Saturday, July 4, 2009

Media Tie-in Writing, part 1

I remember reading an interview with Angela Lansbury a few decades ago in which she commented on the fact fans frequently told her how much like the "real" Jessica Fletcher she looked. What the fans had seen, of course, were pictures of her on the covers of "Murder, She Wrote" novels. There is no Jessica Fletcher and to my knowledge Angela Lansbury has never written a mystery; those novels were media tie-in.

Media tie-in writing is writing in a universe or intellectual property (IP) owned by someone else. In the minds of most people this means novels and stories based on characters from television series or movies. Mysteries are popular -- Monk novels and novels in every iteration of C.S.I. can be found in any big-box book store -- but far and away the most popular genre is science fiction. (Try getting away from Star Wars.)

Only about one percent of the people who are fans of the shows or movies buy related novels and the net profits from print sales would maybe buy everyone at the office a small latte. However, written fiction provides a way to explore ideas that are not commercial enough to warrant the investment a show requires. Among the many precincts of the Star Trek print universe, for example, are the "DS9 Relaunch," which carries the storylines of "Deep Space Nine" forward from the end of the series; the "Starfleet Corps of Engineers," following the troubleshooters who solve the mysteries and clean up the messes the guys who do all the fighting leave behind; and "Vanguard," novels about life on a frontier space station in the early days of the Federation.

Far greater than movie or TV tie-in fiction, however, is the game fiction market. No, I do not mean novels about the grueling championship badminton circuit. Tabletop games, collectable card games (CCG), role-playing games (RPG), and even video games are often set in complex and interesting universes that can only be -- or best be -- explored through fiction.

There are two levels of fiction when it comes to games. First is the "nonfiction" of the universe-- the whos and whats and hows and whys that give gameplay meaning; the atlas and encyclopedia of whatever realm you're playing. In the industry this in-character nonfiction is called "fluff" and provides the context for competition. The second and larger level of game fiction is the novels and stories set in the universe. Go to the science fiction or fantasy section of a big-box bookstore and look at the series. World of Warcraft, Forgotten Realms, Dungeons and Dragons, BattleTech, Dragon Lance, Warhammer 40,000, and Halo, just to name a few. A wall of novels, each one set in a game universe. And unlike movie or TV media tie-in, game fiction is an important part of the IP. More people read Warhammer 40k novels, for example, than play the game, and many newcomers to the game begin playing because they became fascinated with the universe through the novels.

The world of media tie-in writing can be invisible unless you're looking for it, but it is diverse and growing and worth taking seriously as you develop your own writing career.

My next column will explore the differences between media tie-in writing and "regular" writing.


Liane Spicer said...

The world of media tie-in writing can be invisible unless you're looking for it.

I had never heard the term and wasn't aware of the existence of this world until you explained it. (Amazing how some niches can be totally off one's radar.) Now I'm learning that all media tie-in is not the same.

Anonymous said...

A most interesting article, Kevin. I'm already looking forward to part 2...

I suppose I've been aware of media tie-in fiction without realising that it was specified in that way. I've been an avid SF reader for years and even read some of the Star Trek related stories (I think the author was James Blish).

More recently, I've also become aware of a thing called fan-fiction. If I've understood it correctly, FF is a kind of amateur version of media tie-in fiction. Self-published if you like. FF for a live action role playing game called Nexus is what inspired my co-author and I to write Insight, our novel set in a post-crisis UK. The Nexus LARP game itself seems to have died a death in the mean time, and word on the grapevine suggests difficulties between the players and the creator. Consequently, we have completely de-branded Insight and moved it totally away from FF/MTF. It's now our original work and would be copyrighted as such, if we ever get it published.

Just out of interest, where does fan-fiction end and media tie-in fiction begin? Something for part 2, perhaps?

KeVin K. said...

Fanfic is amateur fiction, not intended for sale and not sanctioned by the owners of the Intellectual Property. Fanfic writers usually inject fictionalized versions of themselves into a universe they love -- usually saving everyone else’s lives. Or they "fix" what they see as mistakes, such as bringing back a dead character or making a different choice at a crucial juncture. And of course there are love stories involving two or more characters who are not romantically involved in the official or "canon" narrative continuity. (These love stories are called "ship" when heterosexual and "slash" when not and can range from heartwarmingly sweet to jaw-dropping physically impossible graphic.) Also, there’s no editorial standards in fanfic; quality of storytelling varies widely.

Fanfic is also free. Technically any fanfic is a violation of copyright law and some license holders vigorously protect their intellectual property in every venue. However, most do not mind fanfic as long as the writer or distributor does not charge money. Once even a handling fee is charged, it becomes profiting off copyright-protected material and lawyers are unleashed.

Media tie-in is contracted, is written to professional editorial standards, conforms to the established “canon” of the IP and is approved by the IP’s license holder. People pay money for media tie-in fiction because they know it is up to the standards of the IP they already enjoy and know it adds depth and texture of the world they've seen on the screen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification.