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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