any book that comes under this book packaging process. They’re not well-done, and the authors are definitely being exploited — especially the ones who work for James Frey. Beware!

  • sallyk

    I think book packaging isn’t bad (hey it’s just capitalism), but it does take all the romance out of reading a book. I like reading stories where I feel the author is sharing a secret with me, something only they know. Almost like we are having a private one-way conversation. Packaging also takes all the romance out of writing a book too. I like it when authors write about something they feel passion for. When the story and the characters come from within. This probably why I never get into these series, you can tell right away when that passion isn’t there.

  • Midnyte Reader

    This was a fantastic post! I have mixed feelings too. I guess that writers of these series have to go in with their eyes open. And, maybe if the readers have strong feelings they need to find out if the author wrote the book or was towing the company line so to speak.

  • tnx for the info

    Wow it’s really good to finally understand what the hell is going on… I think that if they were going to keep the series (TVD) the same and not change it completely (as I believe they will) that I wouldn’t mind so much… after all, I guess it’s not really her “baby”. But I think they are going to simply destroy the story line and that sucks. they don’t like the Damon & Elena romance which turned out to be pretty good… I probably wouldn’t read it if it’s not the same….

  • Free Books

    I think it depends on the writer’s virtues, it’s more on how they want to be remembered.

  • Christopher Wills

    Wow. Interesting stuff. Not surprised because publishing is a business and having read William Goldman’s brilliant and funny books about being a film writer I suppose nothing surprises me any more. Sad though because no matter what the market research says, there will always be an element of sanitisation in this sort of book as the ‘committee’ decide on what goes in and what goes out of a book. We will end up with some of the trash we get from Hollywood at the moment; a product with all the right elements in it but somehow it doesn’t work.

    I think writing is an art and to be art, risks must be taken. Accountants and committees don’t take risks. Fiction factories won’t break new ground, they will always work to the latest formula, which will flood the genre and eventually kill it until a real writer creates the next genre for them to follow.

  • brianna

    This is just not right. My dream is to become a writer and reading this just angers me! I cant imagine someone firing me from writing my own books. When I write it comes straight from inside of me. I feel like I am the characters and I am in the story. It’s like I personally know these characters because I’m the one who made them up. i know what they are thinking and i feel what they feel when I write their story. If someone took the stories I had now and tried to finish what I began they wouldn’t be able to do it. Atleast not the right way. Why? you ask. Well because they don’t know the characters like I do. When I write it’s like it flows from me and even if i wanted “so and so” to end up with one person, or “so and so” not to die it wouldn’t matter because thats not how it’s supost to be. It’s like the ending is already made up and I can’t stop it from happening. Like it already had happened and I’m just writing it down. Atleast thats how it is for me. So how in the world can someone else write another person’s stories?They can’t. I would rather they not let me write the series anymore and just have the books done with then they not let me write it and have someone write it. I would rather sit in jail than let my creations get ruined in this way. I would rather finish the series MYSELF and not get a single penny than let another person finish my books. It’s like taking someones baby away because you think you can do better. She was doing just fine! I love her books and the way she was taking things. Ugh, the whole thing just makes me so mad. I know what book I will not be buying from now on…that is unless they let L.J Smith do it herself.

  • Mmdulashaw

    The idea for what the Vampire Diaries became was actually from an adult vampire series Miss Smith was already working on before being approached to do the Packaged book deal.  She was running out of time on her deadline with the packaged book deal and used the material from the adult vampire book to get them done in time.  They may have given her a general idea what they wanted, but the Vampire Diaries story line was not concocted in a conference room.