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What Happens When the Publisher Owns a Concept

A question from a reader:

I know there are quite a few cozy series where the concept is owned by the publisher, not the author. I also know of at least one author who got her break writing these before her own series was picked up. I’m really curious about these series. Are they common? What are the benefits for the authors? Why solicit an author to write a specific concept rather than pick up something already written? And what’s an agent’s role in these sorts of deals?

This is a great question and something I’m sure many of our readers never knew. Occasionally, publishers will come up with an idea they’d like to see a book on. Sometimes they’ll simply call a few agents to ask if they have authors willing to write a book based on the idea (a motorcycle hero or a cheesecake factory). Other times they’ll create a more extensive bible which outlines their vision for the book, the plot, the characters and potential next books in the series. It is these Bibles that they’ll own (the title, concept, plot and characters). These are called writer for hire. The publisher owns the copyright, characters, and concept, and the author writes for hire.

Writer for hire projects have gotten increasingly more popular with some publishers, but I wouldn’t say they are common. I do think some publishers are known for doing them more than others.

The benefits for authors is that it can be a great way to get in the door of a publisher. As you mentioned, a lot of bestselling authors got their start with writer for hire projects. Some of those projects continue to be written and published today while others have fallen by the wayside, and the author has continued a career with her own projects. While every publisher and every contract is different, there are times when the financials of a writer for hire equal those of a standard publishing contract so for the author there really wasn’t much to lose. Either way, having an agent is just as important as with a traditional contract. The agent will make sure that the contract you sign is fair for you, and doesn’t limit you in any great way. She’ll help you use that writer for hire project to grow your career to other things.

There are a number of reasons a publisher might develop their own ideas or bibles, the biggest being that they know the market and have a sense of what readers are hungry for. Rather then hope that exact thing comes across their desks, they reach out and ask for it. It makes sense actually. It’s sort of like a more developed #MSWL.

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7 comments

  1. This is a new concept for me, Jessica. Is the project published under the authors name, and is it possible that the publisher would want a writer who already has a following?

    1. In most writer for hire situations the name is also owned by the publisher so the author would need to pick a pseudonym and be willing to give it up should she decide not to continue the series even when the publisher wants to.

  2. A writer friend of mine earned his lone NYT bestseller list appearance with a writer-for-hire arrangement with a traditional publisher . He was doing very well career-wise before then, but since then his career has really taken off. A great resume builder.

  3. This is very common in the SF & F world. Just go into any bookstore’s Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle and you’ll see entire shelves of series devoted to franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and various games (like Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft).

    In the case of these licensed books, most of the authors use their own names and have already proven their writing abilities with previously published works. The fans can be very vocal about their favorite authors, and doing well with such licensed work can help sell an author’s other work.

    These books are not “fan fiction”, even if the authors may have already been fans of the world and characters they’ve been hired to write about. As with other work-for-hire writing, the guidelines provided by the franchise owners vary widely.

  4. That’s fascinating. Thank you for the insight, Jessica.

    I guess publishers turn to agents to source the write for hire authors. Another good reason to have an agent!

  5. I’ve heard of ghost writing but not this. Publishers obviously try to fill the market needs, while benefiting good writers as well, especially those with the forethought of a good agent watching out for them!Thank you for a very enlightening post!

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